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Indian Peafowl Feathers. Credit: USFWS

Students and Educators

CAREERS IN FORENSICS

Every year, hundreds of students approach us about what it takes to be a forensic scientist. The following is a questionnaire for student homework accompanied by our answers.

1. What are the job responsibilities of a wildlife forensic scientist?
The major duty of a wildlife forensic scientist is to analyze evidence according to established protocols and to testify in court as an expert witness regarding the findings.  A wildlife forensic scientist spends most of their time at the bench in the Lab.

2. How does the job fit into the larger goals of the organization?
The Office of Law Enforcement  (OLE) of the Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) is responsible for enforcing the many laws that protect species in the US. View the statutes for to find out more.

When a Fish and Wildlife Special Agent seizes evidence, the evidence needs to be analyzed by forensic scientists.  Therefore the role of the Lab is to provide analytical assistance to agents in OLE so that cases are thoroughly accurate before they reach the courts.

3. Describe a project an individual in this position is working on.
Forensic Scientists frequently encounter new types of evidence. Examples include fish eggs (caviar), steaks (poached meat from a suspects freezer), ivory earrings, sea turtle boots, bloody clothes, bear bile, feathers, etc. etc.  So most of our projects involve developing new techniques for analyzing unusual evidence.  If the evidence requires molecular techniques, then the project is assigned to the genetics unit, but if the evidence has unique morphological characters, then it is assigned to the morphology unit.

In all cases a thorough understanding of the systematics of the species in question is essential.

4. Are there ethical concerns?
In forensic labs the ethical questions usually involve the assumption of neutrality of the forensic scientist.  It has been falsely argued that agents put pressure on forensic scientist to provide an answer that fits their needs.  In our case, we have never encountered such a situation, therefore there has been no ethical concerns of this nature.

5. What's most rewarding/most frustrating?
Perhaps the most rewarding part of a wildlife forensic scientist is when doing research (and not casework) you discover something new.   Since the focus of our research is to develop new identification techniques for unusual evidence, then these discoveries open the doors to a whole new suite of evidence types.  For example the discovery of how to do species identifications of ivory carvings was very exciting, and it allowed us the help enforce the laws that protect elephants, hippos, narwhals, whales, walrus and warthogs. 

6. How many hours of work does a wildlife forensic scientist work?
40 hours per week

7. What is the work environment like?
The Lab is a lab environment and it contains such things as long corridors, rooms with workbenches, shelves stoked with chemical reagents, rooms with noisy analytical instruments, etc.  In other words, a lab geek’s dream.

8. What education, training and experience are required?
Lab employees have at a minimum a bachelor’s degree.  Many forensic scientists have a master’s degree and quite a few have a doctorate degree.

9. Are computer skills and knowledge necessary or useful?
Computer skills are essential.  The uses of computers for data processing, instrument controllers, statistical inferences, etc. require that all staff be extraordinarily proficient in computer skills.

10. What additional training, education, or experience would you need to prepare for a wildlife forensic scientist position?
A solid and thorough education involving the “hard sciences”.  Applicants who have excelled in the difficult subject matters such as chemistry, molecular biology, biochemistry, etc. have developed analytical skills that are important in a scientist career.

11. What is the salary range for someone in this position?
Federal employees are paid using the GS schedule. Junior scientists are hired at the GS-7 and can reach the GS-12 series with time and experience.  Senior scientists can reach the GS-13 series.

12. What is the best way to find out about openings for this position? Are there any openings available that are posted somewhere?
All federal jobs, including the Labs, are posted at the USA Jobs federal website.

13. Are there opportunities for career advancement?
Junior scientists are hired at the GS-7 and can reach the GS-12 series with time and experience.  Senior scientists can reach the GS-13 series.

A competent junior scientist can aspire to become a senior scientist.

14. Which schools have Forensic Science programs?
You can get a good start by Googling "forensic science education". We recommend that you check out the schools by contacting them and learning as much as you can about their program. You might also try to solicit responses from Forens-L: an unmoderated discussion list dealing with forensic aspects of anthropology, biology, chemistry, odontology, pathology, psychology, serology, toxicology, criminalistics, and ex- pert witnessing and presentation of evidence in court.

15. Where can I find information about Forensic job opportunities?
Check out the American Society of Crime Lab Director's home page. ASCLD members are the laboratory directors and if they have a job opening, they usually send the information to the web master for posting.

16. Where can I get information about Forensic Science?
General forensic information can be found in the library. Look up the author Saferstein, Richard. There are also many Internet related sites that can be found under the References Section. You can also join Forens-L to tap into the latest forensic discussions.

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