Can you major in crime scene investigations to become a CSI like the ones you see on TV? The answer is complex. Generally, you won’t find degrees like a Bachelor of Science in Crime Scene Investigation. You can, however, find specialized undergraduate degree programs that can prepare you to work as a CSI in two relevant fields: criminal justice and forensic science. It’s important that aspiring CSIs understand what to expect from their educational and career path options so that they can choose the degree that best meets their needs and goals.
What to Expect From a Crime Scene Investigation Degree Program
When you begin researching degree options for a CSI career, you can absolutely find schools promoting their crime scene investigation degrees. In most cases, bachelor’s degree programs that incorporate crime scene investigation into the program title are actually criminal justice programs with a concentration in this area, not separate majors, according to U.S. News & World Report.
This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. In a career in which you analyze crime scene evidence to aid detectives in the solving of crimes, a thorough understanding of the criminal justice system is essential. Learning about the different roles and the scope of responsibility of each role can help you understand your function – which, due to the portrayals of CSIs on television crime dramas, is often misunderstood – within this system. Studying the criminal justice process also helps you understand the reasons why it is so important to follow protocols in acquiring, preserving and analyzing evidence to make sure it meets the standards needed for use in a criminal trial.
When you pursue a criminal justice degree with a concentration in crime scene investigation, your coursework will include both generalist studies in criminal justice and specialized studies in forensic analysis. You may devote some of your studies to classes in digital evidence, crime scene photography, blood pattern analysis, fingerprint identification and ballistics and firearm identification. You will also study topics like constitutional law and procedure, research in criminal justice, terrorism, domestic violence and crisis intervention.
A criminal justice degree is versatile enough to prepare you for jobs such as police officer, police detective, private investigator and many other careers besides CSI.
The Curriculum of a Forensic Science Program
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The official name for the occupation that includes job titles like crime scene investigator, crime laboratory analyst, forensic specialist, evidence technician and latent fingerprint examiner is forensic science technician. To better reflect the more realistic job duties and background knowledge needed for these roles, many schools offer bachelor’s degree programs under the title of forensic science.
Degree programs in forensic science may actually allow for more specialization than a program in crime scene investigation. Your program may emphasize one area of forensic analysis, such as DNA or toxicology, according to the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). Your coursework in an undergraduate forensic science program may include studies in analytical toxicology, forensic pharmacology, forensic DNA analysis, criminalistics, bloodstain pattern analysis, trace evidence analysis, fingerprint evidence and forensic photography.
Forensic science degree programs are based in the natural sciences and often include considerably more coursework in biology, chemistry, calculus and other mathematics and sciences than criminal justice programs.
Forensic Science Degrees Versus Crime Scene Investigation Degrees
Which degree option you should choose depends on what area of crime scene investigation most appeals to you. Despite what you see on television, most CSIs aren’t involved in every aspect of solving a crime, at least not to the same extent as they are in crime dramas. In cities where there is a separate crime scene investigation unit, you would likely work in the field, gathering evidence, or in the lab, analyzing it – but not both. You may have a broader scope of job responsibilities in smaller cities and towns where there is no dedicated CSI unit, but that means that you are a sworn police officer and must fulfill all of those job duties, too. The time – and often, the equipment and other resources – you have available to spend on analyzing crime scene evidence is very limited.
If you want to serve as a sworn police officer and are primarily interested in the field work of collecting and preserving evidence directly from a crime scene, the criminal justice educational path is probably your best option. If you would rather work in the lab as a civilian and perhaps specialize in an area like latent fingerprint analysis, firearm ballistics or DNA analysis, a degree in forensic science is a better option because it provides the science foundation you need for laboratory work.
The degree options for aspiring CSIs aren’t limited to criminal justice and forensic science, although these degrees are valuable in the field. You could also earn a degree in computer science, biology or another natural science to prepare for this career path.