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Forensic Frequently Asked Questions

What kind of degree do I need to work in forensic science?

The most common entry level requirement is a degree in a natural science such as chemistry, biology, geology, or physics. Given the increasing use of automated instrumentation and DNA technology, a solid grounding in analytical chemistry, organic chemistry, biochemistry, genetics, and molecular biology is often desired. Scan through some of the job listings to get a better idea of typical entry level requirements.

Is it true that the Washington State Patrol built a new lab on the EWU Campus?

Indeed it is. The building is located on the hill on Washington Street (appropriate, isn't it?) between the Phase and married student housing. It is across the street from the Child Care facility. The single-story building has about 32,000 square feet of space including a forensic garage facility. Teaching labs and classrooms will also be available and EWU students will have the opportunity to participate in some training there.

Is criminalistics and forensic science the same thing as criminology and criminal justice?

No. Unfortunately, the media and many members of the public are under the mistaken impression that "criminology" and "criminalistics" describe the same field. They are both part of the criminal justice system but the similarity ends there. Criminology is a social science that focuses on the social aspects of crime. People who desire a career as a police officer or in corrections need a background in this field. Criminalistics/forensic science is a natural science that applies the principles of chemistry, biology, physics, geology, etc. to legal matters. People who want to work in crime laboratories or in related forensic sciences need degrees in some kind of science.

I'm only interested in doing crime scene work. Do I still need a science degree?

Most likely. There is no standard on how agencies or jurisdictions handle crime scene processing and analysis. In some cases, police officers are primarily responsible, but they can call in forensic specialists when needed. In other situations, a special crime scene unit exists that is responsible for processing scenes, documentation, and evidence collection. These people are referred to as "crime scene technicians," and usually they do not get involved in the laboratory analysis. Yet other places have an on-call system where laboratory personnel take turns handling major crime scenes.

Keep in mind that as the technical demands of evidence collection and documentation increase, the necessary qualifications of crime scene personnel increase accordingly. Check some of the job listings, looking specifically for crime scene personnel to get a better idea of what is out there. If your goal is crime scene work, you are wise to obtain a scientific degree to maximize your competitiveness, or at least to incorporate science courses in your source of study. The other alternative is to become a sworn law enforcement officer with the goal of working your way into crime scenes. In this case, the more background you have in the sciences, the greater your advantage.

What can I do with a degree in criminology or criminal justice in the forensic field?

The majority of crime laboratory positions require a science degree. For work as a police officer, criminal justice is an ideal choice and some police officers do get involved in forensic work, but this is becoming less common. However, any forensic science major is wise to take at least one criminal justice course. There are still a few positions, mostly technician level, in laboratory systems that will accept a CJ background. These are rare and you should not count on being able to land such a job. See the job links to get a better feel for what is available and what entry level requirements are posted at these sites.

Why is the EWU forensic science option such a large program?

The curriculum was designed in consultation with the Washington State Patrol and provides the courses needed to make you competitive for entry level positions in state and federal crime labs. The biology courses are designed to provide you with the academic background needed to begin training in forensic DNA analysis.

How does the internship work?

After you have completed at least 4 quarters of your program, typically through CHEM 304, Quantitative Analysis, you can discuss this with the program advisor. Plan on a lead time of at least six months. WSP and ISP have internship slots available in several locations in the Inland Northwest and can accommodate different scheduling requirements. Thus, each internship will be tailored for the student as far as the law enforcement agency can accommodate. You are also free to explore other options such as with a federal lab or other entity.

You will be required to complete an internal application that will include transcripts and a written essay. The internships are competitive and will require an excellent academic record and demonstrated skills in basic sciences. You will also be required to pass a background check administered by the agency where you will be stationed.

Upon acceptance, you will receive some introductory work at EWU, usually in the form of a CHEM 399 Directed Studies course. When this is successfully completed, you are off to your internship. Progress will be monitored both by the laboratory personnel and by the department advisor. Upon completion, you will submit a written summary and will be evaluated by the laboratory personnel with whom you worked. Internships will be administered through the EWU internship program office.

What kind of jobs can I expect to find in forensic science?

There are many options - city, county, or state lab; private labs that specialize in DNA testing (for the most part); and federal agencies such as DEA, ATF, FBI, and even the FDA, which does forensic work on food and pharmaceuticals.

How is the job market in forensic science?

At the moment, the prospects are good and getting better. The biggest push is in the area of DNA typing, and many of these jobs open up with private rather than public (government) entities. A huge backlog of DNA evidence has accumulated and is increasing by the day. It will take hundreds if not thousands of forensic scientists to tackle this backlog. Even in traditional forensic science and criminalistics, the market isn't bad. The only "gotcha" to be aware of is the fickle nature of government spending, particularly at the state level. Recessions hit state and local government harder than at the federal level. As a result, some years are good, some not so good. Patience and persistence in the job search, combined with a realistic attitude, flexibility, and an early start, are your best guarantees of success.

What kind of salary can I expect to make as an entry level forensic scientist?

Entry level pay varies based on locations and entity. As a rule of thumb, starting salaries with a B.S. are in the range of $30,000 to $40,000. Browse through the job listings to see what's being offered and remember to take into account the cost of living in the area.

Can I enter this program as a transfer student?

Yes. If you are currently in a community college, take as much math as possible, along with any introductory chemistry, biology, and physics that you have time for. You should check to insure that all of these science classes will transfer to EWU - see you counselor or use the email link on the home page of this site to get more information. The more math and science you have, the easier the transfer and the quicker you can finish up at Eastern.

Can I finish the EWU program in four years?

This program is NOT included in the "Finish in Four" program although it is possible to do so (starting as a freshman). First, you must take more than 15 credits per quarter (closer to an average of 16, which is still below the official overload level). Second and most importantly, you must arrive on campus ready to enter into MATH 106, pre-Calculus. If you can't, that will add at least a quarter and probably more to your stay since this math is a pre-requisite/co-requisite for first year chemistry courses. Third, plan on doing your internship over a summer. It may not happen that way, but arrive with the assumption that it will.

What are the job conditions for a typical forensic scientist?

Conditions are much like any lab position with a few unique aspects. Labs are usually shared, as is the office space. Once you get involved in casework, you will be subpoenaed and will be required to appear in court. These are not flexible and are not changed to meet your needs. Expect to put in extra hours as caseloads demand. Most labs have "comp time" meaning that you get time off for addition hours worked in lieu of overtime pay.

Can I work part-time in the field?

Usually there are no part-time positions. It is almost always a full-time job and can involve nights, weekends, and extensive travel. Crime scene work can happen anytime and may require hours or days at a remote site. Court appearances are not optional and when you get a subpoena to appear, you appear or are in contempt.

Do I have to be a police officer before I can be a forensic scientist?

No. A science degree is the basic requirement, although some agencies, notably the FBI, still require lab personnel to be Special Agents. Scan through some of the job listings to get a better idea of entry level requirements.
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