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Forensic sciences

Scenes of Crime Officers (SOCO) / Crime Scene Examiners

Police forces employ civilians as Scenes of Crime Officers (SOCOs) who work with police in the investigation of serious crime. They are sometimes called Crime Scene Investigators (CSIs) or Crime Scene Examiners. They are usually civilians but in some police forces may be police officers in uniform or plain clothes.

They are among the first to arrive at a crime scene and their job is to retrieve, examine and investigate physical evidence that may help to trace and convict criminals. They determine from the crime scene whether assistance from specialists, such as a forensic scientist, is needed.

In some police forces you will start as an assistant scenes of crime officer (or volume crime scene examiner), and may attend a three-week basic training course at National Police Improvement Agency, and then take a four-week conversion course to become a SOCO after gaining some experience. There are opportunities for further study for SOCOs to progress forensic scientist or management posts.

Assistant Forensic Scientist

While individuals can become an assistant forensic scientist with at least one A level/Advanced Higher or two Highers in science subjects, they would need a good honours degree in a relevant subject in order to become a forensic scientist and progress to senior level.

Once they are in post, they could study on a part-time or distance learning basis for a relevant degree to work towards being a forensic scientist. The term forensic scientist usually refers to degree holders only, so progression beyond the role of an assistant forensic scientist is not possible without a degree or with an HND only.

The largest commercial provider, forensic science Service (FSS), has a promotion structure from assistant forensic scientist to forensic scientist, and then to senior forensic scientist. Apart from the FSS, most employers in England and Wales are small, with limited opportunities for promotion.

Trainee Forensic Scientist / Forensic Scientist

Forensic scientists locate, examine and prepare traces of physical evidence for use in courts of law. They use the principles of biology, chemistry and Mathematics to obtain and analyse evidence from a variety of sources, including blood and other body fluids, hairs, textile fibres, glass fragments and tyre marks.

As a forensic scientist, the main focus of your work would be looking for evidence to link a suspect with a crime scene. However, your duties could vary depending on your specialism and may include some or all of the following:

  • Blood grouping and DNA profiling
  • Analysing fluid and tissue samples for traces of drugs and poisons
  • Identifying, comparing and matching various materials
  • Examining splash patterns and the distribution of particles
  • Analysing handwriting, signatures, ink and paper (known as questioned documents)
  • Providing expert advice on explosives, firearms and ballistics
  • Researching and developing new technologies
  • Recovering data from computers, mobile phones and other electronic equipment (known as 'electronic casework')
  • Attending crime scenes, such as a murder or fire
  • Giving impartial scientific evidence in court (if you have been trained as a 'reporting officer')
  • Supervising assistant forensic scientists in the lab.

Most forensic scientists enter the sector as trainees and receive on-the-job training from experienced scientists. This would usually combine in-house courses with practical casework. Forensic scientist could go on to take further specialist qualifications, for example the forensic science Society diploma course, in an area such as crime scene investigation, document examination, fire investigation, firearms examination and forensic imaging.

Source: Skills for Justice LMI March 2010