Many times I receive the same kinds of question by email on a job as a forensic scientist. For this reason I composed a FAQ.
It depends on the field. There are several universities (see education listing) that offer courses in forensic science. However most often an appropriate study (as biology for DNA, computer science for the forensic computer science department, pathology for the pathologists), is needed for the different fields. Since there exist many different fields in forensic science, it is hard to say what kind of study is needed. My own background is in Physics, and I worked for the laboratory in the various fields as image processing and computer science, firearms and toolmarks. I just applied for the job after working at the research department of a company in digital copiers. Click here for more information.
Please visit the job Listings of the AAFS to get an idea. For the situation in the Netherlands Forensic Institute, depending on the level (experience and education) from EURO 22.000 to EURO 50.000 (1 EURO equals approximately one dollar). Forensic Pathology might pay EURO 70.000, and of course the management positions will pay until EURO 80.000. In the Netherlands we work 36 hours a week, so it means you can work four days a week of nine hours (this condition is often not available in the United States).
There are several reasons to become a forensic scientist :
the final result of your work is often visible to yourself and others (so
much involvement in the work)
Some cases can have a high impact on yourself, because there are things that happen which you did not expect to be real and you see them visually. Furthermore it is hard to plan the number of cases (if you accept them all), so sometimes work load can be an annoyance.
You have to go to court on the most unexpected moments, and since this takes often a long time waiting outside of the court room, this can be boring. Also you have to consider that often you have to do lots of administration work for a case, since it is important for quality assurance to know what examination had been done to an exhibit.
Sometimes journalists will call you even at home, and try to get information from you.
In this work criticism is something you should cope with in a proper way. You might be confronted with this in court or you might also have this with the personal certification and the rules around it. Even if you are experienced for a long time, you might be confronted with new insights and new methods.
If you draw a wrong conclusion, you should always admit that for the court. An interesting article was in Science and Justice, Vol. 43, No. 2, "Context effects in forensic science: a review and application of the science of science to crime laboratory practice in the United States", by MJ Saks, DM Risinger, R Rosenthal and WC Thompson. When working on case work you might become influenced by the context effect. You will receive a case with the complete story from the police. This sounds interesting, however it can result in becoming biased. Furthermore if you might hear other results from your colleagues in other sections, and you are drawing conclusions from the evidence, with their conclusions in mind. The article describes a method of minimizing the context effect, by having a central front desk with persons who know very much about forensic science. They will discuss the case. The forensic scientists in the laboratory just are limited to the information that they receive from this person, and it should be restricted to a minimum in order not to get biased. The risks of doing blind tests are also discussed in this article.
Validation of new techniques is not always possible. If you are using a new method and would like to use it in court, it is on the court to decide if it is admissible. Since many systems are becoming more complex (software programs etc), it is often impossible to do a complete validation, since there are too many variables that change in time (software version, hardware components etc) which you can not predict.
Last revision: 06 May 2006
© Zeno Geradts