Making Discoveries that Make a Difference

Qualifications for a Career in Forensic Science

NIJ Report – 203099

Introduction

Forensic science plays a crucial role in the criminal justice system. As an applied science, it requires a strong foundation in the natural sciences and the development of practical skills in the application of these sciences to a particular discipline. A forensic scientist must be capable of integrating knowledge and skills in the examination, analysis, interpretation, reporting, and testimonial support of physical evidence. A properly designed forensic science pro¬gram should address these needs and strengthen the student’s knowledge, skills, and abilities in these areas. A combination of education and practical training can prepare an individual for a career in forensic science.

Most of the Nation’s practicing forensic scientists are employed in crime laboratories associated with law enforcement or other government agencies. Forensic scientists come to the profession with diverse undergraduate science degrees. They also may go on to earn graduate degrees. This document contains suggestions for model programs in forensic science at both the undergraduate and graduate levels. A combination of personal, professional, and academic criteria will influence a prospective forensic science examiner’s suitability for employment. Government entities’ hiring processes are driven by civil service regulations or collective bargaining agreements that are specific to the branch of government, State, or locality. Private laboratories have their own hiring processes. The hiring process may include written and practical tests, phone interviews, and one-on-one personal inter¬views or interviews conducted by a panel. New employees may be hired provision¬ally or go through a probationary period. Provisional employment offers may be revoked either before or after reporting for duty.

Model Candidate

A model candidate for all forensic science practices possesses personal integrity, holds a baccalaureate degree (at a minimum) in the natural sciences, and has additional KSAs that fulfill the recommendations set forth in this Guide.

Personal Characteristics

Because forensic science is part of the criminal justice system, personal honesty, integrity, and scientific objectivity are para¬mount. Those seeking careers in this field should be aware that background checks similar to those required for law enforcement officers are likely to be a condition of employment. The following may be conducted and/or reviewed before an employment offer is made and may remain as ongoing conditions of employment (this list is not all inclusive):

  •  Drug tests
  •  History of drug use
  •  Criminal history
  •  Personal associations
  •  Driving record
  •  Past work performance
  •  Credit history
  •  Medical or physical examination

Personal candor in these areas is critical. In addition, an individual’s history of community service and outside activities may also be considered.

Academic qualifications

Forensic scientists need to have a strong fundamental background in the natural sciences. For example, new hires who analyze drugs, DNA, trace, and toxicological evidence in forensic science laboratories typically have a degree in chemistry, bio¬chemistry, biology, or forensic science from an accredited institution. Although forensic scientists involved in the recognition and comparison of patterns (such as latent prints, firearms, and questioned documents) historically may not have been required to have a degree, the trend in the field is to strengthen the academic requirements for these disciplines and require a baccalaureate degree, preferably in a science. The academic qualifications required for some of the emerging disciplines, such as digital evidence, are currently being defined and will be published by the appropriate groups. Achieving the appropriate academic qualifications is discussed in greater detail later in this Guide. Copies of diplomas and formal academic transcripts are generally required as proof of academic qualification. Awards, publications, internships, and student activities may be used to differentiate applicants. Claims in this regard are subject to verification through the background investigation process.

Professional skills

A variety of skills are essential to an individual’s effectiveness as a forensic science professional, including:

  •  Critical thinking (quantitative reasoning and problem-solving
  •  Decision-making
  •  Good laboratory skills
  •  Awareness of laboratory safety
  •  Observation and attention to detail
  •  Computer proficiency
  •  Interpersonal skills
  •  Public speaking
  •  Oral and written communication
  •  Time management
  •  Prioritization of tasks

For some of these skills, systematic tools are available that may be used to measure skill or proficiency at or after the time of hire.

Model Career Path for Forensic Scientists

A model career path for a forensic scientist begins with formal education and continues with training, postgraduate education, certification, and professional membership.

Credentials

A forensic scientist’s career path should demonstrate continued professional development that is documented by credentials. A credential is a formal recognition of a professional’s knowledge, skills, and abilities. Indicators of professional standing include academic credentials, professional credentials, training credentials, and competency tests. Credentialing can positively impact the overall effectiveness of forensic science practice.

Implementation: Keys to a Career in Forensic Science

Pre-employment preparation

Competitive candidates can demonstrate the knowledge, skills, and abilities that establish their readiness for a forensic science position. These KSAs may include areas important to all potential forensic science practitioners, including but not limited to quality assurance, ethics, professional standards of behavior, evidence control, report writing, scientific method, inductive and deductive reasoning, statistics, and safety. Documentation of course¬work and practical experiences involving these KSAs can significantly enhance the objective information available to an agency evaluating potential new hires.

On-the-job training

After hire, on-the-job training by the hiring agency is common. This initial training is generally completed within 6 months to 3 years of the date of hire, depending on the trainee, agency, and forensic science specialty. Some specialties have established peer-based objective standards adopted throughout the field, while others vary from agency to agency.

Certification

Accreditation applies to forensic science laboratories, whereas certification applies to analysts or examiners. Individuals whose competencies have been certified by an independent, peer-based, appropriately credentialed certifying body are highly desirable to employers.

Outstanding laboratories seek certification from an organization that is accredited by the Forensic Specialties Accreditation Board or another program that is based on nationally or internationally recognized standards (see appendix C). A credible certification program requires a meaningful evaluation of credentials, examination, an ethics component, and periodic recertification. Recertification requires a person to undergo a minimum amount of continuing education and may require demonstration of continued competency. Certification has been used by some employers as a prerequisite for employment and/or advancement, and it may enhance an individual’s credibility as an expert witness.

Professional involvement

While casework is the primary focus of a forensic scientist, he or she can also strive to advance the profession. This may be accomplished through professional involvement: research; mentoring; teaching; and participating in professional organizations, community outreach, publishing, and other professional activities.

Taken from NIJ Special Report – “Education and Training in Forensic Science: A Guide for Forensic Science Laboratories, Educational Institutions, and Students.

The full version can be found at: https://www.ncjrs.gov/pdffiles1/nij/203099.pdf

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