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For forensics professionals with niche research interests, several years of experience, and an unbreakable work ethic, there are various doctoral programs in forensic science. While most of the programs at this level fall into one of the subfields of the discipline—chemistry, clinical psychology, anthropology etc.—there are a few terminal degree options in forensic science as well.
Preparation at the PhD level is crucial to furthering the discipline of forensic science for several reasons. First, graduate students and professors are typically responsible for revolutionizing the technologies and methods behind forensic technologies. By illustration, Discover Magazine (2016) recently published a piece on Dr. Robert Hare—one of the pioneers in forensic psychology—and explained that in the 1950s, he was working in uncharted waters. Dr. Hare is well-known for his Psychopathy Check List (PCL), which he developed in 1980 to identify psychopathic tendencies. While forensic psychology was still in its infancy, this groundbreaking researcher pinpointed 20 items associated with psychopathy, including exhibiting a lack of empathy, impulsivity, a tendency toward short-term relationships, and a failure to take responsibility for one’s actions. Dr. Hare was also one of the first researchers to use physiological arousal studies to study the disease. In general, people with the mental illness do not show the same arousal in response to stressful stimuli as control subjects. Overall, Dr. Hare is one example of a forensic scientist who pioneered new methods in the subfield of clinical psychology to measure a mental illness.
Second, having achieved the terminal degree in forensic science may be a requirement for employment at the highest levels of universities, forensic laboratories, research organizations, and other institutions. Having a PhD can not only enhance one’s candidacy for leadership and teaching positions, but may also increase one’s salary potential as well.
Lastly, it may be wise to pursue a PhD in forensic science or a subfield to prepare oneself for professional certification. In fact, several credentialing boards of the discipline require applicants to have a doctoral degree including the American Board of Forensic Anthropology (ABFA), the American Board of Forensic Odontology (ABFO), and the American Board of Forensic Toxicologists (ABFT), specifically for credentialing at the Fellow level. To learn more about the credentialing organizations accredited by the esteemed Forensic Specialties Accreditation Board (FSAB), please visit the forensic science careers page.
Read on to learn about the wealth of accredited PhD programs in forensic science and the relevant subfields of psychology, chemistry, and anthropology.
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Online Master's in Forensic Studies
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While there are few doctoral programs which focus exclusively on forensic science, there is an abundance of PhD options in the varied subfields. Prospective students in forensics are urged to verify the accreditation status of their institutions and/or programs. To learn more about accreditation, please visit the eponymous section below.
To gain entry into a PhD programs, admissions committees typically call for the following from students:
There are currently limited options at the PhD level for forensic science programs, but they are on the rise. One standout program is available at Sam Houston State University of Huntsville, Texas. This school—named after the former Texas governor and President of the Lone Star Republic who refused to pledge allegiance to the Confederacy—provides a doctor of philosophy (i.e., PhD) in forensic science. As one of the only programs of its kind in the US, this 86-credit hour program generally takes four to five years of fulltime study. Sam Houston’s curriculum comprises core coursework, electives, and dissertation research. The degree plan includes classes such as forensic instrumental analysis, trace & microscopical analysis, forensic toxicology, research methods, and forensic laboratory management.
Another PhD program in forensic science is slated to welcome students in fall 2016 at West Virginia University (WVU) based in Morgantown. More specifically, this doctoral program is in forensic and investigative sciences. While the details of the PhD program have yet to emerge, WVU has the distinction of being the only school in the nation boasting forensics programs at the undergraduate, graduate, and doctoral levels. Notably, WVU’s bachelor’s and master’s programs are accredited by the prestigious Forensic Science Education Programs Accreditation Commission (FEPAC). FEPAC is the gold standard in program approvals for forensic science at the bachelor’s and master’s degree levels.
The American Psychological Association’s (APA) American Psychology-Law Society maintains a detailed guide to programs in legal and forensic psychology. There are not only PhD programs, but also PsyD and PhD/JD combined options as well.
