Forensic FAQ | Forensic Science Program

Forensic FAQ

What is Forensic Science?

Forensic science, by definition, is the application of science to those criminal and civil laws that are enforced by police agencies in a criminal justice system. Forensic science originates from the individuals who developed the principles and techniques needed to identify or compare physical evidence, and from those who recognized the necessity of merging these principles into a coherent discipline that could be practically applied to a criminal justice system.

What kind of careers are there within forensic science? What do these careers entail?

There are many disciplines and career paths within forensic science that span a wide range of daily activities. These can generally be broken up into broad groups that may have many subspecialties.

  • Laboratory scientists who apply principles and techniques of the physical and natural sciences to the analysis of the many types of evidence that may be recovered during a criminal investigation.
  • Medical professionals such as pathologists who perform autopsies to determine cause of death or forensic nurses who apply their expertise in a number of subspecialties related to human violence and social justice.
  • Crime scene investigators who are often sworn members of law enforcement, respond to crime scenes, and are typically qualified experts in one or more subspecialty (such as bloodstain pattern analysis, latent fingerprints, etc.).
  • Consulting specialists who do not hold full-time positions with a crime laboratory (engineers, anthropologists, entomologists, etc.). They often have private practices or hold faculty or staff positions at universities.

There are some aspects shared by these disciplines, however.

  • Keep neat, detailed notes and write accurate, detailed reports.
  • Provide expert witness testimony. An expert witness is called on to evaluate evidence based on specialized training and experience. An expert will then express an opinion as to the significance of the findings.
  • Maintain ethical behavior at all times, including being mindful of how various types of bias can be introduced into your analysis.
  • Participate in regular continuing education to stay abreast of new methods and findings and maintain certifications/licenses.
  • Participate in training law enforcement personnel in the proper recognition, collection, and preservation of physical evidence.

The American Academy of Forensic Sciences has compiled descriptions, education requirements, etc. of the myriad fields within forensic science, so be sure to check out all of the exciting options!

How do I become a forensic scientist?

That depends on the particular career you're interested in and/or if you are interested in eventually pursuing leadership roles (lab supervisor, manager, etc.).

  • To work in a crime laboratory as a forensic chemist or biologist, you must have at least a bachelor's degree that provides a thorough grounding in the natural sciences of chemistry, biology, physics, and mathematics. Courses in criminal justice may be useful to some extent, but a major in criminal justice is not adequate preparation for a career in forensic science. Additional licenses or certifications may be required depending on position and location.
    • The Texas Forensic Science Commission requires all forensic analysts in Texas to be licensed by passing their examination.
    • To obtain a leadership role in a crime laboratory, you'll typically need a master's or doctorate.
  • To work as a forensic medical professional, you will be required to obtain specific education for the field you choose. Forensic pathologists must complete medical school, residency, and a forensic pathology fellowship, for example.
  • To work as a crime scene investigator, you will need at least a bachelor's degree in a natural science, forensic science, or criminal justice. You'll also need to obtain specific certifications as specified by your employer (latent fingerprints, bloodstain pattern analysis, etc.).
  • Other specialties (such as anthropology and entomology) may require a PhD in that field in order to be accepted as a practitioner within their professional community.

How can I prepare myself for a career in forensic science while I'm in high school?

You can prepare yourself by beginning to hone your skills and familiarize with material.

  • T as many math and science courses as possible
  • developing public speaking skills
  • organizing notes of class lectures and keeping lab notebooks
  • visiting a courthouse and watching legal cases
  • enhancing your writing skills

What are the services of a crime laboratory?

A crime laboratory may include any or all of the following services.

  • Physical Science unit: uses the principles of chemistry, physics, and geology to identify and compare physical evidence
  • Biology unit: applies knowledge of biological sciences in order to investigate blood samples, body fluids, hair and fiber samples
  • Firearms unit: investigates discharged bullets, cartridge cases, shotgun shells and ammunition
  • Document unit: provides the skills needed for handwriting analysis and other questioned document issues
  • Photographic unit: applies specialized photographic techniques for recording and examining physical evidence.
  • Additional services may include toxicology, fingerprint analysis, voiceprint analysis, evidence collection and polygraph (lie detector) administration.

Where can I find more information about forensic science?

A. Visit the American Academy of Forensic Sciences (AAFS) homepage or other websites listed under the Student Resources section, or click here to contact us.

Other References

Richard Saferstein (2004). Criminalistics: an introduction to forensic science, 8th edition, p.3-23.