Working as a crime scene investigator is an interesting and rewarding job, but it isn’t as dramatic as television shows such as CSI tend to make you believe. If you believed everything you saw on TV, you’d think that forensics work was done by a bunch of attractive, stylishly dressed folks who run around town solving crimes and making arrests. As appealing as this fiction is, the reality is rather less glamorous.
- Crime scene investigators do the majority of their work in the lab — not chasing down bad guys. The investigators portrayed in CSI type shows tend to be do-everything kind of folks — they’re not just processing evidence and running DNA tests, they’re also the ones nabbing the criminals. Real-life investigators actually spend most of their time in the lab — they don’t often need to visit crime scenes, and the majority of them aren’t actual officers, so they can’t make arrests.
- Lab work takes more time. In the shows, lab work — or any kind of a test, really — is quick and painless. Whether it’s a fingerprint or a DNA sample, you just plug it into a machine and hey, presto! You’ve got results. Real life forensics tests, however, take days or even weeks to get results, usually because reality is messier and because there isn’t some fancy machine to do the work for you. Fingerprints, for instance, aren’t often clear, and typically the match has to be made visually by a specialist, rather than by a machine.
- There’s not just one lab for everything. Crime investigation shows make it seem like there’s just ”the lab,” and all the work gets done in the same place. In reality, however, labs are specialized, with one for fingerprinting, one for DNA testing, and so on. Also, small departments often don’t have the budget for their own labs and equipment, so certain things such as DNA samples have to be sent to the state lab for testing.
- The fancy equipment in the shows often doesn’t exist, or at least is way beyond budget. According to real life crime scene investigators, the technology you see in the shows is often unrealistic, or at least the budget required to buy all that equipment is. Many small departments have to send evidence to the state lab for testing, which — again — means lots of waiting until the results come back. Other equipment on the shows are actually a mechanism for accomplishing real-life results in a fraction of the time; for instance, instead of having technicians visually comparing fingerprints to find a match, you have a machine that identifies the bad guy within a matter of seconds.
- Solving cases takes more weeks or even months. The hallmark of CSI and similar shows is that the case is almost always wrapped up during the hour-long episode. In reality, though, it takes weeks or even months to gather, process, and document the evidence. While TV shows like to present cases as having a quick resolution, with all the loose strings tied off neatly at the end of the episode, this is rarely the case.
Now, this isn’t to say that forensics work isn’t interesting. Real-life crime scene investigators love their work and find it both fascinating and challenging. It’s just not as dramatic as prime time TV would have you believe! If you’re still interested in pursuing a career in crime scene investigation, then you might just be the perfect fit for the forensic psychology graduate program.