How to Become a Forensic Scientist

Ken Jones is a criminalist with the Portland Police Bureau in Portland, Oregon. Ken is an expert in latent fingerprints, forensic photography, and crime scene investigation. He earned a Bachelor of Science in Administration of Justice. He has been a member of the Portland Police Bureau for more than 20 years, and he worked as a patrol officer before being promoted as a criminalist. In addition to his work in Portland, he regularly teaches forensics to law enforcement in Mexico. Ken also serves as Pipe Major for the Portland Police Highland Guard.

What is a criminalist?

A criminalist is a type of police officer who specializes in forensics and crime scene evidence. A criminalist collects and documents evidence, and then submits the evidence to a forensic scientist in a crime lab. Depending on the individual police department, criminalists have varying levels of responsibility. Within the Portland Police Bureau, I specialize in latent fingerprint comparison and processing, forensic photography, and CSI crime scene investigation.

Are there common misconceptions about your profession?

Yes, television shows have created a lot of misconceptions about forensics and crime scene investigation. For example, forensics experts do not interview suspects. In addition, the job is not filled with constant excitement; there are few things more boring than looking at fingerprints. And the job is certainly not as sexy as what is shown on TV. Working around a three-week-old dead body for four hours is not all that fun.

What is a typical day like for you?

I work from 8:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. four days a week. On a typical day, I respond to houses and businesses that have been broken into. There, I take latent fingerprints and I use a computer to identify a match through scientific analysis. Developing latent fingerprints is a primary duty of my job. In addition to burglaries, I also respond to homicide crime scenes. There, I document, collect and submit the evidence into police storage or to the state crime lab.

What are your favorite aspects of your job?

The very best part of my job is when I am able to practically pull a suspect out of thin air with the use of latent fingerprints. Using fingerprints is especially satisfying when it means solving a major crime.

What are your least favorite aspects of your job?

My least favorite parts of my job are the political issues that arise from working in a bureaucratic organization. Working with dead bodies and witnessing the ugly side of human behavior are also not especially appealing aspects of my job. However, these are things that criminalists get accustomed to.

Is there anything you would have done differently while studying to become a criminalist?

Looking back at my formal education, I wish I had completed more courses in the hard sciences. I also wish I had studied more Spanish.

What classes did you take in college that are the most relevant to your job?

The most useful classes that I took in college were courses in pre-law. These courses taught United States criminal law and the Supreme Court cases that instituted the laws.

What personality traits do you think would help someone to be successful as a criminalist?

For someone to be successful as a criminalist, patience in a must. It is also important to have a thirst for knowledge and learning. Criminalists must constantly learn because that is what allows us to keep our skills up to date.

What personality traits do you think might hinder someone’s success as a criminalist?

One trait that would certainly hinder someone’s success as a criminalist is a big ego, or the need to be the “star.” This job is all about collaboration and teamwork.

What advice, or words of caution, would you give to a student who is considering studying to become a criminalist?

If you are considering studying to become a criminalist, you should first understand that in real life, the job is nothing like what is portrayed on TV. If you are interested in doing the kind of job you see on TV, you are better off becoming a police officer and then pursuing a position as a detective.