Crime scene investigations have always been the hard work of law enforcement and the team of medical professionals that identify, examine and clean up forensic cases. For years, their work was overlooked and, from the general public’s perspective, probably not even thought about much. When the popular TV show, CSI: Crime Scene Investigation came onto the Hollywood scene in the early 2000s, all the “glitz and fame” of forensic science came with it. Soon, crime scene forensics were as exciting as a high-speed mobster chase.
Crime dramas are all over our TV. Whether you prefer the glamorized forensic approach of CSI and NCIS, the balancing act of an unstable analyst tipping the scales on Dexter, the on-the street detective work of Law & Order: SVU, the head-scratching strange homicides of Castle, or forensic anthropology approach to crime on Bones… forensic lab work is at the forefront of crime solving.
What we see from popularized forensic shows are dark puzzles, thoughtful and elaborate stories, and exciting superhero chronicles where someone uses a Q-Tip from their purse on a blood spot and – bam!... the culprit is behind bars. But what is the lab really like? Does Hollywood get it right, or not so much?
How Hollywood Got Working In The Lab Wrong
Myth: “Crime scene investigators, crime scene technicians (CSTs), and forensic scientists are all pretty much the same job.”
When we watch these crime dramas, it’s usually one or two people at the crime scene and in the lab, doing all the work. It’s no wonder a common thought when considering a laboratory profession is that if you work in lab, you can work in the investigative field and vice versa. There’s more to these jobs than meets the eye. So what’s the difference? Crime scene investigators follow up on leads and evidence and do most of the sleuthing. CSTs are similar. They’re usually the first people on the crim scene to identify key pieces of evidence. They process the crime scenes, package up the evidence they find, and send it to the lab. They are usually police department based and spend most of their time in the field, collecting evidence. Forensic scientists are in the lab, analyzing the evidence given to them. There may be some crossover in the job duties of a CST and forensic scientist, because they have the right training in collecting evidence, but they are not involved in the detective work.
If you’re thinking about a life in the lab, there are many different specializations to consider. While a forensic scientist requires a bachelor’s degree, proceeding to a forensic pathologist requires an advanced degree and special training.
Myth: “Working in the lab is exciting every single day.”
As a new lab tech, you might go into your job thinking everything will be fast-paced and laden with answers and data, served left and right. Every day is a new adventure and a new answer! Well, in the lab, things take time. Medical laboratories are sterile environments, where contamination is probably the most consistent stressor. You’ll be wearing gloves, goggles, masks… and yeah, you get to wear that crisp white lab coat too, all while utilizing high-tech equipment to analyze detailed samples of fluid and tissue. Working in a medical lab may involve hours on hours of standing, pondering, processing, looking into microscopes, and documenting results.
To those who get a thrill from analyzing data and samples, this job could be a dream. However, if you’re looking for a more “Batman-style, boots-on-the-ground” approach to life, or maybe you just want to wear the leather jacket and a pair of Ray-Bans, then lab work might not be your thing.
Myth: “Lab work is a quick process.”
Frequently on TV, we see DNA evidence getting scooped up and sent off to the lab, coffee still in the detective’s hand, only to have the results back by that day’s lunchtime. You see the crime scene investigator sitting down, enjoying a burger, one bite in… when suddenly they get “the call.” The suspect is identified or ruled out, and the show goes on. Easy peasy, right?
The time warp at which this DNA is being collected, sent off to lab, processed and returned results is done to squeeze all the thrilling aspects of crime scene investigating into one 40-minute episode. Realistically, processing DNA evidence takes over 50 hours of lab work, on a good day. That’s over six work days of time, and that’s if the CST has nothing else going on (which, let’s be honest, crime and science wait for no one.)
The rate in which DNA evidence works to catch the offender is also often exaggerated. DNA is difficult! If a suspect’s DNA is collected and they don’t have fingerprints entered into the system already, that suspect cannot be identified using just DNA. This is also not taking into account the possibility of smaller samples and sample degradation, which can also make DNA matching difficult. So while DNA testing is a wonderful tool to add to crime analysis, it’s not always the answer you see on TV.
Myth: “Specimens are always neat and tidy and not gross at all.”
