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Forensic Biologist

Overview

Forensic biologists examine blood and other bodily fluids, hair, bones, insects and plant and animal remains to help identify victims and support criminal investigations.

Using technology in the lab and in the field, forensic biologists collect and analyze biological evidence found on clothing, weapons and other surfaces to determine the time and cause of death.

They keep detailed logs and write reports about what they find. Attention to detail is critical, because a single mistake can cause the evidence to be thrown out of court. Senior-level forensic biologists may testify in court about their findings.

Forensic biologists may become experts in:

  • DNA analysis
  • Forensic anthropology
  • Forensic pathology
  • Forensic entomology
  • Forensic botany
  • Biological chemistry

In addition to helping solve crimes, forensic biologists may investigate environmental contamination or other public health threats. 

This career profile was reviewed and approved by Max Houck, M.A., Director, Forensic Science Initiative, West Virginia University.

Working Conditions

Working so closely with biological material (including every sort of fluid found in the human body) can be messy, smelly and generally unpleasant.

Field work is particularly dirty work. At crime scenes, forensic biologists collect leaves, insects and other biological material and examine the victim’s clothing and remains (which may be in an advanced state of decomposition). They may sift through the surrounding dirt and even garbage looking for biological evidence.

In the lab, forensic biologists examine this evidence using microscopes and other technology. They photograph and catalog the evidence and perform DNA and other tests on the samples.

The work can be repetitive and boring, but the reward comes in finding a critical piece of evidence investigators can use to solve the crime.

Academic Requirements

Forensic biologists are scientists. Most graduate from a four-year college with a degree in biology, biochemistry, molecular biology or forensic biology. They need extensive laboratory experience and may take courses in genetics, biostatistics and general and organic chemistry. They also must be knowledgeable in physics and math. Be sure any program you choose is accredited by the American Academy of Forensic Sciences.

A master's degree in forensic science is usually required in order to advance as a forensic biologist in a crime laboratory.

Preparation Timeline

A successful forensic biologist must have a strong commitment to the highest standards of scientific procedure. Forensic biology is painstaking work that demands patience and attention to detail.

In High School

  • Take all the science courses you can.
  • Participate in science fairs, conducting experiments that involve biological examination and identification.
  • Participate in team sports or other team-related extracurricular activities.

In College

  • Major in biology or forensic biology with heavy coursework in chemistry, physics and mathematics.
  • Take electives in criminal justice, but not at the expense of science courses.
  • Pursue internships involving field work and investigation.
  • If you are enrolling in a forensic science program, make sure the program requires at least 24 semester hours of biology and math.
  • Take elective courses in law enforcement, criminal justice and crime scene processing

After College

  • Consider getting a master's degree in forensic science. They are increasingly required to qualify for jobs in certain jurisdictions. Look for a program that emphasizes laboratory science and research, including interaction with working forensic laboratories.
  • Make sure to continue your education throughout your career. It will be required in most jobs.