CSI is more than the title of a top-rated, long-running television show with spinoffs galore; it also happens to be a very viable and very popular career field.
Many of those interested in crime scene investigation start down the path because of things read in books or seen on television or in the movies. Of course, the actual career of a crime scene investigator is not precisely the same as those portrayed on television. However, it is still a very exciting career that calls to many and is worth exploring for those drawn to it.
A CSI agent, a title that’s interchangeable with a crime scene investigator, has many responsibilities at a crime scene. They will walk through the crime scene, look for evidence, and collect it using a precise methodology that protects it from contamination. A CSI agent may also be tasked with taking photos of the scene and making sketches for later recreation and presentation in court.
Some of the types of evidence that a CSI agent is likely to collect at crime scenes include fingerprints, bodily fluids, and weapons. When a CSI agent collects the evidence, they also catalog it before transferring it to a lab. Crime scene investigators also have to present their findings to others on their team, attorneys, and trials in many cases. The work schedule of an investigator can vary. Crime never sleeps, so it is common to have to work in the evenings and on holidays.
While the responsibilities of a crime scene investigator are similar to police detectives, aspiring CSI agents wonder: what does the job demand look like for crime scene investigators in the coming years? And how much do CSI agents make?
Read on to learn more about the career and salary outlook for CSI investigators.
What Is the Career Outlook for Crime Scene Investigators?
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS May 2021) does not distinguish crime scene investigators from forensic science technicians for their data collection purposes. That being said, the BLS estimates that both occupations will be in demand between 2021 and 2031, with one experiencing a higher rate of growth than the current national average for all occupations (5 percent).
Police and detective careers are projected to grow at 3 percent nationally, adding 20,600 new positions in the coming decade (2021-2031), adding to the existing 808,200 jobs (BLS 2022). By comparison, forensic science technicians will grow 11 percent—more than twice the growth rate for all occupations—representing the creation of 2,000 new jobs in the same period. While not all of these jobs will be specific to crime scene investigation, some certainly will.
Because of the popularity of the field, those who enter it will likely find stiff competition for jobs. Those who have more education, such as a bachelor’s degree in forensic science or a similar field, such as criminal justice, or those who have experience working with law enforcement in another capacity, may have an advantage when looking for and finding CSI agent positions.
How many crime scene investigators are currently employed? The International Crime Scene Investigators Association (ICSIA) states that over 18,000 police agencies are in the country, but few hire full-time civilian CSIs. Most, but not all, full-time CSIs begin their careers as sworn-in police officers and work their way towards specialized work in crime scene investigation.
In October 2022, PayScale reported the aggregated salary profiles of 174 crime scene investigators. By comparison, the BLS (May 2021) shows that 107,890 detectives and criminal investigators were employed.
These numbers are approximations but can be an excellent place to start when considering the demand for this position. Smaller agencies may need specialists, and officers often take care of many of the duties a specialist would in different locales. This means that the competition could be fierce for these jobs, so aspiring CSIs are advised to seek out education and training opportunities to increase their job prospects.
Crime Scene Investigator Salary
How much do CSI agents make? The answer depends on the educational pathway and professional experience. Regardless of how they begin their careers, crime scene investigators must consider the salary and the potential to make a good living over multiple years in a job.
To factor in the cross-over in responsibilities and titles, occupational data for police, detectives, and forensic science technicians are used to determine salary data accurately. According to the BLS, in May 2021, police and detectives earned median annual salaries of $66,020 per year (BLS May 2021), while forensic science technicians earned median salaries of $61,930 (BLS May 2021).
As with most positions, salaries vary widely based on experience and location. The BLS indicates the following salary percentiles for detectives and criminal investigators (BLS May 2020):
- Employment: 107,890
- Annual mean wage: $90,370
- 10th percentile: $48,040
- 25th percentile: $61,600
- 50th percentile (median): $83,640
- 75th percentile: $106,540
- 90th percentile: $146,830
Salary percentiles for forensic science technicians were comparable. The BLS indicates the following salary percentiles for forensic science technicians (BLS May 2021):
- Employment: 17,020
- Annual mean wage: $66,850
- 10th percentile: $37,670
- 25th percentile: $47,750
- 50th percentile (median): $61,930
- 75th percentile: $80,670
- 90th percentile: $103,430
As mentioned above, PayScale.com aggregates self-reported salary data and reports position-specific salary data for CSIs. Among the 174 CSIs who reported their salaries to this site, the annual median wage for crime scene investigators was $49,056 (PayScale October 2022). The lower 10 percent earned $39,000, and the upper 10 percent earned $80,000.
