Forensic Scientist

The Job and What's Involved

Forensic scientists examine materials connected with crimes. They assist police enquiries where scientific advice is needed. Their work could include:

  • Identifying blood and other body fluids.
  • Using DNA profiling to compare samples.
  • Identifying and comparing textile fibres, and plant and animal materials.
  • Analysing blood and urine samples to establish their drug or alcohol content.
  • Analysing body fluids and organs in cases of suspected poisoning.
  • Identifying and analysing illegal drugs.
  • Comparing materials used to package drugs.
  • Examining paint and glass fragments.
  • Analysing the cause of a fire by investigating fire debris.

They also work with firearms and explosives and analyse documents to confirm their authenticity.

Forensic scientists work closely with the police and may visit crime scenes to advise on the likely sequence of events and who may have been involved. They may also help in the initial search for evidence.

They use various testing techniques, including spectrophotometry, mass spectrometry, chromatography, microscopy, DNA profiling, metallurgy and photography.

On completion of their investigation, forensic scientists may need to submit their findings in a statement, report or certificate for use in court. Those who have progressed to become reporting officers attend court to give evidence in civil and criminal investigations.

Specialist forensic scientists, many of whom are linked to universities, are contacted for specialist advice.

Assistant forensic scientists (assistant scientific officers in Scotland and Northern Ireland) assist forensic scientists by carrying out some of the analytical work in laboratories.

Forensic scientists usually work 35 to 37 hours a week, Monday to Friday. They may work shifts and have an on-call rota. There may be opportunities for part-time work, flexible hours and job share.

Forensic scientists work mainly in clean laboratories. They may travel to crime scenes, which can be indoors or outdoors in all weathers. They may have to bend or crouch to examine evidence. Their work could involve spending time away from home.

The starting salary for an assistant forensic scientist is around £12,900 a year. Salaries in London are usually higher.

Getting Started with this Career Choice

The Forensic Science Service (FSS) provides a national service to the 43 police services in England and Wales, and to other organisations. It employs over 1,400 forensic scientists and assistant forensic scientists based in seven laboratories in Birmingham (two), Chepstow, Chorley, Huntingdon, London and Wetherby.

Forensic scientists in Scotland are mainly employed by the police. There are around 175 forensic scientists and assistant scientific officers employed in four laboratories in Glasgow, Edinburgh, Aberdeen and Dundee. The Forensic Service in Northern Ireland is part of the Civil Service and employs about 100 people in these jobs.

There are a number of independent forensic laboratories that cover all types of forensic examination. They employ around 1,000 forensic staff. Some forensic scientists are self employed.

Although the number of forensic scientists has grown consistently in the last few years, entry remains very competitive. Vacancies are advertised in regional and national newspapers and in New Scientist magazine.

Education and Training

Assistant forensic scientists in England and Wales need at least one A level/two H grades in science subjects (preferably biology and/or chemistry) and four GCSE's/S grades (A-C/1-3), including English and either chemistry, biology or maths. In Scotland, applicants usually need a higher national award in chemistry or biology or the equivalent. In Northern Ireland, entry is usually four GCSE's (A-C), including maths and a science subject, although higher level qualifications are an advantage.

As the competition for direct entry as a forensic scientist is very keen, most assistant forensic scientists have a degree or postgraduate qualification.

Direct entry as a forensic scientist requires a good honours degree (at least a 2:2) in a mathematical or scientific subject (including forensic science), an appropriate technology subject or an equivalent professional qualification. There are many more forensic degree course places than forensic job vacancies. It is an advantage to have relevant laboratory experience or a postgraduate qualification in a subject such as biology, chemistry or forensic science.

The minimum entry to a degree course is two A levels/three H grades, including science subjects, and three GCSE's/two S grades (A-C/1-3) including maths and English. Many courses require more than the minimum. Alternative qualifications may be accepted, including a Scottish Group Award (SGA), BTEC/SQA national or higher national award and the International Baccalaureate.

Postgraduate courses usually require a relevant first degree.

A driving licence may be an advantage and good colour vision is important for certain work.

A Few More Exams You Might Need

First degrees in biology, chemistry, forensic and other relevant sciences are available at many institutions. Courses are usually full time for three or four years.

There are also many relevant postgraduate qualifications. Full-time courses usually last one year; part-time courses vary in length.

On appointment, training combines specialist in-house courses with practical coursework. Subjects can include fire investigation, courtroom skills, statement writing, interpretation skills and executive reporting. They may also attend expert witness courses.

Continuing Professional Development (CPD) is important.

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Skills and Personal Qualities Needed

A forensic scientist should:

  • Have excellent scientific ability.
  • Be a good communicator, both verbally and in writing.
  • Be able to explain complex scientific information.
  • Be skilled in using statistics to interpret evidence.
  • Be good at problem solving.
  • Be logical, methodical and attentive to detail.
  • Be practical.
  • Be able to produce detailed, accurate reports.
  • Be able to work independently and as part of a team.
  • Have an enquiring mind.
  • Be self-confident.
  • Be committed to updating knowledge and learning new techniques.

Your Long Term Prospects

Assistant forensic scientists with science-related degrees, preferably in biology or chemistry, may become forensic scientists. Forensic scientists in the FSS can become reporting officers and progress into management. Apart from the FSS, most employers in England and Wales are small with limited promotion opportunities.

In Scotland, a forensic scientist can be promoted to section leader, then to deputy head of forensic services and then to head of forensic services or principal scientist.

Some forensic scientists move into education as university lecturers or trainers. Others become self-employed forensic consultants.

There may be opportunities to work abroad.

Get Further Information

Forensic Science Northern Ireland,
151 Belfast Road, Carrickfergus,
Northern Ireland BT38 8PL
Tel: 028 9036 1888

The Forensic Science Society,
18A Mount Parade, Harrogate HG1 1BX
Tel: 01423 506068

Skills for Justice,
9 Riverside Court, Don Road, Sheffield S9 2TJ
Tel: 0114 261 1499

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