The Job of a DNA Analyst

Duties, Salary Potential and Education Requirements

Criminologist studying DNA
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The widespread use of science to help solve crimes is a relatively recent development in criminology. Largely perceived by the general public as standard operating procedure in fighting crime, DNA analysis is essentially a brand new concept in the history of forensic science. DNA analyst jobs offer an opportunity to work in a cutting-edge field, using unique skills and knowledge to help others.

Thanks in large part to high-tech crime dramas like CSI, the use of DNA in solving crimes has taken the place of fingerprints as the be-all and end-all tool for crime scene investigators and police detectives.

These shows may sometimes paint an overly rosy picture of how efficient and effective forensic science actually is, contributing to a phenomenon known as the CSI effect. Nevertheless, it's fair to say the discovery and identification of DNA evidence have changed the way crimes and criminals are investigated, prosecuted, and convicted.

The Indispensable DNA Tool

Now almost universally accepted as a "sure thing," as recently as the late 1990s juries were reluctant to convict criminals based on DNA evidence. They were unsure of the technology and the concept. In a very short time, DNA has usurped fingerprint analysis as the primary means of identifying victims and suspects, as well as placing people at crime scenes.

DNA has become an indispensable tool for identifying suspects and also eliminating them. Thanks to advances in science, DNA analysts can determine with relative accuracy when they have a profile match. More importantly, for the wrongfully accused, they can say with almost absolute certainty when there's no chance of a profile match.

What DNA Analysts Do

DNA analysts work primarily in a laboratory setting, examining evidence gathered by police officers, crime scene technicians, and investigators. They may work for a criminal investigative agency, central crime lab, or large police or sheriff's department.

In some circumstances, they may also be called to report to a crime scene to assist in collecting evidence, but this is most often done by law enforcement personnel.

DNA analysis is a very meticulous job; scientists must identify, isolate, and even copy small amounts of DNA within biological evidence. They then compare those strands to strands from a known source to determine whether or not there is a probability of a match.

In this way, analysts can place criminals at a scene, identify victims, and even determine if a missing person or deceased victim was in a certain location, such as a car or home.

The job of a DNA analyst often includes:

  • Working in a laboratory
  • Examining biological materials
  • Report writing
  • Providing courtroom testimony
  • Working with law enforcement entities
  • Working closely with other forensic scientists
  • Using sensitive lab and computer equipment

DNA is located in biological substances, including saliva, semen, blood, sweat, mucus, skin, and even ear wax. DNA can also be located in vomit and fecal matter. In light of this, a career as a DNA analyst is definitely not for the squeamish. Fortunately, large quantities of these materials are not necessary; analysts can work with trace evidence.

Analysts isolate biological material and DNA evidence from a variety of sources, such as clothing, hats, brake and accelerator pedals, and weapons. Any surface that a person has come in contact with can potentially contain some measure of biological material. Because of this, analysts are trained to find all manner of biological evidence to examine, on all manner of materials and surfaces.

Education and Skill Requirements for DNA Analysts

DNA analysis is a highly specialized scientific field. While it may be possible to begin work as a technician without a four-year degree, it is generally understood that a master's degree or doctorate is necessary to gain employment as a DNA analyst.

Degrees should be in the natural sciences, particularly biology. It is advisable to have some background in criminology or criminal justice, perhaps as a minor or elective. It may also be a good idea to earn some combination of a degree in forensic science as well as a master's in biology or vice versa.

Naturally, analytical skills are a must. Budding analysts should comfortable with technology and computers, and they should also be able to clearly articulate their findings in both written and oral reports, making communications skills essential.

The Salary for DNA Analysts

DNA analysts can expect to earn around $54,000 annually, on average, according to salary database PayScale. The lowest 10 percent earn about $38,000, and the highest paid 10 percent earn more than $80,000. Salary will vary based on location, the level of education, and length of service in the field.

Job Opportunities for DNA Analysts

The job outlook for growth in all forensic science fields is expected to be around 19 percent through 2020. A study by the National Institute of Justice indicates that DNA analysis may be useful if expanded to property crimes, such as theft and burglary, in addition to the violent crimes it is currently used for.

Thus, as DNA analysis is becoming increasingly effective and efficient, it is reasonable to expect better than average job growth in the field.

A Career as a DNA Analyst

If you have an analytical mind, enjoy working in a laboratory setting, and have a strong desire to help others and to serve justice, you may enjoy working as a DNA analyst. In fact, it may just be the perfect criminology career for you.