One program of note is at Palo Alto University (PAU) in California, which provides a four-year PhD in clinical psychology with a forensic area of emphasis. Core coursework for this specialized PhD includes forensic assessment, an advanced forensic psychology seminar, assessment & treatment of trauma in adults, child & adolescent development, biological psychology, psychopharmacology, adult development & aging, neuropsychological assessment, and cross-cultural issues in psychology. By dividing students into small, faculty-guided research groups, PAU ensures that students get the empirical instruction in research methods and proper leadership through all phases of developing their dissertations.
The aforementioned Sam Houston University of Texas also provides a PhD in clinical psychology with a forensic emphasis. In addition to clinical training and coursework, the forensic track helps students specialize in the application of psychology to legal issues by learning how to perform court evaluations, mental health assessments, court consultations, and more. Classes in Sam Houston’s forensic psychology track include psychopathology, dysfunctional behavior, assessment of intelligence & achievement, professional standards & ethics, and forensic assessments.
Florida International University (FIU) of Miami—one of the top 25 largest universities in the nation—provides a PhD program in chemistry, forensic sciences, and biochemistry. With over 100 graduate students and a $4 million annual research budget, FIU’s Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry has a multidisciplinary approach to the forensic science field. The forensic science track focuses on the environmental impact of trace elements (e.g., mercury, arsenic, lead), an important line of work especially in the wake of the Flint Michigan water crisis (CNN 2016). Other projects involve the study of hydrocarbons, airborne particulate matter, free radicals, and organophosphates. The forensic track also focuses on advanced aspects of biomedical research such as the synthesis of important molecules, protease enzymes, and how macular pigments are impacted by diet and nutrition.
The University at Albany offers a PhD in analytical & forensic chemistry. This program is committed to advancing the techniques in forensic analysis at a molecular level and features classes such as advanced forensic chemistry, pharmacology, toxicology, analytical methods, comprehensive biochemistry, experimental methods of organic structure determination, and a forensic drug chemistry internship. Finally, all students must pass the American Chemical Society graduate exams in organic and physical chemistry, as well as inorganic or biological chemistry.
The University of Central Florida (UCF) offers a PhD in chemistry along with four concentration areas, one of which is forensic science. This 72-credit program requires coursework in forensic analysis of explosives, advanced mass spectrometry, forensic molecular biology, kinetics & catalysis, applied organic synthesis, and chemical thermodynamics.
The University of Florida (UF) provides a PhD program in biological anthropology with a focus in forensic science. Students receive advanced instruction in recovering human remains and analyzing trauma. Classes include biostatistics, human functional anatomy, genetic analysis, radiology, osteology, and water & soil sciences. UF boasts a state-of-the-art forensics lab—the C.A. Pound Human Identification Laboratory—which services other agencies around the state. This school’s multidisciplinary approach to forensic anthropology involves collaboration with departments in entomology, laboratory medicine, and soil & water analyses. Please note that this program is competitive. Typical admittees have high GPAs (>3.5) and impressive GRE scores (1320 average).
For forensic science professionals seeking to advance their knowledge while living abroad, there are some PhD programs in forensic science in other countries. The American Academy of Forensic Sciences (AAFS) maintains a list of international schools in forensics.
Among them is a doctoral program at Australia’s Deakin University. Deakin—based in Geelong in the state of Victoria—provides a PhD program in chemistry, biotechnology, and forensic sciences. Key research emphases at Deakin include forensic chemistry, forensic biology, forensic entomology, materials chemistry, and agricultural biotechnology, to name a few.
For speakers of Turkish, Istanbul University provides a research-heavy PhD in forensic sciences through its Division of Life Sciences. Dissertation foci of students include document examination, forensic genetics, forensic toxicology, forensic biochemistry, and more.
The American Academy of Forensic Science (AAFS 2016) recognizes a number of online graduate programs related to forensic science, but there are currently no PhDs in forensic science which can be completed 100 percent online. This is largely due to the importance of being present in a lab to analyze research findings and learn the empirical techniques of forensic science in a clinical context.
