Forensic scientists provide impartial scientific evidence for use in courts of law to support the prosecution or defence in criminal and civil investigations. They are primarily concerned with examining contact trace material associated with crimes. This follows the principle that ‘every contact leaves a trace’ that will offer potential evidence to link a suspect with the scene of the crime, the victim or the weapon.
The main areas are: chemistry, which is connected to crimes against property, such as burglary and arson; biology, which is connected to crimes against people, such as murder, assault and rape; drugs and toxicology.
Typical work activities
- Work activities usually involve the chemistry – the examination of paint, chemicals, etc., including fire investigation and accident reconstruction; Biology – DNA testing and the examination of minute contact traces, such as blood, hair, clothing fibres, etc; Drugs and Toxicology – testing for restricted drugs, examining tissue specimens for poison detection, and the analysis of blood and urine samples for alcohol, for example in drink driving offences. However, general work activities are:
- Analysing samples, such as hair, body fluids, glass, paint and drugs, in the laboratory.
- Applying techniques such as gas and high performance liquid chromatography, scanning electron microscopy, mass spectrometry, infrared spectroscopy and genetic fingerprinting.
- Sifting and sorting evidence, often held in miniscule quantities.
- Attending and examining scenes of crimes.
- Recording findings and collecting trace evidence from scenes of crimes or accidents.
- Inputting relevant data into computer programs.
- Reviewing and supervising the work of assistants.
- Presenting results of work in written form or by giving oral evidence.
- Justifying findings under cross-examination in courts of law.
- Researching and developing new techniques.
- Liaising with team members.
- Coordinating with outside agencies and offering expert advice.
- Analysing and interpreting results and computer data.
- Liaising with police to establish forensic strategies.
- Writing detailed reports for court.
- Instructing on procedures for cases.
- Persistent approach and enquiring mind.
- Capacity to undertake fine, analytical, painstaking work with exceptional attention to detail.
- Logical, unbiased and methodical approach to problem solving.
- Ability to work well in a team, as well as independently.
- Strong written and oral communication skills and the ability to communicate scientific information to non-experts.
- Ability to work to deadlines.
- Good colour vision is required by some labs.
New entrants to the profession need to gain between two and five years experience after their degree in order to progress to the role of reporting officer (an officer who can deliver reports in court). Further career progression comes by taking on more responsibilities. Experienced scientists supervise the work of others, visit scenes of crime, attend conferences and may also carry out research and publish articles. Promotion is based on experience, responsibility and appraisal reports. Geographic mobility may improve prospects. There is some flexibility as to your choice of area – some forensic scientists choose to stay in the laboratory rather than get involved with crime scene work or court reporting. It is possible to move into a managerial position, but career development often depends on developing an area of expertise. Recent scientific developments and the creation of the National DNA Database have led to an increased demand for DNA analysts. Movement between disciplines is sometimes necessary but cross-disciplinary training is usually available to assist with this transition.
Original content at prospects.ac.uk