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What does a Criminalist do?

By Stacy Carey
Updated Mar 03, 2024
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A criminalist works at a crime laboratory with physical evidence collected from crime scenes. He or she interprets and analyze evidence to assess which pieces are relevant to the case and develops written reports of the findings. Criminalists might be called to provide expert witness testimony in court as well.

The job duties for a forensic criminalist include tasks such as performing analysis on deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA), controlled substances, firearms and chemical products. A criminalist will examine trace amounts of evidence including soil, fibers, hair and glass fragments. He or she also tests and analyzes blood and other body fluids and products. Some work involves additional areas such as forensics involving photography, computers, anthropology and even toxicology or voice analysis. A criminalist must be able to work with the utmost accuracy and must follow extremely strict protocols, such as maintaining the chain of custody with evidence.

For many people, being a criminalist can be a fascinating job. The work focuses on the examination of evidence from crime scenes by utilizing a number of instruments, including microscopes, cameras and spectroscopes. Criminalists analyze and report on many types of physical evidence while using advanced technologies to determine the relevance to the crime scene. People who are detail-oriented and dedicated might be an excellent fit for this career path.

Career advancement is quite possible within this field of work. Those who develop knowledge and experience will have the opportunity to work on more difficult cases and earn additional authority. There is intense competition for criminalist jobs, but opportunities are expected to increase in this field.

There is no single criminalist college degree. Entering the field requires a bachelor’s degree in one of the sciences, typically either forensic, biological or physical science. Prospective candidates should also have at least 24 semester hours of math and either chemistry or biology. Some prospective candidates for these jobs acquire master’s degrees in forensic science in order to improve their chances of being hired.

People who work in a these jobs need to have excellent organizational, interpersonal, communication and problem-solving skills. Much of the job is spent evaluating physical evidence and performing methodical tests to determine the evidence's relevance to a crime scene. Criminalists need to be detail-oriented and persistent because the job requires the ability to conduct complex laboratory analysis on multiple pieces of evidence. Most criminalists work in team environments, so strong skills in working and communicating with others are a must.

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Discussion Comments
By FernValley — On Jul 24, 2011

See, I think a lot of people these days think that forensic science jobs are so much fun because of all the crime-related television that is available these days.

When I was in college I spent a little time on a mock trial team. In addition to having cases each year that were based as closely as possible on facts from real events, we also had advisers who were lawyers themselves- one defense lawyer and one prosecutor who worked for the state. Talking to them, we realized that law is not glamorous or nearly as fast-paced, usually, as television makes it look.

By recapitulate — On Jul 24, 2011

If your goal is to get a job in the fields of forensic science and criminology, make sure you know what sorts of courses you need to work different places. Different countries or even regions of the US can have different requirements.

I have a friend who pursued a degree for it in college, but still didn't take one course she needed because it was not mandatory, only to find out that most places wanted her to have experience in that area in order to employ her.

By sneakers41 — On Jul 23, 2011

@Moldova - I think that this is the downside of a forensic science career because you work so hard to secure evidence and really believe in your heart that based on this forensic evidence you know what happened and then the evidence is not used or the jury returns a different verdict.

I know that this is a field that you have to have strong skin and not let things bother you because most people that enter this field really have a strong sense of justice and really don’t want anyone to get away with committing a crime.

There is a huge sense of satisfaction but you have to realize that you can do everything right and still lose. That is just how things are sometimes in the field of criminology.

By Moldova — On Jul 23, 2011

@GreenWeaver - I think that the accuracy of the criminalist is paramount to any investigation because the slightest mistake can hurt a criminal case and even set a criminal free because the evidence was inadmissible.

I hate when I hear about a defendant that gets set free because the jury was not allowed to hear suppressed evidence. It must frustrate the forensic investigators greatly.

So sometimes a few mistakes from a criminalist or crime scene technician can really put the rest of the forensic evidence in jeopardy.

By GreenWeaver — On Jul 22, 2011

@Suntan12 - I agree and I think that sometimes you really have to not take anything for granted and make sure that you pick the jury wisely.

I think that a criminologist’s job is really fascinating. It is like living a mystery novel every day. Solving a lot of these crimes must be gratifying especially when you know that you are helping grieving families.

I think that that must be the source of strength for a lot of these people in forensic science careers because the work can also be pretty gruesome, and I bet a little scary at times. It probably gives you more appreciation of life because you are constantly dealing with death.

By suntan12 — On Jul 22, 2011

I think that forensic science careers will really grow in the future. The general public is learning a lot about forensic science and crime scene investigations through a lot of these popular television shows.

Some legal analysts have even said that many juries value forensic evidence above circumstantial evidence because with forensic evidence there really is no doubt about who committed the crime.

This causes a problem for a lot of prosecutors because sometimes there is no forensic evidence, but there is a lot of circumstantial evidence. The Casey Anthony verdict is a perfect example of this and it is cases like this that will make the crime scene investigator even more important in a criminal case because the term beyond a reasonable doubt is really translating to no doubt in many juror’s minds.

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