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What does a forensic scientist do?
Forensic scientists work in a field where science applies to the law. They identify, collect, prepare, examine, assess and preserve scientific evidence for use in courts of law. The trace physical evidence they will look for is typically associated with crimes, but they can also work with items from civil investigations.
Forensic scientists can work for the police, government departments or private forensic science services. They can also specialise in specific areas, e.g. forensic toxicology, entomology, odontology, anthropology, etc. Therefore, what forensic scientists do will depend on where they work and their specialisms.
A forensic scientist’s main aim is to search for and examine physical evidence to support the prosecution or defence in cases and investigations, such as criminal, civil and regulatory. Overall, they have an essential role in helping to solve crimes, bringing perpetrators to justice and assisting in cases where people have been wronged or harmed.
Forensic scientists will carry out many tasks, including collecting evidence, conducting DNA profiling/blood grouping, analysing and examining various evidence and samples, using various scientific equipment and techniques, sorting and cataloguing evidence, attending and examining crime scenes, analysing and interpreting results, giving evidence in court, etc. The role also involves administrative work, such as writing formal reports and statements.
Forensic scientists will work with many people, including senior staff, other forensic scientists, technicians, assistants and administrative staff. They will also liaise with various external stakeholders, such as local police forces, government agencies, suppliers, other laboratories, legal professionals (i.e. solicitors, barristers, judges and court staff), coroners, the Crown Prosecution Service, etc.
Forensic scientists mainly work in a laboratory environment. However, they can also visit indoor and outdoor crime scenes, work in offices and may have to attend court to give evidence.
Forensic scientists’ responsibilities will depend on many factors, including where they work and their specialisms.
Some examples of their duties may include (this list is not exhaustive):
- Attending and examining crime scenes, such as murder.
- Collecting evidence from crime or accident scenes.
- Sorting through and cataloguing evidence.
- Testing and analysing various physical, biological or chemical samples, e.g. blood, other bodily fluids, tissues, hair, drugs, poisons, paint and glass.
- Using different scientific equipment, procedures and techniques on samples.
- Conducting DNA profiling and blood grouping.
- Recovering data and digital evidence from computers and other technological equipment.
- Analysing and interpreting results and data.
- Acting as an expert witness in court and giving evidence.
- Justifying conclusions during cross-examination in courts.
- Liaising with various external agencies, such as the police and legal staff.
- Supervising assistants and reviewing their work where required.
- Researching and developing new forensic technologies, techniques and procedures.
- Documenting findings in written or typed reports or presenting them orally.
Forensic scientists can expect to work around 37-40 hours a week, but they can do more or fewer hours depending on where they work, their role and their specialisms. Some employers may offer part-time, job-share or flexible jobs.
Being a forensic scientist is not a 9-5 job, and those looking at entering this profession must be committed to working unsociable hours. There is usually a requirement to work different shifts, including evenings, nights, weekends and bank holidays. Some individuals may also be on-call.
Travel may be required, as forensic scientists may have to attend crime scenes and court and visit other places, which may lengthen the working day.
What to expect
There are many positives to being a forensic scientist, especially if an individual has an aptitude and passion for science and the law. The role would suit those who are analytically minded and good problem-solvers.
Finding and analysing evidence, helping to identify perpetrators and what happened, and bringing them to justice is rewarding. Forensic scientists can go home at the end of their working day knowing their job makes a difference by helping to convict criminals and correct wrongdoings. Overall, they have a role in preventing and reducing crimes and contributing to a safer and happier society.
The salary for forensic scientists, even at entry-level, is competitive compared to other career choices. The career development and specialist areas within the field of forensics are also attractive, so there is plenty of opportunity for growth and progression in this career.
Boredom will never be a problem for forensic scientists, as their work is very varied and fast-paced; no two days are the same in this job. They can work with different types of evidence for various crimes and civil cases. One moment they could be analysing blood or tissue samples for drugs; the next, they may be using various equipment and techniques. On other days, they may need to attend court or visit a crime scene.
The role also enables forensic scientists to travel to various locations and explore new areas. There may also be opportunities to travel further afield, including overseas.
Even though there are positives to being a forensic scientist, there are challenges and cons, e.g.:
- It is not for the squeamish – forensic scientists can work with various biological samples, such as blood, tissues and other bodily fluids. They can also visit crime scenes, which may expose them to unpleasant sights and smells. It is not a job for the squeamish, so if individuals faint at the sight of blood, it would not be for them. There is also a risk of exposure to hazards, illness and disease.
