How to Become a Crime Scene Investigator: Job Description, Education, Training & Salary

Just typing out the title of this piece cued a playlist in our heads starring The Who featured theme songs to each of the popular CSI shows. There is much more to this profession than just catchy theme songs and unreasonably fancy technological gadgets that aid in crime solving though. The real crime scene investigators have to pour their blood, sweat and tears into the job to garner the results needed to get the bad guys or girls in cuffs. If this sounds like your cup of tea, then keep on reading because we are going to tell you everything you need to know about how to become a crime scene investigator.

How to Become a Crime Scene Investigator

First you should ask yourself if you even really want to become a crime scene investigator. Do you want to walk through bloody crime scenes every day to collect fingerprints, hairs, fibers and various bodily fluids? Do you want to work in a laboratory setting to analyze this evidence in hopes of finding your way to its source? Well if you’ve answered yes to these questions, then we’d say that you’re primed and ready to hear all about what it takes to become a crime scene investigator. Let’s find out what you need to do so, shall we?

Step 1: Earn a Bachelor’s Degree

The very first thing that you will need to do on your pursuit to become a crime scene investigator is to get a bachelor’s degree. There are those very few and more rural law enforcement agencies that may hire you without a degree, however.

Most do require a degree because you will more often than not have to work directly in a laboratory. You do have some room to breathe when it comes to deciding which particular area you would like to get a bachelor’s degree in.

You can get a degree in any criminal justice field as long as you complete the special scientific and legal courses required.

If you want to go this route, consider schools like these:

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Step 2: Complete Police Academy Training Course

The Bureau of Labor Statistics states that most crime scene investigators are required to be sworn police officers; some are even titles as detectives. We do know that it is not always a requirement, but it is becoming increasingly common for police departments to prefer to hire from within their current pool of employees. Those that are hoping to become crime scene investigators are able to complete a police academy program before actually applying for a position to an investigative unit.

Step 3: Gain Work Experience

Once you get a job working as a crime scene investigator, you will work under the direct supervision of a senior investigator. You will essentially start out as an entry level investigator and will receive a great amount of on the job training. As you advance in your position and learn more, you will be handed your own cases to work independently. You will still have a good amount of time that you will have to report to your senior investigator, but each bit of this phase will arm you with a great amount of experience that will make you a better crime scene investigator.

Step 4: Get Certified

This step is optional, but a good idea! You can obtain extra certifications that may lead to promotions and possibly higher rates of pay…both of which are great things in our humble opinion. The International Association for Identification (IAI) offers a special crime scene certification for those that are interested in expanding their knowledge base. The IAI does require that those seeking further certifications have at least a year of work experience under their belts first. The IAI certification test has to be passed with a grade of at least 75% if not higher and is valid for five years.

We’d also like to mention that some states may offer certifications for crime scene investigators based upon their own standards and requirements. It’s not a bad idea to take a look at the areas you are considering applying in to see if there are any extra certifications offered.

Crime Scene Investigator Requirements

Now that we know how to become a crime scene investigator, how about we take a look at some of the important requirements to get a job! To recap the requirements:

  • You will need to have at least a bachelor’s degree
  • Said bachelor’s degree will need to be in the fields of: criminal justice, forensic science, biology or a similarly related field
  • Law enforcement experience or laboratory experience may help you to get a job faster and it will fatten up your resume
  • Some helpful skills that will really make your job easier. It’d be great if you have good speaking and writing skills, composure and can interact with others well

What Does a Crime Scene Investigator Do?

As a crime scene investigator you will certainly have one of the most important jobs in the law enforcement community. Each case that requires forensic evidence to be collected will ultimately depend on you doing your job correctly. A crime scene investigator that does their job properly and collects the evidence correctly can actually make or break the case.

 So what exactly are these ever so important job duties that can mean the difference between the perp getting a get out of jail free card or getting tossed in the slammer? Have a looksee now:

  • Examine each scene to decide what evidence needs to be collected and what the best way to do that is
  • Take lots of pictures of the scene and all evidence found
  • Sketch the crime scene and all of its details
  • Document what you are seeing around you, such as where things are located at the crime scene and the position of evidence
  • Collect any physical evidence you are able to locate. You will be responsible for the collection of weapons, fingerprints and bodily fluids
  • Catalog and preserve all evidence to transfer to the crime labs

As a crime scene investigator you will also work in a lab setting analyzing all of the evidence that you collected. In the laboratory realm of your work you can expect to do the following on a typical day:

