If you want to become a forensic scientist, you'll need more than a love of "CSI." This challenging role requires a love of science, a sense of curiosity and a commitment to justice. You'll need communication skills and a strong scientific background to thrive as a forensic scientist, but you have several ways to achieve your goal. Here's what you should know about the educational and licensing requirements for a career in forensic science.
Specialists vs. Generalists
There are two primary paths to becoming a forensic scientist. You might choose to specialize in a specific scientific discipline then apply it to a forensic career. For example, Kathy Reichs, the real life inspiration for the "Bones" television show, has a PhD in physical anthropology. She used her expert knowledge of the human body to evaluate skeletons for a criminal justice lab. The other way to become a forensic scientist is studying forensic science or forensic investigations. These degree programs draw from multiple fields to teach students the chemistry, biology, anthropology and psychology needed to work in a forensics career.
Forensic science highly values education. You can start working as an entry-level tech with only an associate's degree, but you won't be able to advance far without further education. Some areas want new workers to have a bachelor's degree. You will likely need a master's degree in forensic science or a related field to reach your full potential as a crime scene investigator or laboratory technician. If you want to lead investigative efforts or pioneer new techniques, you should consider earning a PhD. Unlike in popular television shows, you'll only need one doctoral degree. Many students start working with an Associate of Science or Bachelor of Science in Forensic Sciences then advance their education as they work.
There's no set path for becoming a licensed forensic scientist. You can seek out state certifications, but according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, no universally recognized licenses exist. You can also look for specific recognition from your scientific discipline. For example, you may wish to become a member of the American Institute of Biological Sciences if you have a degree in biology. A good college program in forensic sciences can help you navigate the best certificates and association memberships to stand out in your state.
The best way to become a respected forensic scientist in on-the-job training. Most employers will want you to start a formal apprenticeship program, even if you have a relevant college degree. This is because so much of forensic science is hands-on. Your employer might have different techniques or equipment than your college did. Plus, many educational programs try to teach you scientific theory rather than practical investigative skills. A strong theoretical background lets you learn new techniques throughout your career, which is important because forensic science is constantly growing as a field.
Many forensic scientists value the flexibility of their careers. This is a field that draws on multiple disciplines, and two scientists might approach the same problem in two different ways. Just as there's no perfect way to solve a crime, there's also no perfect path to become a forensic scientist.