dcsimg
You are here:

What is a Criminalist?

You don't need to be a modern-day Sherlock Holmes to enter the criminal justice field and find a rewarding, keep-you-awake-at-night kind of career. However, if you are interested in becoming a criminalist, you do need to know how to analyze physical evidence such as DNA or weapons, apply scientific techniques to investigate crime, and incorporate the discipline of laboratory science into your work. Sherlock Holmes may never have had to deal with these approaches, but things have changed: nowadays, an effective criminalist needs the latest training and cutting-edge skills that can be found through a criminalist education.

Criminalistics: An overview

Criminalists are forensic scientists who specialize in criminal investigation. The process of forensic investigation unfolds in three phases: evidence collection, analysis and reporting. Criminalists collect samples of physical evidence at the crime scene, analyze it in a laboratory and provide expert testimony.

  1. Evidence may include DNA, fiber, glass, hair, tissue or bodily fluids, fingerprints, footprints or weapons such as firearms. This evidence can be collected by the criminalist or by others who are part of the crime-scene investigation team.
  2. Analyzing this evidence may involve biological or chemical analysis, toxicology studies, document examination, crime scene reconstruction, or even metallurgical analysis of weapons.
  3. Follow-up includes written reports as well as the potential of providing courtroom testimony. A criminalist needs to know the methods in the field to be able to effectively communicate on paper as well as in the courtroom.

Criminalist education path

The first step to a career as a criminalist is a bachelor's degree in criminal justice, chemistry or biology. Some colleges and universities offer a specialized degree in forensic science or criminalistics. A solid criminalist education should cover science fundamentals including laboratory techniques, quantitative analysis and applied training in forensic science and criminal investigation. Associate degree programs are also available for aspiring criminalists who want to begin work as a forensic identification specialist before completing a bachelor's degree and becoming eligible for criminalist jobs. Mid-career professionals who already have a bachelor's degree in another field can complete their criminalist education by pursuing a certificate in criminalistics or forensic science.

Continuing education is an important part of the criminalist's professional development. The American Board of Criminalistics offers certification for criminalists who demonstrate mastery of current practices in forensic science. The American Academy of Forensic Sciences, or AAFS, maintains a directory of colleges and universities offering criminalistics or forensic science degrees.

Criminalist jobs, from scientist to laboratory director

A bachelor's degree in criminalist education qualifies you to work in a forensic laboratory. Most forensic sciences work for state and local government, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Criminalist jobs are available at police departments, district attorney offices, state agencies, medical examiners' offices and federal agencies such as the FBI, Drug Enforcement Administration, Central Intelligence Agency and the U.S. military. You will need to pass thorough background tests examining your medical, drugs and criminal histories to become part of these teams.

The criminalist career path begins with an entry-level job as a bench scientist. With expertise and additional training, you can advance into a forensic laboratory manager or director role. A graduate degree opens up opportunities to testify as an expert witness, take on a supervisory role or teach forensic science at the college level.

Criminalist jobs generally require scientists to focus on one element of forensic investigation:

  1. Evidence collection
  2. Laboratory analysis
  3. Reporting and legal testimony

 

Many criminalists also develop a specialty in the type of evidence they handle. Examples include DNA typing specialists, ballistics experts and toxicologists.

A look at criminalist salaries

Criminalist salaries vary depending on job level and place of employment. BLS data showed that forensic science technicians earned mean annual wages of $55,040 as of May 2010. The federal government offered the most lucrative posts, with average salaries almost double the national average, or $96,290 in 2010. Insurance companies and private medical and diagnostic laboratories also offered higher-paying criminalist jobs, with average salaries in the $58,000 to $60,000 range. Laboratory managers with about seven years' experience in the field commanded higher earnings, averaging $85,022 according to salary.com.

Criminalists can make an important contribution to the criminal justice system by finding and interpreting crime scene evidence that could either make or break a case. You can channel your inner-Sherlock Holmes by pursuing a criminalist education and seeing it through to its outcome.

