Forensic chemistry: what is it, how to become one, education and salary

Forensic chemistry deals with the chemical analysis of a crime scene or any other environments associated with a crime. A forensic chemist is responsible with identifying and characterizing the evidence, and  will some time be required to hold his conclusions in court as an expert witness attesting or disproving the validity of the forwarded evidence.

forensic-chemistryContrary to popular belief, a forensic chemist will rarely perform field work – field work is most of the time performed by law enforcement and forensic technicians. A forensic chemist will analyze evidence including hair samples, paint chips, glass fragments, gun powder, blood stains… pretty much anything that can yield valuable chemical information. For this task a multidisciplinary approach is required and, as such, a merged knowledge from the fields of chemistry, biology, material science and genetics is required. Simply knowing chemistry just isn’t good enough, especially as thee prevalence of DNA analysis in forensic science as well as the weight it holds in court means that a background in genetics becomes increasingly important.

A forensic chemist may also be called upon during drug busts or other drug related operations to analyze various substances and assess their nature.

To achieve this, a forensic chemist should become familiar with a variety of techniques including microscopy, optical analysis (UV, infrared, X-ray), gas chromatography, and other technologies. Findings are carefully laid in a report that will be used in support of criminal investigations.

Forensic chemistry working condition

Typically a forensic chemist will work in a lab setting, most of the time employed by a local, state or federal government. Some private entities that work closely with law establishments will also provide forensic chemistry positions. The hours are long, tasks are generally repetitive and the equipment is used is highly technical. However, some police stations or companies might employ chemists project-based if they can’t afford hiring a full time forensic chemist.

As you might imagine, considering the lives and liberty of individuals are at stake, strict procedures regarding evidence and documentation handling is required and must be warranted. At times, law enforcement and court officials might pressure the forensic chemist to deliver results and work at a faster pace to meet these demands. As such the work might seem intense.

Public speaking and strong communication skills are required as the forensic chemist will often be called in front of court to testify his findings. Complex scientific procedures in such a way the justice and juries need to understand will need to be conveyed.

Career path

Like stated earlier, a forensic chemist will typically be employed through a federal, state or county labs, as well as private institutions at some times. Besides the base profession, however, someone trained or experienced in the field of forensic science might also move to work in other departments like forensic science, academe or administration. For instance, there are numerous cases in which a forensic chemist or some other forensic scientist has moved to managing a lab, where he handles attributions like supervising other scientists, instead of being himself involved in day-to-day analysis. Case review and general lab management would also be part of his attributions. Patent law is also a viable branching.

Forensic chemistry educational requirements

Of course, a strong background in chemistry and technical knowledge of instrument use is required. Though it is not always required, it is definitely recommended to have a either an undergraduate or graduate degree in forensic science. Those interested in a position as a trace evidence analysis, like glass, hair, paper and so on should rather focus on instrumental analysis. If forensic biology and DNA analysis are preferred, take microbiology, genetics, and biochemistry courses. Those interested in the toxicological aspects of this work should study physiology, biochemistry, and chemistry.

Salary of a forensic chemist

The salary of a forensic chemist varies on experience, position and state of employment. Typically a forensic chemist earns $70,550 yearly. If you’re just starting off as a forensic chemist, expect to earn $58,100 yearly in the beginning.

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