27 June 2024

What is a Forensic Chemist?

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Have you ever watched an episode of CSI and seen a detective swan into a lab, usually unannounced, looking for answers about a sample found at a crime scene? Well, nine times out of 10, it’s probably a forensic chemist they’ll be coming to.

While this isn’t CSI, forensic science is a real job requiring dedication, a sharp eye and plenty of patience.

Forensic chemistry is perfect for science students interested in the legal world. As a forensic chemist, you can help determine the key elements of an investigation.

Read on to find out more about the job and how you can get started.

What does a forensic chemist do?

Forensics play a huge part in criminal investigations and a forensic chemist is responsible for analysing and processing evidence in a lab. These pieces of evidence are usually substances brought in from crime scenes and it’s a forensic chemist’s job to determine what they are. 

Substances can include;

  • Explosives
  • Poisons
  • Hazardous chemicals.

A forensic chemist will spend the majority of their day-to-day based in a lab (snazzy coat in tow too). You’ll work mainly in a lab, but you’ll also have the odd occasion where you’ll have to attend a crime scene in person and testify in court.

Is forensic chemistry hard?

It’s hard, but it’s also super rewarding.

Working as a forensic chemist is exciting because you’ll come across complex cases every day. However, work can be repetitive and you’ll be dealing with highly sensitive information and substances that will require you to have a high level of detail and careful handling.

Is a forensic scientist the same as a forensic chemist?

It IS a forensic science. In fact, forensic chemistry comes under the forensic science umbrella.

As a forensic scientist, you’ll provide courts with scientific evidence in criminal and civil investigations. Your main area of concentration will be to examine materials found at crime scenes or that are connected to the case in question.

Forensic science can be split into three key areas;

  • Biology. A forensic biologist will usually be involved in helping to solve crimes against people, such as murder and assault. Here, you’ll test DNA including hair, teeth and bodily fluids such as saliva and blood.
  • Chemistry. You’ll test substances found at a crime scene. These can include paint, mud samples, poisons, burns, and acids. A forensic chemist’s services are usually needed for arson and burglary cases.
  • Toxicology. Here you’ll test for drugs, poisons and alcohol. You’ll do this across a variety of cases including murder, drug charges and drunk driving.

Forensic scientists usually specialise in one of the above depending on your background, but there is always an option to take a general approach to the industry. A jack of all labs.

FUN FACT: The first written account of using medicine to solve criminal cases is attributed to Xi Luan Lu, written in China in 1248.

How do I become a forensic chemist?

All forensic chemist jobs require a degree in forensic chemistry, chemistry or similar. These degrees include;

  • Forensic science (with a focus on chemistry and mathematics)
  • Biological science
  • Criminology with forensic science
  • Physics 
  • Medical science.

Always check to see if The Chartered Society of Forensic Sciences accredits your course. These clever people set the standard when it comes to regulation, professionalism and reputation.

To be accepted on a typical forensic chemistry degree course, you should have the following;

  • Three A Levels in chemistry and a second science subject
  • Five GCSEs (including maths and science).

It’s worth noting that roles across forensic science are super competitive, so the more you do to get an edge over other students, the more likely you’ll secure that all-important job.

One way to do this is by taking higher education further and studying for a Master’s degree in forensic chemistry or similar. You can even decide to take on a PhD as your career progresses.

Another way is through an internship or placement. Read on.

Can I get work experience as a forensic chemist?

Employers are keen to hire students who have lab experience. Although placements and internships are very rare, the good news is there are plenty of work experience roles that offer lab time.

You could spend a year working as a chemist placement student for CooperVision or a chemistry science quality assurance placement student at BAT. There is plenty of opportunity.

“I developed knowledge and skills in the testing involved with material science based in an industrial lab. Most of the techniques and equipment were far removed from the academic teaching labs I had experienced prior. This experience was invaluable. Further to this I improved my soft skills, such as time management, communication and presentation skills. The professional environment nurtured and developed me to improve these necessary life skills to ready me for commercial work.”

Applications Chemist at Lubrizol

Read our Guide to Science and Research Internships, Placements and Graduate Jobs

What skills do you need to be a forensic chemist?

Skills are everything and as a budding forensic chemist, you will need a whole bacterial colony of soft and hard skills in your petri dish.

Soft Skills

  • Eagle-eyed attention to detail
  • Teamwork and being able to work alone
  • Logical reasoning and critical thinking
  • Problem-solving
  • Working under pressure
  • Communication skills.

Hard Skills

  • Legal knowledge of court procedures and regulations
  • Data entry programs specifically for laboratory work
  • Lab health and safety.

Ready to apply for a job or work experience in forensic chemistry? Read Skills to Add to Your CV.

How much does a forensic chemist get paid?

The entry salary for a forensic chemist is between £18,000 and £20,000 per year. As you progress in your career, this can move up to between £25,000 and £40,000 per year. An experienced forensic chemist can look to make a very tidy sum of £45,000 per year.

Think you’re about ready to get your lab on? We have a wide selection of science job for you to have a look at. Click below to start your journey.