Forensic Scientist Jobs and Career
Our television schedules are filled with police series involving crime scene investigators. These dramas usually feature a complete case - or even more - solved per episode, from initial crime scene examination through to successful conviction. The investigators are involved throughout. Is this realistic? We all know that a high degree of artistic licence is involved in these scripts, but nevertheless, interest in this kind of work has soared. In this article, we look at the work of Forensic Investigators in the UK and aim to illustrate the realities of the job and the requirements for gaining such positions.
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What is Involved in the Job?
The UK's Forensic Science Service (FSS) states that "Forensic science can be simply defined as the application of science to the law". This service provides analysis and interpretation of evidence from crime scenes, involving more than 120,000 cases each year. It provides services to the UK's police forces, the Customs services, transport police, the prosecution service and various commercial organisations. Other general forensic scientists work with the police forces themselves, contracting specialist work out to providers such as the FSS.
In the criminal justice system, forensic scientists are involved in providing evidence that can be used in court to prosecute or defend people accused in cases. This evidence, procured from the scenes of crimes, victims, weapons or other objects, is hopefully objective and can be used to prove guilt or innocence beyond doubt in cases varying from murder and rape to burglary. Despite the glamour of the TV shows, this work is lengthy, detailed and time-consuming. Difficult cases can involve up to 18 months of work.
Forensic Scientists are usually civilians. They are among the first to arrive at a crime scene, for they must look for, retrieve, record and investigate evidence. Most of the work comprises photography, fingerprinting, forensic examination and the collection of evidence such as hair, fibres, blood and paint samples, and samples for DNA analysis.
Scientists then use the appropriate methods to collect and preserve the evidence, no matter how difficult the circumstances. They also take photographs at the crime scenes to help in the later identification and conviction of the offenders. They also decide whether assistance from specialists, including forensic scientists, is needed.
Following a visit to a crime scene, the scientists must produce accurate written records and diagrams of where each item of evidence was located and the position in which it was found. They are responsible for maintaining and updating systems with details of recovered evidence. Sometimes, scientists may need to interview victims of crime or to attend court in order to give evidence. They are often required to attend post mortems.
Less specialist, general forensic work is often conducted by civilian technicians employed directly by the police forces. This work may include photography, fingerprinting, vehicle examination and crime scene examination.
Would This Job Suit You?
Hours and Conditions
Most Forensic Scientists work regular office hours. However, given the nature of criminal investigations, they are usually on call at other times of the day or night and have to work regular overnight shifts. Shifts include weekends and public holidays, as calls to crime scenes come in 24 hours per day, seven days per week.
It is only possible to become a Forensic Scientist effectively, if they are physically fit and in good health. This is not only due to the erratic hours, but to the need to access awkward locations to collect evidence. They need to squat, stoop down and kneel for long periods of time. At other times, they need to carry awkward or heavy objects, or climb or stretch to reach and collect evidence. Additionally, their work is frequently conducted both inside and outdoors, no matter what the weather. Therefore conditions can be unpleasant or even dangerous. Locations can be long distances from the workplace too.
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Type of Person Required
Forensic Scientists must be patient and methodical. They have to pay close attention to detail in even the most adverse conditions, taking time and care even when under pressure. As well as being able to interact with law enforcement officers, sometimes resisting demands for faster progress, they need to work sensitively with crime victims, who may be traumatised. These interviewing and listening abilities need to be matched by the ability to present evidence clearly in court before many people.
Qualifications Required For Forensic Science Careers
If you wish to become a Forensic Scientist, you will need to complete academic courses and gain vocational training with a key service provider. The exact academic qualifications depend on the area of forensic science you wish to take up. To become an assistant or technical officer, A-levels will usually be sufficient. If working towards becoming a scientist or researcher who can report on criminal cases, you will need a science degree and, usually, a postgraduate qualification with a forensic focus.
With rising numbers of positions now available, more specialist academic training is emerging. In London, the Metropolitan Police Forensic Service has worked with a local academic institution to set up a general forensic science degree. Students process simulated crime scenes using a dedicated rooms and laboratories. Such courses suit those who wish to work in police forces, rather than at the cutting edge of specialised forensic investigation.
Vocational training is usually undertaken with one of the service suppliers to the police and law enforcement agencies. Training will include casework study and in-house specialist courses.
Some online courses are available. This can be a quicker, easier way to gain a degree or other qualification in a relevant subject area, but do check that the program offered is with a respected organisation. There is no point in taking a course only to find that it is not recognised by the major service providers.
In all instances, you should undertake as much research and reading into the subject area as possible. Competition for forensic science jobs is strong and you need to gain every advantage possible. Appointments are highly influenced by understanding of police investigative procedure as much as formal qualifications - an understanding of search and seizure procedures as well as the scope of the role in the prosecution process is critical to the job. Policy and practice is as important as science. However, if you wish to work purely in the laboratory, this is also possible.
Salaries and Prospects
Starting salaries for trainee and assistant scientists range from around £14,000 to £18,000. The higher the level of your qualifications, the higher up the scale you can enter. Once you have a few years experience in hand, your salary will increase to the £25,000 to £30,000 range. At senior level, salaries exceed £50,000.
In most cases, it takes two to five years to reach the level of reporting in court. However, the FSS is now recruiting for trainee forensic scientists and successful applicants are on a much faster career track. This is because forensic science is growing, particularly with the development of the National DNA Database.
The major employer in England and Wales is the Forensic Science Service. In Scotland, police forces themselves are usually the employers. Regional government makes the appointments in Northern Ireland. There are also a number of private companies providing services in the UK and worldwide.
On the whole, experience drives careers, with promotion based on case background, responsibilities and appraisals. Career development depends on your area of specialisation. The more flexible you can be, and the more mobile, the more likely your career is to open up.
Job Sites for Forensic Scientist Jobs
- Local Police Force websites will advertise vacancies e.g. Careers at the Metropolitan Police
- LGC is the biggest Forensic Science service provider in the UK www.lgcgroup.com/careers/vacancies-at-lgc/uk-vacancies/
- New Scientist Jobs has a large database of vacancies for all types of Science jobs jobs.newscientist.com
- Orchid Cellmark is an international provider of DNA testing for many fields including Forensic Science cellmarkforensics.co.uk