So, you want to be a forensic scientist?

Forensic science is the application of science to law. Any science can be applied into a legal situation, but some of the commonest forensic sciences include forensic biology, forensic chemistry, and forensic toxicology. In order to be a forensic scientist you must first be a scientist. You must have a strong grounding in the science you are interested in, before you can apply that science into a legal setting and become a forensic scientist.

Although on television we see supposed ‘forensic scientists’ doing a multitude of jobs from crime scene analysis to shooting the bad guy, forensic science in real life is quite different. There are several career option s in the general area of forensic science.

CRIME SCENE INVESTIGATORS – the real crime scene investigators are not civilians, as is so often portrayed on television, but rather, highly trained police officers. These police officers are usually called Identification Officers or Ident Officers. In some municipal or Provincial forces, the police officers who analyze a crime scene may be in the Detective or Major Crime Sections, but the qualifications, training and job are very similar. Ident officers used to require at least 7 years service in the police force, before entering the training and understudy period in Ident. Very recently, this has changed and some forces now allow police officers to enter the Ident section after only 3 years police service. However, in such cases, the understudy period is lengthened from two years to five years. The training is intense and involves course work, research and extensive oral and written examinations. Ident officers are trained in all aspects of crime scene analysis from photography, fingerprinting and DNA collection to blood spatter pattern analysis (only a select few). The Ident team handles the crime scenes and is not responsible for other aspects of the investigation.  Their duty is to the scene and the analysis of some of the evidence. Other police officers are involved in such things as interviewing suspects and following up leads. The Ident team will correctly collect the evidence, and submit it to the forensic scientists at the lab, who will then perform the analyses and submit reports to the Investigating Officers. The Ident officer however, is responsible for the actual individualization of fingerprints and the analysis of blood spatter pattern. Quality control is extremely important in Ident so NO mistakes are allowed. If an Ident officer makes an incorrect individualization of a fingerprint and wrongly identifies a person, then they are immediately removed from the Ident section. This can occur from their first training exercise to the last print they individualize before they retire. If they make a mistake, they are out of the section. Therefore, every Ident specialist can state in court, that they have NEVER mis-identified anyone.

If you wish to become a crime scene specialist in Canada, you must first become a police officer and complete basic training and the first several years as a general duty officer before you can apply to enter Ident. If you are not interested in becoming a police officer in general, you should not enter the police force with the express intent of entering Ident as many people are interested in this field, so not every police officer who applies to Ident will get in. In some other countries, there also civilian Scene of Crime Officers (SOCO’s). In some of these areas, SOCO’s are highly trained civilian members of police forces, and in others they simply assist the Ident team.

FORENSIC LAB – Forensic Scientists work in the Crime Labs. Some of these are police labs, such as the RCMP labs across the country and some are independent from the police, such as The Centre of Forensic Sciences and the Laboratoire de sciences judiciaires et de medecine legale. Forensic Scientists do not attend crime scenes (except for firearms examiners, who are often also police officers do attend scenes as do members of the lab who analyze explosives and clandestine labs) but receive the evidence from the Ident officers and then analyze the evidence and submit a report giving their opinion of the weight of the evidence. They will often testify in court as expert witnesses. They are civilians, not police officers. Such scientists have a core scientific background in the field in which they are working. Usually they will have a minimum of a four year degree, with honours. For instance, a forensic biologist will have a B.Sc. (Hon) in biology, biochemistry, molecular biology or some similar field, a forensic chemist and a forensic questioned documents examiner will normally have a B.Sc. (Hon) in Chemistry and a forensic toxicologist will usually have a B.Sc. (Hon) in pharmacy or biochemistry. Many scientists in the forensic lab have higher qualifications. You will note that these people have science degrees not degrees in forensic science. You cannot apply science to law without knowing the science first. Therefore, the Forensic Lab hires people with strong core science backgrounds. They do not require, nor usually like a forensic science background. It is much more important, and desirable to have developed a strong expertise in a specific science. Once accepted into the forensic lab, the successful applicant then undergoes an understudy period of 9-18 months, depending on area. Ongoing training continues throughout the career. So the successful applicant has a very strong background in their field of science (strong enough to explain and defend in court) and is trained in the application of that science to law, or forensic science, by the Forensic Lab. In some positions, such as those in the evidence recovery unit, or those of analysts rather than scientists, only a three year degree is required.