Crime scene investigations are often portrayed with very clean and easy evidence swabs being dabbed on a blood spot, then whisked away in a sandwich baggie from the crime scene to the lab. Flash forward to the next scene: scientists are thoughtfully explaining results, but… where’d the baggie go? While it’s true that a high level of cleanliness is required to process and analyze lab specimens, they aren’t always just as simple as a dab of blood on a cotton swab. Fluid samples aren’t limited to blood—they could be saliva, urine, semen or fluids within body cavities. Tissue samples include hair, teeth, nails and skin, but could also mean internal organs or brain matter. These samples could also be accompanied by an article of clothing or could just be a whole toothbrush or coffee cup. Specimens come in all shapes and sizes, so you never know what might be showing up in a bag that day. And, if you’re into surprise bags of people’s tissue and fluids, that could be the level of excitement you’re looking for in a job.
What’s working in the crime lab really like?
To work in a crime lab, you’ll need an undergraduate degree in natural science or forensic science, plus a background in chemistry, criminalistics and instrumental analysis with extensive coursework in mathematics, chemistry, and biology. Furthermore, if you have a specific area of the crime lab in mind, here are some study areas you should focus on:
How to pursue a career in crime lab
In order to work in a crime lab career, you need to have a set of skills to succeed. These include being detail-oriented, excellent experimental technique, strong quantitative and qualitative analysis skills, strong interpretation skills, strong oral communication skills, critical thinking skills, problem-solving skills, and written communication skills.
Forensic biology: This specialty focuses on DNA analysis—much of which this article is based on. Your education focus should feature microbiology, biochemistry, and genetics.
Trace evidence: This specialty deals with evidence such as gunshot residue, soil, glass, textile fibers, fabric, and hair. Your education focus should be on instrumentation skills, material science, geology, and soil chemistry.
Toxicology: This specialty studies measurement and analysis of potential toxins and obtaining toxicology reports. Your education focus should deal with physiology, chemistry, and biochemistry.
Advanced positions may require a master’s degree and a Ph.D. is preferred if you’re looking to advance to a lab director and it’s required for forensic research positions.
The work environment of a crime lab
Almost all crime lab work is associated with federal, state, or local police, a medical examiner's office, forensic services lab, or a branch of the FBI. Your basic environment will be in a lab like this and includes utilizing your chemistry, biology and genetics studies to analyze evidence and perform tests using criminalistics, microscopy, spot testing, and toxicology analysis. Evidence can be found in many forms. The results of your work are used in investigations and trials, and you may even be called upon to explain your findings to a jury. On a typical day, you’ll be elbows deep in lab testing.
The career projection for crime lab and forensic science
After completing formal education, there are training specifications to pass, depending on your area of expertise. For example, forensic science technicians need 6 to 12 months of hands-on training to learn DNA analysis. Throughout your crime lab career, you need to stay in-the-know on advances in your field.
Employment of forensic science technicians is projected to grow 17% by 2026 which is faster than average for most careers. Competition for a job in forensic science is high.
Working in the lab is not for the faint of heart, the faint of mind, or the faint of stomach. It requires brains, blood and guts (sometimes literally), a whole lot of patience and mindful education to properly perform tests and analyze data. These popular crime TV shows have glamorized crime laboratories, making lab work look like an exciting field to be in…and it is. Just not in the ways portrayed on TV. Exciting crime lab work is work well done. When the results of a test come in and you’ve done everything right to give investigators your best outcome. Sometimes the best way to fight crime is with a lab coat.
Are you interested in working in the lab, but don’t really know where to start? Not sure if working in crime lab is what you want? Crime lab is just one specialty of many in laboratory jobs out there. Fusion staffs a variety of lab jobs, including:
- Medical Lab Scientist
- Medical Laboratory Technician (MLT)
- Clinical Lab Technician (CLT)
- Histotechnologist (HTL)
- Histotechnician (HT)
When you work as a traveling lab tech, you get the excitement of 13-week assignments while testing out different specialties in your field. Maybe you’ll become the next Dr. Temperance Brennan or the next Dexter Morgan! (Ok, probably not a good idea to embrace a full-on Dexter lifestyle, but you get the point.)
In any case, you deserve the opportunity of an exciting traveling lab tech career. In fact, the number of medical laboratory jobs is rising in demand and expected to increase by 16% by 2024. That means training for a medical laboratory career is likely to pay off. Check out Fusion’s current laboratory jobs here.