If you've turned on a TV sometime in the last decade or so, you've seen shows where slick and sexy uniformed characters crawl on all fours in blood-splattered crime scenes, nosing around for evidence like nail clippings, stray hairs and other tiny things, ready to shove them into evidence bags.
What you're seeing is the hot Hollywood TV career: forensic science, and its true believers -- forensic scientists.
Have evidence bag. Crime solved.
But let's get real. Beyond the glitz and glamour on a TV screen, what does this career have to offer in the real world -- you know, the one where every problem isn't solved within an hour and your jokes don't get a laugh track?
Real-life forensic scientists are investigators who use evidence and scientific techniques to investigate and help solve whodunits, typically heinous crimes. And their days are anything but predictable.
The scientists on shows like "CSI: Crime Scene Investigation" and "Law & Order" seem like they are everywhere — crime scene, lab, morgue, back to the crime scene, and then finally to the courtroom for the passionate speech to get the killer to confess just in time. But you can't trust everything on TV. In fact, most forensic scientists don't even get to the crime scene. Then again, others don't spend much time in the dark, dreary labs. It just depends on what type of scientist you are.
Crime scene investigators spend much of their time at the actual crime scene — a kidnapping, murder, or skeleton found in the woods -- picking up evidence with a gloved hand and dropping it into the glitzy and glamorous plastic bag. Sure, it's not quite that simple. They don't know if there's a gun hidden somewhere, or whether those scratches on the door are from the dead person trying to escape or simply a dog desperately needing to go potty.
The scene must be documented according to strict standards, and each piece of evidence recorded. The evidence of the crime might be large and noticeable, like a gun or marks in a door, but it could also be microscopic and nearly impossible to detect. Imagine poring over a forest floor looking for a stray hair that might be the linchpin to a case, and you get the idea. Their days can be spent inside or out, day or night.
Entry-level technicians spend their days in the lab, doing grunt work while hunched over a microscope. At this point, they are getting their feet wet, working alongside a more established and knowledgeable scientist. They'll test tissue samples, compile the ballistics evidence, or put fingerprints through the databases, hoping for a match. One person can't be expected to analyze all the evidence — determining the DNA sequence of the unknown hair and resolving that it came from a beagle — and come to a conclusion. Technicians and other forensic scientists will share results and put their heads together to figure out the culprit.
Forensic specialists, those with graduate degrees in a bunch of different fields — dentistry, engineering, even entomology — often take over any evidence that fits into their realm of specialized knowledge. Many of these specialists will spend their time in the lab, too, but they may also be in front of the computer, modeling a possible crime scene scenario.
The forensic pathologist might work in the morgue to determine cause of death, e.g., strangulation did the guy in. Forensic toxicologists, working in a lab, look at the role of drugs, poisons and such, e.g., which sedative made the victim so sleepy that he didn't fight back. Others may be at the police department's firing range working to identify the distance and angle at which the gun was fired. Or in the case of forensic anthropologists, days spent only with rotting femurs and their ilk can become the norm.
Another aspect of a forensic scientist’s day revolves around the courthouse. Since it is their job to connect evidence with a conclusion about a crime, they can spend countless hours with police investigators, lawyers, and judges. In preparing for these marathon court sessions, forensic scientists must spend the time writing up their methods, techniques, and ultimately, their findings. They've got to sit down and prepare those documents saying, "Colonel Mustard in the library with the candlestick."
Because murderers can be so inconsiderate and off someone in the middle of the night, some forensic scientists work odd hours. Crime scene investigators tend to work whenever bad things happen. And if the evidence can wait until the workday, most lab scientists put in a typical 40-hour workweek. Of course, as a trial date nears, they may need to log in extra hours to get the evidence analyzed and draw their conclusions.
Forensics in itself is not a distinct area of science — rather, it covers a variety of scientific topics — chemistry, biology, physics, and even genetics — and puts them to use in solving crimes. In the end, this multidisciplinary approach will, hopefully, help scientists come to conclusions when facing a tricky whodunit. Therefore, having solid knowledge in these fields is important to a successful forensic scientist. College grads with degrees in biology can be just as qualified for an entry-level forensic technician position as someone with a forensic science BS, so don't go losing sleep if you end up in a program that doesn't specifically train crime solvers.
Although the most common route to a forensic science career is college, some institutions offer associate's degrees in forensic science or other types of applied science technology fields. These formal training programs teach the basics of biology and chemistry, but they also offer some hands on experience in a laboratory setting without being a full four-year program.
Some forensic scientists choose to specialize in a particular type of evidence, say pathology or serology — blood and urine — and go back to school for a master's or PhD. Back at the lab with sheepskin in hand, they will be called in for expert advice or assistance if a particular case requires a detailed analysis. These scientists and their expert opinions are usually also the ones that get dragged to court to reconstruct the crime scene or testify on time of death, and can provide the key piece of a puzzle to solving a crime.
While knowing your way around a test tube is a must, knowledge of law and government is also important since these scientists do spend a good bit of time testifying in court or going over evidence with lawyers. That being said, communication is a big part of a forensic scientist's job — sometimes they can use technical jargon when dealing with fellow scientists, but if hauled into a courtroom to testify, it is essential that they can explain the evidence in a simple, clear way to a pack of jurors.
Outside the classroom, forensic scientists need to think "outside of the box," since this type of laboratory science doesn't follow a manual. Good decision-making skills, analytical reasoning, and attention to detail are other essential skills that complement a forensic scientist's technical merits.
And one last bit of advice before you jump into the world of forensic science. Forensic scientists encounter pretty gruesome stuff (heck, you've seen those episodes of "CSI: Miami"). Murders aren't pretty. There will be blood and guts and brain parts strewn all over the headboard. Keeping a clear head — and a strong stomach — and not letting your emotions get the better of you is crucial to remaining objective and seeing the evidence for what it is.