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Requirements to Become a Forensic Chemist

by Ellie Williams

Forensic chemists test nonbiological evidence found at crime scenes, on a victim’s body or on a suspect. This material, often called trace evidence, can include anything from carpet fibers to soil. The website Explore Health Careers notes that forensic chemists earn between $27,683 and $52,471 a year and can look forward to an excellent career outlook.

Education

Most law enforcement agencies require forensic chemists to have an undergraduate degree in chemistry, though some also require a master’s degree. Larger departments and those in major metropolitan areas are more likely to require advanced training. A graduate degree is also a prerequisite for advancing to supervisory roles or testifying as an expert witness in criminal trials. Some departments require additional degrees in forensic investigation, and all forensic chemists should at least take elective courses in crime scene processing, criminal investigation or related fields.

Science and Math Skills

Forensic investigation incorporates several scientific disciplines, so forensic chemists need a basic grasp of other fields such as biology. Only by understanding the principles of each aspect can they interpret how the various fields work together to paint a picture of the crime. In addition, they rely on math for many of their tests and experiments and must be skilled in applying basic to advanced mathematical concepts. Aspiring forensic chemists should take a diverse array of science and math electives in college.

Experience

Hands-on experience is crucial to mastering forensic investigation, because coursework can only teach the basic principles of forensic science. To develop their scientific and investigatory skills, forensic chemists need real-world experience investigating crimes. As competition for forensic jobs grows, applicants need significant experience to distinguish themselves. For new graduates, this means completing at least one internship during their college career. Many universities partner with law enforcement agencies or laboratories to connect students with internships and other training opportunities.

Hiring Process

Forensic chemists must pass an extensive background check before being hired by any law enforcement agency. This often includes a credit check, criminal records check and possibly drug testing. A past criminal conviction or failing the drug test will likely result in immediate disqualification. Some law enforcement agencies also review an applicant’s driving record, verify academic credentials, investigate personal associations and in some cases administer a polygraph test. In addition, some employers ask candidates to take skills tests specific to forensic chemistry to demonstrate their knowledge and proficiency. Employers also seek candidates with proven communication skills, because forensic chemists must document their findings in written reports.

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