How to Become a Crime Scene Investigator with a Criminal Justice Degree

crime scene investigators looking at evidence

The title of crime scene investigator (CSI) actually refers to many different positions, including forensic technicians, forensic investigators, evidence technicians, crime scene analysts, and many more. If you choose to become a CSI, you might even end up as a "forensic scientist" or "forensic science technician," a somewhat rare moniker for someone with a degree in liberal arts.

While each law enforcement agency or department may apply its own specific job title to describe the role, the basic responsibilities of a CSI are fairly consistent. You gather and document evidence found at the scene of a crime, following strict protocols for evidence collection and chain of custody. Evidence gathered at a crime scene can include both photographic evidence and physical evidence like hair specimens, DNA, weapons, and more. CSIs typically also are responsible for properly documenting their work and maintaining a system of comprehensive written reporting.

Crime scene investigators are found in a wide range of law enforcement environments, from national agencies like homeland security to small, local police departments and sheriff's departments. In short, any institution that's responsible for enforcing laws and preventing or investigating crimes is likely to employ or work closely with crime scene investigators.

In recent years, interest in the crime scene investigator profession has grown alongside the popularity of televised police procedurals, including the prominent "CSI" franchise. While working as a crime scene investigator may look glamorous on television – and it certainly can be a gratifying and exciting career – the job requires an immense amount of specialized knowledge, work, and discipline. Here are a few approaches you can try to land your dream job as a CSI.

Start as an Officer or a Civilian

Many law enforcement and crime agencies offer two ways to get started as a crime scene investigator. One route is to enter the agency as a police officer or sheriff's deputy and then move into a CSI role as you grow your experience, training, and qualifications on the job. Your other option is to enter the force as a civilian who's pre-qualified to perform the duties of a CSI.

If you're trying to decide which approach will work best for you, start by researching the agencies and departments you'd like to work at. Compare differences in the two roles' qualification requirements, benefits and pay, and career development prospects to choose whether to get your CSI training first or start out by learning on the job.

Get Specialized Training

Regardless of whether you choose to become a law enforcement officer first or start off as civilian CSI, specialized training in the technical aspects of forensic investigation is essential for anyone looking to enter the field. Criminal justice majors may receive this training in school, while sheriff's deputies and officers of the law will likely have specific on-the-job development within their department before moving into a CSI position. This training can include apprenticing under an experienced investigator, undergoing task-specific training, and having to learn and abide by department-specific rules and procedures for everything from physically handling evidence to writing reports.

Use Your Education

Crime scene investigators come from a range of educational backgrounds. Some study science, like biology, chemistry, or forensic science specifically, but you don't have to be a scientist to become a CSI. Another option is to pursue a liberal arts degree in criminal justice, which provides you with a multidisciplinary and well-rounded understanding of the criminal justice system, its foundation, and its various components. Ashford University’s online Bachelor of Arts in social and criminal justice, for example, offers coursework that may apply to the role of a CSI, including forensics, psychology, crime prevention, corrections, and criminal law and procedure.

The diverse and broadly applicable curriculum of a criminal justice degree program lets graduates pursue jobs in a number of fields beyond crime scene investigation, as well. Other criminal justice degree career options include police officer, border patrol, Homeland Security agent, probation officer, private security agent, federal marshal, and more.

No matter what route you take to enter the field, becoming a crime scene investigator requires a goal-oriented mindset and a willingness and ability to master specialized training. Put your passion for criminal justice to work by using these tips to chart your career path today.

Written by Ashford University staff.

For more information about on-time completion rates, the median loan debt of students who completed each program, and other important information, please visit: www.ashford.edu/online-degrees/program-disclosures#306.

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