What’s it like being a forensic scientist?on February 23rd, 2012 at 8:35 PM
I get asked this question quite a bit, and I have to tell you, there’s never a dull moment.
I remember driving down to Carbondale, IL for my initial two hour interview when I applied at the Illinois State Police back in 1991 and wondering this exact thing.
What would being a Forensic Scientist really be like?
Would I work with dead people? Would I go to crime scenes? Would I have to read boring articles all the time? Would it be dangerous? Would it be difficult? Would I like it?
What I found out may surprise you.
It was most definitely NOT boring, I very seldom worked with actual bodies, I read a lot but mostly during training, it could be dangerous, I sometimes when to crime scenes and I LOVED it. But, I also hated it.
Let’s tackle the hard part first.
What’s not to love? Emotionally, it was very, very tough. I had a huge backlog and had to have a way to prioritize which cases would get worked on and which would have to wait.
As a matter of necessity, this meant that the most awful, horrific, violent cases were the most important and were at the top of the queue. Nothing was more important than finding those people responsible for these crimes and putting them behind bars so the rest of society could be safe. What that meant for me, however, on a personal level was that for ten hours a day, every day, I was submersed in the nitty gritty details of the most evil part of society.
The very idea that one person could be so cruel to another was depressing to say the least. When that other person was a child, I found it VERY difficult to forget about at the end of the day. So mentally, it stunk.
When we solved a case, though it was very rewarding, and that’s the part I loved. Every single case was different. I analyzed hundreds of sexual assaults and hundreds of homicides but I can remember details of every one.
Some people have careers that involve doing the same thing day in and day out. While a forensic scientist may perform the same procedures day after day, the evidence they perform it on is never the same. The scenario is always different, the story is unique and the challenge evolves with each piece of the puzzle.
In a typical day, I would have in my mind what cases I would work and that either involved examining the evidence to find body fluids like blood or semen, or running test on stains that I had identified earlier. Some days would involve no actual lab work or exams, and would be strictly devoted to writing reports or reviewing other scientist’s test and conclusions.
This was a typical day and a normal game plan, however nearly every day was interrupted by something unexpected.
For example, detectives stopped by the laboratory several times a day, bringing evidence from new cases. If the case was one that involved body fluids, I may be required to meet with the detective to discuss the alleged crime scenario, discuss the evidence collected, and then accept the evidence for later examination.
All of these cases eventually go to court, get settled or remain unsolved. If they go to court, the forensic scientist may have to go testify and tell the judge and jury what they did, what they found and why it’s important.
Upon returning to the lab, the scientist may discover they are running low on chemicals or supplies and may spend the day making solutions, and contacting vendors. Scales may need calibrated, instruments tested and equipment cleaned.
A defense attorney may call and need to discuss results and schedule a deposition. In the mean time, a colleague may need your opinion on a case they are working on and you spend an hour consulting with them.
A day in the life of a forensic scientist is never routine. It is awesome, stressful, exciting and rewarding.
I’d come home from work and when my husband asked about my day, I’d say something like, “Well, today I examined a pair of 20X spandex underwear, a bloody knife and a teddy bear. What sounds good for supper?”
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