By Clare Schinzel
It’s no secret that America has a true crime obsession: recent hits like Netflix’s Dahmer––Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story have proved that we all have a secret dark side that enjoys the multitude of mysteries that true crime provides. While lead detectives often get all of the glory for putting the pieces of these cases together, it’s a reality that even the most brilliant investigator can't work alone. Forensic scientists are some of their greatest helpers.
Forensic scientists aren’t a one-size-fits-all profession. From a biological technician to a hazardous material remover, forensic scientists’ specializations can vary dramatically. Because of the variety, scientists–in–training have lots of options to choose from if they pursue the field. One common feature of forensic careers is that they are required to provide testimony for their findings in a courtroom, showing that forensic scientists have to embrace both the study of science and law.
The path to becoming a forensic scientist starts back in high school: students are advised to take all of the high–level science courses they have access to, but chemistry and biology should be at the top of the list. If provided, high school forensic classes can give high school students a deeper and more accurate dive into what the career looks like.
After entering college, the course load gets a bit more diverse. Because forensics is the connection between science and the law, taking classes in both the humanities and STEM is required. Criminal Law, Laws of Evidence, and Chemistry along with a major in biology are among the recommended classes to take in an undergraduate program. More specific classes like Firearms Examination, Forensic Geology, and Forensic Microscopy can help a student get a peak into their future career while earning their undergraduate, as well.
While earning an undergraduate, it's advised to use any opportunity possible to be in a lab setting. State or local police departments can offer internships, but––more commonly––spending time cleaning equipment, filling samples, and other seemingly tedious activities will give students a deeper foundation in working in a lab setting.
It is possible after earning a Bachelor's degree to go straight into a job at a state crime lab. However, it is advised to continue any education in order to have a chance at a higher position and salary.
Graduate school is a great opportunity for students to decide what to specialize in within the immense field of forensics. To make that decision easier, classes begin to get more specialized: Criminalistics, Molecular Biology, Forensic DNA & Serology, Forensic Drug Chemistry, and Forensic Toxicology are staples in a future scientist’s education. But no matter the class, it’s important for students to continue to get familiar with a lab setting while also keeping up with their study of the law.
Career doors begin opening after graduating from graduate school. Since forensics has so many niche varieties, employers will be looking for employees with proper education to fill these positions. If desired, forensic scientists could return to school to get a Ph.D. That would give them professor––as well as lab oriented––job opportunities. It would also make them more credible when testifying for a court case.
Sadly, despite the years of education that go into it, forensics isn’t a top-paying STEM job: average salaries range from $63,416 to $77,614. With that, the required court appearances, and constant indoor work, it’s important that forensic scientist hopefuls have a motivation that goes beyond a love for true crime. Much like most careers, happiness within a job requires a deep love for the fundamentals, and in this case, that’s a deep love for science, education, and justice.
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