Maybe you’ve been binging on 15 seasons of CSI: Crime Scene Investigation during the pandemic. Or you’ve come across one of the TV series’ four spin-offs — representing crime scene investigators in Miami, New York, cyberworld, and, more recently, Las Vegas.

Or, perhaps, you’re hooked on the TV series Cold Case, Dexter, Without a Trace or the real-life criminal investigations that are flooding our news feeds every single day.

Whatever the reason, you’ve decided you want a job in the field of crime scene investigation (CSI). It’s certainly not a bad career decision, depending upon the specific field you pursue.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), which lumps crime scene investigators into one of two categories — forensic science technician or criminal investigators, the job prospects for the first category is expected to grow by 14 percent over a 10-year-period, while the job demand for criminal investigators will grow by 5 to 8 percent during that time.

While CSI salaries aren’t specifically categorized by the BLS, the average annual salary for a forensic science technician in 2020 was $64,890, with the salary ranging from a low of $36,630 to a high of more than $100,000.

Crime scene investigation also is a highly engaging career, demanding collaboration with law enforcement officials, medical examiners, coroners, judges, attorneys and others involved in the justice system. And it also can have significant job satisfaction when solving cases that bring closure to the families of victims.

Yet, you may want to think long and hard before taking on a job as a crime scene investigator (CSI) — especially considering that you will be working in potentially grisly environments, including blood-spattered rooms with bloody or decomposing bodies of victims.

If you still find the field of crime scene investigation appealing, consider what it takes to get certified, hired, and consequently, become experienced as part of your new job.

 

The responsibilities of a crime scene investigator

While researching crime scene investigation as a career, it’s critical to get an understanding of the various positions. For starters, crime scene investigators and forensic science technicians, which are sometimes used interchangeably, are not the same—especially in one critical area. 

Crime scene investigators, who may work for a police department or as civilians, are primarily responsible for gathering evidence at the scene of the crime, while forensic scientists typically work solely in a lab. Other related positions include criminalists, forensic investigators, criminalistic officers, and evidence technicians.

Capturing every aspect of the crime scene will be critical for the crime scene investigator. They may collect guns, knives or other murder weapons, body fluids, hair, fingerprints, tire tracks, fibers, trace chemicals and glass fragments as evidence. These specialists may carefully bag and tag the evidence as well as take photographs to document the scene. They also may take notes about to fill any gaps, including where the evidence was found in relation to the crime scene.

Here’s a simplified rundown of a few of the typical steps in a crime scene investigation, which can vary significantly, depending upon whether the team is investigating a burglary, a rape, a murder or other crime.

 

How to determine the scope of the crime scene

The investigator will start by focusing on the main area of the crime and then extending out to determine how much of the area needs to be included for gathering evidence. This area could extend well outside of a building of a crime scene, for example, if the suspected perpetrator climbed through a window and ran through a nearby park to escape.

  • Secure the area. It is critical to secure the area to ensure that evidence isn’t contaminated. Those working in crime investigation are intimately familiar with the Locard’s Exchange Principle, which states that any contact between two items will lead to an exchange of microscopic material (including fibers, hair, bodily fluid, soil, etc.), which can then be examined by forensic science to identify a criminal. Because of advanced technology in this area, a crime scene can be easily contaminated by the very people who are investigating the crime. Their own DNA — skin cells, saliva or hair — can get intermixed with that of the perpetrator. 
  • Establish the type of crime. While it may not be conclusive, an investigator may also determine what type of crime occurred to gain an ideal strategy  to gather the evidence needed for further forensic analysis. For example, it may be important to establish that an apparent suicide is not, in fact, a murder scene.
  • Gather and document evidence. After interviewing witnesses or persons of interest, observing the area, time of day, condition of the room, or any other preliminary steps needed to establish an understanding of the crime scene, the crime scene investigator will start gathering evidence. 
  • Preserve and transport evidence. The process of preserving and transporting the evidence ensures that it is intact when it is delivered to the forensic science technician or another investigating agency for analysis.

 

Personality and career requirements for crime scene investigators

Do you have what it takes to handle the responsibilities of a crime scene investigator? According to  the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), you should possess these character traits as a solid foundation for this career:

Strong communication skills. Responsibilities for those working in the field include writing reports and testifying in court, as well as working with other law enforcement officials and specialists.

Composure: Because of the sometimes gruesome nature of crime scenes, these professionals must also be able to maintain their composure even in the most disturbing circumstances so they can perform their job responsibilities.

Critical-thinking skills. As part of their day-to-day responsibilities, crime scene and forensic science technicians must use their best judgment when linking physical evidence, such as fingerprints and DNA, to criminal suspects.

Detail-oriented. They must be capable of detecting even the tiniest fragments and changes in environments while collecting and analyzing evidence.

Strong math/science skills. A solid understanding of statistics and natural sciences will help a technician excel in analyzing evidence.

Problem-solving skills. Scientific tests and other similar methods will enable a technician to effectively help law enforcement officials solve crimes.

While many CSI’s learn through on-the-job training, your job prospects can be enhanced through internships, courses, certifications, and advanced training, specifically bachelor’s degrees in natural science fields, including biology and chemistry.

The most basic requirements of becoming a CSI in the United States include being 18 years old, having a driver’s license, possessing a high school diploma, and having proof of U.S. citizenship, especially if you’re pursuing a position at a police department. You also should not have a criminal record.

Usually, you can take two avenues to get on the path toward a CSI career — by enrolling in a law enforcement academy or pursuing a two-year or four-year college degree in majors like biology, chemistry, criminal justice, computer science, or forensic science, and then gaining specialized experience in the field from senior employees, as you would in other careers. 

While most institutions offer majors like biology, chemistry and other natural sciences, numerous colleges specialize in criminal investigation courses and majors. Some universities worth exploring include:

Undergraduate certifications also can be earned at various institutions. These can include certifications related to forensic report writing, bloodstain pattern analysis, crime scene management, crime scene photography, forensic entomology, rules of evidence and more.

For criminal scene investigators who are seeking to advance their careers even further, they can pursue graduate degrees in CSI at various institutions, including 

 

Internships, professional certifications and on-the-job experience for crime scene investigators

While most states do not require legal licensing to work as a crime scene investigator, you will need to undergo some type of training or professional certification  to expand your skills, job prospects and future promotions. 

Most CSI jobs will demand that you learn while in the field with a more senior employee before you take on a case independently.

In addition to classroom studies, aspiring crime scene investigators can gain additional experience through internships. Many law enforcement agencies, including police stations, offer internships to college students. For example, CSI Academy of Florida offers an unpaid internship that allows students to work alongside CSI professionals as an opportunity to gain first-hand experience in the field. The Illinois State Police offers a similar unpaid internship to college students in good standing. 

Another consideration for a person working as a CSI is certification or membership in an association. Many full-time crime scene investigators pursue professional certification in specific CSI areas, including those offered by the International Association for Identification (IAI): crime scene investigator, crime scene reconstructionist, crime scene analyst and senior crime scene analyst. The International Crime Scene Investigators Association (ICSIA) has a certification for crime scene processing. 

Professional associations that specialize in CSI also offer opportunities for further development. These include the American Academy of Forensic Sciences, the American Board of Forensic Toxicology, the Association of Firearm and Tool Mark Examiners, the Microscopy Society of America, and the Midwestern Association of Forensic Scientists.

 


 

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