- A lot of responsibility – there is significant responsibility with being a forensic scientist. Mistakes with evidence and samples can be costly. It can mean a guilty person may walk free or an innocent person is found guilty. It can also be stressful to give evidence and be cross-examined by legal professionals in court. Individuals must be confident and comfortable speaking, and sometimes defending their findings, in front of many people in court.
- Competition – becoming a forensic scientist is not easy, and competition for roles can be fierce. Individuals must work hard and stand out to be successful. Many jobs require postgraduate qualifications, so there is also a cost.
- Physical demands – being a forensic scientist can be physically demanding, and they will need to have a good fitness level, as they will be on their feet for most of the working day. They also must wear protective clothing, which may get hot and uncomfortable.
- Mental demands – being a forensic scientist can be mentally and emotionally demanding. They will have to deal with disturbing cases, harrowing scenes (involving blood, deceased individuals and decomposition), unpleasant evidence and samples, and even body parts. If an individual cannot cope with distressing and disturbing scenes or emotional situations, being a forensic scientist would not be the right career path.
Every career choice has pros and cons, and prospective forensic scientists must know what to expect before deciding whether it is a suitable role. There is no doubt that working in forensics is challenging and stressful. It is also physically and mentally demanding, there is a lot of responsibility, and it’s not for the squeamish. However, there are many positives, and helping bring criminals to justice is extremely rewarding, despite the challenges.
When considering whether to be a forensic scientist, individuals should look at the pros and cons. They should also ensure they have the right personal qualities to carry out the role and responsibilities required.
Personal qualities needed to be a forensic scientist
Some of the personal qualities a forensic scientist requires will include (this list is not exhaustive):
- Sensitivity, understanding, diplomacy and empathy.
- Honesty, unbiased and integrity.
- Tenacious, motivated, resilient, confident, assertive, inquisitive and determined.
- Persistent, objective and accurate.
- Knowledge of public safety and security.
- Knowledge of legal proceedings, court procedures and government regulations.
- Knowledge of health and safety.
- Knowledge of confidentiality, data protection and the GDPR.
- Excellent verbal and written communication skills.
- Organisational and time management skills.
- Interpersonal skills.
- Analytical, scientific and technical skills.
- Judgement and observational skills.
- Problem-solving skills.
- Having a methodical approach.
- Being thorough, accurate and having attention to detail.
- The ability to take criticism, be open-minded and act on feedback.
- The ability to work well under pressure.
- The ability to work well in a team and alone using own initiative.
- The ability to use logic and reasoning to think clearly.
- The ability to be emotionally resilient, patient and professional in distressing, disturbing and challenging situations.
- The ability to use IT equipment, e.g. computers and hand-held devices.
Qualifications and training
There are many different routes to becoming a forensic scientist. Individuals could go to university, apply for an apprenticeship or apply directly. They could also do work experience to help them enter the role.
Individuals will typically need a degree in a scientific subject to become forensic scientists. They can undertake an undergraduate/postgraduate forensic science degree to help them enter the role. They can also choose other degrees such as chemistry, biological science, physics or medical sciences.
As competition for jobs is fierce, it is better if individuals choose courses accredited by the Chartered Society of Forensic Sciences (CSFS).
The entry requirements and the number of UCAS points needed will depend on each university, and individuals should check before applying.
They will typically require the following:
- 2 or 3 good A Levels for an undergraduate degree, e.g. biology, chemistry and mathematics.
- 2:1 or 2:2 relevant undergraduate degree subject for a postgraduate degree.
Some institutions may also invite applicants for an interview as part of the selection process.
Many forensic scientists choose to carry on their studies and undertake a Master’s degree or a PhD. Therefore, individuals should anticipate undertaking further studies to stand out. A qualification in specific areas may also help for specialised roles, e.g. computing.
A degree is usually required to become a forensic scientist. However, individuals could undertake a relevant college or private training course to help them gain knowledge and work towards their goals.
Some examples of courses are as follows (this list is not exhaustive):
- Level 2 BTEC First Extended Certificate in Forensic Science.
- Level 3 Forensic & Criminal Investigation.
- Level 4 Forensic Science Diploma.
- Level 4 HNC Applied Sciences (Forensic Sciences).
- T Level in Laboratory Science (Health and Science).
