A criminalist is a forensic science technician. Criminalists identify, analyze, and interpret the physical evidence of a crime using the natural sciences. Physical evidence can be anything from a weapon to soil, drugs and/or human tissue. The aim of a criminalist's work is to identify the evidence and link a suspect to the victim and crime scene.
Criminalists work in close collaboration with others, including attorneys, police officers, CIA or FBI agents, and sheriff's offices. They are responsible for writing their own reports and must maintain meticulous records documenting things like the chain-of-custody of evidence (to ensure that no one has tampered with it). They must have high standards and moral values since they are responsible for making sure their reports are accurate, that all the evidence has been weighed, that their analysis has been thoughtfully prepared, and that their testimony in a court case is precise. They also should be considerate authors, considering they might be expected to prepare and present written reports to an audience consisting of non-scientists.
Criminalists often serve as expert witnesses in court cases. When this happens, the criminalist must be able to present his or her scientific analyses in layman's terms to a jury—people who are unlikely to share the criminalist's educational background and knowledge. Additionally, the criminalist's work will be scrutinized by the lawyers in the court room. Strict attention will be paid to the criminalist's training and education, work (including performance reviews), and his or her thought process.
Education & Training
Generally, to be employed as a criminalist you must first obtain a bachelor's degree in criminalistics, chemistry, biology, molecular biology, physics, or a related science. Some employers require that you possess a master's degree or doctorate in forensic science or criminalistics. Associate's degrees in criminalistics are available, however most employers will expect you to eventually earn a bachelor's degree.
Some criminalists are employed in public practice, but most are employed by law enforcement agencies. The U.S. Postal Service, the military, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services also employ criminalists. As the role of a criminalist in the justice system grows, the employment of forensic science technicians is expected to rise by 20 percent through 2018.
Meanwhile, the annual salary of a criminalist varies depending on a number of factors, including level of education and geographical location. As of 1998, starting salaries for criminalists ranged from $20,000 to $40,000 per year. Experienced professionals working in a crime lab earned between $40,000 and $85,000 per hour. As of 2008, criminalist technicians earned an average of $23.97 per hour.
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