Mistake 1: Pursuing the wrong college degree.
Lots of high school graduates think they need a degree in criminal justice to work in a crime lab, but they couldn’t be more wrong! Despite how they’re depicted on TV shows, crime lab technicians are not police officers. They don’t carry guns, interview witnesses, and arrest people. They’re highly skilled scientists. To get hired in a crime lab, you need a college degree in the “hard sciences” (e.g. biology, biochemistry, chemistry, forensic science with an emphasis in biology or chemistry, etc). Criminal Justice will not do.
Don’t disqualify yourself by getting the wrong degree. Find a college/university with a strong science program and be prepared to study long hours. If science “isn’t your thing,” choose another profession; you don’t belong in a crime lab.
Mistake 2: Not going the extra mile.
Even if you earn a college degree in a hard science, there’s no guarantee you’ll get hired once you graduate. Crime lab jobs are highly prized and you’ll have lots of competition. To succeed, you’re going to need “that extra special something” that sets you apart from the crowd.
Here are some ways to get it:
- Find a campus that offers a specialized degree/concentration in forensic biology or forensic chemistry and complete your degree there.
- Take as many lab courses as you can handle, even if they’re not required.
- Get to know your professors. A few years down the road, when you need a letter of recommendation, you’ll be glad you did. (Most students never go to office hours; it’s a low-hanging fruit. Go pick it!)
- Snoop out opportunities to do research. Most universities offer them, but they expect students to be proactive.
- Do crime labs in your area offer internships? If the answer is yes, do everything you can to snag one. Pure gold.
- Join (or start) a forensic science student group on your campus.
- Rock your GPA. Aim for a 3.5 or above. Remember: You want to stand out like a purple chicken in a sea of yellow ones!
Mistake 3: Getting your nose dirty.
Crime labs don’t hire people who have criminal records or a history of drug or alcohol abuse, and they perform a thorough background investigation on applicants to make sure they’re upstanding citizens.
Think about it: Crime lab technicians have access to controlled substances like cocaine and meth. They work with crime lab evidence that can “make or break” a criminal case. It’s easy to see why crime labs are so choosy.
Pay your taxes. Don’t rack up mountains of debt. Don’t do drugs. Don’t engage in illegal activities. Don’t host noisy parties at your house. Don’t do anything you wouldn’t want splashed across the front page of the New York Times. If there’s dirt in your past, your background investigator will find it: guaranteed.
Mistake 4: Failing to establish a work history.
Crime labs like to see a work history. It doesn’t matter if you’re a microbiology technician at a biotech company or a barista at your local coffee shop or if you work full-time or part-time. Even if you only work a few hours a week while you’re in college, build a consistent track record that demonstrates a strong work ethic.
Show up to work on time.
Maintain a positive, respectful attitude.
Get along with others.
Repeat over a long period of time (months to years).
Mistake 5: Flying blind.
So many students who want to become crime lab technicians are clueless about what the job really entails. And who can blame them? Popular culture presents a skewed, romanticized picture of the profession that’s long on drama and short on facts.
This is what crime lab technicians actually do:
- Perform a lot of repetitive lab work following highly detailed, check-by-check validated protocols
- Tend to work alone
- Keep meticulous records
- Write reports
- Testify in court
- Sometimes (rarely) do the cool CSI stuff you see on TV
If crime lab work doesn’t suit your natural talents and temperament, it’s not a failure on your part. It’s a matter of fit. You might get hired by a crime lab, but you’ll be disappointed and miserable.
Knowledge is Power. Investigate all your career options carefully and thoroughly. The more you know up-front, the better decisions you’ll make while you’re in school. Find a career that floats your boat and pursue it whole-heartedly. There’s a perfect place for everyone!