What does a forensic scientist do?
A forensic scientist is someone who analyses evidence from crime scenes. This could take the form of physical evidence or digital evidence. You may find that your role could be based in a number of places depending on your specialism, for instance you could be delivering evidence in court, working in a laboratory doing evidence analysis, or you may find yourself in the field supervising the collection of evidence in person. You could find yourself directly employed by a police force in their support departments, or alternatively you may be employed directly by a laboratory in the private sector. Regardless of who employs you, you will likely find yourself working closely with the police and Crown Prosecution Service.
How do I train to be a forensic scientist?
To train as a forensic scientist, the best advice is to either undertake a forensic science degree, or to undertake a science degree, and follow this with postgraduate study in forensic science. The best method is to choose a course that is recognised by the Chartered Society of Forensic Scientists. Depending on the individual field of forensic science you wish to work in, you may find that a computer sciences degree, medical science, biology, chemistry or life sciences degree to be of the most use.
It may also be useful to obtain work experience with a forensics lab or with the police forces so that you can have first-hand experience of what it is like to be a forensic scientist. Once you have obtained a job as a forensic scientist, you will be provided with on-the-job and external training to ensure you have the appropriate skills for your specific role.
“Every contact leaves a trace – whether we find it or not, that’s the power of forensics”
Kirsty Potter, Head of Forensics Northumbria Police
What qualifications does a forensic scientist need?
UCAS recommends that the qualifications you require to be a forensic scientist are:
- A Levels in Biology and/or Chemistry
- Forensic Sciences degree
- Undergraduate science degree and a postgraduate qualification in forensic science
What skills does a forensic scientist need?
A forensic scientist needs highly developed skills. This will normally include:
- Strong teamwork and communication – the majority of your work will be communicating and working with others, be that members of the Crown Prosecution Service, police, or your supporting lab technicians. The ability to work well with others and communicate effectively will be vital.
- Patience – your work will be time-consuming and require you to be meticulous. You will find that you need to be patient and allow tasks to be completed to your satisfaction despite high pressure tempting you to rush.
- Excellent time management – there will be constant demands on your time, so the ability to manage your time to meet competing needs is a must. This will only become more pronounced as your career advances.
- Extraordinary attention to detail – your work will potentially form the basis of evidence that will either convict a criminal or allow someone to return to freedom. You will need to make sure, beyond reasonable doubt, that each of your assessments is accurate.
- Highly developed analytical ability – you will need to analyse the data that is collected, and assess what it means and produce reports.
- Excellent IT skills – much of your work will involve sitting behind a computer in a lab, either analysing the evidence or writing reports based on your assessment, making strong IT skills a necessity.
What are the advantages of being a forensic scientist?
Being a forensic scientist comes with a number of advantages, the first of which is the relatively high pay. The starting salary for a forensic scientist is relatively high, with potential for growth. A second advantage is that your work will likely be rewarding – you are going to be providing the evidence that will ultimately convict criminals, so you are actively helping to provide justice in the UK. Finally, the role of a forensic scientist is easily customisable. You can specialise your role to suit your interests, and this means you can develop the job into something you genuinely enjoy.
How long does it take to become a forensic scientist?
The route into becoming a forensic scientist is primarily academic – this means that the only time required to become a forensic scientist is the time used obtaining your undergraduate or postgraduate degree. Beyond this point, all your training will be provided by your employer. This means it generally takes between 3 and 4 years to become a forensic scientist.
Steps to become a forensic scientist
Step 1 – assess if this is the job for you
The first step in your journey to becoming a forensic scientist is to find out if it is actually the job for you. Most of us have watched television shows featuring a forensic scientist, and have glamourised the role in our minds. As such, obtaining some hands-on work experience to show yourself the reality of the role is a very good idea.
Step 2 – study for your forensic science degree
Once you know it’s the career for you, then you need to enroll in a forensic science degree or postgraduate qualification. This will likely require you to hold a strong A Level in either Biology or Chemistry, though many universities will prefer you to hold both. Due to the high levels of competition for forensic science roles, you will need to obtain a good mark in order to successfully find a job in the sector.
Step 3 – find a job that suits you
Once you hold the appropriate qualifications, you will need to find a job that suits you. This will involve searching online, and applying to numerous jobs. As with all jobs, the more applications you make, the more likely you are to succeed, so don’t be afraid to apply for many different roles. This will likely require you to attend interviews, and undertake enhanced background checks before you can be confirmed in the role.
Step 4 – start working as a forensic scientist
Once you have obtained your job, you will undertake your initial training. At the completion of this process, you will be a professional forensic scientist.
How much money does a forensic scientist make in the UK?
Forensic science begins much like most specialist public sector careers, with relatively low pay when compared with private sector careers. However, this will rise with experience, and especially if based in London or another major city, you will likely receive a pay top-up to reflect the high cost of living. The national average pay is:
- Entry-level forensic scientist – £24,000
- Experienced forensic scientist – £30,000
- Reporting officer – £35,000+
- Senior forensic officer – £45,000+
Is forensic science a good career?
Forensic science is a highly skilled career, and this is reflected in the pay that you will receive. There is also good room for specialisation within the role, and excellent room for progression. Potential specialisations could include:
- Blood and DNA specialism
- Handwriting and signature analysis
- Computer analysis and data recovery
- Crime scene evidence collection
If you wish to move away from direct crime scene work, there is room to move into academic research or to begin working in other roles as an educator.
“It’s always a different and a very involved job. For every day you’re on a computer, you’ll spend the next two days in a lab, and I think that’s a really important part of having an interesting job.”
Joni Walker, Forensic Scientist
Where can I study forensic science in the UK?
If you specifically wish to work as a forensic scientist, then the best places to study are on courses recognised by the Chartered Society of Forensic Sciences. They will typically expect grades of AAB at A Level, with – at minimum – either biology or chemistry, and a preference that you hold A Levels in both.
Is it hard to be a forensic scientist?
Landing a job as a forensic scientist is hard work because it is a highly competitive career path. However, once you have secured a job within the sector, it will be highly rewarding, though it also has the potential to be incredibly harrowing.
You will potentially be working with evidence from crime scenes, including possibly those from the most serious crimes such as murder, rape or human trafficking. You will likely attend crime scenes in person to supervise the collection of evidence, and as such you may well see things you find upsetting. The positive element here is that through your work, you will be helping to catch and convict those who have committed criminal acts, protecting the public and helping to deliver justice.
Where can I get a job as a forensic scientist?
In the public sector, the major employers of forensic scientists are police support departments, and the Ministry of Defence, particularly within its Defence Science and Technology Laboratory. You will often find that these employers draw heavily on the expertise of academic forensics experts, so if you are looking for a job or work experience in this sector, it will likely be worth asking your university department if any of their experts have relevant contacts. Most other forensics roles can be found in the private sector, with many such roles in private forensics labs offering their skills to the police.
- Police Detective
- Analytical chemist
- Forensic archaeologist
- Biomedical scientist