Forensic Chemistry

Competition for work in this field 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.

Typical Job Functions

Forensic chemists analyze physical evidence and samples for clues to solve crimes. Versatility and patience are key qualities for this job. Forensic chemists spend hours rigorously applying analytical techniques to evidence and meticulously documenting each step. They must also be able to clearly and concisely respond to challenges to their findings, even in a court of law.

Integrity is an important characteristic for a forensic chemist, 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.

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 instrumental techniques from optical methods (UV, infrared, and X-ray spectroscopy) to separations analyses (gas chromatography, HPLC, 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.

Required on-the-job skills include:

  • Excellent experimental technique; strong background in instrumentation and quantitative/qualitative analysis
  • Attention to detail
  • Critical thinking and problem solving
  • Excellent oral communication skills, even under duress (e.g., giving expert testimony)
  • Written communication skills to prepare reports that will stand up to intense scrutiny

Career Paths

Most 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 forensic analyses. Over time, a forensic chemist could move up within an organization to become the director of a crime lab.

On-the-job training for forensic science technicians typically includes:

  • Six to 12 months to learn DNA analysis
  • Up to three years for firearms analysis

Forensic chemists may be required to 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.

Non-laboratory forensics positions can be found in the fields of forensic science, academia, or administration.

Getting Started

Competition for jobs in forensics is stiff. Jobs for new scientists typically only come available when someone is promoted or retires. Competitive candidates will have a strong background in chemistry and instrumental analysis and a good grounding in criminalistics are vital. 

Education requirements include:

  • For work in crime laboratories, an undergraduate degree in forensic science or a natural science, with extensive coursework in mathematics, chemistry, and biology.
  • For intermediate positions (e.g., lab managers and supervisors), a master’s degree may be required.
  • For advanced positions (e.g., lab director), a Ph.D. is preferred.
  • For forensic research positions at academic institutions a Ph.D. is required.

Those interested in working with trace evidence (e.g., glass, hairs, gunshot residue) should focus on instrumentation skills and take courses in geology, soil chemistry, and materials science.

If forensic biology (e.g., DNA analysis) is your preference, take microbiology, genetics, and biochemistry courses.

Those interested in the toxicological aspects of this work (e.g., obtaining and interpreting toxicology reports) should study physiology, biochemistry, and chemistry.

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