Forensic Science Degree
Forensic scientists locate, investigate, and evaluate evidence from crime scenes. Impartial investigation and observation is the key to identifying and prosecuting criminals, so forensic scientists must be fact-driven and analytical. To pursue a career as a forensic scientist in a crime lab or as a crime scene investigator, a forensic science degree or certificate is a necessary and valuable tool. Forensic science students develop the analytical skills necessary to process and evaluate evidence in a criminal investigation in order to assist in the successful closing of cases. Forensic science programs can lead to either a two- or a four-year degree, and though forensic scientists must be experts in a variety of fields, most students choose a concentration in a specific area of interest such as forensic toxicology, forensic entomology, forensic anthropology, digital forensics, or other exciting specialties.
Forensic Science Training and Courses
In a typical program, core forensic science courses include crime scene investigation, DNA analysis, fingerprint analysis, ballistics, biology, computer science, and others designed to help the student learn the skills necessary to work in a crime lab. Forensic scientists must learn to observe a crime scene for traces of evidence that first responders and other investigators missed, collect that evidence in a way that ensures that it is not contaminated and will stand up in court, and interpret the evidence through careful analysis of what it is, where it was found, and how it may have played a part in a crime. This complex process and the importance that this evidence plays in proving the guilt or innocence of a suspect is why students must have a degree to work in the field of forensic science.
Many schools offer programs for two-year associate's degrees and four-year bachelor's degrees in forensic science and related disciplines. Though students can begin working in forensic science after just two years with an associate's degree in criminal justice with a concentration in forensics, in order to advance in this field, forensic scientists will want to work towards a bachelor's degree or higher. Jobs in this field are highly competitive, meaning that advanced degrees often lead to better opportunities.
Examples of courses in a forensic science degree curriculum include:
- Introduction to Forensic Science
- General Chemistry
- Organic Chemistry
- Forensic Pathology
- Forensic Trace Evidence
- Physical Evidence
- Forensic Toxicology
- Crime Scene Processing
- Forensic Science Laboratory Internship
Traditional Forensic Science Degree Programs
The Master of Science in Forensic Science (MSFS) offered at Arcadia University provides a state-of-the-art education to aspiring forensic scientists and professionals. The program requires 72 credit hours to complete across all degree requirements and can be completed in two years of full-time study, although part-time study options are available. Core courses include Forensic Pattern Analysis, Statistical Analysis and Biostatistics, Research Methods in Forensic Science, and Forensic Serology. During the first summer term, students participate in a research project in collaboration with university faculty members or college partners. Students are additionally guaranteed an intensive 15-week internship with the Center for Forensic Science Research & Education that provides real-world experience in forensic biology, toxicology, and chemistry as well as trace analysis. Arcadia University's MSFS is offered in partnership with the Center for Forensic Science Research & Education and is one of few programs holding accreditation by the Forensic Science Education Programs Accreditation Committee.
Boston University offers a Master of Science in Biomedical Forensic Sciences (MS in BMFS) through its School of Medicine that prepares graduates to pursue careers in multiple areas of forensics including death investigations, crime scene response, and DNA analysis. This 38-credit hour program is designed to be completed in two years, with each program cohort start occurring at the beginning of the fall semester. Many of the program's courses involve lab work and hands-on experience components, such as core courses in Crime Scene Investigation, Trace Evidence Analysis, Research in Biomedical Forensic Sciences, and Criminal Law II-Mock Court. All program faculty continue their active involvement in casework while teaching and are able to apply their experience to teach students about forensic science and its applications to legal theory and practice. The program is housed at Boston University Medical Center. The MS in BMFS program at Boston University is accredited by the Forensic Science Education Programs Accreditation Committee (FSEPAC).
Marshall University awards a Master of Science in Forensic Science that equips students with the skills that employers of forensic professionals are seeking. Students are required to choose one emphasis area from DNA Analysis, Forensic Chemistry, Digital Forensics, or Crime Scene Investigation, and may optionally complete all four areas of emphasis. The core curriculum involves 38 credit hours, plus seven to 11 credit hours for each area of emphasis completed. The program of study includes a summer internship selected to complement the student's area(s) of emphasis that takes place in a partner specialty or crime laboratory. A unique component of the program is the school's Crime Scene House, a mock crime scene facility that offers real-world simulation in proper crime scene handling and analysis. Marshall University also offers a Graduate Certificate in Digital Forensics. The Master of Science in Forensic Science program at Marshall University is accredited by the Forensic Science Education Programs Accreditation Commission.
At Texas A&M University, students can earn a four-year bachelor's degree in the forensic and investigative sciences program with a focus on either science or pre-law. In the science emphasis program, students take forensic science courses as well as additional coursework in biology, chemistry, physics, and math. Students choosing the pre-law emphasis program take forensic science courses as well as biology, math, communications, and political science. By choosing an emphasis, students can focus on career opportunities that allow them to work directly with scientific evidence in laboratory settings or communicating scientific findings to the general public and government. Graduates of the program have gone on to work in various levels of government, including the Department of Homeland Security, the FBI, and police departments. This degree program is accredited by the Forensic Science Education Programs Accreditation Commission.
