Guide to Forensic Science Degrees
What Is a Forensic Science Degree?
Forensic science is the application of science to the legal system. A forensic science degree takes either two or four years to complete and prepares graduates for various careers. Specific outcomes depend on the chosen concentration. Potential concentrations include forensic anthropology, digital forensics, and forensic toxicology. Regardless of specialization, a forensic science degree leads to a career in the legal system finding evidence and promoting justice.
Every forensic science program teaches analytical skills, how to look at evidence, and create conclusions. Forensic science also teaches ethics, a critical component in a just legal system.
Careers in forensic science can often begin in a role as a forensic science technician. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), forensic science technicians enjoy a median salary of $59,150 and are projected to see 14% job growth from 2018-2028. As the legal system continues to embrace scientific evidence, projections show an increased need for forensic scientists across the country.
Why Get a Degree in Forensic Science?
Individuals may wonder whether earning an associate/bachelor's/master's in forensic science is worth it. The answer depends on the individual. Each level of a forensic science degree leads to specific careers, and earning a bachelor's or master's degree maximizes earning and job potential. Benefits to earning a forensic science degree include:
Completing a forensic science degree meets the minimum educational requirements for many high paying, highly coveted positions.
Higher education typically leads to higher-paying jobs. While an associate degree could lead to a higher-paying career, a bachelor's or master's degree increases potential earnings even further.
Some people earn degrees to learn new skills, for personal satisfaction, or to accomplish a lifelong goal of earning a degree.
Career and Salary Outlook for Forensic Science Graduates
A degree in forensic science leads to various careers, with each career requiring a specific educational skillset. Forensic science careers requiring minimal education still offer decent salaries. Some associate degree in forensic science holders find careers as paralegals. According to the BLS, paralegals and legal assistants earn a median salary of $51,740.
To maximize salary and career potential, learners should complete a bachelor's or master's degree in forensic science. According to the BLS, forensic scientists earn a median salary of $59,150.
Forensic science students with a bachelor's or master's degree could find a position as an information security analyst. The BLS reports that information security analysts earn a median salary of $99,730 a year, and projections show a 32% job growth rate from 2018-2028.
Here are other potential career outcomes:
Crime Scene Investigator
Crime Lab Analyst
Sometimes referred to as a forensic science analyst, crime lab analysts work within the science and criminal justice systems. These professionals use crime scene evidence to identify victims and perpetrators. Crime lab analysts need at least a bachelor's degree, and some labs require a master's in forensic science.
Forensic accountants use accounting skills to find fraudulent or suspicious behavior. While many forensic accountants work within the criminal justice system, others work for insurance agencies, banks, and other private organizations. This position requires a background in both forensic science and accounting.
These professionals analyze human remains, analyzing data to help identify bodies. Along with forensic science knowledge, this position requires experience in anthropology. Most forensic anthropologists have a bachelor's or master's degree, though some employers prefer candidates with a Ph.D.
Forensic nurses care for victims of violence by combining traditional nursing with forensic science. This position requires forensic science experience and a registered nurse license, so all forensic nurses must have an associate degree in nursing. Some state governments require additional special certifications.
Interview with a Forensic Science Professional
Forensic science careers take many forms. Aspiring forensic scientists can learn from current professionals to better understand how education and experience lead to different careers.
Types of Forensic Science Degrees
Forensic science learners choose from three types of degree: associate, bachelor's, and master's. An associate degree takes the least time to complete and has a lower total tuition cost, but offers the lowest career and earning potential. A master's degree takes the most time to complete and has the highest total tuition cost, but offers a broad range of opportunities. While committing to a master's degree is tempting, future students should carefully evaluate their goals first.
- Associate Degree in Forensic Science
An associate degree is a two-year degree offered by community colleges, colleges, and universities. An associate in forensic science requires 60-65 credits, all of which typically transfer into four-year forensic science programs. To apply, individuals must have a high school diploma or GED.
