Forensic scientists locate, examine and prepare traces of physical evidence for use in criminal and civil legal cases. Principles of biology, chemistry, analytical science and maths are used to secure the evidence, which can be derived from samples of blood and other body fluids, hairs, textile fibres, materials such as paint and glass, footwear and tyre marks, vegetable matter and other sources.
The role of a forensic scientist varies according to their specialism. Areas of work and duties can include blood grouping and DNA profiling, the analysis of fluid and tissue samples for drugs and poisons, or the identification, comparison and matching of various materials. Others examine splash patterns and the distribution of particles, analyse handwriting and questioned documents, or have expertise in explosives, firearms and ballistics.
More recently, electronic casework involving the recovery of data from computers, mobile phones and other electronic equipment has become increasingly important. Senior forensic scientists may attend crime scenes to advise on and initiate the search for evidence, and to help determine the likely sequence of events.
The scientific techniques used to examine evidence involve using sophisticated equipment. Liquid and gas chromatography, infra-red, ultraviolet-visible and fluorescence spectroscopy, and polarising, fluorescence and scanning electron microscopy are used alongside more traditional methods such as photography.
The findings are presented in report form or as formal statements of evidence. Certain forensic scientists, known as reporting officers, receive additional training to attend court to give evidence in person and may be subject to cross-examination.
Other duties include researching and developing new technologies, and administrative and managerial responsibilities.
Forensic scientists typically work 37 hours a week, Monday to Friday. Some employers operate a shift or on-call system to deal with high-priority work. Flexible or part-time work may be available.
The work is mainly laboratory-based with the possibility of occasional visits to crime scenes, which may be outside and involve exposure to unpleasant situations.
To be a forensic scientist, you should:
Most forensic scientists in England and Wales work for the FSS at one of its six sites around the country or in the FSS research lab. Some work for independent organisations that provide a forensic science service to the police, such as Forensic Alliance Limited and the Laboratory of the Government Chemist. In Scotland, police forces recruit their own forensic scientists, while in Northern Ireland the regional government is the main employer.
Smaller numbers work for public health laboratories, universities and other organisations which deal with specialist areas of forensic science such as fire investigation, questioned documents, and advising the defence in criminal cases.
Promotion to senior posts is dependent on experience.
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