A criminalist, also known as a forensic scientist, is a highly trained professional that assists investigators and the criminal justice system prepare investigations, gather and analyze evidence, and convict criminals. Criminalists gather physical evidence at a crime scene, including hair samples, DNA samples obtained through blood, bodily fluids and skin samples, clothing samples, and any other materials that can contribute to analyzing the crime. Crimes take place everywhere, so criminalists will be expected to report to crime scenes in homes, in shops and businesses, abandoned buildings, on the street, in remote rural areas, and more. They will examine sidewalks, vehicles, offices and other places or subjects of interest. Criminalists use many techniques to gather and handle evidence, including photography, taking physical samples, sketching, writing up reports and more. All of this evidence must be expertly and safely handled so that the investigation is not compromised. Criminalists work with medical examiners, police officers, lawyers, and even judges when they testify, analyze evidence and contribute to the case. While criminalists generally enjoy a regular daytime work schedule, they must also work some overtime and be available for on-call shifts that often require them to visit a crime scene at odd hours or on holidays.
Entry-level criminalists can expect to earn between $40,000 and $50,000. This range depends on geographic location and education level, as well as experience. Those working in Los Angeles, for example, a large city where crime is high, can begin earning almost $58,000, while very experienced criminalists can earn over $94,000. Criminalists who have several years of experience can expect to earn more than $50,000. Criminalists and forensic scientists who work full-time for law enforcement organizations will also be eligible for benefits packages, which includes paid vacations and holidays, overtime pay, health insurance and sometimes life insurance.
A bachelor’s degree is required for criminalist positions, but higher education is often preferred and can give applicants a significant edge over competitors for the same position. Employers look for applicants who have taken classes in physical and natural science, like biology and chemistry. A Master’s degree in Criminal Justice or Criminalistics can also be a big help, as this education demonstrates familiarity with the legal and law enforcement system. Master’s degrees also lead to higher salaries and management positions.