How to Become a Crime Scene Investigator

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If you have an analytical mind and a sharp eye for detail, and you want to explore a career in criminal justice, consider becoming a crime scene investigator (CSI) or forensic science technician. This guide will help you understand what a CSI does, how to become a crime scene investigator, and what sort of educational and professional requirements you’ll need to meet, such as earning your license and certification.

What is a Crime Scene Investigator (CSI)?

A crime scene investigator, or CSI, is a type of forensic scientist responsible for preserving and collecting evidence to help detectives solve homicides and other types of criminal cases. A crime scene investigator may work for either a government agency, such as a police department or in a civilian capacity. In either situation, they’ll need training, experience, and relevant educational background, which we’ll cover in this guide.

What Do Crime Scene Investigators Do?

As a crime scene investigator, you’ll be tasked with duties such as visiting crime scenes, meticulously measuring and photographing all potential evidence, and packaging and preserving the evidence for later use. You’ll be expected to perform in an intense and chaotic environment — but you’ll also be impacting the criminal justice system while gaining the opportunity to help contribute to public safety. If you think a career related to crime scene investigation could be right for you, keep reading as we cover some examples of typical tasks and duties you might expect to perform in your role as police or civilian CSI.

Job Duties of a Crime Scene Investigator

Depending on factors like your specific job title and experience level, here are some examples of typical job duties for a crime scene investigator:

  • Attending and documenting autopsies
  • Maintaining the equipment used to collect evidence
  • **Collect evidence at the crime scene
  • Recording, photographing and preserving physical evidence
  • Securing crime scenes to prevent the tampering with, or contamination of, evidence
  • Testifying and providing statements in court
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Education Requirements for CSIs

There is no single, standardized educational requirement to become a CSI. Instead, the criteria vary from department to department and employer to employer — especially when comparing the needs of rural agencies against those serving major cities. As a general rule, larger agencies tend to enforce stricter and more numerous eligibility criteria, which means they are more likely to require that candidates hold a bachelor’s degree or higher.

It’s important to be aware that, in addition to educational requirements, you may also need to meet a variety of additional criteria, such as passing a criminal background check, passing drug tests, and holding a valid driver’s license. We’ll discuss these and other criteria as we review the steps to becoming a CSI and answer some of your FAQs below.

Steps to Becoming a Crime Scene Investigator

If your goal is to become a crime scene investigator or pursue a related profession, you can maximize your chance of success by making a plan for how you’ll gain the skills and qualifications you need. Your plan should cover how you’ll meet educational requirements, how you’ll obtain the training you need, and how you’ll pursue licensure or certification.

Step 1: Earn a Degree in a Relevant Field

The hiring criteria for different employers may vary. However, most CSI roles and related positions require candidates to hold, at minimum, a bachelor’s degree in a relevant field.

So what exactly counts as “relevant”? Here are three examples of undergraduate degrees that could help you qualify for a position in the field of forensic or crime scene analysis:

Holding an advanced degree like a master’s or doctorate, though not mandatory, can help you qualify for more specialized, often higher-paying roles. Explore graduate programs at National University, like the Graduate Certificate in Forensic and Crime Scene Investigations. With convenient options to study 100% online, our accredited programs offer the flexibility that busy adult learners need, letting you study at your own pace with support from core faculty and student services.

Step 2: Complete Law Enforcement or Civilian On-The-Job-Training

There are two basic pathways toward becoming a crime scene investigator: joining a police department, or working as a civilian CSI, and receiving on-the-job training. Once you’ve accumulated at least six months to two years of experience gathering and processing evidence, which is the minimum range most employers expect, you’re likely to qualify for a greater number and range of positions. You can gain experience on the job and/or by completing an internship in the field.

It’s important to keep in mind that qualification requirements are likely to vary between local agencies and police departments. That’s why professional licensure and certification are so important for maximizing your career development.

Step 3: Earn State Licensure and Professional Certification

Whether you go the police or civilian route, most employers will expect you to hold a bachelor’s degree or higher in a field like biology or criminal justice. You’ll also be expected to develop experience through internships and on-the-job training, as we discussed in the previous section.

