You’ve seen the fictional depictions of crime scene investigators (CSIs) on television. In fact, these shows may have been your first introduction to the world of forensic science and, very possibly, what motivated you to consider a career in the field. As you weigh your options for choosing a college major and moving forward with this career ambition, you should consider how a real-life career as a crime scene investigator differs from television portrayals – and whether you will be happy in the occupation. Aspiring forensic science technicians should know that the daily job duties of a CSI are less glamorous, exciting and extensive than your favorite TV show would have you believe.

CSI like TV

IMAGE SOURCE: Pixabay, public domain

Less Fast-Paced and Glamorous Than on the Small Screen

It may come as no surprise that CSIs in crime dramas are, well, dramatized. Every day doesn’t bring a major breakthrough that allows you to catch a killer. Although a forensic science finding that leads to a breakthrough in a case is exciting, you should expect to spend more time on paperwork – the written reports of your findings that, the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reported, helps detectives and lawyers prosecute suspects who are charged with a crime – than the TV version of CSIs would have you believe.

In reality, the meticulous work of analyzing crime scene evidence is often a slow process. While television crime scene investigators immediately notice a crucial detail that leads them to the killer, real crime scenes are much more complex and much harder to interpret than the ones staged for TV purposes. Finding potential clues requires a great deal more observational prowess, and details that may seem like evidence at first may later turn out to be irrelevant to the crime. Once you painstakingly go over the scene to gather and preserve evidence, it takes time – much more time than television shows would suggest – to run the tests needed to analyze it.

On television, CSIs often arrive on crime scenes looking exceptionally stylish and put-together – because, of course, they have professional wardrobe and makeup experts preparing them for an onscreen appearance. In the real work environment of CSIs, or at least those who work in the field rather than the lab, the job is a lot messier. Crime scenes are dirty and, often, exposed to the elements. That means kneeling in the dirt and in puddles to pick up evidence or standing in frigid or scorching temperatures as you document the scene with photos and notes. When you’re shivering, trying not to drip sweat over crime scene evidence or cleaning the mud off of your high heels, you’ll likely feel that the job isn’t as glamorous as TV made it seem.

Due to limited funding, staffing and time, most law enforcement agencies don’t have the bandwidth to thoroughly investigate every single crime scene – so a CSI may not be involved in a case in which the consequences were less serious than murder or assault.

More Separated Job duties

On TV, the crime scene investigators do it all. They arrive on the scene to collect evidence, analyze that evidence in the lab, interview persons of interest, question suspects and much more. In reality, the scope of a CSI’s job duties is much smaller, and other professionals in the criminal justice field – often, in completely distinct classifications – take on the rest of these job duties. Although you may ultimately find out the outcome of a case, you won’t be involved in the start-to-finish outcome as portrayed on television. That’s partly by design. Forensic scientists aren’t, strictly speaking, law enforcement personnel, but rather neutral parties whose job isn’t to solve the crime but rather to tell detectives what the evidence says based on science. Chasing down leads, following hunches and floating theories aren’t part of the job description.

Just as detectives aren’t CSIs, there is a division of job duties even within the area of crime scene analysis. The analysts who arrive on the scene of a crime and collect evidence for processing usually have experience serving as a police officer. Although they bring preserved evidence to the lab for processing, they aren’t the personnel responsible for analyzing the evidence. These forensic science technicians, who often have some degree of expertise in an area of specialization like fingerprints or ballistics, have a background in science. Some departments use differing job titles, like Crime Scene Technician and Crime Laboratory Analyst, to distinguish between these two roles.

Officially, CSI isn’t even the job title used in real-life career paths in crime scene investigation. The career has historically been known as Crime Scene Analyst, or CSA.

Additional Resources

I Am Very Squeamish Around Blood. Should I Not Be a CSI?

How Safe Is It to Be a Crime Scene Investigator?

If I Want to Become a CSI, Is It Better to Have Great General Knowledge or Be an Expert in a Particular Area?