That said, there are some online programs related to forensic science, including a graduate certificate in forensic criminology from the University of Massachusetts, a master’s degree in forensic psychology from the University of North Dakota, and a master’s in forensic science from the University of Florida (UF).
UF actually offers four online master’s programs related to forensics which can also be completed as web-based, 15-credit graduate certificates. These may be ideal for master’s-prepared forensic scientists seeking to enhance their knowledge in a subfield before committing to a PhD program. The four featured subfields at UF include forensic drug chemistry, forensic death investigation, forensic DNA & serology, and forensic toxicology.
While there are limited distance-based options for PhD programs in forensic science, some advanced programs in the subfield of digital forensics offer web-based coursework. For example, the University of Rhode Island offers a hybrid PhD in computer science with a focus in cybersecurity and digital forensics. In addition to an original research project, online courses include units on algorithms, programming languages, computer architecture, theory of computation, and software design. This program typically takes four to six years of full-time study.
Additionally, the University of Fairfax in Virginia offers an online doctoral degree in cybersecurity. This doctorate of information assurance (DIA) program requires applicants to have a master’s degree and at least five years of relevant professional experience.
To learn more about distance-based options in this field, please visit the online forensic science programs page.
To complete a PhD program in forensic science, students typically need to complete the following:
These programs generally take four to six years to complete.
Organized by the popular subfields of forensic science, here are typical classes within each of the doctoral programs discussed above:
PhD in forensic science: forensic instrumental analysis, law & forensic sciences, forensic toxicology, controlled substance analysis, trace & microscopical analysis, ethical conduct, scientific communications, research methods, forensic lab management, forensic analysis of ignitable liquids, population genetics & genetic data analysis, forensic analysis of explosives
PhD in forensic psychology: mental health law, developmental psychopathology, psychological assessment, research methodology, psychometrics, multicultural psychology, effective intervention, theories & methods of diagnosis, experimental design, advanced statistics, consultation & supervision
PhD in forensic chemistry: microscopy, DNA in forensics, applied organic synthesis, chemical thermodynamics, kinetics & catalysis, drug chemistry, computer-assisted data analysis, questioned documents, toxicology, comprehensive biochemistry, advanced synthesis laboratory, toolmark & ballistics analysis, infrared spectroscopy, chromatography, solid phase extraction, medicinal chemistry & pharmacology, techniques in polymer science
PhD in forensic anthropology: forensic entomology, human growth & development, comparative analysis, archaeological methods & techniques, human variation, evolutionary medicine, anthropology of genocide, biophotography
Aspiring PhD candidates are encouraged to verify the accreditation status of their schools and programs. This program-approval process is essential for several reasons. It helps to establish a requisite level of quality in the faculty, curricula, student outcomes, program resources, and other aspects that can impact a student’s education and experience. Also, graduating from an accredited institution may be a prerequisite to professional credentialing for some organizations.
There are two main types of accreditation: programmatic and institutional.
The gold standard for programmatic accreditation in forensic science is the Forensic Science Education Programs Accreditation Commission (FEPAC). As of May 2016, FEPAC has not accredited any PhD programs. It is worthy of note, however, that West Virginia University (WVU) has both FEPAC-accredited bachelor’s and master’s programs. Since WVU’s brand new PhD in forensic science program will share facilities and faculty with these FEPAC-accredited offerings, it can be presumed that the doctoral program may also reflect this tradition of excellence.
Also, depending on one’s intended subfield of forensic science, additional programmatic accreditation agencies may exist. For example, the American Psychological Association (APA) accredits forensic psychology programs at the doctoral level, and the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business (AACSB) accredits graduate programs in forensic accounting.
There are six main institutional accreditation agencies, which are organized according to region. They have been recognized by the US Department of Education’s Council of Higher Education Agencies (CHEA). These include:
Barry is Managing Editor of ForensicsColleges.com, operated by educational web publisher Sechel Ventures Partners LLC, which he co-founded. Barry was previously VP for a financial software company, and currently sits on the board of a K-8 school and lives with his wife and daughters in the San Francisco Bay Area.