Forensic scientists apply scientific knowledge and skills to investigating crimes and helping the police find or eliminate crime suspects. They may also do research into developing or improving forensic techniques.
Forensic scientists assisting crime investigations usually earn
$50K-$76K per year
Senior forensic scientists usually earn
$75K-$143K per year
Source: ESR, 2020.
Pay for forensic scientists varies depending on skills and experience.
- Forensic scientists with a Master's degree working as senior forensic technicians can expect to earn $50,000 to $76,000 a year.
- Senior forensic scientists who report findings in court and supervise technicians usually earn between $75,000 and $112,000.
- Forensic scientists leading research projects can earn between $95,000 and $143,000.
Source: Human Resources, Institute of Environmental Science and Research (ESR), 2020.
(This information is a guide only. Find out more about the sources of our pay information)
What you will do
Forensic scientists may do some or all of the following:
- visit crime scenes to find evidence
- take notes and map the crime scene
- analyse physical evidence such as fibres, glass, debris, firearms, bullets and marks made by tools or weapons
- identify drugs found on people, in body fluids or at crime scenes
- analyse biological evidence such as hair, or blood and other body fluids
- analyse body tissues for poisons
- write reports on the results
- give evidence in court
- investigate civil court cases such as fire or insurance claims
- train police staff in collecting evidence.
Skills and knowledge
Forensic scientists need to have:
- knowledge of the chemical make-up of things such as paint or textiles, blood, body tissues and DNA
- knowledge of poisons and drugs, firearms and explosives
- research skills
- skill in analysing and interpreting research results and other information
- practical skills for performing experiments and operating scientific equipment.
- usually work regular business hours, but may be required to visit crime scenes during evenings, weekends or public holidays
- work in laboratories and offices
- often work in stressful or hazardous conditions, as crime scenes may be distressing or potentially harmful
- often travel locally and around New Zealand to attend crime scenes and court cases.
What's the job really like?
Focusing on the detail
Senior forensic science technician Laura Laurenson got into forensics because she “liked problem solving and the idea of piecing together small amounts of evidence to get a full picture".
Her interest in forensics began after being told she was especially good at a spot-the-difference exercise in a forensics high-school extension programme.
Now working in ESR’s crime investigation team, Laura says forensic scientists need a keen eye for detail. “Offenders often clean up assault and homicide sites, but we’re looking for tiny spots of blood.
“You’ve also got to keep a very open mind about the crime scene. Is there a chance they could have touched this item? And should we swab it to get DNA?”
Steady progress with a lot to learn
Though confident in screening for blood, semen and saliva, and analysing blood-stain patterns, Laura says she still has much to learn.
“It can take time to progress in the job, but I enjoy working in a very supportive team of experienced scientists.”
Keep your science studies broad
Laura says that when she was doing her forensic analytical science degree, "it really hit home that I needed to do more study because there aren't many jobs in forensics.
“I was lucky to get this job as soon as I’d finished my Masters, but for a back-up career, I’d recommend including other sciences, like biotechnology, in your degree.”
To become a forensic scientist you need to have a postgraduate qualification in forensic science.
- University of Auckland website – information on postgraduate study in forensic science
- University of Otago website – information on studying forensic analytical science
Civilian forensics roles in the New Zealand police require a relevant tertiary qualification.
A tertiary entrance qualification is required to enter further training. Useful subjects include maths, biology, chemistry and English.
Forensic scientists need to be:
- good at problem solving
- good communicators
- honest, responsible and able to keep information private
- accurate, with an eye for detail
- able to work well under pressure.
At a ‘grave site’ recovery where someone has buried a body, you’re working alongside the Police with their cadaver dogs to locate the site. But you’re also watching for clues like changes in vegetation, and fresh mounds of earth.
Useful experience for forensic scientists includes laboratory work, and work in the fields of medicine or chemistry.
Forensic scientists need to have good eyesight (with or without corrective lenses) as they search for small pieces of evidence at crime scenes.
Find out more about training
- Institute of Environmental Science and Research (ESR)
- (04) 914 0700 - firstname.lastname@example.org - www.esr.cri.nz
- Police Recruitment
- 0800 639 2677 - www.newcops.co.nz
- University of Auckland
- 0800 61 62 65 - email@example.com - www.auckland.ac.nz
- University of Otago
- 0800 80 80 98 - firstname.lastname@example.org - www.otago.ac.nz
What are the chances of getting a job?
Strong competition for few forensic scientist positions
Competition for entry-level forensic science positions is strong.
Your best chance of getting a forensic science job is through the postgraduate traineeship programme run by the Institute of Environmental Science and Research (ESR) and Auckland University.
ESR is the largest employer of forensic scientists in New Zealand, employing around 120. They have just two to three new positions available for forensic science graduates every year.
Forensic scientists start their careers in a technician role
As a new forensic scientist, even with a Masters, you need to start as a senior forensic technician, working under the supervision of a scientist.
With experience you can be involved in forensic investigations related to specific cases, or work towards a PhD and do research in forensic techniques.
Most forensic scientists work for government organisations
Forensic scientists assisting crime investigations may work in one of a few organisations.
- ESR, a Crown research institute, provides forensic services to the New Zealand Police.
- The police directly employ specialists in civilian positions such as scene of crime officer, document examiner and fingerprint officer.
- Private laboratories and companies also employ or contract forensic scientists for civil work such as carrying out investigations for insurance companies, and criminal case reviews for criminal defence lawyers and overseas investigators.
- Forensic scientists who do research into forensic techniques work at universities or Crown research institutes.
- Cordiner, S, manager, forensic service centres, ESR, careers.govt.nz interview, August 2020.
- Sandiford, A, director, The Forensic Group, careers.govt.nz interview, May 2020.
(This information is a guide only. Find out more about the sources of our job opportunities information)
Progression and specialisations
Forensic scientists may progress to senior scientist, science leader or management roles.
Forensic scientists at ESR may specialise in areas such as:
- DNA Analyst
- DNA analysts examine DNA evidence, such as blood, from crime scenes.
- Firearms Examiner
- Firearms examiners identify guns used in crimes by studying bullets and bullet marks.
- Forensic Toxicologist
- Forensic toxicologists analyse drugs and poisons in specimens such as food or blood.
- Illicit Drug Analyst
- Illicit drug analysts identify illicit drugs, such as methamphetamine and cocaine, usually for the police.
The New Zealand Police also offers a range of forensic civilian specialisations including fingerprint officers, behavioural analysts, electronic crime analysts, document examiners and scene of crime officers.
Last updated 17 September 2020