Examples of an associate degree in forensic science include:
- Associate in applied science in forensic science
- Associate in science in crime scene technology
- Associate in applied science in criminal justice technology
- Bachelor's Degree in Forensic Science
A bachelor's in forensic science is a four-year degree that requires 120-128 credits. Students who previously completed an associate in forensic science often transfer into a bachelor's program, cutting the required credits in half. Applicants must have a high school diploma/GED, along with SAT and/or ACT scores. Transfer students must submit previous college transcripts.
Examples of a bachelor's in forensic science include:
- Bachelor of science in investigative forensics
- Bachelor of science in criminology
- Bachelor of science in forensic psychology
- Master's Degree in Forensic Science
A master's in forensic science is a 1-2 year degree. Graduates who earn a master's degree find the highest-paying positions in forensic science. To apply, individuals must first complete a bachelor's degree. Some master's in forensic science programs may require a specific bachelor's degree and/or professional experience.
Examples of a master's in forensic science include:
- Master of science in criminal justice
- Master of science in biomedical forensic science
- Master of science in forensic psychology
Concentrations in Forensic Science
Because forensic science is a broad field, many programs offer concentrations that lead to specific careers. For example, a learner interested in becoming a forensic psychologist should earn a bachelor's and master's degree in forensic psychology. An employer may require applicants hold a degree with a specific concentration.
Some potential forensic science concentrations include:
- Forensic psychology
- Investigative forensics
- Computer forensics
- Forensic anthropology
- Forensic chemistry
- Forensic biology
Forensic Science Certifications
Potential employers may require graduates to become certified. Students complete forensic science certifications after all degree types, though most certifications require a bachelor's or master's degree. A certification proves that an individual mastered certain concepts. Earning a certification can increase employability, even when not required.
These are professional organizations that offer certifications for forensic science:
- American Board of Criminalistics - ABC
- American Board of Forensic Anthropology - ABFA
- American Board of Forensic Documentation Examiners - ABFDE
- American Board of Forensic Odontology - ABFO
- American Board of Forensic Toxicology - ABFT
- American Board of Medicolegal Death Investigators - ABMDI
- International Association of Computer Investigative Specialists - IACIS
- Board of Forensic Document Examiners - BFDE
- International Association of Identification - IAI
- International Board of Forensic Engineering Sciences - IBFES
- International Information Systems Security Certification Consortium - (ISC)2
Popular Forensic Science Courses
While forensic science covers a variety of subjects, most programs focus on several main topics. However, the specific courses and formats vary depending on school and program. Degrees consist of general education, core, and elective courses. Bachelor's and master's degrees may also require a capstone, thesis, or final project. Most programs require a blend of every course type and cover similar subjects, though specific course names vary. Most forensic science programs offer or require courses similar to these:
Psychology of Criminal Behavior
Offered at the graduate and undergraduate level, psychology of criminal behavior covers the psychological understanding of how and why criminals behave as they do. Students analyze the behaviors and emotions of criminals to create hypotheses. Some programs offer this course with a focus on either adult or juvenile criminals.
Cybercrime and Security
While not always required for forensic science majors, cybercrime and security provides a look into the modern field of digital crime. Students learn various national and corporate security best practices and theories. A focus in this course material could lead to a career in cybersecurity.
Criminalistics teaches students how to approach a crime scene, preserve, and collect evidence. Students also learn about crime labs, analyzing evidence, and the implementation of theories and techniques to assist with analysis.
Offered at both the graduate and undergraduate level, toxicology covers the human body's response to toxins, drugs, and other substances. The course builds off material learned in previous chemistry and biology courses.
Forensic Science Internship
Forensic science internships vary depending on concentration, level of education, experience, and region. Some internships involve working with local, state, or federal authorities, including the Department of Homeland Security and the FBI. Students can gain college credit, experience, and a salary from an internship.
