How to Become a Forensic Lab Technician
Forensic lab technicians apply their knowledge and background in lab science to further the reach of the law. By using the latest laboratory techniques to analyze physical evidence from crime scenes, these professionals help to solve crimes and successfully prosecute criminal offenders.
In addition to meticulous lab skills, this career requires the ability to summarize lab findings in written reports and to testify in court. Forensic lab technicians are sometimes called on to testify on physical evidence ranging from DNA to fingerprints to spent shell casings. In court testimony, they must describe their laboratory processes and findings, and explain their qualifications and experience, sometimes under aggressive questioning.
A job as a forensic lab technician enables lab techs use their unique combination of laboratory, analytical and oratorical skills to advance justice. Their lab work and expert testimony help to correctly identify and prosecute criminal offenders who might otherwise go scot-free.
Forensic lab technicians work in sophisticated crime laboratories that are located in federal agencies, such as the FBI, state or local agencies or independent facilities. They work directly with other scientists and supporting lab staff. The workweek is typically a standard one, although in some cases lab techs are called upon to do emergency or time-sensitive analyses during nights, evenings or weekends.
To obtain a job in a crime laboratory, aspiring forensic lab technicians should have a four-year bachelor’s degree, preferably in one of the life sciences, forensic science or criminal justice. Certificate programs (about one-year) and associate’s degrees (about two years) in forensic science are also available, but these qualify graduates for lab assistant positions that are primarily entry level. To get the best education and preparation, students should find an accredited program. A list is available at the AAFS Forensic Science Education Programs Accreditation Commission.
Because the results of their work contribute to a verdict of guilt or innocence, forensic lab technicians undergo meticulous and thorough training before working independently. This training is provided by a senior technician or scientist. Depending on the specialty, training takes six months to more than a year, especially for new graduates.
Licensing and/or Certification
Forensic lab technicians are not required to have a license or certification, but they do need to pass proficiency tests on occasion. They must stay well informed of advances in the field by attending conferences, seminars or additional training classes.
Necessary Skills and Qualities
Forensic lab technicians need to be calm, careful and not easily nauseated. They should be thorough and detail oriented by nature. Forensic lab techs must have analytical minds and be able to detect and communicate patterns. Although they are technical experts, forensic lab technicians must also possess top-notch speaking and writing skills in case they need to testify in court or write a report that must pass muster in a courtroom setting.
Opportunities for Advancement
Their background and experience make forensic lab technicians ideal crime scene investigators. Some get additional education (usually a master’s degree) and become lab scientists. Others prefer to explore other career opportunities in criminal justice such as police work, private detection or law. A love of lab work leads some into technician or technology roles in medical or clinical labs. American Medical Technologists is a good resource for checking out similar lab tech careers.
Forensic lab technicians make anywhere from $32,900 to more than $82,990 per year. The median wage was approximately $51,570 in 2010, as reported by the US Bureau of Labor Statistics. Advanced education and experience bring higher salaries. Jobs with federal or state agencies also tend to have better-than-average benefits.
Because of advances in technology and the increased use of forensic evidence, employment for forensic lab technicians is expected to grow at a rate of about 19 percent in the next decade. Competition for jobs, however, is keen. Due to media exposure, what was once a hidden aspect of law enforcement has moved to center stage and more people than ever are interested in this growing field. Technicians with at least a bachelor’s degree and some experience stand the best chance of employment.