"I always wanted to work in forensics," says Jenifer Smith, chief of the DNA Analysis Unit with the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). With this goal in mind, Smith did a summer internship at the New York Medical Examiners Office while an undergraduate at Pennsylvania State University. It was during this internship that Smith's mentors suggested that she go on for an advanced degree if she was truly interested in a career as a forensic scientist.
So, toward the end of her undergraduate career, Smith applied to graduate school and was accepted into the Ph.D. program in Physiological Chemistry at Ohio State University. After completing her Ph.D. in 1985, Smith began a postdoc at Harvard Medical School. But she wasn't completely thrilled with life in the lab. "I was doing research, but I decided I wanted to do something more applied," says Smith.
The opportunity to do something applied finally came when she met an FBI recruiter in 1985. At that time, in order to become an examiner in the FBI's forensics lab you first had to become an agent. Smith applied to become an agent and was accepted. She joined the FBI in 1986 and started working on cases out of the Baltimore field office. Smith found making the transition from science to an FBI special agent was in some ways a natural one because "a scientist is really a detective of sorts," she says. These days FBI examiners are no longer required to come up through agent ranks. But Smith says she's glad she spent a few years working in the field, because "it really gives you an inside look as to what law enforcement is all about" and teaches you how important it is to collect evidence correctly. "If I had come straight in [as an examiner]," says Smith, "I might not relate as well to the agents in the field." In 1990 she transferred to the forensics laboratory in Washington, D.C.
According to Smith, if you want to become an examiner with the FBI Laboratory the best thing to do is to identify the discipline and contact the unit chief. Typically, they like to see advanced degrees, such as a Ph.D. in a particular scientific discipline. These days, says Smith, "even our technicians are coming in with an M.S." In addition, says Smith, it helps if you can demonstrate an interest in the field by having done a summer internship or attended a forensics meeting. Smith says she can read a cover letter and tell how much interest someone has, and demonstrating that interest "definitely makes a difference," she says. After all, making a decision to pursue a career in forensic science is like making any other career decision: "If you think you want to do it, you should go and find someone who does it," so you have a clear idea of exactly what it is that they do and what you would be getting into.