Unsurprisingly, forensic science has become an increasingly popular career choice for young people over the past 15 years or so, thanks to TV dramas such as CSI, Bones and NCIS. With dead bodies, cool pieces of kit, and dodgy characters to interrogate, what isn’t there to like?
OK, so of course, the sexy image portrayed by these aforementioned shows is by no means the truth, and this blog post is designed to paint a more accurate picture of a career in forensic science, and how to get into one.
So if you’re a budding Gil Grissom or Sara Sidle, read on…
Step 1: Choose A Role
Saying you want to become a forensic scientist is only the beginning. To start planning for this career path, you’ll need to do some research into the different roles available in forensics, and decide which one fits you. The main types of job in this field are:
David Hodges (Lab Technician)
A majority of people interested in a forensic science career want to be a lab technician, which involves the scientific analysis of crime scene evidence.
Since there are so many different types of evidence, you will be expected to specialise in only one.
In CSI, David Hodges was a lab rat whose specialty was trace evidence, such as hair, fingerprints, bodily fluids, fibres and gunshot residue. However, his job rather unrealistically covered a fairly broad range of evidence, and it is likely your speciality will be narrower than this, focusing on either fibres, fingerprints, DNA, etc.
Hodge’s priority in life has always been science, which unfortunately has often caused aggravation in both his personal and professional relationships. He is a geek at heart, and deeply committed to his role in the lab and the processing of evidence brought to him by the CSIs.
However, to become a great forensic scientist, a passion for science is not enough on its own. The following skills are also necessary for pursuing this particular career:
- An enquiring mind
- A determined approach to repetitive tasks
- The ability to undertake analytical work with a high level of attention to detail
- Work well as part of a team, and on your own
- Excellent oral and written communication skills
- Able to work to deadlines
If you still feel this is the right role for you, think about the following main areas of forensic science and decide which one appeals to you most:
- Biology – as well as the analysis of DNA, fingerprints and other trace evidence, this area also includes the sub disciplines of forensic anthropology, forensic botany, forensic entomology and forensic odontology.
- Chemistry – including the subfield of forensic toxicology, this area involves the examination of paint, explosives, drugs, alcohol, poisons and other chemicals.
By choosing one of these areas early on, you can make sure you set yourself on the right path in terms of the qualifications you study later on (see Step 2 below).
Catherine Willows (Crime Scene Investigator)
Known in the UK as Scene Of Crime Officers, these people are responsible for examining, discovering, and investigating evidence that may help find and convict criminals. They then send any forensic evidence collected to the laboratory, or ask that a forensic expert attends the crime scene. Following an investigation, SOCOs can be called to give evidence in court.
In CSI, Catherine Willows was either a level 3 supervisor or assistant for the duration of her character’s appearance on the show. Her job was based out in the field, collecting evidence at crime scenes that ranged from burglary and motor vehicle incidents, to rape and murder. The main tasks of an SOCO involve:
- Examination and collection of hairs, fibres, blood samples, chemicals and any other type of trace evidence left behind.
This is all recorded so that investigating officers can begin to establish the facts of the crime that has taken place.
Catherine regularly attends court to present and describe evidence in a case, and is often seen in the pathology lab with Dr Robbins to learn what has happened to any victims once a post mortem is under way.
This is the same for SOCOs, and it’s worth pointing out that this line of work in forensic science can often be distressing. So if you feel this is the type of role you would like to pursue, be honest about whether you could deal with the realities of the job.
Be aware that an SOCO is required to work unsociable hours, including shifts, weekends and emergency call outs at any time of day or night.
Working conditions can sometimes be extremely unpleasant and hazardous, and you will be expected to perform your duties in all kinds of weather conditions, often for prolonged periods of time.
This means a SOCO role is certainly not for the faint-hearted. As well as being able to cope with traumatic scenes and sensitive situations, other essential skills include:
- Excellent observational skills, and a high level of attention to detail
- Good physical fitness
- A methodical, logical approach to your work
- An enthusiasm for science
- Be able to work on your own and as part of a team
- Strong communication skills
- Adaptability, and a willingness to learn new techniques and technologies
- A full driving licence (so you can travel to crime scenes quickly and easily)
Experience with photography can also be useful, but isn’t always vital.
To be considered for an SOCO position, you will also be expected to hold a minimum of five GCSE passes, usually including Maths, English and Science. All police forces will ask you to complete a medical examination, and that you have good, normal colour vision. Some may demand an undergraduate degree as a requirement, too. See Step 2 for more details on taking the correct qualifications for this role.
Dr Al Robbins (Medical Examiner/Forensic Pathologist)
As Chief Medical Examiner, Al is responsible for carrying out post mortems and establishing a cause of death, with the assistance of David Phillips.
Since the day-to-day work of a forensic pathologist involves performing autopsies, a strong constitution is a must.
In the UK, becoming a forensic pathologist involves the most rigorous training out of all three roles outlined in step 1.
First of all, you have to obtain a medical degree, which currently takes five years, plus a two year (paid) foundation training programme. Please note that there is no exception to this rule – you must become a medical doctor, dentist or a vet to become a pathologist. Unfortunately, there is no other way, and a forensic science degree will not help you in this particular career path.
Once you have finished your medical degree and foundation training, you can then apply to become a pathology trainee. Please visit the NHS Histopathology website for more information on how and when to do this. The application window is fairly short, and interviews are held only once a year (normally in January).
You will then have to train in general histopathology for at least two years before starting to sub specialise in forensic pathology. This will take another five years, during which you will have to sit a couple of fairly tough exams. Only when you have completed this programme can you be a consultant forensic pathologist. To find out more, please visit How To Train To Become A Histopathologist.
