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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.

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