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Forensic Scientist

Kaipūtaiao Taihara

Alternative titles for this job

Forensic scientists apply scientific knowledge and skills to investigating crimes and helping the police find or eliminate crime suspects. They may also do research into developing or improving forensic techniques.

Pay

Forensic scientists assisting crime investigations usually earn

$50K-$90K per year

Forensic scientists doing research usually earn

$55K-$130K per year

Source: Institute of Environmental Science and Research (ESR), 2017

Job opportunities

Chances of getting a job as a forensic scientist are poor as the occupation is small and competition for jobs is strong.

Pay

Pay for forensic scientists varies depending on qualifications and experience. 

  • Forensic scientists assisting crime investigations usually earn from $50,000 to $70,000 a year.
  • Senior forensic scientists with several years' experience can earn $90,000 or more.
  • Forensic scientists doing research can earn between $55,000 and $130,000.   

Source: Human Resources, The Institute of Environmental Science and Research (ESR), 2017

(This information is a guide only. Find out more about the sources of our pay information)

What you will do

Forensic scientists perform a wide range of tasks, which may include some or all of the following:

  • visit crime scenes to find evidence
  • take notes and draw sketches of crime scenes
  • analyse physical evidence such as fibres, glass, debris, firearms, bullets and marks made by tools or weapons
  • identify drugs found on people, in body fluids or at crime scenes
  • analyse biological evidence such as hair, blood and other body fluids
  • analyse body tissues for poisons
  • write reports on the results
  • give evidence in court
  • investigate civil court cases such as fire or insurance claims
  • train police staff in collecting evidence.

Skills and knowledge

Forensic scientists need to have:

  • knowledge of the chemical make-up of things such as paint or textiles, blood, body tissues and DNA
  • knowledge of poisons and drugs, firearms and explosives
  • research skills
  • skill in analysing and interpreting research results and other information
  • practical skills for performing experiments and operating scientific equipment.

Working conditions

Forensic scientists:

  • usually work regular business hours, but may be required to visit crime scenes during evenings, weekends or public holidays when on call
  • work in laboratories and offices
  • often travel locally and around New Zealand to attend crime scenes and court cases
  • often work in stressful or hazardous conditions, as crime scenes may be distressing or potentially harmful.

What's the job really like?

Janina Savage

Janina Savage - Forensic Scientist

Just another day on the job

Flying into a murder scene on a foggy Saturday morning, Janina Savage knows the drill. As a forensic scientist with the Institute of Environmental Science and Research (ESR), she'll be briefed by the police about what they think happened. Then, she and a forensic technician will take photos of the crime scene and search for blood, hair or other samples. She will then bring the evidence with her to analyse the DNA.

It's not like on the TV shows

Janina admits that not all of her work is exciting, unlike what most people think. "Only about 10 percent of my time is spent on crime scenes or explaining evidence in court. About 30 percent of my time would be in the lab, analysing items of evidence. And the largest chunk of time goes into writing reports, training police staff or doing case management, which involves sorting out issues relating to the case, and talking to the police about what we can and can't do."

Forensic science has its challenges and rewards

What Janina finds most challenging about her job is that investigations can be painstaking processes that take several months from start to finish. But in spite of its challenges, Janina loves her job. "It gives me a huge buzz when I find some crucial evidence that fits into place like in a jigsaw puzzle."

Entry requirements

To become a forensic scientist you need to have a minimum of a Bachelor of Science (BSc) majoring in an element of forensic science such as chemistry, biochemistry, biotechnology, medical laboratory science or molecular biology, depending on which area of forensics you want to specialise in. 

Strong competition for forensic science roles means that even with a BSc you will usually start out as a senior science technician.

Chances of securing a scientist role are higher if you complete a postgraduate course such as a Masters or Postgraduate Diploma in Forensic Science at Auckland or Otago University. These courses include practical components so you can gain applied experience in the field. 

Entry requirements for forensic positions in the police 

The New Zealand Police have a number of forensic roles for civilians, and roles where you first need to train as a police officer. Civilian forensic roles include fingerprint officers and crime scene analysts. There are different entry requirements for each specialisation, with most roles requiring a minimum of an undergraduate degree before being accepted into a structured career development programme.  

Secondary education

A tertiary entrance qualification is required to enter further training. Useful subjects include maths with statistics and calculus, biology, chemistry and English.

Personal requirements

Forensic scientists need to be:

  • good at problem solving
  • good at communicating, as they have to write reports and give evidence in court
  • good at maths
  • honest, responsible and able to keep information private
  • accurate, with an eye for detail
  • able to work well under pressure.

Forensic scientists have to be even more careful and observant than ever. With advances in DNA analysis, there are now more things that we can analyse. For instance, we use tiny amounts of skin that we get from swabbing parts of the body that may have been touched by the offender.

Photo: Glenys Knight - Forensic Scientist

Glenys Knight - Forensic Scientist

Useful experience

Useful experience for forensic scientists includes laboratory work, and work in the fields of medicine or chemistry.

Physical requirements

Forensic scientists must have good eyesight (with or without corrective lenses).

Check out related courses

What are the chances of getting a job?

The Institute of Environmental Science and Research (ESR) is the largest employer of forensic scientists in New Zealand, employing around 120 forensic scientists. Five to ten positions usually become available every year. Competition for these roles is intense and they are normally filled by forensic science graduates.        

A specialised forensics course improves your prospects

Chances of securing a job are higher if you complete a tertiary course with forensic science elements and/or a postgraduate course such as a Masters or Postgraduate Diploma in Forensic Science at Auckland or Otago University. 

Most forensic scientists start in the position of senior forensic technician, doing fairly advanced work under the supervision of a scientist. Forensic scientists may be involved in forensic investigations related to specific cases or do research in forensic techniques.

Most forensic scientists work for government organisations 

Forensic scientists assisting crime investigations may work in one of a few organisations.

  • The Institute of Environmental Science and Research (ESR), a Crown research institute, provides forensic services to the New Zealand Police.
  • The police also directly employ specialists in civilian positions such as scene of crime officer, document examiner and fingerprint officer.
  • Private laboratories and companies employ or contract forensic scientists for civil work such as carrying out investigations for insurance companies, and criminal case reviews for criminal defence lawyers and overseas investigators.

Forensic scientists who do research in forensic techniques work at universities or Crown research institutes.

Sources

  • Buckingham, K, executive assistant, forensic, Institute of Environmental Science and Research, Careers New Zealand interview, February 2017.
  • Sandiford, A, director, The Forensic Group, Careers New Zealand interview, February 2017.

(This information is a guide only. Find out more about the sources of our job opportunities information)

Progression and specialisations

Forensic scientists may progress to a senior scientist position with experience, and to a science leader or management position with a PhD.

Forensic scientists at the Institute of Environmental Science and Research (ESR) may specialise in areas such as:

DNA Analyst
DNA analysts examine DNA evidence, such as blood, from crime scenes.
Firearms Examiner
Firearms examiners identify guns used in crimes by studying bullets and bullet marks.
Forensic Toxicologist
Forensic toxicologists analyse drugs and poisons in specimens such as food or blood.
Illicit Drug Analyst
Illicit drug analysts identify illicit drugs, such as methamphetamine and cocaine, usually for the police.

The New Zealand Police also offers a range of forensic civilian specialisations including fingerprint officers, behavioural analysts, electronic crime analysts, document examiners and scene of crime officers (SOCOs).   

Janina Savage looking through a microscope in a lab

A forensic scientist examining a hair sample from a crime scene

Last updated 25 May 2017