If you’re already studying for, or already have completed, a non-medical degree, you may be able to apply for an accelerated medical degree, which takes four rather than five years and run by a number of universities around the UK. In total, you’re looking to put in at least 11 years’ studying and training to become the next Al Robbins!
You will also be expected to attend both the Crown court and the coroner’s court when required, where you will explain medical issues to juries and victim’s families.
Colleagues will include non-medical staff, such as SOCOs, police and lawyers, giving you the opportunity to work alongside many different types of people.
Step 2: Take The Right A-Levels
In CSI, Level 3 Supervisor Gil Grissom holds a Bachelor of Science degree in Biology from the University of California, Los Angeles. To get onto this, he took a keen interest in science at school, and dissected animals he found in his local area.
He also financed his first body farm at college with winnings from a high stakes poker game, and went to boxing matches to learn about the patterns of bruise formations on bodies and eventual blood spatters from the injuries.
While you don’t need to quite go to these lengths during your school years, you will at least need to study science subjects at A-level to follow your forensic science dreams. This is so you can complete a degree programme, which is necessary if you want to become a laboratory-based forensic scientist or a forensic pathologist.
If you wish to apply for an accredited Forensic Science degree, one science A level can be enough, but two are often desirable and can make you look more favourable over other UCAS applicants. If you’re not taking A-levels, other qualifications are usually accepted by universities for Forensic Science degrees, including BTECs and Access courses. However, it’s still a good idea to check that what you are studying is enough, and whether you need to attain certain grades or complete other required courses to be offered a place.
If you want to take the route of applying for a traditional science degree, such as Biology or Chemistry, again at least one A level is normally required for entry to undergraduate courses, although some may require you hold two. Check the requirements set by various universities to make sure you sign up for the right A level subjects, or vocational courses.
For those wishing to pursue a career in forensic pathology, medicine degrees usually require applicants to have at least two science A levels. Some may require a Mathematics A level too, so check the requirements set by universities offering Medicine programmes and again, ensure you choose the right A levels to study (or other accepted qualifications).
Whatever qualifications you choose to take for your further education, don’t block yourself off from a forensics career by not taking the right courses.
Step 3: Complete Some Work Experience
To help her with her career, CSI Sara Sidle undertook a work-study placement at the San Francisco Coroner’s office while at graduate school. This allowed her to work her way up to a CSI Level 2.
Work experience is crucial for getting into a forensic science career – since it is an extremely competitive field, general laboratory experience is a must.
Try contacting your local hospitals, research centres, societies, scientific companies and universities to see if you can shadow someone, or help out for at least a couple of weeks. If you want to be a SOCO, then employers will expect you to have previous experience in police work or a related field, for example intelligence gathering and analysis.
Those interested in becoming a forensic pathologist would do well to try and get some work experience in a research organisation, hospital or other clinical environment where they can spend some time observing cadavers.
Developing your practical skills through work placements demonstrates commitment to the industry, and shows you are first and foremost a scientist – the backbone that employers are looking for in candidates.
Highlighting this experience on your CV when you come to apply for jobs will then help ensure your application doesn’t hit the rejection pile straight away.
Step 4: Apply For A Relevant Degree
All the crime scene investigators in CSI hold a Bachelor of Science degree, from Medical Technology to Chemistry.
However, this is not always the case in the UK with SOCOs, as police services and law enforcement agencies often set their own entry requirements for the job. Do some research into places where you might like to work, and see if an undergraduate degree is necessary. Generally, you will be asked to hold at least five GCSE passes (grades A-C), including English, Maths and at least one science subject.
If you want to be a forensic scientist in the UK, then you are normally required to hold a degree, either in a pure science subject such as Chemistry or Biology, or a Forensic Science degree.
However, it should be noted that although Forensic Science degrees are now offered by a number of universities, not all of them offer the skills and knowledge required to work in forensic science, so it’s important to check the individual course details.
There are currently 31 accredited undergraduate Forensic Science courses available in the UK, as recognised by The Chartered Society of Forensic Sciences (CSFS). Universities offering these include:
- UWE Bristol
- University of Lincoln
- Staffordshire University
- Bournemouth University
- University of Kent
- Cranfield University
- University of Derby
- University of Central Lancashire
University rankings for Forensic Science & Archaeology can be viewed at The Guardian, although it should be noted that not all institutions in the list may be offering courses accredited by the CSFS.
Degrees in other subjects such as Forensic Chemistry, Molecular Biology and Medicinal Chemistry can also be advantageous.
Due to fierce competition in the job market, a postgraduate qualification can help you stand out from the crowd, such as an MSc in Forensic Analysis or an MSc in Forensic Toxicology. You may even wish to explore relevant PhD opportunities if you there is a particular forensics topic you are enthusiastic about and would like to conduct research into.
CSI Sara Sidle went on to study a Master’s degree at the University of California, Berkeley, after completing her Bachelor of Science in Theoretical Physics at Harvard.
Step 5: Get A Foot On The Forensics Job Ladder
Once you have completed your undergraduate degree (and your postgraduate qualification, if you have chosen to do one), it’s time to start brushing up your CV. As mentioned earlier, employers will be looking for commitment to this career path, which is why some solid work experience and a postgraduate qualification can give you an edge over the competition.
Since the abolition of the government’s Forensic Science Service in 2012, forensic Scientists are largely employed by commercial companies, including:
- LGC Forensic Science
- Orchid Cellmark
- Hayward Associates
- First Forensic
- Principal Forensic Services
- Bericon Forensics
- Forensic Access
- Environmental Scientifics Group
- Key Forensic Services
Other places you can look for job openings are:
- Your local police force websites
- National and local newspapers
- New Scientist
- The Chartered Society of Forensic Sciences
- Forensic Science Northern Ireland
- Scottish Police Authority
Best of luck with your career in Forensic Science! If you have any questions or comments about my post, please pop them below.