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Criminalist: Career Profile

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A criminalist aids in the collection, preservation and interpretation of evidence found at a crime scene. Criminalists use physical evidence, such as footprints, blood stains, fingerprints, or clothing, to help reconstruct the crime scene. They are trained in the field of criminalistics, which employs the natural sciences to analyze and interpret forensic evidence. Specialty areas within criminalistics include trace evidence (such as hairs and fibers or paints and polymers), fire debris analysis, molecular biology, and drug chemistry.

A criminalist decides what evidence is important to a case, and what evidence is of little value. Once all the evidence is processed and a conclusion is made, criminalists are responsible for writing reports on their findings. A criminalist usually works 40 hours per week and is required to be on call. They also appear in court as expert witnesses to the evidence.

Criminalists work at crime scenes and in laboratories. They are often required to wear protective clothing when handling evidence, and there is a great possibility that they will be exposed to odors, fumes, diseases, and chemicals. Typically, criminalists work for police forensic laboratories, sheriff's offices, private firms, universities or colleges, and state and federal agencies. Additionally, wildlife forensics is a new career specialty for criminalists.

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Training & Education

To become a criminalist, one must earn at least a bachelor's degree. Upon receipt of a high school diploma, aspiring criminalists should attend a college that will allow them to major in a natural science. The most commonly accepted majors in the forensic science arena include biology, chemistry, physics, or criminalistics. Chemistry, biology, and math are all necessary for this career. Certain crime labs and agencies are beginning to require that employees possess a master's degree in criminalistics or forensic science. Continuing education is always encouraged and often provided by the employer to keep employees up-to-date on the latest technology.

At this time, Criminalists do not have mandatory licensing requirements. The American Board of Criminalistics has a peer review certification process for qualified applicants. The certifications offered by the American Board of Criminalistics include comprehensive criminalistics, molecular biology, drug chemistry, fire debris analysis, and trace evidence. Applicants for certification must pass an examination, after which they will receive either diplomate or fellow certification depending on their experience and qualifications.

Career & Salary Outlook

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, an experienced criminalist can earn between $35,000 and $50,000 each year. According to, a criminalist with one to four years of experience can earn $38,007 to $50,187 per year; for those who have five to nine years of experience, the salary range increases to $45,000 to $63,947 per year. Higher still is the salary for criminalists who have many years of experience, higher education degrees, or are in a supervisory capacity. These criminalists can earn more than $100,000 per year. In addition to the experience of the criminalist, the size and location of a crime lab for which he or she works can determine his or her salary.

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