Online Forensic Science Degree Programs
The University of Florida is home to the world's largest forensic science program and offers many different graduate degree and graduate certificate options online related to forensics: Forensic Science (degree program only), Forensic Death Investigation (certificate program only), Forensic DNA & Serology, Forensic Toxicology, and Forensic Drug Chemistry. Graduate certificate programs typically take one year and can be completed fully online, while Master of Science degree students can complete the curriculum in two years of full-time study and must travel to the UF campus for three days to complete the comprehensive exam at the end of the program. The online course format includes notes, case studies, and interactive modules. Students can start the program in the fall, spring or summer term and study at their own pace either full-time or part-time.
For those interested in completing an online bachelor's degree in forensic science through a Christian institution, the Bachelor of Science in Criminal Justice with a focus on Crime Scene Investigation offered by Liberty University may be a good fit. Liberty University is the largest private, nonprofit Christian university in the country and has many online degrees and courses. The program includes 120 credits, including 48 credits in the major. You can also be awarded credit for life experiences, such as law enforcement work or military experience. The program focuses on key areas such as crime, law, and the criminal justice system and prepares students to analyze different types of crime scenes. You can also choose a minor from many other fields, such as business, homeland security, and psychology. The degree takes four years of full-time study to complete.
Forensic Science Job Description
Graduates from an undergraduate forensic science program may work in the field as forensic science technicians investigating and gathering evidence from crime scenes. According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, forensic science technicians conduct various tests and analyses on gathered evidence to help identify and convict criminals through the legal system.1 Completing a graduate program may lead to a more specialized area of forensics, such as forensic accounting, DNA analysis, or toxicology. Forensic death analysts focus on analyzing crime scenes involving death, while forensic DNA experts analyze specific types of crime scenes involving blood spatter and criminal identification. Many forensic scientists find work in the public sector and the military, although some work can also be found in the education sector or in laboratories in private organizations.
Graduates of a forensic science degree program can go on to apply their education in various roles within a law enforcement, government, and the private sector. Some examples of other jobs you can get with a forensic science degree include:
- Blood Spatter Analyst
- Computer Forensics Investigator
- Crime Lab Analyst
- Crime Scene Investigator
- Forensic Accountant
- Forensic Anthropologist
- Forensic Ballistics Expert
- Forensic Nursing
- Forensic Psychologist
- Forensic Science Technician
For more information about forensic science degrees, check out our Top 25 Forensic Blogs page.
Forensic Science Professional Certification
While certification is not mandatory to find a job in forensics, there are ways to ensure the quality of a degree in forensic science. The Forensic Science Education Programs Accreditation Commission applies a rigorous evaluation process to college and university programs to ensure students receive quality instruction. Additionally, the American Board of Criminalistics offers a voluntary certification program that is valid for five years.
Forensic Science Salary and Job Outlook
The job outlook for forensic scientists is bright, with the Bureau of Labor Statistics estimating 17% employment growth for forensic science technicians through 2026.1 As of 2017, forensic science technicians earned a median annual wage of $57,850.1
Other jobs for forensic science graduates at or above the master's level include forensic anthropologists, who earn $62,280 per year on average, and specialized forensic psychologists, who earn a comparable salary to general psychologists at $77,030 annually.2,3 Graduates from forensic accounting programs may also find work as fraud investigators, who earn an average salary of $69,520 with 10 to 14% projected jobs growth through 2026.4
Forensic Science Career Interviews
- Michael Welner, MD, Forensic Psychiatrist
- Forensic Science Education Programs Accreditation Commission: The FEPAC develops standards for forensic science education and accredits high quality forensic science degree programs.
- American Academy of Forensic Sciences: This national organization brings together forensic scientists and students of all specialities at annual conferences and networking events.
Frequently Asked Questions
Question: How long will it take to complete a forensic science degree?
Answer: Like many other science degrees, an undergraduate degree in forensic science takes approximately four years if completed full-time. Many degree programs are also offered on a part-time basis to accommodate working professionals or adults with other commitments. A graduate program typically takes one to two years depending on the level of specialization in the curriculum.
Question: Do I need to be licensed in forensic science in order to work as a forensic technician?
Answer: Certification is not required in this field, but it may help you demonstrate your level of education and commitment to the profession.
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, Anthropologists: https://www.bls.gov/ooh/life-physical-and-social-science/anthropologists-and-archeologists.htm
3. Bureau of Labor Statistics Occupational Outlook Handbook, Psychologists: https://www.bls.gov/ooh/life-physical-and-social-science/psychologists.htm
4. O*NET OnLine, Fraud Examiners, Investigators, and Analysts: https://www.onetonline.org/link/summary/13-2099.04