Search Schools

      
Matching School Ads
  • Kaplan University

    Kaplan University is focused on recognizing the achievements of military and veteran students and offers the flexibility of an online education.

    Programs

    • Master of Public Administration - Criminal Justice
    • MS in Criminal Justice - Law
    • MS in Criminal Justice
    • More...
    Location:
    Fort Lauderdale: 6301 Kaplan University Avenue, Fort Lauderdale FL 33309
    Kaplan University Request Info »
  • Colorado Technical University Online

    A degree from CTU connects you to what matters most: powerful professional network, real-world professional faculty and innovative technology. Once you earn your degree you hit the ground running.

    Programs

    • Doctor of Management - Criminal Justice
    • Bachelor of Science in Criminal Justice
    • Bachelor of Science in Criminal Justice – Human Services
    • More...
    Location:
    Colorado Springs: 4435 North Chestnut Street, Colorado Springs CO 80907
    Colorado Technical University Online Request Info »
  • Daymar College Online

    We Change Lives...One Person At A Time. ®

    Programs

    • Criminal Justice, Associates Degree
    • Criminal Justice Administration, Bachelor Degree
    • Criminal Justice, Diploma

    Location: Online

    Daymar College Online Request Info »
  • Liberty University

    Liberty University provides a world-class education with a solid Christian foundation, equipping men and women with the values, knowledge, and skills essential for success in every aspect of life.

    Programs

    • BS in Criminal Justice
    • AA in Criminal Justice
    • CERT: Criminal Justice
    Location:
    Lynchburg: 1971 University Blvd, , Lynchburg VA 24515
    Liberty University Request Info »
  • Baker University

    Top-ranked quality,
    Top-ranked value

    Baker University’s School of Professional and Graduate Studies has designed high-quality, innovative programs that are consistently recognized as offering great value. Tuition is affordable, but most important, earning a degree from a prestigious private university is an investment that will never depreciate.

    Programs

    • Online Bachelor of Science in Criminal Justice
    Location:
    Baldwin City: 618 Eighth St,, Baldwin City KS 66006
    Baker University Request Info »
  • South College

    Get the skills you need to pursue your dreams at South College, located in Knoxville.

    Programs

    • MS Criminal Justice
    • CERT Criminal Justice (Grad Level)
    • MS Criminal Justice w/Con Public Admin

    Location: Online

    South College Request Info »
  • Boston University - Online

    Earn a highly respected online degree from Boston University

    Programs

    • Master of Criminal Justice
    Location:
    Boston: 1010 Commonwealth Avenue, Boston MA 02215
    Boston University - Online Request Info »
  • Eagle Gate College

    Give your career a boost with an education from Eagle Gate College.

    Programs

    • Bachelor of Science in Criminal Justice

    Location: Online

    Eagle Gate College Request Info »
  • Regent University

    Regent University prepares students with the knowledge to excel and the faith to live with purpose.

    Programs

    • Bachelor of Science in Criminal Justice
    • Bachelor of Science in Professional Studies - Criminal Justice
    • Bachelor of Applied Science in Criminal Justice
    • More...

    Location: Online

    Regent University Request Info »
  • Post University Online

    At Post University, we believe you shouldn’t have to put your life on hold to further your education.

    Programs

    • B.S. in Human Services / Criminal Justice
    • B.S. in Criminal Justice
    • A.S. in Criminal Justice
    • More...
    Location:
    Waterbury: 800 Country Club Rd. P.O. Box 2540, Waterbury CT 06723
    Post University Online Request Info »
  • Matching School Ads

    Quick School Search

    College & Career Search Tools

    • Careers: Unsure about your career path? Study profiles of hundreds of professions.

    • Interviews: Professors and deans sit down with our team to give you unique insights on college life.

    • Military Education: Find only Military friendly online schools and campuses.

    • Student Reviews: Know before you go. Read student reviews on over 2000 accredited colleges. Write your own experience.