Published: Feb. 29, 2012

Real-life CSI: Study to gauge stress of forensic scientists

Contact(s): Andy Henion Media Communications office: (517) 355-3294 cell: (517) 281-6949, Thomas Holt Criminal Justice office: (517) 353-9563

EAST LANSING, Mich. — They’re glorified on TV shows such as “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation,” but in real life forensic scientists face stress from heavy caseloads, political pressure and exposure to extremely violent crime scenes and child pornography.

But just how stressful are their jobs? And what can be done to potentially improve their working environments, productivity and, ultimately, the criminal justice system?

Armed with a $129,376, one-year grant from the National Institute of Justice, researchers from Michigan State University and Eastern Kentucky University hope to answer those questions.

The first step: Sending out surveys to forensic scientists from public and private labs nationwide that collect and process different types of evidence – from DNA to chemicals to computer data. MSU is working with the Michigan State Police Forensic Science Division to tailor the surveys, said Thomas Holt, MSU associate professor of criminal justice and principal investigator.

The surveys should give researchers a better idea of the levels of job stress and satisfaction experienced by forensic scientists, Holt said.

From there, the researchers plan to collaborate with forensic lab managers to develop policy recommendations to improve efficiency and job satisfaction and decrease stress, he said.

In the weakened economy, forensic lab positions have been eliminated in Michigan and elsewhere, meaning there are fewer scientists to handle a backlog of evidence, Holt said.

While previous studies have looked at the working environment of beat cops and corrections officers, little research has been done on forensic scientists, who face a different set of tasks and challenges.

“We don’t really know this landscape,” Holt said. “No one has really looked at forensic scientists, even though they play a very pivotal role in the development of evidence, the presentation in court and prosecutions.”

Holt’s co-investigators at MSU are David Foran, associate professor and director of the Forensic Science Program, and Ruth Smith, associate professor of criminal justice and an expert in forensic chemistry.


Michigan State University has been working to advance the common good in uncommon ways for more than 150 years. One of the top research universities in the world, MSU focuses its vast resources on creating solutions to some of the world’s most pressing challenges, while providing life-changing opportunities to a diverse and inclusive academic community through more than 200 programs of study in 17 degree-granting colleges.