Careers in Forensic Science


In the past few decades, forensic science has evolved rapidly from an applied science using basic analytical tools for fingerprint, blood type and material analysis to a cutting-edge discipline employing sophisticated laboratory and computer methods to obtain information and conclusively identify ownership of evidential material. As these methodologies become more demanding and the credibility of expert testimony is subjected to greater scrutiny, the need for postgraduate training has grown.


A Master of Science degree is emerging as the standard of training required for leadership positions in crime laboratories. According to the FBI Quality Assurance Standards for Forensic DNA Testing Laboratories, the technical manager or leader of a DNA section or laboratory must have at minimum a master’s degree in biology, chemistry or a forensic science-related area. An advanced degree is not required for some entry-level and non-leadership positions, although candidates who possess an advanced degree will have better career opportunities. Forensic DNA analysts must have a bachelor’s degree or an advanced degree in a biology-, chemistry-, or forensic science-related area and must have successfully completed course work (graduate or undergraduate level) covering the following subject areas: biochemistry, genetics, molecular biology; and course work and/or training in statistics and/or population genetics as it applies to forensic DNA analysis.

The UC Davis Master of Science in Forensic Science represents the only degree in forensic science in the University of California system and the only research-oriented Master of Science in California. It is unique in its emphasis on research and in its collaboration with the California Criminalistics Institute and the Sacramento County Laboratory, both of which ensure graduates will have hands-on experience in the latest analytical technologies and methods in forensic science. These well-qualified graduates will find opportunities in local, state, federal and private crime labs, as well as in consulting, investigation and advanced research. Over 90 percent of our program graduates from 2010-2015 are employed in a forensic science laboratory or in a closely-related scientific field. The remaining graduates have either moved on to Ph.D. programs, have taken positions in other industries or have chosen not to work because of geographical limitations and/or family obligations.

Career Outlook and Opportunities

Forensic scientist employment opportunities include local, regional and state forensic laboratories; private firms; colleges and universities; public defender contracts; district/prosecutor/state attorney’s offices; and federal agencies such as the DEA, ATF, Customs and FBI. Each career path requires candidates to possess different levels of academic experience, law enforcement experience or certifications. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, job opportunities for forensic scientists are expected to increase as a result of the substantial interest in forensic science and the judicial system’s continuing need for corroborative evidence in prosecutions. However, forensic scientists can expect competition for jobs at the Department of Justice and other federal law enforcement agencies. Applicants who have a bachelor’s degree in a scientific field and a master’s degree in forensic science are expected to have the best job opportunities. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reports the median annual wage for forensic science technicians was $52,840 in May 2012. Positions requiring advanced degrees listed at over $85,000 annually depending on the position level.

Potential career opportunities requiring a bachelor’s degree in biology, chemistry, forensic sciences or a closely related scientific or engineering field:

Criminalist Specialist Forensic Drug Analyst
Criminalist Serologist Forensic Scientist
DNA Analyst Forensic Toxicologist
Intelligence Officer/Analyst Handwriting Examiner
Firearms Examiner Latent Print Examiner

Potential career opportunities that prefer a master’s degree:

Criminalist I, II, III DNA Examiner
Drug Chemist Forensic Anthropologist
Laboratory Manager Lecturer/Instructor
Laboratory Director Quality Assurance Manager

Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Outlook Handbook Forensic Science Technicians, 2014-15 Edition.

California Association of Criminalists 2016-2017 Salary Survey

California Association of Criminalists 2015-2016 Salary Survey

California Association of Criminalists 2014-2015 Salary Survey

California Crime Laboratory Quantitative Analysis Requirement

In the mid 1970’s public defenders, prosecutors, and police agencies were required to collaborate in the development of regulations after state legislature enacted a law that placed the oversight of Forensic Blood and Breath Analysis under the purview California Department of Public Health (CDPH). This analytical area, is the only area in forensic science that is under such control. After meeting with many stake holder groups, the CDPH enacted regulation for all forensic alcohol analysis under Title 17 CA Code of Regulation. Under Title 17, forensic analysts employed at a California crime laboratory were required to have completed a course in Quantitative Analysis (Q.A.). Traditionally, Q.A. is a wet chemistry course that is designed to provide training in performing precise Q.A. measurements. As a consequence, nearly all California crime labs required their entry level personnel to have completed a course in Quantitative Analysis.

With the advent of instrumental analysis, many universities no longer offer Q.A. as a separate course although it is still offered by some CA State Universities and Junior Colleges. However, once regulations such as Title 17 are promulgated and chaptered, they can be very difficult to amend. As a result, crime labs have been unsuccessful in changing their personnel requirement under Title 17. Indeed, some labs now have two entry methods: a DNA track with other required courses specified at national levels; and a non-DNA track which requires a Q.A. course. At UC Davis we addressed this issue by redesigning a course covering Q.A. material (ETX102B Analysis of Environmental Toxicants, 5 quarter units) and obtaining official approval from the CDPH to accept this course as equivalent to a traditional Q.A. course. The Chemistry department at UC Davis responded by incorporating Q.A. into the Chemistry 2 series courses (CHE2A/B/C, 15 quarter units), which are also approved by the CDPH.

The Forensic Science Graduate Program provides UC Daivs students who are applying for positions in California crime laboratories with official CDPH letters of approval for either ETX102B or CHE2A/B/C as Q.A. courses. This fulfills the Q.A. requirement under Title 17. We recommend that students in our program take ETX102B as upper division course credit may be applied to the Master’s degree requirements. If you need one of the CDPH letters, please contact the Forensic Science program director. The approval letters will not cover Q.A. courses with different titles taken at other universities. If you have not taken a Q.A. course, you may complete it at a Junior College, State University, or a private college.

Effective April 1, 2017, the Title 17 requirements have changed substantially and Quantitative Analysis is no longer required for crime laboratory personnel. Irrespective, it will take the California agencies a several years to update the position requirements for laboratory personnel, should they so desire. Some labs may elect to maintain their Q.A. requirements. To see the changes to the California code, review the updated Title 17.

Crime Laboratory Background Requirements

Prospective students planning a career with county, state or federal law enforcement agencies, or with crime labs, should be aware that anyone seeking such employment will be expected to undergo an extensive background check. A history of substance use (alcohol or drugs, including marijuana), disruptive or unethical behavior, financial irresponsibility or a bad driving record may disqualify you from employment, even if you have never been arrested or convicted. Conviction of domestic abuse can also preclude one from being hired.

The University of California, Davis, cannot advise you on whether the particulars of your background might exclude you. If you have any questions in this regard, you are urged to contact the agencies or labs where you hope to work and obtain information about their specific policies.