Forensic Scientist Job Description:
A forensic scientist is someone who has one or more college degrees in science and is applying that background to try to solve crimes, to find a connection between a crime scene and individuals by means of physical evidence. Basic procedure would be lifting fingerprints from a crime scene and trying to figure out who left them. It gets progressively more complex with DNA and genetic evidence.
How did you begin your career in forensic science?
My career in forensic science is a classic case of serendipity. I finished my master’s degree and moved from New York to Los Angeles because of a woman who I met on a blind date in New York City. She was from Los Angeles, we hit it off and one thing led to another. I came out West without a job or prospects for one; love brought me out here. I’ve been married to that same woman for 38 years.
After moving out to Los Angeles, I submitted a resume to the State of California. One day they gave me a call and said, “Come down to see us, we have a possible job interview.” I met the job counselor and he said the strangest thing,” I think I have a job that you’ll like. By the way, do you watch Perry Mason?” He said the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department was hiring chemists for their crime lab. I went down there, interviewed and they offered me a forensic scientist job. I started on May 5th, 1969. Today, I am the Crime Lab Director.
How does a forensic scientist deal with crime scenes?
Most people don’t typically deal with this level of guts and gore. It can be pretty offensive to all of the senses. But there are a lot of professions that deal with difficult things: emergency room doctors, nurses, cops, the military; there are millions of people who deal with disturbing, unsightly situations. You kind of make mental accommodations. You have to look at this clinically and not allow yourself to get emotionally involved.
What are the challenges of a career in forensic science?
The real challenge of being a forensic scientist is testifying in the courtroom as an expert witness. You have a lot of good defense attorneys who put you through your paces. The worst example of this was the O.J. Simpson case. To go to court for several days, or weeks, and get chewed up makes you wonder, "Is it really worth a forensic scientist’s salary to have all that abuse strewn on me?” I have had people leave because of that.
Are cases solved by forensics really like those on the CSI TV show?
The CSI TV show is a caricature of real life in a crime lab. We don’t typically interrogate suspects, we don’t arrest people. Most people in this business are civilians; they don’t carry guns or handcuffs. The time frame is really skewed on the CSI TV show. You’re not completing one of these investigations in 50 minutes; it's going to take you weeks, sometimes months.
What is the best part of a career in forensic science?
The sense that you are making a difference; you’re working to make society a little better by trying to help out the criminal justice system. The thing that I really enjoy is telling the police, “You got the wrong guy. You arrested the wrong person.” I think that's really gratifying. A lot of people think we’re here to just rubber stamp whatever the police find, but I always argue that we follow the thread and it takes us wherever it takes us.
What is a typical forensic scientist’s salary?
A forensic scientist’s salary has a large salary range depending on where they’re working, the big cities tend to pay a little bit more because of cost of living, but that’s not always the case. In this lab, an entry level journeyman with a college degree, who has been working 6-7 years, is making around 80K. My salary is about 125K. Typically, the starting salaries are about 40k to 50K, right out of school without training.
What are the requirements to become a forensic scientist? What is the typical forensic scientist education?
For a forensic scientist education, the minimum requirement is a Bachelor's Degree; it pays pretty well for that level of education. One of the impacts of the CSI TV show is that there is a huge interest in being a forensic scientist. When I started most people had Bachelor's, now significant numbers have Master's and there are some PhDs sprinkled around. There are college programs that have BA or Master's in forensic science; hard science, biology, chemistry, bio-chemistry, that’s the ticket to admission.
Do you recall any memorable moments during your career in forensic science?
Back when they were putting the CSI TV show pilot together and trying to sell it, we had some screenwriters, producers and set designers come down to the lab to tour. At the end of the visit, one of the producers says to me, “We’re looking for some consultants. Do you think you’d be willing to consult on the show for us, we don’t have anything to offer you right now, but it may turn into something.” I listened to the whole premise of the proposed CSI TV show and said, “I'm really flattered, but quite honestly, this thing is never going to fly.”
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