Computer Forensics Degree
A computer forensics degree can help aspiring computer forensics professionals gain the skills and knowledge needed to pursue employment in this rapidly changing and competitive field. Also known as forensic examiners, these professionals specialize in gathering evidence from computer data. Other common names for this role include computer forensics specialist or investigator. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, employment growth for forensic science professionals will be much faster than average through 2026, at 17%.1 Specialized computer forensics degree programs to prepare for this career field are available at colleges and four-year universities at the undergraduate and graduate level.
Computer Forensics Training and Courses
Prospective computer forensics specialists typically must have a bachelor's degree, preferably a computer forensics degree or a degree in computer science. Many colleges offer computer forensics certificate programs as well as bachelor's and master's degree programs in computer forensics. Some computer forensics examiners begin their careers in other areas of law enforcement and gain transferable skills through a computer forensics training program. Regardless of the path taken to this career, computer forensic examiners must have skills and knowledge related to digital storage devices, computer operating systems, a variety of programming languages, and common software applications. In addition to formal computer forensics training, technical, analytical, and critical thinking skills are important.
Areas of concentration in computer forensics include child pornography, internet child exploitation, financial fraud, hacking, and other computer-related crimes. Computer forensics classes will teach you the skills necessary to process information, including encrypted data, stored on computers belonging to victims and suspects. Colleges and universities across the US offer various specialized computer forensics degree programs including digital forensics or computer security and forensics.
Examples of courses that are commonly part of a computer forensics curriculum include:
- Introduction to Computer Forensics
- Current Issues in Cyberlaw
- Computer Forensics File Systems
- Architecture of Secure Operating Systems
- Forensic Analysis in a Windows Environment
- Malware and Software Vulnerability Analysis
- Network Security
- Mobile Forensic Analysis
- Forensic Management of Digital Evidence
- Cyber Incident Analysis and Response
- Digital Forensics Investigative Techniques
- Database Design
- Forensic Management of Digital Evidence
- Computer Ethics
- Advanced Topics in Computer Forensics
- Information Systems Security Planning and Audit
Traditional Computer Forensics Degree Programs
Purdue University awards a master's degree with a specialization in Cyber Forensics. The Cyber Forensics program is research-focused and based in the Purdue University Computer and Information Technology Department. The program has a flexible policy for the admission of students who do not have comprehensive backgrounds in computer science; conditional admission may be granted for students who are willing to take additional computer science courses as prerequisites. After completing the six credit hour core curriculum, students take 15 credit hours of specialization in electives in courses such as Advanced Research Topics in Cyber Forensics, Cyber Forensics of File Systems, and Cyberforensics of Malware. Completing a thesis is also required for all students in order to graduate. The Cyber Forensics program maintains strong ties with the law enforcement community, which may lead to networking opportunities for graduate students.
The School of Business and Justice Studies at Utica College offers an on-campus Bachelor of Science in Cybersecurity and Information Assurance with two possible concentrations. The concentration on Cybercrime Investigations and Forensics will be most relevant to individuals interested in computer forensics, although an Information Assurance program is also available. The bachelor's program ensures students develop a broad liberal arts foundation as well as communication and technical skills necessary for an entry-level career in this field upon graduation. While the degree takes four years to complete and includes 120 credits, a two-year transfer program is also offered for students who have already completed an associate's degree. All students must choose either an internship or a senior project to apply theoretical learning to a practical situation.
Online Computer Forensics Degree Programs
Champlain College offers a fully online Bachelor of Science in Computer Forensics with hands-on opportunities to practice investigation skills through the Leahy Center for Digital Investigation. The online format may work well for working professionals and part-time students as it allows students to “attend” class largely at their convenience and begin new courses every seven weeks due to the condensed format. Many students are adult learners who intend to balance their studies with other commitments. In addition to 63 credits in the computer forensics core curriculum, the program also allows students to take electives in related areas to earn an additional certificate in Computer Forensics & Digital Investigations, Cybersecurity, or Forensic Accounting. Students may also transfer up to 90 credits from previous study towards the required 120 credits to help meet the program requirements faster.
The John Jay College of Criminal Justice of the City University of New York offers a Master of Science in Digital Forensics and Cybersecurity that focuses on the intersections between forensic science education and the criminal justice system. Courses are typically held in the evening hours, including required courses such as Architecture of Secure Operating Systems, Law and High Technology Crime, and Forensic Management of Digital Evidence. Students with a bachelor's degree in fields other than computer science can be considered for admission to the program if the computer science fundamentals required for successful program completion are learned through additional undergraduate or graduate courses. Program faculty include experienced experts in the fields of computer science, law, and the social sciences. Students may also choose to pursue graduate certificates in Computer Science for Digital Forensics and Applied Digital Forensic Science.
