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Career focus: How to become a forensic scientist?

What does a Forensic scientist do? Get the job description, find about the career options and the best universities to study.

Antony Chacko

During the course, you will get a chance to do some field work using an in-house simulation program that lets you investigate real crime scenes.

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An inquisitive spirit, an eye for detail, a passion for science and the ability to work in a team are the essential characteristics that make up a good forensic scientist. 

The person needs to have a passion to solve puzzles and mysteries and not be squeamish of blood and other such materials. Forensic scientists examine, locate and compare any traces of physical evidence and other evidences gathered at a crime scene that can be used in the court of law. They need to be proficient in studying the scene, looking for small traces and clues that would otherwise be overlooked, and be aware of the principles of science and math. They analyze evidence from a wide range of sources - body fluids, finger print, DNA, hairs, textile fibers, glass fragments, foreign particles, tire marks and paint [other than blood].

If you are able to identify yourself with these qualities, then a degree in forensic science will open up many possibilities for you in the challenging and exciting field of forensic science.  

A graduate degree or a certificate programme in forensic science introduces you to the techniques and technologies you need to employ in this profession. The course also equips you with the analytical and interpretative skills you need to become a successful scientist in forensics and crime investigation. The Master of Science programme is typically for duration of two years, and consists of branches such as environmental forensics, forensic medicine, DNA analysis, entomology, toxicology and many more.

Field work opportunities

Students learn different aspects to crime investigation and forensics such as Graphics and Documentation, Fingerprints Classification, Crime Scene Photography, Biological Evidence, Criminal Investigations, Forensic Toxicology, Foundations in chemistry, Computer forensics, Concepts of mathematics and Psychology. The degree programme combines the teaching of scientific principles and theory with practical hands-on application in a laboratory setting with up-to-date equipment. Students are encouraged to work closely with their advisor. During the course, you get a chance for field work with in-house simulation programmes where you get to perform real crime scene investigation.

To be admitted to a degree programme in forensic science at a university in the U.S., an undergraduate degree in a related discipline along with GRE and TOEFL/IELTS scores are required.

At the end of the course, many career opportunities await you in diverse areas such as employment in crime laboratories, medical examiners’ offices, police departments, federal and state governments, hospital and clinical chemistry laboratories, pharmaceutical industry, and in the teaching profession. You will find yourself qualified for the jobs of fingerprint technicians, medical examiners, consultants and forensic investigators.

Work environment

A forensic scientist typically works in a laboratory attached to a police or crime investigation team, or could be part of a special team that specializes in solving murder mysteries that require lot of tests and analysis. The main focus of  the scientists work is to look for evidence, scan the entire crime scene, test the scenario for any kind of clue, and understand if the evidences gathered are part of the crime or not.

They need to analyze each item of clothing found at the scene, obtain samples from people involved, arms and weapons used and from those who have been suspected to do a complete study and analysis. They will have to work with the police or other crime investigation team, sometimes with the local police as well and of course other analysts in the lab.  The one thing about this line of work is that there would typically be no fixed working hours. They will have to be available whenever there is a crime or accident, and be ready with their equipment and up for some analysis and puzzle solving.

If the position is a high level, then they will have to observe advice and guide team members and ensure proper tests are carried out and results made available on time without any undue delay.

What to study

Most employers look for applicants who have atleast 2 years of training and work experience in the field of forensic science. While some are open to students who have studied a course in Biology or forensic science, some are specific with their requirements.  Apart from the hands on experience, the skills and natural flair for the study, one can pursue a course in Forensic science from Anglia Ruskin University  or Bournemouth University, UK that offer post graduate programs. Edith Cowan University, University of Western Australia or the James Cook University in Australia are also good places to do a post graduate course. For undergraduate program, one can consider the Hogeschool Van Amsterdam and University of Otago in New Zealand are a good bet. If one is seeking admission in USA, then they should apply to Washburn University, Pace University or the University of New Haven.

Career opportunities

Technicians are usually employed as trainees under supervision of a scientist or an experienced technician. With experience, they will be moved up the ladder till they ultimately take on the role of a senior technician and start managing other trainees under them.  They will be expected to take on as many cases as possible, solve cases, and analyze several different kinds of clues and evidences to prove their worth.  The forensic scientists will be asked to test, located, examine, and analyze the blood/tissue samples, study the chemical substances, finger printing and physical evidence materials. From there on, it is their responsibility to study, record, analyze, measure and provide a report on their findings.

Entry requirements

To gain entry into this field, one needs a degree in one of the relevant subject areas like science studies, mathematics, life & medical sciences, and engineering. Some of the subjects that one would have to be proficient in are-  biology, chemistry, biochemistry, physics, biomedical science, molecular biology, pharmacology to name a few. A good undergraduate degree in physical science would also be an added advantage to gain entry into this arena.

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Khushboo Gera Khushboo Gera,
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