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Working As A Criminalist

  • Identifying Objects, Actions, and Events
  • Documenting/Recording Information
  • Getting Information
  • Communicating with Supervisors, Peers, or Subordinates
  • Updating and Using Relevant Knowledge
  • Make Decisions

  • $57,000

    Average Salary

What Does A Criminalist Do

Forensic science technicians aid criminal investigations by collecting and analyzing evidence. Many technicians specialize in either crime scene investigation or laboratory analysis. Most forensic science technicians spend some time writing reports.

Duties

At crime scenes, forensic science technicians typically do the following:

  • Analyze crime scenes to determine what and how evidence should be collected
  • Take photographs of the crime scene and evidence
  • Make sketches of the crime scene
  • Record observations and findings, such as the location and position of evidence
  • Collect evidence, including weapons, fingerprints, and bodily fluids
  • Catalog and preserve evidence for transfer to crime labs

In laboratories, forensic science technicians typically do the following:

  • Perform chemical, biological, and microscopic analyses on evidence taken from crime scenes
  • Explore possible links between suspects and criminal activity, using the results of DNA or other scientific analyses
  • Examine digital media for pertinent information
  • Consult with experts in specialized fields, such as toxicology (the study of poisons and their effect on the body) and odontology (a branch of forensic medicine that concentrates on teeth)
  • Reconstruct crime scenes

Forensic science technicians may be generalists who perform many or all of the duties listed above or they may specialize in certain techniques and sciences. Generalist forensic science technicians, sometimes called criminalists or crime scene investigators, collect evidence at the scene of a crime and perform scientific and technical analysis in laboratories or offices.

Forensic science technicians who work primarily in laboratories may specialize in the natural sciences or engineering. These workers, such as forensic pathologists and latent print examiners, typically use chemicals and laboratory equipment such as microscopes when analyzing evidence. They also may use computers to examine fingerprints, DNA, and other evidence collected at crime scenes. They often work to match evidence to people or other known elements, such as vehicles or weapons. Most forensic science technicians who perform laboratory analysis specialize in a specific type of evidence, such as DNA or ballistics.

Some forensic science technicians, called forensic computer examiners or digital forensics analysts, specialize in computer-based crimes. They collect and analyze data to uncover and prosecute electronic fraud, scams, and identity theft. The abundance of digital data helps them solve crimes in the physical world as well. Computer forensics technicians must adhere to the same strict standards of evidence gathering found in general forensic science because legal cases depend on the integrity of evidence.

All forensic science technicians prepare written reports that detail their findings and investigative methods. They must be able to explain their reports to lawyers, detectives, and other law enforcement officials. In addition, forensic science technicians may be called to testify in court about their findings and methods.

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How To Become A Criminalist

Forensic science technicians typically need at least a bachelor’s degree in a natural science, such as chemistry or biology, or in forensic science. On-the-job training is usually required both for those who investigate crime scenes and for those who work in labs.

Education

Forensic science technicians typically need at least a bachelor’s degree in a natural science, such as chemistry or biology, or in forensic science. Forensic science programs may specialize in a specific area of study, such as toxicology, pathology, or DNA. Students who attend general natural science programs should make an effort to take classes related to forensic science. A list of schools that offer degrees in forensic science is available from the American Academy of Forensic Sciences. Many of those who seek to become forensic science technicians will have an undergraduate degree in the natural sciences and a master’s degree in forensic science.

Many crime scene investigators are sworn police officers and have met educational requirements necessary for admittance into a police academy. Applicants for nonuniformed crime scene investigator jobs should have a bachelor’s degree in either forensic science, with a strong basic science background, or the natural sciences, but some agencies hire applicants with a high school diploma and years of related work experience. For more information on police officers, see the profile on police and detectives.

Training

Forensic science technicians receive on-the-job training before they are ready to work on cases independently.

Newly hired crime scene investigators typically assist experienced investigators. New investigators often learn proper procedures and methods for collecting and documenting evidence while working under supervision.

