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Forensic Science is the application of the methods and techniques of the basic sciences to legal issues. As you can imagine Forensic Science is a very broad field of study. Crime Laboratory Scientists, sometimes called Forensic Scientists or, more properly, Criminalists, work with physical evidence collected at scenes of crimes. Do not confuse Criminalistics with Criminology, the study of social issues and effects related to crime.
Criminalistics is that sub-field of Forensic Science dealing with the collection, preservation, examination, and interpretation of physical evidence.
Other areas include Forensic Engineering (crash, accident, or structural failure analysis), Forensic Medicine (autopsy and pathology), Forensic Dentistry (identification of remains by dentition and examination of bitemarks) Forensic Anthropology (dating. identifying bones/remains), and Forensic Entomology (problems relating to time of death, body decay and the population of insect larvae). "Forensic" ("of the law") can be added to any science or applied science discipline to denote the interface of that discipline with legal questions.
Physical evidence can be anything - anything that tells you something about the crime or activity of interest being investigated. It can be environmental - temperature/weather conditions, light or lack thereof, the position of windows, doors, light switches, the scent in the air; It can also be the more obviously related items such as footwear impressions (shoeprints), fingerprints, tire tracks, blood drips, spatters, smears, etc.; marks left by tools, including firearms and other weapons; it can be patterns of tearing or breaking such as glass or torn candy wrappers, It can be microscopic, like gunshot residues; macroscopic, like hairs, fibers, glass, paint chips, plastic, paper. It can be the unique marks of handwriting, typewriting, marks left by copiers or laser printers or cameras on film. It can be blood samples examined for DNA typing or the presence of drugs or alcohol. It can be other tissues of human or animal origin that may be linked to the perpetrator or the victim or the scene of the crime. It can be drugs, chemicals, computers, and more.
All of these kinds of evidence are examined at the Criminalistics laboratory (crime laboratory). In some laboratories all the Criminalists do all of these different kinds of examinations. In other laboratories, Criminalists are more specialized and work primarily in specialty areas such as Firearms and Toolmarks; Trace Evidence; DNA and Serology; Drugs, Alcohol and Toxicology.
Criminalists often also examine crime scenes. Photography, drawings, measurement, reconstruction of activities, identification, collection, and preservation of evidence are all activities performed by Criminalists during crime scene investigations. Some crime scenes are examined by non-laboratory personnel such as Crime Scene Technicians/Investigators (often police department employees) or by police officers with special training.
Criminalists usually have a four-year degree in Forensic Science, Criminalistics, Chemistry, Physics, Biology or other physical or biological science. A minor in chemistry (or at least 8 units of General Chemistry and 3 units of Quantitative Analysis) is also required. Many have advanced/graduate degrees in one of the same fields. Much training takes place on-the-job or in specialized courses offered here at the California Criminalistics Institute, or by the FBI or BATF or at some universities.
If you are really interested in the field you need to take all the science courses you can in high school and all the math you need for entry into a science program in college. You would also need to identify a college that has a Forensic Science, Criminalistics, or other physical or biological science program.
Entry into the field would require a four-year degree, and going through the application and hiring procedures for state, county, or city employment as most crime laboratories are run by government agencies. The hiring process can take 4-6 months. One important aspect of the hiring process is an extensive background check. Criminalists are expected to have a clean criminal record - - no misdemeanor or felony convections of any kind.
A student internship would help you understand the actual work and also help you get a job in the field. You would want to get an internship at a crime laboratory or possibly a toxicology laboratory or medical examiner's/coroner's facility. School projects (college senior or master's projects) directly related to the field would also help you land a position in the field.
Here is an up-to-date listing from the American Academy of Forensic Sciences of Forensic Science Programs in the US and elsewhere.
CCI has a mandate to provide classes primarily for California governmental crime laboratory personnel. These are federal, state, county, or city laboratories located in California. Students from out-of-state government laboratories are welcomed if space permits but must pay tuition and materials fees for each class. Additionally, the California Association of Criminalists (CAC) sponsors some classes, wholly or in part. The CAC reserves the right to select students for those classes in proportion to the level of CAC sponsorship.
Some classes are designed for crime scene investigators; these classes may be open to non-Criminalist law enforcement personnel that respond to scenes of crimes. CCI classes are not normally available for private laboratory personnel.
Important Note: Most of our courses have waiting lists so a valid application does not necessarily mean that you will be in the next available class. Eligible students are encouraged to submit applications well in advance of training requirements. Normally student agencies are contacted telephonically about 8 weeks before a scheduled class begins to determine whether the student can attend. Official Student Acceptance Letters are mailed out shortly thereafter. Unless you have received an acceptance letter, you were not selected to attend.