Our favorite true crime and law enforcement shows have glamorized the idea of working on the side of justice. From the “Law and Order” series to the countless spinoffs of “NCIS,” these shows have entertained us while rousing our curiosity and interest in law enforcement.
Apart from the intriguing crime stories, these shows have also caused viewers to wonder what it’s really like to work for the law. How can you be a forensic scientist? Is there really such a thing as a blood splatter analyst? How much do detectives make?
If you’re interested to know or are considering a career in law enforcement, here’s a breakdown of all the jobs you often see in your favorite crime and law enforcement shows.
- Detective Job Explained: Salary, Responsibilities and More
- Forensic Scientist Explained: Salary, Responsibilities and More
- Forensic Medical Examiner Explained: Salary, Responsibilities and More
Detective Job Explained: Salary, Responsibilities and More
The media glamorizes detectives as brave people who solve crimes within the police — sometimes breaking protocol just so they can solve the case. From classic detective Sherlock Holmes to FBI agents Dana Scully and Fox Mulder, people love watching detectives uncover clues, chase after the bad guys and enjoy the money they earn from a day’s work.
But what does a true detective do? What is their salary? Are there different detective jobs out there?
There are two basic types of detectives. Private detectives look into legal, financial and personal matters for private clients while police detectives investigate crimes and other legal concerns. Detectives who work for the police, also known as criminal investigators, solve crimes and prosecute suspects. These are the detectives we often see on crime and law-enforcement shows (and the focus of this article).
Detectives are in charge of apprehending suspects and solving crimes. They participate in undercover operations, investigate records, review forensic evidence and interview witnesses. They can also work to uncover fraud and find missing persons.
Do Detectives Make a Lot of Money?
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the average detective makes a salary of $67,290 per year. That means a homicide detective can earn a salary of $32.35 per hour. The BLS adds that 50 percent of police investigators can earn from $55,100 to $103,000.
The top employers of criminal investigators and detectives are local governments, excluding hospitals and schools. They account for more than 40,000 jobs out of the national total of 105,000. The top-paying employer of detectives is the U.S. government’s federal executive branch. Detectives who work for them earn a salary of $107,000.
Most detectives do make good money, but it depends on where you are working. For example, below is a list of the highest paying states for criminal investigators and detectives:
- Alaska. $113,000
- Hawaii. $109,000
- California. $107,000
- New Jersey. $103,000
- Massachusetts. $102,000
The bottom five states where detectives make the least money are areas in the south of the US. Still, the average detective salary in South Carolina, aka the lowest-paying state, is still above the average mean wage of other jobs.
- Louisiana. $63,000.
- Kansas. $62,000.
- North Carolina. $61,000
- Arkansas. $60,000
- South Carolina. $59,000
In terms of job outlook, the employment of detectives, criminal investigators and police are projected to grow from five percent from 2019 to 2029, which is faster compared to other occupations. The demand for better public safety will lead to more job openings for officers, although the need will depend on each state’s demand.
Also, expect stiff competition for federal government detective jobs. Applicants with previous investigative experience, military training and college degrees have the best chances of being accepted in federal government positions.
Is it Difficult to Become a Detective?
Similar to other career options, you need to have more qualifications and experience than other applicants. To achieve this, it takes time and a lot of hard work. In the world of detectives, you must be a police officer promoted to this post because of your crime-solving skills.
To get there you need to:
- Get the education. Aspiring detectives must join the police academy first. However, police departments prefer promoting officers who possess a degree. So get a bachelor’s or associate’s degree in criminology or another related field. This should take you two to four years.
- Get hired as an officer. Apply to your local police department. This may take you around three months to process before the department starts the actual hiring process. This process can take four months and consists of mental, physical, psychological, oral and medical tests. Once you’re accepted, you’ll start training in the academy first, which takes six months. After your graduation, you are placed on a probation period of about a year.
- Gain experience as an officer. Most police departments don’t promote anyone unless they have served at least two years. Other departments require a minimum of five years of service.
- Gain experience as a detective. You don’t have to be a criminal investigator to get this experience. Choose alternative investigative careers. You can either do research for a public defender’s office or investigate financial fraud.