The available data shows that a CSI makes somewhat less on average than a forensic science technician. Of course, this comparison also does not negate that CSIs working in more urban areas or with more experience are likely to make more than their more rural or less experienced counterparts.
To illustrate this point, here are the annual mean wages for the ten top-paying metropolitan areas for detectives and criminal investigators, five of which are in California (BLS May 2021):
- San Jose-Sunnyvale-Santa Clara, CA: $132,210
- Anchorage, AK: $127,070
- Washington-Arlington-Alexandria, DC-VA-MD-WV: $123,460
- Santa Maria-Santa Barbara, CA: $122,260
- Brunswick, GA: $120,710
- Oxnard-Thousand Oaks-Ventura, CA: $118,620
- San Francisco-Oakland-Hayward, CA: $117,620
- Los Angeles-Long Beach-Anaheim, CA: $115,860
- Urban Honolulu, HI: $115,050
- New York-Newark-Jersey City, NY-NJ-PA: $114,760
By comparison, the ten top-paying metropolitan areas for forensic science technicians are as follows, seven of which are in California (BLS May 2021):
- San Jose-Sunnyvale-Santa Clara, CA: $106,600
- Los Angeles-Long Beach-Anaheim, CA: $96,980
- San Francisco-Oakland-Hayward, CA: $96,410
- Oxnard-Thousand Oaks-Ventura, CA: $96,170
- Boston-Cambridge-Nashua, MA-NH: $90,710
- Santa Rosa, CA: $87,560
- Portland-Vancouver-Hillsboro, OR-WA: $87,030
- Sacramento–Roseville–Arden-Arcade, CA: $86,530
- San Diego-Carlsbad, CA: $86,150
- New Haven, CT: $85,730
Cost of living influences salary data and aspiring CSI agents are encouraged to use tools such as the cost of living data series provided by the Missouri Economic Research and Information Center (MERIC 2022) when considering job offers. For example, eight of the nine metropolitan areas listed above are on MERIC’s list of 20 most expensive states to live in. A job in a Georgia city could be more cost-effective given that living expenses such as food, housing, transportation, and utilities are statistically cheaper in this state.
How to Become a Crime Scene Investigator
As discussed above, there is no one-size-fits-all path to pursuing a career as a crime scene investigator. In particular, those interested in the job will need to decide whether they wish to seek a law enforcement officer position or try to be hired as a civilian CSI. Below are some of the most common steps followed towards the CSI career.
- Step 1: Graduate high school or earn a GED (four years) – A high school diploma is required for any path into this career. If possible, high school students should seek to intern or volunteer for a local police department to determine if this is their career path.
- Step 2: Consider attending a police academy (less than one year) – At least half of full-time CSIs are law enforcement officers, according to the ICSIA, making this a viable path into the career. The police academy typically does not require any education beyond high school and will teach cadets the basics of community policing, including self-defense, proper protocol, and the fundamentals of investigation. To be eligible for admissions, the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) has four qualifications: an applicant must be 20 years old at the time of application and 21 years old at the time of graduation, hold a high school diploma or two-year associate’s degree, be a US citizen, and pass a criminal background check.
- Step 3: Earn a crime scene technician certificate (timeline varies) – To earn specialized experience in crime scene investigation, high school graduates, two-year degree holders, and police officers can enroll in an online certificate program. An example program is the online crime scene technician certificate offered by Purdue Global. This 41-credit program teaches students the analytical procedures, documentation, collection, and preservation processes required to become a crime scene technician. Several start dates are offered throughout the year, and students can expect to spend 15 to 18 hours per week on their studies. This program costs $371 per credit.
