A mysterious 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, 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 coursework 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 forensic analyses.
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.
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 management.
The forensic science field is guardedly optimistic about job prospects as there is greater use of DNA analysis, which is creating more jobs. However, popularity in the media is increasing interest in, and therefore competition 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.
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, meticulously 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.
Requirements vary by employer, but forensic science undergraduate and graduate degrees are recommended.