Forensic Science is the application of science to the law, providing physical scientific evidence for use in criminal and civil investigations.
Forensic scientists draw on the principles of biology, maths and chemistry to analyse physical evidence found at the scene of a crime. Their job is to locate, analyse and prepare traces of evidence that can be used by the prosecution or defence in both criminal and civil investigations in order to exclude or associate someone with a particular act. Common sources of evidence include blood, hairs, fibres from clothing, tyre marks, glass fragments, building materials, footwear and bodily fluids. Forensic Scientists usually spend some of their time at the scene of the crime gathering and analysing evidence on site. However they spend most of their working day in the laboratory analysing specimens, extracting data from electronic equipment and conducting experiments.
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Typical starting salaries for Forensic Scientists are around £20,000 usually rising to £35,000 with significant experience. Senior Forensic Scientists usually earn £45,000 or more.
Forensic Scientists are concerned with identifying evidence to link a suspect with a crime. Their responsibilities vary depending upon their particular specialisms (such as chemistry, biology, drugs and toxicology or forensic dentistry) and the specifics of the case. However, typical responsibilities will include:
- Attending the scene of a crime and looking for evidence
- Collecting traces from crime scenes
- Recording evidence
- DNA profiling
- Identifying the blood group of a blood sample
- Analysing splash patterns
- Matching and comparing materials
- Examining samples of blood, bodily fluids, glass, hair, fibres etc
- Analysing tissue or fluids for drugs
- Analysing handwriting and signatures on ‘questioned documents’
- Extracting data from computers and mobile phones
- Writing reports and journal articles
- Giving presentations
- Inputting data into computer programmes
- Conducting experiments
- Working with specialist equipment
- Providing expert advice on weapons and explosives
- Statistically analysing and interpreting data
- Developing new technologies to be used in the lab
- Reporting evidence in court including under cross-examination
- Liaising with the police to devise forensic strategies
- Managing more junior Forensic Scientists
- Attending lab meetings
Trainee Forensic Scientists are required to have at least a BSC Honours degree (2:2) in a biology, chemistry or pharmacology-related subject. That said, Forensic Science is a highly competitive field and many candidates applying for jobs will have a relevant Masters degree or even a PhD. It is advisable to speak to potential employers to find out what level of knowledge they require. More recently a number of specific Forensic Science degrees have emerged which can be advantageous although it is important to ensure that they are accredited by the Forensic Science Service (FSS) which lists all accredited courses on their website. It is possible to work as an Assistant Forensic Scientist with an HND or equivalent qualification, although in practice most assistants also have an honours degree.
Forensic Science is a highly specialised field and requires a wide range of skills and knowledge, in particular:
- A logical and analytical approach
- A scientific and enquiring mind
- A good knowledge of chemistry and biology
- Sophisticated observational skills
- The patience to undertake painstaking analysis
- A high level of concentration
- Excellent attention to detail
- Excellent problem-solving skills
- A methodical approach to tasks
- Persistence and a commitment to the task in hand
- An objective approach
- A high level of integrity
- The knowledge and confidence to justify findings in court, including under cross-examination
- The ability to work well independently and as part of a team
- The ability to input and extract information from computers
- A strong understanding of technology
- A knowledge of specialist scientific equipment
- The ability to work to deadlines
- The ability to thrive under pressures
- Strong communication skills, both written and oral
- The ability to communicate complex scientific information to both experts and laymen
- Good colour vision (particularly for lab work)
Working as a Forensic Scientist can be highly stressful, particularly when deadlines are approaching, when scientists are working on a high priority case or when there is little sample to work with. Forensic Scientists spend most of their time conducting analyses and experiments in the lab although they are also required to work at crime scenes when they often have to work in unpleasant conditions which may include working with hazardous substances.
Forensic Scientists typically work a 37 hour week, Monday – Friday although the hours can be much longer as deadlines approach. Some employers operate an on-call system where scientists may be required to work unsociable hours during high-priority cases. Flexible hours or part-time working is sometimes available.
Over the last ten years the number of people training to be Forensic Scientists has increased hugely and relevant experience is extremely advantageous when looking for work. Employers typically require trainee scientists to have six months’ experience working in a lab. This may include experience in a hospital laboratory or working as a lab technician in a school. The Forensic Science Service (FSS) provides information on work experience opportunities for graduates looking to find employment as a trainee Forensic Scientist.
For those wishing to specialise in electronic casework (extracting data from computers, mobile phones and other electronic equipment) employees are also required to have experience working in a computing, physics, electronics or electrical engineering-related role. Entering the profession as an Assistant Forensic Scientist (even with an honours degree) can be a good way to build up relevant experience before progressing to a Forensic Scientist role although even assistant roles can be very competitive.
Forensic Scientists may work for a local police force or for a specific Forensic Science Service (FSS) laboratory – the FSS has eleven sites around the country providing services to the police force, the Crown Prosecution Service and to HM Revenue and Customs. Other major employers include the Forensic Explosives Laboratory (part of the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory) which conducts forensic work around explosives, and private forensic laboratories. Occasionally medical schools and universities also employ Forensic Scientists.
Forensic Scientists begin as trainees gaining vital on-the-job training from more experienced scientists working in forensics. Once trainees have been in post for eighteen months they will usually progress to a Forensic Scientist post. Once trained up as a Forensic Scientist there are various further courses available which are accredited by the Forensic Science Service (FSS). Many Forensic Scientists choose to complete a diploma course in a specialist area such as firearms, fire investigation, crime scene investigation or document examination.
Also known as…
- Reporting officer
- Assistant Forensic Scientist
- Senior Forensic Scientist
- Police Officer
- Forensic Dentist
- Laboratory Technician
- Research Scientist
What’s it really like?
Caroline Hall is 26 years old and has been a trained Forensic Scientist for just over three years. Before gaining employment she completed a BSC (Hons) in Forensic Science at the University of Glamorgan, graduating in 2006. She gives us the inside story …
As a Forensic Scientist I spend most of my working day conducting experiments in the lab. In a typical day at work I use many different pieces of equipment including confocal microscopes (which allow us to get high-resolution images from different types of specimens), multi-plate imagers (a type of forensic imaging software), polymerase chain reaction (PCR) machines which we use in the lab to amplify DNA segments and equipment that allows us to carry out the process of Cell Culture. We also have to statistically analyse the data and write reports and journal articles, give presentations and attend lab meetings with the rest of the team.
Working in forensics I really enjoy the satisfaction of gaining a useful outcome to the experiments I conduct. I also feel rewarded by the possibility that what I do will help to solve a crime. I like to keep busy in whatever I do and there is never a dull moment in the lab! I also enjoy the company of the people I work with – it’s nice to feel part of a team. On the downside there is always the worry of making a mistake in experiments where you may have very little sample to work with which can be quite stressful. The promotional opportunities in Forensic Science are also quite limited without undertaking a PhD.
I would advise that prospective Forensic Scientists get as much work experience as possible before applying for jobs. Forensics has become a very popular profession over the last few years so it’s important to show serious interest if you want to progress in the field. It can be difficult to get practical experience directly in forensics but even just working in a hospital lab or something along those lines will demonstrate that you are a keen scientist. If you wish to progress to high-level positions within the area be aware that you will also need to undertake a PhD or you will get stuck at a certain level.
Forensic Science is a very interesting area of science and I would recommend it but be aware of the long hours – at times it can also be very stressful!
In the future I’d like to go into veterinary medicine in some way, perhaps doing lab research into animal diseases. I know I definitely want to keep progressing within science. Eventually I would like to leave the lab and still be a scientist but not working directly at the bench.