If you've ever watched a crime TV show, you've probably seen Hollywood's version of a crime scene investigator. CSIs are portrayed as having almost science-fiction-like equipment that can perform near miracles, even taking a blurry picture and zooming in to capture a crisp closeup that solves a case. Actual crime scene investigators, also called forensic technicians, don't have jobs quite that glamorous. But they do use science and investigative techniques to examine crime scenes, test findings in a lab and help catch criminals. Their job might not be performed as quickly and easily as portrayed on television, but the work can be quite fascinating.
There isn't one set way to become a crime scene investigator. In fact, the education and experience requirements can vary depending on the police department or law enforcement agency. Some CSIs attended police academies and became uniformed officers first. Others worked as civilian investigators and came to the job straight from college or after working in a lab in another field. In general, most crime scene investigators do have a bachelor's degree, often in forensic science with a heavy emphasis on math, chemistry and biology; or, they have a natural sciences degree such as biology or chemistry. Most investigators are trained on the job, starting out as apprentices. For example, some will receive DNA analysis training that can last six to 12 months.
You'll need a number of personal qualifications to be a good CSI. For example, you shouldn't be squeamish or become nervous or sick at the sight of blood. A forensic technician's job may involve visiting gruesome crime scenes. You need to be detail oriented, since analyzing evidence requires patience and intricate lab work. You need to be a good problem solver and a critical thinker so you can connect the dots and understand what your analysis means. Writing skills are also important, as you'll need to prepare reports on your findings.
As a CSI, you will have a number of required duties to perform on the job. You may be required to work at all different hours of the day or night, since crimes can occur any time, anywhere. You'll be required to visit crime scenes, take photos and make sketches. You will need to be able to gather evidence and preserve it so that it is admissible in court. You'll also need to work long hours in a laboratory, analyzing evidence and running a number of chemical and physical analyses. You may also be called upon to reconstruct crime scenes or consult with experts in specialties such as toxicology.
Salary and Job Outlook
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, forensic technicians made an average yearly salary of $55,730 in 2012. The highest paid investigators worked for the federal executive branch, making an average of $94,800 a year. In 2010, the Bureau of Labor Statistics predicted that forensic technicians would see employment rates grow by 19 percent between 2010 and 2020. This is about equal to the average of all occupations in the United States. Because forensic science is a popular field, competition for jobs will also be intense.
- U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics: Occupational Outlook Handbook: Forensic Science Technicians
- U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics: Occupational Employment Statistics: Occupational Employment and Wages, May 2012: Forensic Science Technicians
- International Crime Scene Investigators Association: How to Become a CSI
With features published by media such as Business Week and Fox News, Stephanie Dube Dwilson is an accomplished writer with a law degree and a master's in science and technology journalism. She has written for law firms, public relations and marketing agencies, science and technology websites, and business magazines.