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Crime Scene Investigator: Education, Training & Job Outlook

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If you’re looking to combine your interests in science and criminal justice, a career as a crime scene investigator might be right for you. CSIs, also known as forensic science technicians, provide crucial support to law enforcement by thoroughly documenting crime scenes, collecting physical evidence, and performing scientific tests that give investigators greater understanding of a crime. While every day might not be as exciting as a TV episode of “CSI”, real-life crime scene investigators perform many crucial tasks that shed light on criminal investigations, including:

  • Conducting DNA tests on physical evidence
  • Providing expert scientific testimony in a court of law
  • Photographing and sketching crime scenes
  • Taking fingerprints and footprint impressions
  • Writing detailed reports about the crime scene and evidence
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Some crime scene investigators specialize in a specific technique, such as handwriting recognition or ballistics analysis. Attention to detail and the ability to follow strict procedures are key characteristics for all crime scene investigators, as any deviation from protocol may mean compromised evidence or scientific tests. Nearly all CSIs collaborate and work closely with a number of experts, including medical doctors, lawyers, and pathologists. 

Crime Scene Investigation Training & Education

There are two routes to becoming a crime scene investigator: civilian training or police training. Many CSIs are also sworn police officers, and entering a police academy for officer training is one way to begin this career path. After years of experience with crime scenes as an officer, the police agency may choose to hire you as a CSI. The agency will then provide you with the necessary scientific training for the new position.

Those interested in going the educational route have several options open to them. The required degree will vary by the size of the police agency and the geographical region you work in, but an associate or bachelor’s degree in forensic science or criminal justice is usually the minimum requirement. Community colleges, technical schools, and four-year colleges offer these two- and four-year programs. Any high-quality, accredited school will offer courses in crime detection, criminal behavior, chemistry, biology, and psychology as the foundations of the degree.

People who already have a bachelor’s degree have another program option: master’s degrees in forensic science or criminal justice. Many of these 15- to 20-course graduate degrees are offered completely online by accredited schools, as they are geared toward individuals who want to increase their career opportunities while continuing to work. Most require applicants to have a solid scientific background, such as a minor in chemistry or biology at the undergraduate level. 

Crime Scene Investigation Career & Salary Outlook

During the 2010-18 period, forensic science technician jobs are expected to grow by 20 percent, must faster than the national average. As scientific techniques become more accepted and depended upon in crime investigation, more CSIs will be hired to help solve crimes. Local and state governments employ the majority of forensic science technicians. Medical and diagnostic labs employ a few, as does the federal government and architectural and engineering firms.

The average yearly salary for CSIs is $55,000, with the middle 50 percent earning $40,000-62,000 a year. The federal government pays the highest salary, followed by architectural and engineering firms. Pay varies widely by region, however. Illinois, the District of Columbia, and Wisconsin all have average salaries in the $60,000-70,000 range. Florida, the state with the highest concentration of forensic science technicians, only has an average salary of $45,000.

Career Fields/Specializations 

Crime Laboratory Analyst

This is a subset of crime scene investigators who work primarily indoors, running scientific tests on physical evidence. A bachelor’s degree is usually required, in forensic science, chemistry, biology, or a related field. Knowledge in zoology, anthropology, or botany may be helpful, depending on the type of evidence handled in any particular lab.

Forensic Engineer 

Forensic engineers analyze traffic accidents, fires, and crime scenes to determine what happened and the cause. This job deals less with small physical evidence and more with the overall engineering aspect of an accident or crime scene. An engineering bachelor’s degree is the minimum requirement for this position.

Medical Examiner

This crime scene investigator looks specifically at dead bodies, dissecting them to determine cause of death and other useful evidence. Due to the gruesomeness of the job and the large educational requirement, medical examiners are paid much more than regular crime scene investigators. A medical degree is required.

Forensic Psychologist

Forensic psychologists must be familiar with both the physical evidence of crime scenes and the psychological reasons why people commit crimes. They generally work as expert witnesses in courts and with criminal investigators to held shed light on a criminal’s motivations. A master’s degree in forensic psychology or criminal justice is usually required to land these positions.

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