The Forensic Labs have several main areas including:-

Forensic biology - Identification of the suspect and the victim through body fluids and hair. Today, this mostly involves DNA analysis.

Forensic chemistry – Identification of non-biological substance found at a crime scene. This can involve paint, glass, liquids etc. Forensic chemistry is involved in many crimes from break and enter, hit and run and arson, to terrorism.

Forensic Toxicology- The analysis of body fluids to determine the level of a drugs or alcohol present, and the effects these toxins would have had on the person.

Questioned Documents Examination – The analysis of documents and writing to determine who wrote something, as well as looking at printers, fax machines, lottery tickets etc. They do NOT determine personality from handwriting.

Firearms and tool mark examination. – Matching a gun to  bullet or a tool mark to the tool that produced it. Firearms examiners have a variety of background but usually have their degree in engineering or physics.

There are several RCMP crime labs across Canada and also Provincial Labs in Ontario and Quebec. There are also some private labs that handle paternity and immigration cases.

FORENSIC PATHOLOGIST – The forensic pathologist investigates the death itself. They are all medical doctors who have specialized in the field of Pathology. They require a medical degree, followed by several years advanced training in pathology. In Canada, Forensic Pathology is not a separate specialty from Pathology. So doctors specialize in Pathology and often go to the States for experience ion Forensic pathology. In the US, a separate specialty in forensic pathology exists. The forensic pathologist autopsies the body and determines the cause of death and all other factors that relate to the body directly. They may attend crime scenes and frequently testify in court.

In some Provinces, we have a Medical Examiners system and in others a Coroners system. Medical Examiners must be medical doctors, but not necessarily forensic pathologists. Only the Chief and Deputy Medical Examiner are usually Forensic Pathologists. In Ontario, Coroners are also doctors, but in the rest of Canada, coroners are lay coroners and come from many backgrounds. In most cases, the position is part-time, fee-for-service. 

OTHER SPECIALISTS – There are many other scientists that may be involved in forensic science. These specialists are usually called in as consultants in a death investigation and are usually regularly employed as university professors in the field of science. They attend crime scenes and autopsies, analyze the evidence, submit reports and testify in court as expert witnesses. Such specialties include but are not limited to:-

Forensic Entomology- the study of insects associated with a death investigation, primarily to determine time since death. A minimum of a B.Sc.(Hon) in Biology, zoology or entomology, plus a Masters in entomology are the minimum requirements, with most practitioners also having a Ph.D. in entomology and many being Board Certified

Forensic Anthropology – the study of human bones to determine factors that will help understand who the victim is and how the death occurred. The forensic anthropologist can determine age, height, sex, race, as well as many other things about the homicide. A BA or B.Sc. in anthropology with an emphasis in physical anthropology followed by a Masters in physical or forensic anthropology is usually required. Most practitioners also having a Ph.D. in physical or forensic anthropology and are often Board Certified.

Forensic Odontology – the analysis of teeth and bite marks in a criminal investigation, as well as any other aspects that may involve dental evidence. Teeth and dental records can be used to identify a victim and bite marks may be used to identify the assailant. Forensic odontologists have a dental degree followed by graduate work and many are Board Certified.

Forensic Botany – the study of plant material including pollen, at crime scenes. There are very few forensic botanists. Most have a minimum of a B.Sc. and a masters in Botany and some will have a Ph.D.


There are many areas in forensic science and many exciting career options. However, don’t forget, you must be a scientist before you can be a forensic scientist.

For further information please check out the American Academy of Forensic Sciences web site at and go to Resources, then forensic links.