Forensic science technicians learn laboratory specialties on the job. The length of this training varies by specialty. Technicians may need to pass a proficiency exam or otherwise be approved by a laboratory or accrediting body before they are allowed to perform independent casework or testify in court.

Throughout their careers, forensic science technicians need to keep up with advances in technology and science that improve the collection or analysis of evidence.

Licenses, Certifications, and Registrations

A range of licenses and certifications is available to help credential, and aid in the professional development of, many types of forensic science technicians. Certifications and licenses are not typically necessary for entry into the occupation. Credentials can vary widely because standards and regulations vary considerably from one jurisdiction to another.

Important Qualities

Communication skills. Forensic science technicians write reports and testify in court. They often work with other law enforcement officials and specialists.

Composure. Forensic science technicians must maintain their objectivity and professionalism, even while viewing the results of violence and destruction.

Critical-thinking skills. Forensic science technicians use their best judgment when matching physical evidence, such as fingerprints and DNA, to suspects.

Detail oriented. Forensic science technicians must be able to notice small changes in mundane objects to be good at collecting and analyzing evidence.

Math and science skills. Forensic science technicians need a solid understanding of statistics and natural sciences to be able to analyze evidence at a crime scene.

Physical stamina. Forensic science technicians may need to spend much of their day at a crime scene either standing or kneeling.

Problem-solving skills. Forensic science technicians use scientific tests and methods to help law enforcement officials solve crimes.

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Highest Criminalist Salaries

Job Title Company Location Start Date Salary
Criminalist III Oakland Police Department Jan 16, 2011 $96,387
Forensic (Alcohol) Criminalist and Author Kapsack & Bair, LLP Oct 10, 2012 $87,779
Criminalist Kansas City Missouri Police Department Jan 09, 2010 $36,171 -
$41,940
Criminalist Kansas City Missouri Police Department Sep 30, 2010 $36,171 -
$41,940
Criminalist-Firearms and Toolmark Examiner State of South Dakota, Attorney General's Office Nov 09, 2011 $35,530 -
$66,324

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Criminalist Demographics

Gender

Female

60.3%

Male

33.8%

Unknown

6.0%
Ethnicity

White

59.7%

Hispanic or Latino

16.6%

Black or African American

10.4%

Asian

7.9%

Unknown

5.4%
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Foreign Languages Spoken

Spanish

100.0%

Criminalist Education

Schools

John Jay College of Criminal Justice of the City University of New York

17.1%

University of New Haven

9.8%

Pace University - New York

7.3%

University of California - Davis

7.3%

University of Florida

4.9%

Ohio University -

4.9%

University of Alabama at Birmingham

4.9%

Northern Arizona University

4.9%

Chicago State University

4.9%

Virginia Commonwealth University

4.9%

University of Oklahoma

4.9%

San Diego State University

4.9%

University of Mississippi

2.4%

University of Houston

2.4%

University of Northern Iowa

2.4%

University of South Florida

2.4%

Montclair State University

2.4%

National University

2.4%

California State University - Chico

2.4%

California State University - Bakersfield

2.4%
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Majors

Criminal Justice

33.7%

Chemistry

20.8%

Biology

13.9%

Anthropology

4.0%

Fire Science And Protection

3.0%

Law

3.0%

Business

3.0%

Pharmacy

2.0%

Pharmacology

2.0%

Biochemistry, Biophysics, Molecular Biology

2.0%

Nursing

2.0%

Educational Leadership

2.0%

Education

2.0%

Statistics

1.0%

Natural Sciences

1.0%

Family And Consumer Sciences

1.0%

Management

1.0%

Medicine

1.0%

Physics

1.0%

Photography

1.0%
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Degrees

Bachelors

46.7%

Masters

36.4%

Doctorate

9.3%

Certificate

5.6%

Associate

0.9%

High School Diploma

0.9%
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