What is Forensic Chemistry?
Apply scientific disciplines to physical evidence
A forensic chemist is a professional chemist who analyzes evidence that is brought in from crime scenes and reaches a conclusion based on tests run on that piece of evidence. A forensic chemist’s job is to identify and characterize the evidence as part of the larger process of solving a crime. Forensic chemists rarely conduct any investigative work; they handle the evidence collected from the crime scene. Evidence may include hair samples, paint chips, glass fragments, or bloodstains. Understanding the evidence requires tools from many disciplines, including chemistry, biology, materials science, and genetics. The prevalence of DNA analysis is making knowledge of genetics increasingly important in this field.
Explain and Defend results
Public speaking skills and scientific competence are important characteristics for this career. As seen on Court TV, forensic chemists are often called upon to explain what was found and how they arrived at their conclusions. Giving expert testimony in court is a significant piece of a forensic chemist’s job. Some employers require forensic chemists to go through several months of mock courtroom testimony training. Forensic chemists must be able to give an impartial explanation to the jury that will assist in a final judgment—forensic chemists analyze the evidence but do not determine the verdict.
Have various opportunities
The career path for most forensic chemist is through federal, state, or county labs, associated with the medical examiner’s office. However, there are different types of careers available, including those in other fields of forensic science, academe, or administration. Chemists can also move up within a particular organization, changing responsibilities along the way. For example, the director of a crime lab may supervise other forensic scientists rather than being involved in day-to-day analysis. A director may also be responsible for case review and general lab management. Some forensic chemists also use their technical training to pursue a career in patent law.
LIFE OF A FORENSIC CHEMIST
Forensic chemists generally work in government labs, where they spend time analyzing evidence, assessing data, and giving testimony in court. Over the last 15 years, the field has opened up to women, who are moving up in the ranks.
Places of Employment
Most labs are associated with federal, state or local police department, medial examiner’s office, forensic services lab, or branch of the Federal Bureau of Investigation. There are some private labs that carry out forensic analysis as well.
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 and defending their work in a court of law. They must be able to clearly and concisely answer challenges to their findings. Integrity is also an important characteristic, because often the different interests in a case try to sway the forensic chemist’s position.
Education and training
A strong background in chemistry and instrumental analysis as well as a good grounding in criminalistics is vital. A forensic science degree at both the undergraduate and graduate level is recommended. Those interested in working with trace evidence, such as glass, hair, and paper, should focus on instrumentation skills and take courses in geology, soil chemistry, and materials science. If forensic biology and DNA analysis are preferred, take microbiology, genetics, and biochemistry courses. Those interested in the toxicology aspects of this work should study physiology, biochemistry, and chemistry.
The forensic chemistry field is guardedly optimistic about job prospects for the future. Greater interest in the use of DNA analysis is expected to create jobs. Those interested in DNA work should keep up with the rapidly changing technology and develop skills that distinguish them from the pack.
For forensic chemist with a B.S. degree, the median salary is $50,000. Chemists at the high end are paid more than $60,000 per year. Scientists involved with fingerprint analysis are on the lower end of the pay scale.
From Spring 2006-Spring 2015, the FEPAC accredited B.S. Forensic Chemistry degree was awarded to 98 graduates. Eighty-two percent of responding graduates reported employment in a forensics laboratory, graduate school, or scientifically related field.