It takes a good deal of specialized knowledge to master tasks like identifying a firearm from the trajectory of bullets or reconstructing the events of a murder from bloodstain patterns. If you aspire to work as a crime scene investigator, or CSI, then you may think that you need a highly advanced degree to get started in the field. Generally, a doctoral degree like the Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.) is not required for work as a CSI, crime laboratory analyst or other type of forensic science technician. Graduate school in the field can help CSIs in certain situations achieve their career advancement goals, but even in those circumstances, research-heavy Ph.D. programs in the field are few and far between.
Education Requirements for a CSI
In many areas of science, an advanced degree is required for most professional roles. That’s not the case for forensic science technicians. A bachelor’s degree in a discipline like forensic science or a natural science is preferred for this career path, according to the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS).
Why are forensic science technicians less likely to need a graduate or doctoral degree than other types of scientists? The field of forensic science draws on the principles and practices of the natural sciences, like chemistry and biology, yet careers in biochemistry typically require a doctorate, the BLS reported. Although CSIs use much of the same knowledge as research scientists in the fields of biology and chemistry, they usually focus on the practical application of these scientific protocols to analyze evidence found on crime scenes rather than on research to expand the knowledge of the field.
There are different paths to a CSI career. If you enter the occupation as an experienced police officer rather than a civilian scientist, you are more likely to be among the forensic science technicians who have only an associate’s degree or no formal college degree.
Going to Graduate School for a CSI Career
Generally, there are two reasons why you might pursue a graduate degree. If you earned a bachelor’s degree in another field in preparation for a law enforcement career, you may need to brush up on your knowledge of the natural sciences and of forensic science practices. You might also be an established CSI seeking opportunities for career advancement. Which situation best describes your career path will affect the nature of the graduate CSI programs available to you. Usually, however, the master’s degree, rather than a doctorate, is the graduate program of choice for CSIs.
If you’re new to the field of forensic science, you may have to brush up on the basics of the natural sciences or opt for a master’s degree option that focuses on criminal investigation instead of laboratory analysis. Your coursework may be more general in nature, featuring advanced studies in criminalistics, law and criminal procedure, forensic psychology and major case investigation. Ideally, these classes and other core coursework in forensics and investigation will build on the skills you have gained through your law enforcement work experience.
If you began your CSI career with a bachelor’s degree and are looking to move up, the time may be right to go back to school. Some CSIs pursue a graduate degree to gain the expertise needed to qualify them for a more specialized position, like forensic DNA scientist or toxicologist. Others seek to climb up the ladder into a forensic consulting or managerial role.
Becoming a manager can greatly impact your earning potential. The BLS reported a median wage of $58,230 for forensic science technicians, but managers of forensic laboratories – like other types of natural science managers – can earn six-figure salaries.
The Curriculum of a Ph.D. Program in Forensic Science
If you elect to move forward with a Ph.D. program in forensic science, you should know that these programs usually have a research-focused curriculum. Often, the intention is to prepare students for roles in academia or in research, rather than in the professional practice of crime scene investigation and evidence analysis. Expect to take upper-level classes in chemistry, biology, statistics, laboratory management, DNA and trace evidence, but also to devote much of your time – measuring in years – to the development of an original research dissertation that addresses problems in the forensic science discipline.
Most Ph.D. programs that exist in fields like forensic science are actually concentrations within general doctoral-level programs in chemistry, biology or pharmacology – not doctoral programs dedicated to the practice of crime scene investigation.