  • Conduct chemical, biological and physical testing on evidence that was collected from the crime scene
  • Investigate any possible connections between suspects and subsequent criminal activity while using the outcome of your scientific testing of evidence
  • Communicate with other experts in similar fields, such as toxicology and anthropology
  • Reconstruct crime scenes and even reenact some of the crime’s elements in a laboratory setting

There are some important qualities that will help you perform all of the job duties of a crime scene investigator best. If you feel like you need to work on these skills, that’s totally doable during the course of your training. Grab a pen and write this down:

  • Communication skills: As a crime scene investigator you will often have to write reports on your findings and then testify about them in court. You will also work very closely with law enforcement and other specialist, both of which will rely upon you relaying information clearly and concisely
  • Critical Thinking Skills: Crime scene investigators are tasked to use their best judgment when there is physical evidence to match to suspects of crimes. Fingerprints and DNA are great examples of forensic evidence that will need to be matched and will require a discerning eye
  • Detail Oriented: When working in the field of forensics you will need to pay attention to every small detail. It is in the small details where the most evidence often lies as well
  • Math and Science Skills: There will be a good deal of math and a whole lot of science needed to get this job done. You will need to have a pretty solid understanding in both to perform your job duties and ultimately assist in solving the crime in question
  • Problem Solving Skills: Crime scene investigators use a lot of scientific testing and scientific methodology to help solve crimes, so it’s super important to have the ability to use different reasoning methods to do so

Crime Scene Investigator Salary

We popped in on our Bureau of Labor Statistics buds to see what they were saying to expect as a salary as a crime scene investigator. Their helpful website states that as of May 2013, a crime scene investigator is expected to earn a median annual salary of $54,360. For those that are newbs in the field there may be a slight deviation from the median and they may earn a yearly salary of $32,570. Those with a significantly larger amount of experience may earn up to $88,880. As you can see there is a good bit of a variation, but there is some room to wiggle the more you learn and work in the field.


Crime Scene Investigator Colleges

Take a quick gander at these schools that offer crime scene investigator bachelor’s degree  and Crime Scene Investigation Certificate programs!

University of California Riverdale

The University of California Riverdale offers a Crime Scene Investigation Certificate that provides a complete and hands on education for students that are seeking a rock solid foundation in forensic science. During your time at UCR you will learn a great many things, but the following will be of utmost importance. You will learn how to be a confident and knowledgeable crime scene investigator, gain understanding of the crime scene basics, how to collect and handle evidence and many technical skills to properly perform your job.

This crime scene investigator program is broken up into multiple units. You will cover Introduction to Criminal Law and Procedure, Crime Scene Management and Forensic Report Writing. During your elective units you may study, Forensic Entomology, Rules of Evidence, Blood Stain Pattern Analysis.

Columbia College

Columbia College offers a Crime Scene Investigation Certificate Degree. This is a program that is designed for students that have a strong desire to learn about the identification, documentation and preservation process of evidence that is performed during an investigation. The crime scene investigation certificate is an acceptable program that shows that a student’s has properly demonstrated their knowledge of all that is required of a CSI in the field.

In order to complete Columbia College’s Crime Scene Investigation Certificate Degree, you will have to complete and successfully pass all 9 of the required courses along with the 6 additional elective courses. Some of the required courses in this program are Criminal Investigation, Crime Scene Investigation and Crime Scene Photography. Elective classes seem to be rather interesting too with Forensic Anthropology, Shooting Incidents and Forensic Pathology offered as classes.

There is actually a list of the top schools for crime scene investigators available on the Education Portal. The list is pretty helpful and a good jumping off point if you are serious about getting a bachelor’s degree or special certificate. Feel free to check it out by clicking right here!

Crime Scene Investigator Jobs and Work Environments

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, roughly 9 out of 10 crime scene investigators work in state or local government settings. As a crime scene investigator you can find a job in the following workplaces:

Once you have a job, you will soon get to see the sometimes interesting work environments that you will encounter from time to time. As a crime scene investigator you may work outside in all kinds of weather. Some days may be raining, snowing or hotter than Hades. These different weather conditions may also impact the amount of forensic evidence you are able to collect as well as the integrity.

Famous Cases That Were Cracked by CSI’s

It’s likely that you have caught an episode of one of the 11 million different versions of crime scene investigation shows. Aren’t there about 5 different CSI shows specifically? Anyhow, crime scene investigation does play a really large role in the solving of crimes. In fact CSI work has been one of the major reasons that the major crimes we are going to tell you about now were solved!

