For those whose knowledge of forensics and criminal justice comes exclusively from television, get ready to get educated. Identifying a perpetrator from a single drop of blood makes for good TV—especially if the criminal thought they would get away scot-free with the perfect crime. And during each episode, viewers observe how bright, determined lab techs conclusively analyze something scientific in mere minutes, automatically placing the perp behind bars forever. Crime scene investigations dramatized in these programs make up only a small portion of the different types of practical forensics out there.
Not surprisingly, forensics and criminal justice have a wealth of subfields. Experts in these specializations fulfill a range of responsibilities, including analyzing evidence (e.g., toxicology, DNA, etc.) to identify murder suspects or victims, or in the case of forensic nursing, assisting people following traumatic events.
Law enforcement and the scientific community are increasingly eager to have more people trained in forensic skills. Forensic methods and proper scientific inquiry can benefit not just investigations, but the entire judicial process. Plus, the same underlying principles that can create criminal profiles can also help exonerate people who may be wrongly accused. Personal satisfaction can come from these occupations as well; in fact, many forensics occupations pay well, are in high demand, and can serve direct benefits to society.
Overall, finding a bachelor’s, master’s degree or certificate in a forensics discipline may help one’s future professional goals, in addition to being an interesting path in a service-oriented career. Continue reading for information about the top ten in-demand forensics and criminal justice degrees in 2019.
The following list of career profiles and academic information uses data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), including the Occupational Outlook Handbook and National Occupational Employment and Wage Estimates. Priority is given to degrees affiliated with relatively high-paying occupations—an average annual salary of at least $50,000, according to BLS data. Furthermore, the jobs associated with the following degrees boast a higher-than-average projected employment growth nationally in the coming decade (i.e., more than 7 percent between 2016 and 2026). The degree fields are listed in alphabetical order.
In many jurisdictions, law enforcement staff with advanced skills in investigation and analysis visit crime scenes to deduce what happened based on what evidence is discovered, including fluids, firearms, and fingerprints. Officers may also collect items themselves and send to a state-run or private testing lab for more advanced chemical composition, which can all help conclude how a crime occurred and who may have committed it.
Training programs in crime scene investigation blend classic deduction methods with law enforcement protocol but also utilize newer technology, such as computer programs and high-tech electronic equipment to help process evidence faster and detect items better.
Students can receive foundations in science and investigation/criminology at schools, which can assist them in various career options, including as a medical and clinical laboratory technologist, who collects samples, performs tests and analyzes various tissues, fluids and other substances. Another related career is a forensic science technician. (Please check out the “forensic pathologist” section below for salary and career outlook information.)
Whether an aspiring crime scene investigator wants training for a new career or to expand on the knowledge they’ve already received, this program instructs students in criminal law, criminal evidence and constitutional procedure, crime scene photography, and other foundational concepts of crime scene investigations. This program is available online, in person, or through a blended approach. Courses take four weeks each to complete.
Master of Science in Investigations, University of New Haven (West Haven, CT)
This advanced, 30-credit online program offers an in-depth look into modern investigative theory. Students can chose specialties such as digital forensics/computer crime, financial crimes or general criminal investigations.
This field abounds with career prospects, from public safety officers to investigators to prosecutors. Though some law enforcement programs encourage people to start at the bottom so they can absorb hands-on experiences in the field and work their way up over time, the path to more prestigious positions, such as federal agencies or other leadership roles, often benefits from the latest academic training. That’s why a criminal justice program may be ideal, especially for working professionals.
Students can learn current theories and big-picture topics to supplement their professional experience, including more in-depth training in investigation, criminology, and social theories.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics tracks a variety of positions, from fire inspectors to correctional officers, but a faster-growing career is a private investigator/detective. This occupation works with a variety of public and private clients. Someone in the private sector may also be able to work well with insurance companies or even directly with citizens.
Students taking this 36-credit online program can receive a thorough understanding of the criminal justice system, including its roots and current landscape. Courses examine crime in general, ethical issues, mental health topics and programs that attempt to reduce crime.
Master of Science, Criminal Justice, SHSU Online (Huntsville, TX)
Sam Houston State University’s online format is designed especially for professionals who may not be able to relocate to Texas for the two-year, 36-credit program. Students learn about modern topics such as cybercrime, terrorism, and child abuse, plus research methods and analysis.