Selecting Your Forensic Science Program
Choosing which program to attend can include dozens of factors. Each school and program is unique, so students with specific outcomes in mind need to find the right fit. When choosing a forensic science program, applicants should consider the following factors.
Should You Get Your Forensic Science Degree Online?
While applying for programs, learners must decide whether they want to earn their forensic science degree online or on campus. While online education removes most (or all) face-to-face interaction, this method of study provides students more flexibility. Online programs remove commuting requirements, and busy students with tight work schedules or personal obligations can fit coursework around their day-to-day routine.
An online forensic degree can also cost less than on-campus programs. Online programs often offer discounted tuition rates to all students. Those studying online can avoid commuting costs, some mandatory on-campus fees, and costs associated with residing closer to campus.
As long as students choose an accredited program, there is no quality difference between online and on-campus programs. Future learners should choose the option best for their personal situation.
Accreditation for Forensic Science Schools and Programs
Accreditation is a standard set by accrediting bodies and backed by the federal government. Accreditation means that an authorized organization verified the academic quality of the school and/or program. All accrediting bodies earn accrediting rights from the Council for Higher Education Accreditation.
When comparing schools, applicants must choose between regionally and nationally accredited schools. While both demonstrate quality, regional accrediting organizations hold colleges and universities to higher standards. Some certifications, graduates programs, and employers may only consider candidates that graduated from a regionally accredited school.
Next, applicants should look for programmatic accreditation. Like regional accreditation, programmatic accreditation verifies academic quality, only for specific degrees and programs. Applicants should only look at programs accredited by the Forensic Science Education Programs Accreditation Commission (FEMAC). FEMAC only accredits bachelor's and master's degree programs, so those pursuing an associate degree should focus on regional accreditation.
Frequently Asked Questions
- How long will it take to complete a forensic science degree?
- An associate in forensic science takes two years to complete, a bachelor's takes four years to complete, and a master's takes 1-2 years to complete. Those earning a master's must first complete a bachelor's degree, meaning 5-6 years of studying. Some students also take time off between the two degrees to gain work experience.
- How much will I make with a degree in forensic science?
- Salaries for forensic science careers depend on multiple factors, though level of education plays a critical role. Those with an associate degree might earn roughly $50,000 while those with a master's could earn over $100,000.
- What kind of jobs can you get with a forensic science degree?
- Most forensic science jobs are in the criminal justice field, though some private and nonprofit organizations also need forensic scientists. Potential roles include forensic nurse, forensic accountant, and blood spatter analyst.
- Do I need to be licensed in forensic science in order to work as a forensic technician?
- Certification is not required in this field, but it may help you demonstrate your level of education and commitment to the profession.
Scholarships for Forensic Science Programs
While the cost of college can seem daunting, various forms of financial aid exist to help learners fund their education. Scholarships provide students with money that learners apply to tuition, fees, books, and other costs. Below are a few examples of scholarships available to forensic science students.
Who Can Apply: Any members of the American Society of Crime Laboratory Directors in their junior or senior year of a bachelor's program, or enrolled in a graduate program may apply.
Who Can Apply: Applicants for the Association of Firearm and Tool Mark Examiners Scholarship must be in their junior or senior year of a forensic science bachelor's or be enrolled in a graduate-level forensic science program.
ACS Scholars Program
Who Can Apply: Available to any minority students enrolled in a chemistry-related program (including forensic science), the ACS Scholars Program selects up to 350 winners each year, splitting $900,000 among all winners.
Amount: Up to $5,000
Ellis R. Kerley Forensic Sciences Foundation Scholarship
Who Can Apply: Available only to graduate students enrolled in forensic or biological anthropology, this scholarship is awarded based on character, academic merit, and commitment.
George H. Robinson Memorial Scholarship
Who Can Apply: This annual scholarship is awarded to a student enrolled in a forensic science or criminal justice program. Winners receive a one-time scholarship grant and a certificate of recognition.