How to become a crime scene investigator

Nearly 8 million property crimes occurred in 2016, according to the FBI, leading to an estimated total of $15.6 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 investigators perform some of the most mentally vigorous work required of graduates with criminal justice degrees. The duties of the job, whether from a forensic science or detective/criminal investigation angle, include:

  • Discovering and labeling evidence
  • Conducting on-site analyses or interviews
  • Synthesizing available information into detailed reports for later review
  • Reconstruction crime scenes
  • Sifting through online, public and court records to uncover clues

Depending on the region and the exact position, crime scene investigators (CSIs) may also be known as criminalists or forensic science technicians.

Steps to crime scene investigation careers

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 to become a CSI 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) -- Read about the top schools for criminal justice for more info
  4. Complete any additional requirements your state may have for crime scene work

Important skills for CSIs

In general, detectives and investigators benefit from the following skills and qualities:

  • Clear communication
  • Strong decision-making
  • Inquisitiveness
  • Patience
  • Resourcefulness

Forensic science technicians should aim for the following qualities and skills:

  • Critical thinking
  • Attention to detail
  • Math and science strengths
  • Clear communication
  • Problem solving

Crime scene investigator salary and job outlook

As with any position, earnings depend on many factors, including the coursework completed, geographic location of the job, and other variables.

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 2017, along with their mean annual wage that year:

  • California: $82,650
  • Illinois: $79,630
  • Nevada: $76,160
  • Massachusetts: $75,570
  • Connecticut: $74,560

For comparison, here are the five areas that reported the highest mean annual wages for professional detectives and investigators in 2017:

  • Washington, D.C.: $77,000
  • Virginia: $77,000
  • New Jersey: $100,140
  • Delaware: $98,710
  • California: $97,270

Forensic science technician jobs are expected to grow by about 17 percent through 2026, and detective and criminal investigator job growth is expected to grow by 11 percent through the same date -- both faster than the average for all occupations.

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 visual aid below.

Article Sources


Article Sources


Federal Bureau of Investigation, 2016 Crime Statistics, www.fbi.gov/news/pressrel/press-releases/fbi-releases-2016-crime-statistics

Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Outlook Handbook & Occupational Employment Statistics, Private Detectives and Investigators, accessed July 2018, https://www.bls.gov/ooh/protective-service/private-detectives-and-investigators.htm, https://www.bls.gov/oes/current/oes333021.htm

Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Outlook Handbook & Occupational Employment Statistics, Forensic Science Technicians, accessed July 2018, https://www.bls.gov/oes/current/oes194092.htm, https://www.bls.gov/ooh/life-physical-and-social-science/forensic-science-technicians.htm#tab-9

How to become a crime scene investigator
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