Though it may seem like there is only one type of job, or maybe two, due to the vast amount of television that features criminalists, there are actually many different types of forensic scientists. A forensic scientist degree can be in almost any science major, though there are now some degrees specifically designed for those who wish to become forensics specialists.
The major areas of work in forensics are medical examiners and others who work with bodies, such as forensic anthropologists, laboratory technicians, crime scene investigators, technical analysts, academic assistants such as psychologists or social scientists, and forensic engineers. Though there is some overlap, generally each of these career paths requires a different degree.
Medical examiners are, of course, doctors. They must have a four year undergraduate degree, then complete four years of medical school, and finally complete a residency in some form of medicine that offers exposure to forensics. Besides the extended period of training required, medical examiners must be able to work with dead bodies every day.
Lab analysts work with samples, inside the laboratory. The job is generally safe, clean, and has regular hours, but can be repetitive and boring. Degrees for this type of work are those related to chemistry– traditional degrees in chemistry, as well as chemical engineering and biochemistry. Lab analysts work alongside technical analysts, who do the same job but with technical media, which includes all types of computers. Computer science degrees are the usual here.
Crime scene investigators are the stars of the show on television, though they are, of course, only one part of the system. These investigators have, at a minimum, a bachelor’s degree with a major and a minor, one in a natural science and one in criminal justice or law. Their job is to process the scene of a crime for evidence that can be used to figure out what happened, and to prosecute the guilty parties. Forensic engineers do a similar job, except that they assess structures involved in crimes, and engineering degrees are required.
Academic support for forensics generally comes from experts in the fields of social sciences, mostly psychology, sociology and anthropology. Some are employed full time in law enforcement, but many consult on select cases. This is mostly the case with the dentists who do forensic odontology, as well. Few opportunities exist to become a full-time profiler or dentist in the law enforcement field.
Those profilers that do work full-time in the field often work as crime scene investigators, and then lend their psychology skills to the job. This usually requires a combination of an undergraduate degree in one field and a psychology degree in another, or a double major. These jobs are few and far between, and require many hours of statistical analysis, rather than as they are commonly portrayed on television.
Criminalistics is a fascinating field, and people who want to enter it can find many pathways into the job. A specialized forensic scientist degree is one option, but most of these jobs are easier to get with other degrees, which also leaves you in a better position to find alternate employment, as there are not always sufficient openings to match interest in criminal investigation jobs, these days.