Do You Have What It Takes to be a Forensic Fingerprint Examiner?

National Institute of Standards and Technology

   See also the instructional videos on "Fingerprint Comparison"

Being a forensic examiner seems glamorous on TV. But working in a crime lab requires long hours of intense focus that are anything but action-packed. This is especially true for fingerprint examiners, who must focus on minute visual details that would leave most people cross-eyed. It’s not a job for everyone.

Finding the right people to fill these jobs is critical because they help ensure that criminals are brought to justice and that innocent people are not wrongly accused. Especially as forensic science degree programs produce an increasing number of jobseekers, crime lab managers need tools to identify the most promising among them.

Do you think you have the right mix of skills and temperament to be a high-performing fingerprint examiner? If so, read on, and take the interactive quiz by clicking on the button at the bottom of this article.

The questions in that quiz were developed by experts, with support from NIST, to test visual pattern-matching abilities. As part of this effort, in the fall of 2016, NIST sponsored a Workshop on Personnel Selection in the Pattern Evidence Domain of Forensic Science. This workshop, which brought together forensic professionals, cognitive scientists and industrial psychologists, was hosted by the National Academy of Sciences Board on Human Systems Integration.

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“The goal is to identify individuals who are better at pattern recognition tasks than your average Joe,” said Melissa Taylor, a research manager at NIST who focuses on reducing the potential for errors and bias in forensic analysis. Taylor’s program is part of a larger NIST effort to strengthen forensic science in the United States.

Currently, Taylor says, when lab managers fill entry-level positions, they base their hiring decisions on college transcripts, job interviews and writing samples. Those are important, but they don’t shed light on pattern-matching skills specifically.

NIST does not administer tests to applicants, but hopes to provide lab managers with testing tools.

In addition to helping lab managers, such tests can also help aspiring forensic examiners know if the field is right for them. “If applicants only know about the job through television shows like “CSI,” they might not have a realistic picture of what’s involved,” Taylor said.

Forensic science has come under increased scrutiny lately, most recently in a report from the President’s Council of Advisors for Science and Technology (PCAST). Among other things, the PCAST report called on research scientists to develop automated, computer-based methods that can efficiently and accurately analyze fingerprints and other pattern evidence. So, if the field is heading toward automation, why bother creating a test for human examiners?

For one, it will take several years before scientists develop fully automated systems, and in the meantime, human examiners will be doing the work.

 Earn a Degree in Crime Scene Investigation, Forensic Science, Computer Forensics or Forensic Psychology

In addition, fingerprints collected at crime scenes are often distorted, degraded, or have complicated backgrounds. “There will always be difficult cases that require human analysis,” Taylor said. “In the future, automated systems may be able to handle the straightforward comparisons, allowing human examiners to focus on the most complex cases.”

The next step for this project, Taylor said, is to develop an online test with input from industrial and organizational psychologists. She also hopes to pilot a testing program in partnership with a large laboratory.

You might be one of the people that those laboratories are looking for. If you’re a potential job applicant with an interest in forensic science, or even if you’re just interested in testing out your pattern-matching skills, take the quiz by pressing the start button below.

The eight sample questions get progressively more difficult as you go. At the end, you’ll see the correct answers with explanations. Your answers are not recorded; this quiz is just for fun.