Last updated on March 19th, 2024 at 05:24 pm

If you’re intrigued by a potential career in law enforcement as well as forensic science, you could be an excellent candidate for a job as a crime scene investigator. In this challenging yet rewarding line of work, you have the opportunity to collect and analyze evidence found at crime scenes to help members of law enforcement bring justice to criminals and victims alike.

If this sounds like something that would be up your alley, you may be wondering how to become a crime scene investigator and what to expect from the process. Ultimately, the qualifications and requirements to work in crime scene investigation can vary based on where you live—but there are some basic factors to consider before diving in, regardless of your location.

What Does a Crime Scene Investigator (CSI) Do?

A crime scene investigator (CSI) is a professional who analyzes crime scenes, collects evidence, takes photos, and measures areas of interest in partnership with other members of law enforcement to solve crimes. CSIs are often employed by local, state, and federal law enforcement agencies, though some private companies may also employ CSIs.

So, what does the typical day of a CSI look like? Because of the unpredictable nature of criminal activity, no two days on the job are ever precisely alike, and the exact responsibilities of a crime scene investigator may vary by agency. Some of the most commonly performed tasks of CSIs include:

  • Preserving collected evidence from crime scenes
  • Identifying and marking areas of interests in and around a crime scene
  • Passing along vital evidence to forensic scientists for analysis or working alongside them
  • Taking photographs and measurements of crime scenes
  • Maintaining proper chain of custody with evidence
  • Ensuring evidence is not contaminated or tampered with
  • Using and maintaining scientific equipment used in investigations

Career Paths in Crime Scene Investigation

One of the most appealing aspects of working in crime scene investigation is its various potential areas of expertise. With this in mind, you can truly pursue your own interests in this field. While you may start out as a basic CSI, you could work your way up to become a crime scene leader or specialize in other essential aspects of the job. Some potential jobs you may be able to pursue after gaining some experience as a CSI include:

  • Forensic photographer
  • Forensic sketch artist
  • Forensic scientist
  • Private detective
  • Fraud investigator

Because crime scenes can be chaotic, experienced CSI leaders must be prepared to restore order and keep investigations as organized as possible. Other crime scene specialists (like photographers and forensic artists) must be prepared to handle other key details of the investigation, being careful not to overlook anything.

Some people who work as crime scene investigators also go on to qualify for positions in such agencies as the FBI, ATF, and even the Secret Service.

Job Outlook and Salaries for Criminal Justice Careers

How much do crime scene investigators make? The job outlook and salary potential vary based on your field, education, experience, and geographic location. For instance, according to the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the median annual wage for forensic science technicians is $63,740. The field is expected to grow 13% between 2022 and 2032, with an average of 2,300 job openings yearly. Unfortunately, however, available BLS data doesn’t distinguish CSIs from forensic scientists.

On the other hand, detectives and criminal investigators earn a median annual wage of $91,610. Those in metropolitan areas tend to make 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.

Steps to Become a Crime Scene Investigator

Does a career in crime scene investigation appeal to you? If so, then there are a few steps you’ll want to follow to get the ball rolling.

Step 1: Gain Relevant Skills and Qualifications

Start by developing some of the most crucial skills and qualifications that hiring agencies will seek when recruiting crime scene investigators. If you’re looking to start your career in law enforcement and work your way up to a CSI position, you could apply to some police officer jobs and begin your career on the street once you complete the hiring process and training academy.

However, you don’t have to start your CSI career as a police officer. Many agencies will hire crime scene investigators and provide on-site training. Still, gaining some relevant skills can put you in a more competitive position. Some of the most important skills to have as a CSI include:

  • Communication and interpersonal skills
  • Analytical and critical thinking skills
  • Strong attention to detail
  • Solid legal knowledge
  • The ability to stay calm and composed, even in stressful situations

Step 2: Pursue Higher Education and Certification

Although a degree is generally not required to work as a CSI, there are various reasons to consider obtaining one before applying to a crime scene investigator job opening. First, a degree can help you gain the practical and foundational skills and knowledge you will need to perform your job with confidence. Meanwhile, a degree in crime scene investigation could help set you apart from other job applicants who may not have a college degree.

Likewise, having a degree could help you earn more money as a crime scene investigator. Depending on whether or not certification is offered or required for CSIs in your state, this is another step you may consider. Having the knowledge and experience of a CSI degree program under your belt can also make getting certified (where necessary) an easier process.

Step 3: Gain Experience in the Field

In addition to a degree program and certification, it can be helpful to gain experience working in law enforcement and/or criminal investigations. If you choose to begin your career as a police officer, you’ll gain plenty of hands-on investigation experience from your everyday work through answering calls and responding to runs.

This should include experience taking photos of crime scenes, collecting fingerprint evidence, preserving physical evidence, identifying firearms, and documenting evidence properly. Depending on your hiring agency, it is possible you may need to attend specific CSI training and get some hands-on practice alongside a mentor before you can work on your own.

Do You Need a Crime Scene Investigator Degree?

If you are 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 can put you on the path to becoming a CSI. If you seek to specialize in a particular field of crime scene investigation, such as DNA analysis, you will 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 typically get paid more than their civilian counterparts.

In some states, you could land a job as a CSI with an associate degree, but this isn’t common. In these cases, many employers still require specific college courses before hiring you. If unsure about your state’s or precinct’s requirements, contact your local police department.

Skills Gained From a Degree

A criminal justice degree can make you a more desirable candidate when applying for jobs and be 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 quality crime scene investigation program will teach you skills related to crime scene photography, too, 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. You will also learn how to analyze and identify firearms.

Pursue a Career in Crime Scene Investigation

Crime scene investigators are necessary to bring criminals to justice. This field has many specializations and collaborates closely with forensic scientists. While a degree isn’t required, it’s recommended for those who are 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 teaches the skills you would 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 can equip you with the foundational skills every CSI needs, such as critical thinking and ethical decision-making.

At Salem, we are committed to working around your schedule, offering a unique one-course-a-month format perfect for those with busy schedules. Salem University also has numerous online courses and accelerated undergraduate and graduate programs available, whether you attend school remotely or on campus. Get in touch today to request more information or for help starting your application

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