In addition to meeting these basic requirements, you may want to consider earning additional professional certifications. To provide a few examples, the International Association of Identification (IAI) offers a Crime Scene Certification for candidates who meet their eligibility requirements. Additionally, the American Board of Criminalistics (ABC) offers voluntary certification in areas such as “molecular biology, drug chemistry, fire debris analysis, hairs and fibers, paints and polymers, and comprehensive criminalistics.”

There is no federal or national licensing requirement for crime scene investigators in the U.S. However, you may wish to earn state licensure or state-specific certification, depending on where you intend to work. For instance, the California Bureau of Forensic Services (BFS) offers a program called the California Criminalistics Institute (CCI), which, as the state’s Department of Justice explains, “provides specialized forensic training to forensic laboratory and law enforcement personnel,” including “courses… [that are] certified by the Commission on Peace Officer Standards and Training (POST).” The CCI also offers internships, which can help you gain experience under employers like the BFS.

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Continued Education and Specializations

Continuing education is an essential part of career development in all sorts of professions, and crime scene investigation is no exception — in fact, just the opposite. Whether they’re analyzing blood stains, ballistics, or examining the tracks left by vehicles, CSIs and forensic technicians need to stay up-to-date on the latest developments and innovations in their respective fields.

But what does “continuing education” mean for you, the student? That depends on what sort of expertise you want to develop and what type of specialty you want to explore.

One option is to pursue a master’s degree or doctoral degree after completing your undergraduate studies, such as earning your Master of Forensic Sciences to help advance your career. In the MFS at National University, you’ll study forensic anthropology, pathology, and photography, along with fingerprint analysis and crime scene investigation, culminating in a supervised research project. You’ll also have the opportunity to specialize in Criminalistics or Investigation, with both tracks designed to teach mastery of technical procedures, evidence collection, and issues around the chain of custody.

Another route is to earn a professional certificate specific to your area of expertise, such as the IAI’s Crime Scene Certification discussed above. Here are just a few examples of CSI specializations that typically require advanced training:

  • Bloodstain Pattern Analysis
  • Crime Scene Photography
  • Crime Scene Supervision
  • Fingerprint Analysis
  • Footwear and Tire Track Examination
  • Trace Evidence Examination

Salary and Career Outlook

The Bureau of Labor Statistics publishes detailed data about the median salaries and expected growth for numerous types of professions. According to the BLS, which uses the titles “crime scene investigator” and “forensic science technician” interchangeably, the median salary for a CSI was $61,930 as of 2021, the most recent year for which data is available. The BLS also reports that the top 10% of earners in the field had median salaries exceeding $103,000, with state and local government agencies (excluding hospitals and educational institutions) listed among the highest-paying employers for CSIs.

In addition to the potential for above-average earnings, crime scene investigators or forensic science technicians can also look forward to a “much faster than average” expected growth rate: 11% (from 2021 through 2031), more than twice as rapid as the national average of 5%. That translates to the addition of about 2,000 jobs to the current total of 17,600, as reported by the BLS.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ)

Not necessarily: attending a police academy is only one of several potential paths to becoming a CSI. If you don’t want to become a law enforcement officer, you can become a civilian CSI by earning a relevant degree and acquiring work experience. Keep in mind that you’ll also need to meet various physical requirements, including vision and hearing exams, along with passing a background check and holding a valid driver’s license.

The sharpest difference between CSIs and detectives is that detectives must obtain experience working as police officers. This is not a requirement for CSIs, who may enter the field as civilians. Additionally, these professions differ in terms of responsibility for collecting, handling, and interpreting evidence, as well as law enforcement.

The answer depends on the employer’s specifications, which might range anywhere from having your diploma to earning a four-year degree. You may also choose to pursue certifications which may add time to the process, such as the International Crime Scene Investigators Association (ICSIA) CSI certification, which requires two or more years of experience plus 50 hours of relevant coursework. Factors like the pace of your studies and whether you study full-time or part-time also have a major impact on the overall timeline.

Like any career, crime scene examination requires you to possess certain hard and soft skills that will help you thrive and advance in the role. Examples of skills that are important for a CSI include photographic skills, extremely high levels of organization and attention to detail, strong critical thinking skills, and the ability to remain professional and analytical in challenging, potentially upsetting environments like violent crime scenes.

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