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
  • Ashford University

    You've found Ashford University, where school comes to you. Earn your bachelor's or master's degree online.

    Programs

    • MS/Criminal Justice - Forensic Science
    • BA/Social and Criminal Justice - Criminal Investigations
    • MS/Criminal Justice - Homeland Security
    • More...

    Location: Online

    Ashford University Request Info »
  • University of Cincinnati Online

    Work toward your degree online with University of Cincinnati Online.

    Programs

    • Master of Science in Criminal Justice
    Location:
    Cincinnati: 2600 Clifton Ave,, Cincinnati OH 45220
    University of Cincinnati Online Request Info »
  • Central Penn College

    Earn your degree and achieve your career goals at Central Penn College.

    Programs

    • Criminal Justice Associate Degree
    • Criminal Justice Administration Bachelor Degree
    • Legal Studies
    • More...

    Location: Online

    Central Penn College Request Info »
  • California University of Pennsylvania

    Study online with California University of Pennsylvania.

    Programs

    • Behavioral Crime Analysis Certificate
    • Criminal Justice Certificate
    • Applied Criminology (Master of Arts) - Online
    • More...
    Location:
    California: 250 University Ave,, California PA 15419
    California University of Pennsylvania Request Info »
  • Southern New Hampshire University

    Give your career a boost with an education from Southern New Hampshire University.

    Programs

    • BS Criminal Justice - Homeland Sec/Counter Terrorism
    • MS in Criminal Justice
    • BS Criminal Justice - Legal Studies and Advocacy
    • More...

    Location: Online

    Southern New Hampshire University Request Info »
  • Colorado Technical University Online

    A degree from CTU can connect you to what matters most: powerful professional network, faculty who are real-world professionals and innovative technology. So once you earn your degree you hit the ground sprinting. Are you in?

    Programs

    • Doctor of Management - Criminal Justice
    • Bachelor of Science in Criminal Justice
    • Master of Science in Criminal Justice
    • More...
    Location:
    Colorado Springs: 4435 North Chestnut Street, Colorado Springs CO 80907
    Colorado Technical University Online Request Info »
  • Ohio Christian University

    Pursue your education at Ohio Christian University.

    Programs

    • Bachelor of Arts in Criminal Justice
    Location:
    Circleville: 1476 Lancaster Pike,, Circleville OH 43113
    Ohio Christian University Request Info »
  • Kaplan University

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

    Programs

    • AAS in Criminal Justice
    • MS in Criminal Justice - Global Issues in Criminal Justice
    • MS in Criminal Justice
    • More...
    Location:
    Fort Lauderdale: 6301 Kaplan University Avenue, Fort Lauderdale FL 33309
    Kaplan University Request Info »
  • Regent University

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

    Programs

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

    Location: Online

    Regent University 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 »
  • 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.