TECHNICAL SKILLS REQUIRED
• Excellent experimental technique and a strong back-
ground in instrumentation and quantitative/qualita-
tive analysis are the main technical skills used in this
• Being detail-oriented is crucial for a forensic scientist,
since the slightest detail can make a huge difference in
the interpretation of a sample.
• Critical thinking skills and problem solving skills are
required to interpret the results of chemical tests and
help determine exactly what happened at the crime
• Forensic scientists often have to explain their findings
to other law enforcement officers or provide expert
testimony in a court of law, so excellent oral communi-
cation skills—even under duress—are required.
• Written communication skills are required for prepara-
tion of detailed reports that will stand up to intense
scrutiny by both sides of the law.
lously documenting each step and then defending their work in
a court of law. They must also be able to clearly and concisely
respond to challenges to their findings. Integrity is an important
characteristic because it is not unusual for the different parties
in a case to try to influence the forensic chemist’s findings. Since
they often work with body parts and at crime scenes, an ability to
remain unemotional and unaffected is crucial.
Forensic science technicians receive 6 to 12 months of on-the-job
training to learn DNA analysis and receive up to 3 years of training for firearms analysis. In some cases, they must pass a proficiency test before being allowed to handle cases on their own.
Throughout their career, they must stay up-to-date on advances
in both collection and analysis of evidence.
Most forensic chemists spend their career working at a federal, state, or county lab associated with the medical examiner’s
office. However, there are different types of careers available,
including those in other fields of forensic science, academia, or
administration. Chemists can also move up within an organization to a position as the director of a crime lab supervising other
forensic scientists rather than being involved in day-to-day analysis. A director is also responsible for case review and general lab
Future employment trends
The forensic science field is guardedly optimistic about job pros-
pects as there is greater use of DNA analysis, which is creating
more jobs. However, popularity in the media is increasing interest
in, and therefore competi-
tion for, forensic science
careers. Since new forensic
labs are rarely created,
openings in existing labs
caused by promotion or
retirement are the main source of positions
for new scientists. Increasing pressure on governmental budgets
also works to decrease the number of available openings.
A variety of duties
Although government crime labs tend to be structured and very
professional environments, forensic chemists’ days vary. The
majority of the time you’re in your lab, but you could go testify
in court or assist a Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) agent in the
field. Forensic chemists are sometimes called to investigate clandestine labs — concealed labs that were manufacturing meth-amphetamines, ecstasy, or other drugs.
Preparing for a career as a forensic chemist has specific educational requirements. Although some forensic chemists at the
DEA have upper-level chemistry training, the minimum requirement is a bachelor’s degree. Many institutions offer B.S. and
advanced degrees in forensic science. Biological chemistry and
forensic science training can help as well. Besides the academic
requirements, government forensic chemists must undergo a
full background check and security clearance, as the specifics of a
forensic chemist’s work are confidential. All candidates, including
candidates for internships, are screened for any criminal record
or history of drug use. A strong chemistry background and a clear
background check aren’t the only preparation you need for a
career in forensic chemistry. Particularly true at the DEA, forensic
chemistry is a field that includes extensive on-the-job training.
As with all careers, some experience certainly helps. Exposure is
the main key, so begin to find ways to get some forensic laboratory experience. The DEA has a Student Career Experience
Program designed to let students get an “up close and personal”
view of life in a crime lab. Each of the DEA’s nine labs has at least
one such position. The labs generally develop relationships with
local universities that suggest student candidates.
There are also opportunities on local levels. City and state
governments run crime labs, and many offer opportunities to
shadow local law enforcement officers. Some internships won’t
be advertised but are still available to interested students who
seek them out. If you aren’t able to set up any formal experiential
learning programs, you could try to contact a forensic chemist
and set up an informational interview to discuss his or her job.
Lisa M. Balbes of Balbes Consultants LLC contributed to this