- Step 4: Pursue a bachelor’s degree (four years) – Those who do not wish to take the law enforcement path should certainly consider earning a bachelor’s degree, preferably in forensic science or criminal justice. Arizona State University offers an online bachelor of science program in criminology and criminal justice that prepares graduates for various complex criminal justice positions, including crime scene investigators. Students take classes in criminology, statistical analysis, research methods, and criminal justice crime control policies and practices. Students can complete this degree in four years, and tuition is $641 per credit.
- Step 5: Obtain entry-level experience (timeline varies) – After graduating either from the police academy or a bachelor’s degree program, it is time to get hands-on experience in crime scene investigation. Brand new law enforcement officers likely will not have much say in where they are placed, but expressing an interest in CSI and volunteering to take on this role can lead to on-the-job training and ultimately more responsibility. Job search sites such as Indeed can help job seekers find open positions in cities across the United States. The American Academy of Forensic Sciences (AAFS) shares job postings for those interested in the forensic science field and who are considering it as a career.
Overall, the timeline to getting started in this career depends heavily on whether one chooses the law enforcement or bachelor’s degree route. Because a police academy typically takes less than a year to complete, this could be the more direct route. However, earning a bachelor’s degree may give new CSI agents an advantage in the future to pursue other avenues of work.
Crime Scene Investigator Tasks & Responsibilities
Perhaps the most essential skill for a crime scene investigator is staying calm and composed at a crime scene. Those who pursue work in crime scene investigation have to maintain objectivity and focus on disturbing crime scenes, so having the ability to maintain professionalism in the face of chaos or violence is important. Attention to detail, as well as problem-solving skills, are vital tools to have as well. Excellent communication skills – written and verbal – are important for writing reports, speaking with team members, and testifying in court.
While every crime and every crime scene will be different, the reality is that the rigorous processes put into place by investigators, including CSI agents, ensure every crime is investigated thoroughly and accurately. On a regular basis, crime scene investigators:
- Use available evidence to reconstruct a crime scene
- Take photos and make sketches of a crime scene
- Record details about the crime scene that cannot be accurately collected and taken to the lab
- Determine where and if a crime took place based on evidence
- Maintain chain of custody for crime scene evidence when delivering to the forensic lab
- Catalog all evidence collected for future prosecution
- Create detailed reports of evidence collected
- Track and monitor the evidence-collection process
- Testify as to their findings in court
- Conduct evidentiary interviews with witnesses
- Collect evidence for DNA analysis to prove innocence or guilt
The tasks that CSIs will find themselves doing depend on their experience level. New CSIs will likely spend more time physically collecting and tagging the mountains of evidence found at a crime scene or even working in the evidence storage room to ensure things are organized. With time, CSI agents will spend more time recreating crime scenes, working with detectives, and supervising evidence collection.
Professional Certification and Licensure for Crime Scene Investigators
Law enforcement officers are subject to location-specific education and training requirements.
Again, certification is not strictly required to earn a job in the CSI field. However, it can lend credibility to a CSI’s proficiency and increase promotion opportunities. Some notable organizations offer crime scene investigation certifications that may be useful in advancing in the CSI career, including:
- Forensic Crime Scene Investigators Certification: The ICSIA offers both a training and certification program for crime scene investigators. Certification is available to those with at least two years of crime scene investigation experience and 50 hours of crime scene processing courses. Candidates seeking certification must complete an application, pass a comprehensive written exam of 100 questions, pass a written test of a paper mock crime scene, and submit evidence of experience documenting and assessing crime scenes, including work from three actual crime scene cases the applicant worked on in the past. The application fee for this certification is $100.
- International Association for Identification (IAI): The IAI offers four separate certifications for crime scene investigators: Certified Crime Scene Investigator, Certified Crime Scene Analyst, Certified Crime Scene Reconstructionist, and Certified Senior Crime Scene Investigator. Each of these certifications comes with its own set of requirements, available on the IAI website. For IAI members, certification fees are $300, and for non-members, the cost is $400.
Again, certification is not strictly required to earn a job or a promotion in the crime scene investigation field; however, it can lend credibility to a CSIs expertise and may be worth pursuing after gaining some experience in the field.