Criminalists work in crime labs and focus in processing evidence gathered at crime scenes. They are responsible for applying scientific principles or methods to analyze, ascertain, conduct experiments and interpret physical evidence that could help reconstruct crime scenes. Some criminalists may be assigned to conduct comparative, microscopic, chemical, and other complex lab analyses on physical evidence.
The tasks of a criminalist include collecting, identifying and analyzing physical evidence related to criminal investigations. They perform tests on objects and substances for purposes of investigation. They also testify in court as an expert witness to provide an educated account on crime-lab techniques done to certain evidence he personally worked on. They can also specialize in a certain area of expertise, such as fingerprinting, handwriting analysis, fingerprinting or biochemistry.
Criminalists make use of scientific methods to examine and interpret physical evidence gathered from a crime scene. They separate relevant data from the negligible and attempt to discern the prevailing circumstances at the time of the crime.
Education and Training Requirements
To become a criminalist, one must obtain a bachelor’s degree in forensic science, biology, biochemistry, chemistry or other natural or physical sciences. Criminalists who are sworn officers must complete 3 to 6 months of basic law enforcement training. They enroll in continuing education and training programs throughout their careers to keep up with the advancement in their fields. In agencies where Criminalists are law enforcement officers, they will be required to complete training in basic peace standards, which they need to renew every year.
Knowledge and Skills Requirements
Most crime laboratories prefer to hire candidates who have previous experience working in laboratories, such as interns, research assistants; or staff members of a team handling crime or scientific research). Important skills in this field include knowledge of proper laboratory procedures and operation of lab equipments and various scientific instruments. To perform their job well, Criminalists must have strong organizational and interpersonal skills, excellent problem-solving, good written and verbal communication skills, presentation skills, management skills and the ability to multitask, meet deadlines, handle stressful situations and work independently or as part of a team.
Criminalists usually work indoors in well-lit, well-ventilated and clean laboratories. They handle various machines and instruments, such as cameras, lights, spectroscopes, microscopes for measuring, recording, and testing evidence. Protective equipment is a must because they are frequently exposed to fumes, odors, diseases and chemicals. Criminalists usually work 40 hours a week, but may be asked to work additional hours to meet deadlines. In some agencies, criminalists are hired on an on-call basis, with some of them placed on standby 24 hours a day.
The average salary of a criminalist is $53,000, depending on their location, experience, education and employer. Although criminalists generally earn between $40,000 and $50,000, those who work in large urban areas where crime rates are high can anticipate a starting salary in the vicinity of $58,000. Criminalists who possess lots of experience, or are employed by the federal government, often see higher salaries upward of $94,000.