Forensic science is full of exciting opportunities and great career options. Most people probably have a bit of familiarity with the forensic sciences already, especially if they watch night time television. In shows such as “Bones,” “CSI,” and “Dexter,” we see forensic technicians working all manner of criminal cases, and even though they are highly fictionalized examples, they do provide a sense of what it might be like to work in the field.
Most who pursue training through forensic science technician programs have a keen interest in science, great attention to detail, and an investigative nature. Success typically requires a detective’s instincts and a desire to see justice. Forensic science technician education builds on these foundational traits to provide instruction in forensic science theory and lab-based training, and often includes courses in specialties like ballistics and blood spatter analysis.
Those who are studying at forensic science technician colleges and those who are considering it will find that they have a number of different program options based on the type of career they wish to pursue and the amount of time and money they wish to invest in education.
Forensic science technician programs typically culminate in a bachelor’s of science (BS) degree, which satisfies educational requirements for most forensic lab technician positions. To become a forensic technician lab leader, qualify for more specialized lab work in forensic toxicology or advance toward a role as forensic pathologist, a master’s degree in forensic science — a master’s of science (MS), master’s of forensic science (MFS), or Master’s of Science in Forensic Science (MSFS) — may be required.
The courses offered through a certificate or Associate of Science degree (AS) in Forensic Science typically provide the skills and knowledge to seek entry-level forensic assistant positions only, rather than full-blown forensic lab tech positions. Typically, however, an associate degree in forensic science will take about two years to complete, but this forensic science technician degree could take longer for students attending school part-time. Some students may be able to accelerate their learning and complete their course of study in about a year-and-a-half if they are willing to either take a higher-than-average number of courses per semester and/or attend school in the summer.
A bachelor’s degree typically takes four years through a traditional ‘brick and mortar’ school, and between two-and-a-half to four years through an online school. Again, this length of time assumes a willingness to take a heavier course load and/or attend classes year-round to obtain that forensic science technician education. Do note that a four-year degree is the minimum forensic technician education typically needed to be able to pursue the sundry forensic lab technician positions available.
A master’s degree in forensic science will typically take two to three years to complete, but perhaps can be completed more quickly online. This is the minimum qualification typically required for forensic lab leads, and often the standard for forensic toxicologists as well, although many forensic toxicologists pursue doctoral degrees. Some aspiring forensic lab technicians pursue master’s degrees in order to build additional expertise and compete more effectively in the field, but most forensic lab technician roles do not require a master’s degree.
One of the schools offering accelerated learning in forensic science technician education is the 3+2 accelerated program at Arcadia University, which is accredited by the Forensic Science Education Programs Accreditation Commission (FEPAC). This program is an intensive course of study that culminates in an MSFS degree, and includes a summer research project and an optional summer internship. By accelerating the course of study, enrolled students can earn both a bachelor’s and master’s degree in forensic science in five years as opposed to the customary six.
When pursuing a forensic science degree, the following are some of the typical core courses that students might take. Do note that this is by no means a complete list of courses available through forensic science technician colleges, just a representative sample.
Associate degree programs will likely include courses in biology and anatomy, as well as chemistry, psychology, and criminal investigation. More specialized elective courses might include ballistics, bloodstain evidence and death investigation.
Those pursuing a bachelor’s degree will often additionally study latent prints (or fingerprinting) and DNA analysis at some length to help prepare for a role as a forensic lab technician or to lay the foundation for a more advanced degree.
Master’s and doctoral courses involve further education in the sciences, and may include toxicology, blood pattern analysis, and similar studies. At these higher levels, the courses that students take will often depend on their focus of study. Note that graduate-level courses are not typically required of prospective forensic lab technicians, but do provide more exposure to scientific methods and practice.
While students will need to meet certain forensic science education requirements, they may find a bit of leeway in how they earn their degree. It is possible to do some of the learning online, and pursue a hybrid option offering both campus-based and online instruction through some schools. One of the schools that offers a hybrid combination of in-classroom and online learning is Alliant International University in San Francisco, which houses the California School of Forensic Studies.
Many theoretical and foundational courses do not require in-classroom study. This includes foundational math and science courses, which can often be taken online, as well as forensic psychology and pathology programs, where many of the introductory courses have online components that students can complete prior to any lab work or internships.
When a college’s forensic science program has accreditation from the proper agencies, it certifies that it is providing a high standard of education, and one that is geared to help prepare students to be able to achieve in the forensics field. Most employers are familiar with at least a few reputable forensics programs, and all employers have an easy way to determine whether your program is accredited, so why risk it? Do your homework and ensure that the colleges that you are considering have accredited forensic science programs.
Some of the agencies that are able to offer accreditation to schools include the American Academy of Forensic Sciences, FEPAC, and the National Accrediting Agency for Clinical Laboratory Sciences (NAACLS).
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.