If you’re intrigued by the prospect of solving mysteries, the scientific techniques employed and inspired by the important work portrayed on the screen, then a crime scene investigator career may be right for you.
As it happens, the career of crime scene investigator is in demand, and new graduates often find they've chosen a lucrative field that affords them many options for where to go in the future.
What does a crime scene investigator do?
Crime scene investigators work primarily in the field at physical crime scenes. Differently, forensic science technicians, a closely related role, predominantly work in the lab to perform tests and generate reports on the evidence collected.
Once a crime scene investigator enters the physical location of a crime, they’ll first determine what evidence needs to be collected. This might include capturing intact fingerprints, taking samples of blood or other substances, safely collecting bullets or other pieces of physical evidence, or using pictures to systematically catalog every detail about a crime scene.
While many crime scene investigators generally work with all facets of criminal evidence, they may also focus on specialties, such as blood pattern analysis or shoe print casting and analysis. Experienced or specialty investigators are often asked to testify to their work in criminal trials and provide expert analysis on certain aspects of crime scenes.
Every crime scene investigator brings a unique combination of skills and experience, which can allow them to be better suited to some cases than others. Every crime scene presents a different mosaic of challenges and evidence; however, DNA analysis is a primary focus in most investigations. Expertise in the collection and handling of DNA samples for analysis can be extremely valuable in a crime scene investigator career.
Career outlook for crime scene investigators
Most crime scene investigators work for the criminal justice system. On the federal, state and local levels, detectives and criminal investigators had a median annual salary of $90,370 in 2021, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). In addition, police officers, detectives and criminal investigators at all levels typically enjoy excellent benefits, including retirement and health advantages.
Policing represents the lion's share of the work available, but the job prospects for aspiring crime scene investigators go beyond being hired by a public agency. Some people form or join private sector investigatory companies that sell their services to the public sector. Others provide private investigatory services and are often retained by families of victims who want a professional to look into a situation independent of any investigations being conducted by the police. Nationally, private investigators had a median annual salary of $59,380 in 2021, according to BLS.
Criminology degree paths for a crime scene investigator career
There are a few ways of becoming a crime scene investigator, but the primary approach involves earning a degree or certification through an educational institution.
- Bachelor’s degree path
The most common and direct path to a crime scene investigator career is through a bachelor’s degree program. Generally, prospective investigators major in a subject that’s somewhat broader than crime scene analysis alone. These degrees may include forensic science, criminology or criminal justice focuses. Not all institutions offer such degrees and different schools house forensics-related education in different places, so be sure to talk to an academic advisor.
With a bachelor's degree in forensics or crime scene analysis, an applicant can trust that they are well-prepared for their first day on the job. As the most specifically-trained applicants, these graduates tend to get first pick of the available jobs.
- Certificate in crime analysis path
There are certificate programs aimed primarily at prospective crime scene investigators who already have a bachelor’s degree in a related field, preferably criminology or criminal justice, but other majors are admitted as well. A crime analysis graduate certificate builds on your existing education, foregoing the general education requirements of a full bachelor's program and focusing only on crime scene analysis skills.
Many of these programs are more focused than full degrees and put added emphasis on subjects such as statistical methods in analysis, crime mapping and collection of digital evidence. Combined with a relevant bachelor's degree, and perhaps some work experience, this form of certification can be compelling to employers.
- Professional experience path
There are also people who become crime scene investigators through professional experience. This often involves attaining at least some level of certification as a police officer or law enforcement agent.
Earn your criminology degree online from Arizona State University
If you’re just beginning your crime scene investigator career, ASU Online offers a Bachelor of Science in criminology and criminal justice. In this program, you’ll be equipped with the knowledge to explore the impact of crime and implement effective crime reduction strategies. You’ll graduate with the research, analytical and communications skills needed to succeed in a role as a crime scene investigator.
ASU Online also offers a graduate certificate in crime analysis for those who already have an undergraduate degree or are currently working in law enforcement and seeking to advance their career as a crime scene investigator. Upon graduating, you’ll possess a strong understanding of the fundamental issues, strengths and limitations associated with crime analysis and investigation.