If you’re a fan of shows like “CSI” or want to use scientific principles to keep people safe, a career in crime scene investigation may be for you. Crime scene investigators collect and analyze evidence at crime scenes, helping law enforcement professionals bring criminals to justice.
Crime scene investigation is important, and you’ll need specific qualifications and education to get involved. Although these requirements vary depending on your geographic location, the core needs are often the same. Those with degrees tend to be more competitive when applying for jobs, but those with previous law enforcement experience may earn more in the long run.
What Is a Crime Scene Investigator (CSI)?
CSIs analyze crime scenes, collect evidence, take photos, and measure areas of interest. These professionals partner with forensic scientists to help solve crimes. In many cases, police officers act as the first CSIs on the scene. Still, they must often seek help from specialists when surface-level investigation proves insufficient.CSIs are responsible for preserving collected evidence, ensuring a forensic scientist can accurately analyze it. CSIs also participate in forensic science in some cases, but this job is often reserved for specialists. CSIs can be employed by local, state, or federal law enforcement agencies or may work for a private company that provides forensic services to law enforcement professionals.
What Does a Crime Scene Investigator Do?
Job duties can vary depending on your employer, experience, and the actual crime scene. Often, CSIs partner with police officers to secure the crime scene and collect evidence, ensuring it isn’t contaminated. CSIs must be able to examine a scene without destroying or compromising evidence. They should be top-notch planners, as they must develop a system for collecting the evidence and analyzing the scene. They pass vital evidence to forensic scientists for analysis or work alongside them.
CSIs identify and mark areas of interest in and around a crime scene. For example, they may notice shoe prints near the scene and mark them to help recreate the events that may have taken place. They create detailed reports about their findings and occasionally testify in court.
In some cases, CSIs use scientific equipment and methodologies to analyze evidence. This, of course, means they’d need a keen understanding of how to use and maintain the equipment.
Do You Need a Crime Scene Investigator Degree?
If you’re pursuing a CSI career hoping to conduct lab work, you’ll need a bachelor’s degree in a related field. A criminal justice or forensic science degree will put you on the path to becoming a CSI. If you want to specialize in a particular field of crime scene investigation, such as DNA analysis, you’ll likely need additional education.
Without a degree, you’ll probably need to start your career journey as a police officer. According to the International Crime Scene Investigators Association, most CSIs are sworn police officers, and they generally get paid more than their civilian counterparts.
In some states, you’ll be able to get a job as a CSI with an associate degree, but this isn’t common. In these cases, many employers will still require specific college courses before hiring you. If unsure about your state’s or precinct’s requirements, consider contacting your local police department.
Skills Gained From a Degree
A criminal justice degree can make you a more desirable candidate when applying for jobs, acting as an excellent way to learn the foundational concepts required to be a successful CSI. These concepts include scientific methodology, ethical decision-making, evidence-handling procedures, and forensics.
A high-quality crime scene investigation program will also teach you skills related to crime scene photography, such as camera operation and exposure control. You’ll learn pattern recognition techniques necessary for gathering evidence and the essential safety precautions associated with gathering biological evidence. Additionally, you’ll learn how to analyze and identify firearms.
Additional Training and Certification
In addition to a degree, you may also consider continued training and certification. This can help you improve your skills and knowledge and make you more marketable to employers. The National Institute of Justice Forensic Science Center offers continuing education programs that teach you more about the field. Additionally, joining an organization like the American Academy of Forensic Sciences will let you network with and learn from other CSI and forensics experts.After landing a job as a CSI, you’ll begin on-the-job training, meaning a mentor within your organization will teach you essential CSI concepts while you work. For many, this is an excellent way to hone their skills and work their way from novice to expert. On-the-job training will teach you things you can’t learn in school, such as handling the pressure you may feel while working on crime scenes.
Career Paths in Crime Scene Investigation
There are many specialties, career paths, and advancement opportunities for CSIs. For instance, crime scene leaders oversee evidence teams as they analyze a crime scene. These individuals usually start their career paths as crime scene investigators. Crime scenes can be chaotic, so talented crime scene leaders must have a strong sense of leadership, ensuring each team member knows their role. They often delegate certain tasks and are integral to crime scene investigation.
Some CSIs specialize in photography, ensuring each crime scene has a detailed record of photographs. Crime scene photographers, or forensic photographers, document the potential location of victims and culprits, footprints, blood stains, weapons, and other evidence essential to solving the case.
CSIs who spend part of their time in the lab may go on to become forensic scientists, provided they meet the education requirements for the role. Forensic scientists work closely with CSIs, analyzing the evidence they collect. Forensic science has various disciplines, such as fingerprint analysis, handwriting analysis, and trace evidence examination.Creative CSIs with an artistic ability can move into forensic artist roles. These individuals produce sketches or computerized renderings of suspects and crime scenes. In some cases, they may be tasked with recreating the skeleton or body of a victim using images of decomposed remains. They can also use computer programs to determine what a suspect or victim might look like as they age.
Job Outlook and Salaries for Criminal Justice Careers
The job outlook and salary potential vary based on your field, education, experience, and geographic location. For example, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median annual wage for forensic science technicians is $61,930. The field is expected to grow 11% between 2021 and 2031, with an average of 2,500 job openings yearly. Unfortunately, the Bureau of Labor Statistics doesn’t distinguish CSIs from forensic scientists when collecting data.On the other hand, detectives and criminal investigators have a median annual wage of $86,280. Those in metropolitan areas tend to earn more than those in rural areas. For example, the annual mean wage for criminal investigators in California is $110,320, while the annual mean wage in Texas is $82,990.
Pursue a Career in Crime Scene Investigation
Crime scene investigators are necessary to bring criminals to justice. This field has many specializations and works closely with forensic scientists. While a degree isn’t required, it’s recommended for those not interested in starting their career as a police officer. Still, it’s worth noting that those transitioning from law enforcement to crime scene investigation tend to have higher salaries.Salem University’s Bachelor of Arts in Crime Scene Investigation will teach you the skills you need to become a CSI. You’ll leave the program with enhanced evidence collection, crime scene photography, and pattern recognition knowledge. Additionally, the CSI program teaches you foundational skills that every CSI needs, such as critical thinking and ethical decision-making.
Salem University is committed to working around your schedule, as it offers a unique one-course-a-month format perfect for those with busy schedules. Salem has numerous online courses and accelerated undergraduate and graduate programs available, whether you attend school remotely or on campus.