The Real Poop
If you've turned on a TV sometime in the last decade or so, you've probably seen shows where slick and sexy uniformed characters crawl on all fours in blood-splattered crime scenes, nosing around for evidence—nail clippings, stray hairs—in hopes of solving the latest crime in whatever city they're in. What you're seeing is today's hot Hollywood TV career: forensic science.
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 help solve whodunits, typically heinous crimes. And their days are anything but predictable.
Fortunately, unlike most crime scenes, the pay is predictable, as most forensic techs are working nine-to-five for a flat and predictable salary. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, that salary is usually right around $55,300 per year (source).
The scientists on shows like CSI: Crime Scene Investigation and Law & Order seem like they're 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 in reality, many forensic scientists don't ever go to the crime scene. Others spend almost no time at all in dark, dreary labs. It just depends on the type of scientist you are.
Forensic scientists specializing in crime scene investigation spend much of their time at actual crime scenes—kidnappings, murders, skeletons found in the woods—picking up evidence with a gloved hand and dropping it into the sterile, nondescript plastic bag. Of course, that all makes it sound easy, or routine; it's not quite that simple.
Crime scenes must be documented according to strict standards, each piece of evidence recorded systematically. The evidence of the crime might be large and noticeable, like a gun or scuff marks on 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 it's also spring time, so the animals are shedding all over the place, and there's also a strong breeze so...well, you get the idea.
Entry-level technicians spend their days in the lab, hunched over a microscope doing grunt work. At that point in their careers, they're just getting their feet wet and are generally working alongside more established and knowledgeable scientists. They'll test tissue samples, compile ballistics evidence, or put fingerprints through the databases, hoping for a match.
There are many different jobs to be done in the lab. The forensic pathologist might work in the morgue to determine cause of death while toxicologists look at the role of drugs and poisons used in the crime.
Others may be at the police department's firing range, working to identify the distance and angle at which the weapon was fired. Then there are forensic anthropologists, who pretty regularly spend their days hanging out exclusively with broken femurs and cracked skulls.
Another aspect of a forensic scientist's day revolves around the courthouse. Since it's their job to connect evidence to crimes, they might spend countless hours with police investigators, lawyers, and judges. In preparing for these marathon court sessions, forensic scientists must take the time to write up their methods, techniques, and ultimately, their findings.
Because murderers are often too inconsiderate to operate during regular business hours, some forensic scientists work odd hours. Crime scene investigators tend to work whenever bad things happen. Lab scientists, on the other hand, usually put in a typical forty-hour workweek—evidence analysis, unlike collection, can generally be put off 'til Monday morning.
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 isn't a distinct area of science. Rather it's the method by which a variety of scientific topics—chemistry, biology, physics, and even genetics—are put to use to solve crimes. Therefore, college grads with degrees in biology can be just as qualified for an entry-level forensic technician position as someone with a bachelor's in forensic science.
Don't go losing sleep if you end up in a program that doesn't specifically train crime solvers.
If you don't want to spend four years learning, how about two? Many 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 also offer some hands-on experience in a laboratory setting without being a full four-year program.
And one last bit of advice before you jump into the world of forensic science. Forensic scientists encounter pretty gruesome stuff (you've probably seen those episodes of CSI: Miami). Murders aren't pretty. There'll 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. If you can handle all that then read on, the crime investigators of tomorrow need your help.