Ted Bundy

Serial killer Ted Bundy was responsible for over 30 murders. He was a sophisticated killer that left behind very little forensic evidence that would allow authorities to connect him to his crimes. He was arrested the first time in 1975 for kidnapping, but evaded jail time when he was set to stand trial some two years later. Bundy high tailed it from Colorado to Florida. While in Florida he killed three more people in 1978 and was finally captured. He was captured due to the hard work of crime scene investigators and the physical evidence that they were able to collect. The evidence collected ultimately led to his conviction. He was busted due to his dental records matching a bite mark on one of the victims and fibers from his van being found on another victims clothing.

The Night Stalker – Richard Ramirez

Continuing on our path of serial killers, we have Richard Ramirez who became known as the Night Stalker. Ramirez made headlines and scared the pants off of Southern California when he went on a killing spree between June 1984 and August 1985. He was dubbed the Night Stalker because he would break into his victims’ houses while they were sleeping, attack and/or murder his victims. Everything came crumbling down around Ramirez on the night of August 24, 1985 when a watchful teenager wrote down his license plate and called the police. He had abandoned the car, but was still busted by a fingerprint that was left inside the vehicle. Crime Scene Investigators quickly matched the prints to 25 year old Richard Ramirez and led to his captured within that same week.

The Green River Killer

Gary Ridgway was known was the Green River Killer. He was responsible for at least 48 deaths, but it could be as many as 90. Ridgway’s killing spree took place in the 80’s and 90’s up and down the Green River in Washington State. Nearly all of his victims were prostitutes, so he thought he was safe from being caught…he was wrong because the evidence that he left behind was his downfall. Ridgway was one of the original suspects in 1983, but wasn’t able to be held due to lack of evidence. A DNA sample was taken at that time, but forensic technology wasn’t sophisticated enough to heed any results. That all changed in 2001 when his DNA sample was reexamined and fully incriminated Ridgway leading to his arrest.

Let’s tally a score really quickly just to show how efficient forensics and the crime scene investigators that gather the evidence are…Suspects: 0 – Crime Scene Investigators: 3

FYI – The Real CSI

As we’ve said, there are tons of crime shows out there that depict crime scene investigators and their jobs in a very particular and glamorized light. This has become such a trend that it has convinced criminals and many others that these shows are legit and that this is how real crimes are committed or solved.

The truth of the matter is though, is that the real deal job of a crime scene investigator is nothing like what we see on TV. Real police departments don’t have all of those fancy pieces of equipment for starters or the bottomless resources that the shows do. Take a look at this interesting video straight from a very credible source – a real life crime scene investigator. We are sure you will find all that she has to say, so take a few minutes to check it out.

Final Grade

We have gathered all of the evidence and are ready to tell you guys and gals what we feel is the real deal about becoming a crime scene investigator. Here are our final scores for the job as a crime scene investigator!

  • Degree vs. Debt: A

The salary that is earned by a crime scene investigator is well worth the possible debt that you could possibly incur during your four years of college. It’s a great idea to pursue grants or scholarships too because you never know what your local state or local government might offer to bring some new blood (no pun intended) into their departments.

  • Difficulty of Degree: B

There are certainly far harder degrees out there that require more time than a bachelor’s in an applicable arena. You will have to be somewhat prepared for some extra math or science courses, but in the end it’s worth having to use the left side of your brain more than you may be used to doing.

  • Happiness Quotient: C

If this were a job that could make you happy because of the knowledge you will gain in school and because of the nice paycheck you will be receiving, that’d be great. Unfortunately, money and book smarts doesn’t negate the fact that you will be around some really heavy stuff on a nearly daily basis. You will have to deal with some really intense things that will be hard to shake off some days and for that we don’t feel like this is a particularly happiness inducing job.

  • Job Outlook: C-

The job outlook for crime scene investigators is really not so hot and leaves quite a bit to be desired in all truthfulness. The Bureau of Labor Statistics is projecting that the job growth for this career is only expected to be 6% from 2012 to 2022. The growth is well below the average for other careers and will eventually make it harder to find work.

Sources and Recommended Reading

You can use each one of our sources as a bread crumb trail to finding out how to become a crime scene investigator…much like you would use each piece of forensic evidence to trace the crime back to the perpetrator. We do like to scatter them throughout the articles, so get some early practice in for those soon to be needed investigative skills.

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