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How to become a crime scene investigator

How to become a crime scene investigator

Crime scene investigators perform some of the most mentally vigorous work required of graduates with criminal justice degrees. The duties of the job include discovering and labeling evidence, conducting on-site analyses or interviews, and synthesizing available information into detailed reports for later review. Depending on the region and the exact position, crime scene investigators may also be known as criminalists or forensic science technicians.

Nearly 750,000 property crimes occurred per month in 2012, according to the FBI, leading to an estimated total of $15.5 billion in losses, and the number of violent crimes nationwide topped 1.2 million the same year. Those are daunting numbers, to be sure, but professionals with criminal justice degrees in crime scene investigation can help control them.

Crime Scene Investigation

Steps to a career in crime scene investigation

There are two distinct paths you can take to become a crime scene investigator. The first path, which is based more on job experience than classroom study, consists of the following steps:

  1. Earn a high school diploma or equivalent
  2. Apply for admission your local police academy or an affiliated institution
  3. Pass any strength, agility, hearing, vision, lie detector or drug tests required by police academy registration standards
  4. Successfully complete police academy training and begin work as an officer
  5. Learn skills of evidence gathering and crime scene investigation through on-the-job training or career education courses

The second path prioritizes academic experience over direct work experience, though having spent time in the workforce as a criminal justice or natural sciences professional can potentially help your chances of employment:

  1. Earn a high school diploma or equivalent
  2. Apply to a bachelor's degree program at an accredited college or university
  3. Graduate with a bachelor's degree in high standing (biology, chemistry, psychology or criminal justice degrees with a natural science component are often preferred)
  4. Complete any additional requirements your state may have for crime scene work

How much do crime scene investigators make?

Because the duties of the profession can be portioned out to professionals with different titles and different overall levels of education and experience, it's important to look at two separate sets of salary figures provided by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). Here are the five highest-paying states listed for forensic science technicians in 2013, along with their mean annual wage that year:

  • Illinois: $82,110
  • California: $74,240
  • Washington, D.C.: $73,660
  • Massachusetts: $69,060
  • Virginia: $66,850

For comparison, here are the five areas that reported the highest mean annual wages for professional detectives and investigators in 2013:

  • Washington, D.C.: $116,210
  • Alaska: $109,930
  • New Jersey: $100,140
  • Delaware: $98,710
  • California: $97,270

If you've got a keen eye for detail and a passion for solving problems, crime scene investigation might be the career for you. To find out more about how to become a crime scene investigator and see a full list of sources, check out the infographic below.

Note: Earnings depend on many factors, including the coursework completed, geographic location and other variables. Nothing in this infographic guarantees results for individuals.

How to become a crime scene investigator
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