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What does a Crime Scene Investigator do?

A crime scene investigator (sometimes known as a forensic scientist) collects and examines the physical evidence found during a criminal investigation. The crime scene investigator also performs lab tests on weapons, fiber, hair, and tissue and might be asked to testify as an expert witness for a trial.

crime scene investigator

Crime scene investigators may decide to specialize in a certain area, like ballistics, fingerprinting, handwriting, or biochemistry. Your attention to detail, interests in science and law, and strong stomach can be the tools you need to get you started on this exciting and growing career.

More than CSI: details in the duties

A crime scene investigator collects the physical evidence found at the crime scene. That material is taken to the lab, where the crime scene investigator examines and tests it. Depending on the material collected, a crime scene investigator can answer questions about past events, such as time of death, the cause of a car accident, or the weapon used. The crime scene investigator also works closely with law enforcement and others involved in the case or investigation.

While each episode of CSI lasts only an hour, crime scene investigators need to work much longer–and less regular–hours. You can expect to be called whenever and wherever a crime occurs, which means you can be called in the middle of the night, on a holiday, or during a special event.

You’ll also need to keep your record clean. Because crime scene investigators work in the justice system, having a criminal record can keep you from getting most jobs in forensics. Another important thing you will likely need is a strong stomach, as crime scene investigators often work with grisly (and messy) scenes.

Education: training in forensics

A crime scene investigator usually needs to have a bachelor’s degree in natural science, along with some courses in law enforcement and crime scene processing, or in criminal justice, with some courses in natural science.

Crime scene investigators who decide on a specialty (such as handwriting analysis, forensic anthropology, or psychology) will most likely need additional education.

Crime scene investigator pay and growth

The U.S. Bureau of Labor and Statistics (BLS) projects that forensic science technicians will grow by 20 percent, faster than average for all occupations. According to the BLS, industries with the highest levels of employment were as follows, with their respective mean annual salaries:

  • Local government
  • State government
  • Medical and diagnostic laboratories

What does a Criminal Investigator do?

Criminal investigators and detectives typically specialize in one area of crime such as homicide, bank robbery, or fraud. Working as an investigator requires knowledge of jurisdictional law, law enforcement policies and procedures, interpersonal skills, verbal and written communication skills, and problem solving and analytical skills. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) notes that law enforcement professionals frequently experience dangerous situations and stressful working conditions. As a criminal investigator, you may work at violent crime scenes and encounter severely injured or deceased crime victims.

Still want to work as a criminal investigator?

These professionals are assigned crimes by their agencies and usually work each case from start to finish. Observing crime scenes, interviewing witnesses, victims, and persons connected with the crime scene or suspects is all part of the job. You may also be involved in researching suspects, reviewing statements provided by witnesses, coordinating with colleagues for investigating crimes and developing case files. Unlike the pristine designer clothes worn by TV criminal investigators, you can expect to get “down and dirty” on the job. Criminal investigators work long hours and several days in a row, when working a crime.

Criminal investigator jobs: where they are and what they pay

The BLS reports that the highest number of detective and criminal investigator jobs were found in local government agencies followed by the executive branch of the federal government and state agencies. The highest paying investigator jobs are rare. The top paying employers are the U.S. Postal Service and federal executive branch.

criminal investigator

Criminal investigator education requirements

Members of local police departments can generally progress through the ranks to become detectives, but state and federal positions generally require a bachelor’s degree in administrative justice, criminal justice, law enforcement or related field. As law enforcement officers, criminal justice officers also receive job training through a law enforcement training academy and ongoing on-the-job training.

College coursework includes police science, state and local law, constitutional law and civil rights, investigative techniques and law enforcement technology. Military service and training may substitute for some types of law enforcement training. Criminal investigator positions hired through state and local law enforcement agencies typically require passing a competitive written civil service examination. Reading, language comprehension, quantitative and analytical skills are necessary for passing such exams.

Earning a degree in criminal justice or a related field can help current law enforcement officers fast-track their careers toward a criminal investigator position.

What does a Detective do?

The popularity of crime investigation television shows and Sherlock Holmes-esque dramas have driven a booming interest in the working lives of detectives, but how accurate are these portrayals, and how do you really become a detective?


Beyond pop culture: what detectives really do

It is important to understand that there are two primary types of detectives in the field today: police and private detectives. Police detectives work with officers and forensic specialists to gather and analyze evidence, collect witness testimony and identify potential suspects. While TV shows give the impression that police detectives spend most of their time in the field, many detectives actually spend a great deal of time doing paperwork and reviewing records. None the less, these professionals solve crimes and make their communities safer.

Private detectives or investigators, often called PIs, are the other common type of detective. Unlike police detectives who work for local, state or federal agencies, private detectives are mostly self-employed investigators hired by private citizens to solve different types of mysteries, from suspicious infidelity or fraud to finding long-lost loved ones. Their methods vary from case to case, but all private investigators are beholden to the laws and ethics governing their fields.

How to become a detective

Most police detectives begin as officers in the field, graduating from agency police academies and then advancing through the ranks via merit and experience. Those who advance within their departments may earn the title of lead detective.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), some state and federal agencies require detectives to earn college degrees in police science or a related discipline. Even those in local agencies without these requirements tend to fare better with this type of training. In some cases, military experience can replace higher education.

The BLS reports that while there are no standard education requirements for private detectives, most have college degrees in areas like criminal or political science. Those specializing in corporate investigation often have business training while those working in financial investigation study accounting. According to the BLS, most states require private detectives to be licensed, so it is a good idea to research your state’s education requirements.

Detective career, salary projections

Demand for detectives seems mostly unaffected by shifting economic conditions, making this a virtually recession-proof field. According to the BLS, the future is particularly bright for private detectives who are projected to enjoy an impressive 22 percent career growth. Positions among police detectives are projected to grow by about 10 percent during the same period. Note, however, that police detectives typically earn more than their private counterparts.