The University of Maryland University College offers a Master of Science in Digital Forensics and Cyber Investigation that can be completed entirely online. Recognizing the rapid pace of change in technology, this master's program prepares students to successfully navigate future changes in technology and its impacts on the criminal justice field. The 36-credit hour program includes core courses in Cyberspace and Cybersecurity Foundations, Digital Forensic Response and Analysis, and Advanced Forensics, as well as a six-credit capstone in cybersecurity. Students enrolled in the program may choose to pursue a dual degree with a Master of Business Administration, which requires an additional 18 credit hours based on dual enrollment. As the Master of Science in Digital Forensics and Cyber Investigation curriculum does not assume that students have previous knowledge of cybersecurity or computer science, the degree is appropriate for and open to students from various disciplinary backgrounds.
Computer Forensics Job Description
Computer forensics, or cyber forensics, is based on the investigation of digital data to gather evidence relating to criminal cases. Computer forensics specialists search hard drives for hidden files or recover deleted files while maintaining the integrity of evidence. They use advanced tools like encryption decoding software or file recovery programs to gather evidence. Computer forensics experts and investigators may also be called to testify in court about their findings. The term “digital forensics” is often used interchangeably with computer forensics, but the former technically includes devices and digital communications other than computers such as cell phones and network servers.
Other jobs you may be able to get with a computer forensics degree include:
- Business Intelligence Analyst
- Crime Analyst
- Computer Forensics Investigator
- Computer Systems Analyst
- Cybersecurity Officer
- Digital Forensics Investigator
- Digital Forensics Specialist
- Homeland Security Professional
- Information Security Officer
- Information Security Analyst
For more ideas on careers related to computer forensics, visit our criminal justice jobs board.
Computer Forensics Professional Certification
Certification is not required to develop a career in this area; however, there are many different certifications available to computer forensics professionals that may help demonstrate your skills and depth of knowledge to potential employers. The best certification for you will depend on your career goals. Some relevant certifications are offered by the International Association of Computer Investigative Specialists (IACIS) and the Information Assurance Certification Review Board (IACRB).
Computer Forensics Salary and Job Outlook
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, forensic science technicians earned an average salary of $57,850 in 2017 and were projected to see 17% job growth through 2026; however, this category also includes many other types of forensic professionals.1 In comparison, information security analysts, who are specifically trained in computer security, earned a median salary of $95,510 in 2017 and had 28% projected jobs growth through 2026.2 Another similar occupation, computer systems analyst, earned an average of $88,270 in 2017 and was expected to see 9% jobs growth through 2026.3, suggesting computer forensics graduates may be able to achieve a higher salary than forensic professionals as a whole.
- American Academy of Forensic Sciences (AAFS): A professional organization with an annual conference for all types of forensic professionals, including computer and cyber forensics investigators.
- High Technology Crime Investigation Association (HTCIA): A global organization providing professional development and networking opportunities for technology professionals.
- The International Association of Computer Investigative Specialists (IACIS): An international association that provides education law enforcement professionals in the field of computer forensic science.
Frequently Asked Questions
Question: What is the difference between a computer forensics degree and a cybersecurity degree?
Answer: These programs may share some required courses; however, a computer forensics degree has a more specific focus on finding and investigating cybercrimes while a cybersecurity degree may be broader in scope and prepares students to build and maintain secure information systems as well.
Question: What skills are required to study at the graduate level?
Answer: The main admission requirement for most graduate computer forensics programs is a bachelor's degree with satisfactory academic performance. For some master's programs, undergraduate coursework in computer science may be a prerequisite to ensure students have an established knowledge base already.
1. Bureau of Labor Statistics Occupational Outlook Handbook, Forensic Science Technicians: https://www.bls.gov/ooh/life-physical-and-social-science/forensic-science-technicians.htm
2. Bureau of Labor Statistics Occupational Outlook Handbook, Information Security Analysts: https://www.bls.gov/ooh/computer-and-information-technology/information-security-analysts.htm
3. Bureau of Labor Statistics Occupational Outlook Handbook, Computer Systems Analysts: https://www.bls.gov/ooh/computer-and-information-technology/computer-systems-analysts.htm