• OPPORTUNITIES — Job outlook is guardedly optimistic.
There’s an increasing application of forensic science
techniques to examine, solve, and prevent crime.
• EDUCATION NEEDED — Requirements vary by
employer, but forensic science undergraduate and
graduate degrees are recommended.
• SALARIES — Median annual wage: $52,840 (Bureau
of Labor Statistics, 2012).
Become a Forensic
Chemist: Be a part
of solving crime!
BY ACS STAFF
Amysterious white powder, a blood smear, and a moldy ham sandwich — completely unrelated items to most. But they could be meaningful for forensic chemists, who analyze physical evidence and samples for clues to solve crimes. Television
shows such as Bones, NCIS, CSI, and Dexter have glamorized
forensic scientists and made the field more popular, so competition can be intense. However, if you have a strong desire to
shape the world of justice by using science to solve crime puzzles, then a career in forensic science could be worth pursuing.
A strong background in chemistry and instrumental analysis and
a good grounding in criminalistics are vital. An undergraduate
degree in forensic science or a natural science is required for work
in crime laboratories, with extensive course work in mathematics, chemistry, and biology. More advanced positions, such as lab
managers and supervisors, might require a master’s degree. A
Ph.D. is often preferred for advancement to positions such as lab
director, but it is required for forensic research positions at academic institutions.
Those interested in working with trace evidence, such as
glass, hairs, and gunshot residue, should focus on instrumentation skills and take courses in geology, soil chemistry, and
materials science. If forensic biology, such as DNA analysis, is
preferred, take microbiology, genetics, and biochemistry courses.
Those interested in the toxicological aspects of this work, such
as obtaining and interpreting toxicology reports, should study
physiology, biochemistry, and chemistry.
About 90% of forensic chemists work in labs associated with a
federal, state, or local police department, medical examiner’s
office, forensic services lab, or branch of the Federal Bureau of
Investigation (FBI). There are a few private labs that carry out
On an average day, forensic chemists apply knowledge from
diverse disciplines such as chemistry, biology, materials science,
and genetics to analyze evidence found at crime scenes or in the
bodies of crime suspects. Forensic chemists often don’t know
the nature of the sample before they analyze it. As a result, they
use criminalistics, the qualitative examination of evidence using
microscopy and spot testing, and analytical toxicology that
looks for evidence in body fluids through a range of instrumen-
tal techniques from optical methods (ultraviolet, infrared, and
X-ray spectroscopy) to separations analyses (gas chromatogra-
phy, high-performance liquid chromatography, and thin-layer
chromatography). Mass spectrometry is also frequently used
since it provides the strongest evidence in court. The results of
their work are used in police investigations and court trials, at
which they may be called upon to provide expert testimony and
explain their findings to a jury.
Is this career a good fit for you?
Versatility and patience are the most often cited qualities of a
forensic chemist. Forensic chemists must be able to spend hours
rigorously applying analytical techniques to evidence, meticu-