What are the Pros and Cons of Being a Detective?
Before you venture into a career in law enforcement, consider the pros and cons of being a detective:
- The opportunity to give justice. Detectives don’t just bring justice to family and friends. You are also helping people who have lost loved ones or have been wronged. You serve justice to those who deserve it.
- Thrilling career. You rarely have a boring day at work (unless you have to file paperwork). The different clues and crime scenes you encounter keep every day interesting.
- Dangerous territory. Being a detective is a risky business since you are working against criminals. It’s natural to worry about your safety, as well as your family’s.
- Long hours of work. Some cases take longer than others, which means you have less time for your family and friends.
Forensic Scientist Explained: Salary, Responsibilities and More
Think Abby Sciuto from “NCIS.” She and other TV forensic scientists do the analysis and often deliver the “Eureka!” moments that help speed up the case. If detectives are the front act of criminal cases, forensic scientists rock the behind-the-scenes.
But in real life, what does a forensic scientist do? What is their salary like?
Forensic scientists analyze crime scene evidence using natural and physical sciences. After a case has been opened, law enforcement teams secure the integrity of the scene so forensic scientists can collect and document evidence.
How Much Does a Forensic Scientist Make?
According to the BLS, a forensic scientist can make an average salary of $60,000 annually. Their wage per hour stands at $29.00. If you specialize in a certain area of forensic sciences, you could earn more. For example, a blood splatter analyst has an average salary of $69,000 per year.
If you are in digital forensics, your salary ranges from $64,000 to $95,000, depending on the type of digital forensic scientist you are.
What are the Responsibilities of a Forensic Scientist?
A career in forensic science is a rewarding one not just in terms of salary, but in experience, too. You learn more by performing the following tasks.
- Sketching crime scenes. Today’s forensic scientists use professional cameras to capture the crime scene but they are still expected to sketch. These handmade drawings offer additional context for evidence and photos.
- Photographing crime scenes. As mentioned, forensic scientists must take photos of the evidence and crime scenes. Photographs play an important role in the process of organizing and collective evidence for any case. Some of the objects in these photos are blood splatters, weapons, scars and tire impressions.
- Analyzing evidence. Once the evidence is in the lab, forensic scientists start analyzing them. This includes comparing different materials found at the crime scene, examining fingerprints and testing chemicals or drugs at the scene of the crime.
Forensic Medical Examiner Explained: Salary, Responsibilities and More
“Quincy, M.E.” and other TV shows with a forensic medical examiner for a protagonist made the work of a coroner look too interesting. Viewers learn more about the human anatomy (in relation to the cause of death) from our MEs. Some are even inspired to become medical examiners so they can examine dead bodies and point out culprits.
In reality, being a medical examiner is a rewarding career. You uncover the secrets of a person’s death and deliver justice to the right people.
What are the Tasks of a Forensic Medical Examiner?
Forensic medical examiners study the tissues, cells, organs and bodily fluids of a deceased person. They are also in charge of gathering information from the body to determine the cause and manner of death. The most common tasks of a medical examiner include:
- Performing an autopsy to determine the cause of death, as well as evidence of injury or disease.
- Taking samples of different bodily fluids.
- Performing scans and X-rays of the body.
- Taking photos of the body.
- Ensuring the collection of evidence follows the proper procedures.
How to Become a Forensic Medical Examiner
To become an ME, you need the required education and training, which can take between 13 to 18 years after you graduate high school. Some states don’t require applicants to undergo professional medical training. But the position does require a bachelor’s degree in natural sciences, followed by a doctor of osteopathy or a medical doctor degree. They must also obtain a license so they can practice in the field.
A little self-improvement plus strong communication skills will go a long way for you, too.
How Much Does a Forensic Medical Examiner Make?
According to Indeed, a forensic scientist can make a base salary of $61,000 per year. Austin, TX is the highest paying city for MEs. The state pays its forensic medical examiners $143,000 per year. The salary of a forensic medical examiner depends on the location and their experience in the position.
If you’re thinking of starring in your own crime show IRL, the possibilities are endless! Plus the opportunities are plenty. Just make sure you have the credentials, training and patience. A little action star quality won’t hurt, either.