For many, crime scene investigator – known widely by the abbreviation “CSI” – is a dream job. If you want to make your career aspirations a reality, you may already be contemplating the pros and cons of generalist and specialist roles in the field of forensic science, which encompasses the work of investigating and analyzing crime scene evidence both in the field and in the lab. As you consider which option is best for you, it is a good idea to learn more about the different job duties generalists and specialists perform and the process of becoming a specialist.

Specialist and Generalist Job Duties

CSI general or specialist

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Although aspiring CSIs may hope for a simple answer as to whether a generalist or specialist forensic career is better, there isn’t a concrete answer. Both generalists and specialists are crucial in the field of forensics because they customarily perform different tasks.

As a generalist, your scope of work will be broader. Generalists are often the ones working in the field to gather evidence from the scene of a crime – the professionals you are most likely to imagine when you think of CSIs. When they do laboratory work, they are taking a broad view of the evidence at hand and who to glean the most information from it. Part of their job duties may be to identify what specialists to bring in to further analyze the evidence.

Specialists perform much of their work in the lab rather than in the field. The more highly specialized your skill set, the smaller your focus will be. A generalist CSI may decide that it’s time to bring in a digital forensics specialist, but within that area of specialty are practitioners with broad skills in computer forensics and those with expertise in a narrow area such as malware or reverse engineering. Similarly, if trace materials are found at the scene, the generalist may recommend having the evidence reviewed by a specialist in trace evidence – but the different subspecialties within this area are as specific as fire debris, paints and polymers and hair and fiber analysis.

The precise nature of your specialization affects what your daily job duties look like. A bloodstain pattern analyst may spend hours interpreting what a pattern means. A firearms ballistics specialist may test-fire guns to determine whether the markings on test bullets match those on bullets recovered from a crime scene, The Houston Chronicle reported.

Most laboratory forensic science practitioners develop specialized expertise in one type of evidence, the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reported.

How to Become Specialized

As an aspiring CSI, you can begin choosing whether a generalist or specialist role will be in your future based on the curriculum of your studies. Some CSI degree programs are proudly generalist, exposing students to a breadth of evidence topics and analytical methods. At other schools, you may have the option of completing a formal concentration in an area of interest or of informally focusing on the topic through strategic selection of your elective courses. For certain in-demand specialties, like digital forensics, you should choose one of the many specialized digital forensics degree programs out there.

You can also specialize through training acquired on the job or through internships or apprenticeship programs. Some of the different types of forensic specializations you can consider include fingerprinting, firearms identification, toxicology, document examination and many others.

Seeking voluntary professional certification in your area of specialization is one way to illustrate your expertise to prospective employers. Certifications are available in many categories and subdisciplines, the  National Commission on Forensic Science reported.

Comparing the Good and Bad of Generalist and Specialist Work

There are pros and cons to both types of CSI careers, generalist and specialist. On one hand, generalists have a much more versatile set of skills that could allow them to work in a greater variety of roles. They do the work of investigating the actual crime scene for evidence, or what some may consider the “real,” or more exciting, CSI work. Often, they come from different backgrounds, such as experience as a police officer, which can mean breaking into the field without having to meet the same educational requirements expected of civilian forensic science practitioners.

On the other hand, forensic specialists get to focus on the type of analysis they most enjoy doing, which may mean developing a greater depth of knowledge in an area of interest and experiencing greater job satisfaction. You don’t have to start out your forensic science career with a generalist background. However, as specialist CSI job candidates are becoming more common, specializing – even in a highly sought-after area of expertise – doesn’t necessarily mean your job prospects will be better.

Due to budget constraints, most forensic laboratories can’t hire experts in every single type of evidence. As a result, even specialists sometimes end up cross-training to learn to perform aspects of other crucial forensic job duties.

Additional Resources

Is There a Certification Required to Work in Forensics?

Are There Actual Bachelor’s Degrees in Crime Scene Investigations?

Do I Need a Ph.D. to Become a CSI?

How Do I Become a Forensic Firearms & Ballistics Expert?