- AS and A-level Biology, Chemistry or Physics.
The entry requirements will depend on the course provider and level. Always check the entry requirements before applying.
It may also be worth trying low-cost online, short forensic science courses to see if it is the right path. That way, if not, it will save an individual a lot of time and trouble.
Courses and qualifications do not guarantee a place on accredited programmes or as a role as a forensic scientist. However, it will demonstrate to employers and companies that the individual is keen on the career and may give them a competitive edge.
There is an apprenticeship route to help individuals become forensic scientists, e.g. a research scientist degree apprenticeship or a laboratory scientist degree apprenticeship. Individuals usually need four or five GCSEs, grades 9 to 4 (A* to C) and A levels (or equivalent).
Opportunities are on Government’s Apprenticeships, Institute for Apprenticeships and Technical Education and Indeed. The police and private forensic science services may also have apprenticeship opportunities.
An individual can become a forensic scientist by applying directly to forensic science services for assistant roles and working their way up. It would help if they had some science qualifications, e.g. A Level Biology or Chemistry, and laboratory experience.
Employers will set their own entry requirements, and jobs are on most job websites. The more qualifications and experience an individual has, the better, due to the intense competition for roles.
Work experience and volunteering
Relevant work experience, either paid or voluntary, can help individuals stand out and build their knowledge and skills.
To gain experience, individuals could (this list is not exhaustive):
- Apply for a forensic science assistant or junior role and learn on the job.
- Work in a laboratory environment in a hospital or research centre to gain experience working with samples and related equipment.
- Work as a crime scene cleaner.
- Do work experience and shadow scientists in a forensic setting while studying.
- Volunteer with local police forces.
Training and experience may be necessary for some jobs and volunteer opportunities.
Attending relevant training courses and having additional certifications can help forensic scientists enter the profession, enhance their employability and give them a competitive edge. Many colleges and accredited private training companies can provide training courses.
We have some courses that may be useful for prospective and current forensic scientists, including (this list is not exhaustive):
- Time management.
- Resilience training.
- Customer service skills.
- COVID-19 awareness.
- Understanding GDPR.
- Workplace stress awareness.
- Health and safety for employees.
- Assessing risk.
- Personal protective equipment (PPE).
- Slips, trips and falls.
- COSHH awareness.
- Workplace first aid.
- Fire safety awareness.
There may be other forensic-specific courses available, e.g. digital forensics.
Professional bodies and charities, such as the Chartered Society of Forensic Sciences, the British Academy of Forensic Sciences, and others, can advise on relevant training courses. Some also provide events and support to help individuals become forensic scientists, providing the means to continue their professional development.
The training a forensic scientist requires will depend on where they want to work, the specialist area they want to work in and continuing professional development (CPD) requirements. As well as looking at professional body websites, it is worth looking at several job advertisements to identify any qualifications and training needed for specialist roles. Jobs are on the Chartered Society of Forensic Sciences Career Centre, Eurofins Careers, New Scientist Jobs, individual police forces’ websites, GOV.UK Find a Job Service, Indeed, LinkedIn, Glassdoor and other job sites.
More relevant work experience, training and competence will open up more opportunities. Refresher training will also be required, as science is constantly changing, and it keeps knowledge and skills up to date.
Criminal records checks
Forensic scientists must undergo an enhanced criminal record check due to the nature of their job.
A criminal record, caution, warning, or conviction may put off prospective employers. However, employers should account for the seriousness of the crime, when it occurred and its relevance.
The organisation that holds criminal records will depend on the country within the UK, for example:
- England and Wales – Disclosure and Barring Service (DBS).
- Northern Ireland – AccessNI.
- Scotland – Protecting Vulnerable Groups (PVG) scheme.
Some forensic scientists will be required to drive as part of their role, especially when working at crime scenes. Therefore, they should have a full clean driving licence.
Where do forensic scientists work?
Forensic scientists can work with various employers, including (this list is not exhaustive):
- Forensic units/departments within local police forces.
- The Scottish Police Authority Forensic Services.
- Forensic Science Northern Ireland – Department of Justice.
- Government departments, e.g. the Centre For Applied Science and Technology (CAST) and the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory (Dstl).
- Forensic science service providers, e.g. Eurofins, Cellmark, Key Forensic, Forensic Access and SOCOTEC UK.
Forensic scientists mainly work inside laboratories.
They may also visit many different places during their working day, such as (this list is not exhaustive):
- Coroner’s offices.
- Courts to testify.
- Crime scenes, events and gatherings in various indoor and outdoor locations.
Most forensic scientist opportunities are in large towns and cities, and there may be some overseas work. However, jobs are limited, and there is a lot of competition for roles.
How much do forensic scientists earn?
A forensic scientist’s salary will depend on who they work for and their qualifications, working hours, experience, geographical location and specialist area.
Some examples of average annual salaries include the following (these figures are only a guide):
- £18,000 starter to £45,000 experienced (National Careers Service).
- £22,651 (Indeed UK).
- £24,909 (Glassdoor).
- £27,694 (Payscale).
- £29,400 (Jobted).
With more seniority, individuals can earn over £50,000.
As an apprentice, the salary will depend on an individual’s age and how long they have been in their apprenticeship. Apprentices must earn at least the current National Minimum Wage (NMW). Some employers will pay more than this. However, it will depend on the organisation and role on offer.
Types of forensic science to specialise in
There are many types of forensic science in which individuals can specialise, for example (this list is not exhaustive):
- Blood Pattern Analysis (BPA) – specialising in studying and analysing bloodstains from crime scenes to determine how they came about, e.g. identifying a weapon used in a murder.
- Digital forensics – also known as digital forensic science. It involves recovering, gathering, investigating, examining and analysing digital evidence from computers and mobile devices.
- Forensic anthropology – specialising in analysing and identifying human skeletons and remains. Further information is on the British Association for Forensic Anthropology.
- Forensic botany – also known as plant forensics. It involves specialising in studying plant and fungal parts and using them in criminal investigations.
- Forensic entomology – specialising in insects and their relationships with deceased bodies. It involves studying and analysing insects associated with corpses and their life cycles to help estimate when a person died.
- Forensic odontology – also known as forensic dentistry. It involves analysing and assessing dental evidence. Further information is on the British Association for Forensic Odontology (BAFO).
- Forensic pathology – specialising in examining corpses and conducting investigations to identify the cause of death. For example, a forensic pathologist may be able to determine what weapon was used in a murder by looking at the wounds.
- Forensic podiatry – specialising in using foot-related evidence in cases, such as footprints, gait analysis and footwear.
- Forensic psychology – studying the behaviour and personality/behavioural traits of criminals. The British Psychological Society (BPS) defines forensic psychology as “the application of psychology within the legal system to create safer communities and to assist people to find pathways away from criminal behaviour”.
- Forensic toxicology – specialising in studying/analysing the effects of drugs, poisons and other chemicals on the human body. They can use their expertise to help determine whether a particular substance contributed to someone’s death.
Specialist forensic scientist roles require differing knowledge, skills, experience and qualities. All forensic scientists must be scientific and analytically minded and have experience working in a laboratory with various evidence and samples. Any additional areas of expertise will depend on what an employer is looking for in a forensic scientist and the type of work an individual wants. Further qualifications and training will be necessary for specialised roles, and competition can be fierce as opportunities are limited.
If forensic scientists do not do their role correctly, the mistakes can be extremely costly. It can mean evidence going missing, not being processed and inaccurate results and findings. In worse cases, it may even result in suspects not facing justice and further crimes being committed by perpetrators. Therefore, whatever the type of role, forensic scientists must have the necessary competence and personal qualities to carry out the work professionally, safely and effectively. They should also know the limits of their competency, i.e. asking for help when something is beyond their expertise.
Standards, science, technology, techniques and laws are updated regularly. Therefore, forensic scientists must keep ahead of the latest developments and changes in legislation to remain legally compliant and ensure they carry out their roles effectively and safely. Continuing professional development (CPD) gives forensic scientists the knowledge and skills to keep up to date with these changes, understand their responsibilities, and progress in their careers.
Joining a professional body (as previously mentioned) can help prospective and current forensic scientists enhance their skills and overall career. These may offer different levels of membership, CPD, support and access to industry contacts and networking events.
There is an opportunity for career progression for forensic scientists. With more qualifications, training and experience, they can become senior forensic scientists or managers directing other staff. They can work in a specialist role, such as anthropology, entomology or pathology. Alternatively, they may leave the laboratory to work as a casework examiner, a crime scene investigator or an expert witness.
Knowledge, skills and experience in forensic science can also lead to a career in different areas. For example, forensic scientists could teach or carry out research.