A master’s degree in cybersecurity combines skills in law enforcement and computer science; these programs teach graduates to design strong systems to thwart (or catch) cyber-criminals. Coursework in a graduate or certificate programs includes instruction in hardware and software protection solutions and strategies to defend against cyber-threats. Some academic programs even partner with area companies or government agencies to assess vulnerabilities and create better defenses.
Graduates considering career options can become information security analysts, who are responsible for creating, executing and monitoring systems at public or private companies to ensure employees can access their data but unauthorized users can’t get in. If a break-in is detected, analysts can figure out what areas were affected and how to keep it from happening again.
Master of Science in Digital Forensics and Cybersecurity, John Jay College of Criminal Justice (New York, NY)
The 33-credit digital forensics program provides an overview of computer science, forensics, and law and justice topics. It can help people in law, criminal justice, or computer science fields advance in their career path to assume leadership or management positions. Students pursuing a PhD in cybersecurity or digital forensics can also use this program as a springboard.
Master of Science in Digital Forensics, Sam Houston State University (Huntsville, TX)
This 36-credit program teaches modern legal security tools and topics plus computer programming strategies with emphasis on public and private clients. The school provides a Network Security Lab and Data Recovery Lab, which both allow real-time training in intrusion detection, data management, and information preservation.
One concentration within the greater cybersecurity field focuses on examining computer crime to figure out who may have breached a system, how they accomplished it, and what activity took place when they were there. This field is growing more popular as more companies are either being attacked or trying to defend themselves against future breaches.
People in this field gain knowledge of computer systems and networks, common attack methods, and common defensive tools. They can work with private companies or government agencies.
In addition to information systems analysts (under cybersecurity), another career open to graduates of digital forensics programs is computer and information systems management.
Students can choose from several concentrations within this 33-credit online degree program, including cyber intelligence; digital forensics; information assurance; and computer security fundamentals. These programs offer various strategies for risk management, analyzing network activity, and collecting digital evidence of intrusion. Suggestions will also be given to help companies design stronger systems or more secure policies for data usage.
Master of Science, Computer Science/Cybersecurity Engineering, Colorado Technical University (various locations, CO)
This 48-credit area of study teaches proper policies and procedures that companies can use to help protect their networks, data, and electronic devices. The school works in conjunction with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and the National Security Agency, which makes some of their resources available for student use. Courses are available on campus and online.
Efforts to “follow the money” have historically exposed all sorts of wrongdoing, from Al Capone’s criminal enterprises to President Nixon’s shady dealings. The lure of bigger money has led people to cut corners, whether they’re illegally enriching themselves or their companies or using the money for other illegal or improper activities.
In some cases, their level of financial activity is more complex than a simple robbery, so investigators must be familiar with finances. Forensic accountants dive deep within a company or individual’s financial records to seek possible illegal activity, such as embezzlement, questionable transfers, money laundering, or fraudulent assets.
People interested in becoming a forensic accountant can work for government agencies, the military or the private sector (e.g., insurance companies, attorneys). Looking for company-wide malfeasance or even one rogue employee can make accounting more interesting, especially for someone who already has been focusing on routine accounting.
This 30- to 36-credit degree program can be interesting to people who already are external auditors or want to gain or expand these skills. It offers a specialized track in auditing and forensic accounting, and focuses on the importance of financial reporting. Students are also taught the GAAP program, which offers accounting standards and principles in the U.S. and globally.
Master’s of Science in Accounting, New England College (Henniker, NH)
This 40-credit online program gives students an overview of forensic accounting, including investigation techniques and auditing procedures. It also includes an emphasis on litigation, critical thinking and solid decision-making, plus current accounting standards and practices. The program includes a forensic accounting concentration that can help students prepare for the Certified Fraud Examiner (CFE) designation.
An in-demand subspecialty within forensic science is dentistry or odontology. It’s here that dentists or others with established dental backgrounds can help identify people based on existing dental records, age, condition of teeth, or unique bite patterns if teeth marks are found on a victim. This expertise can help in the investigation process as well as the court system if a dentist is asked to testify about their conclusions and expertise.
Dentists who specialize in forensics may be asked to be consultants for public or private agencies. In addition to their dental training and professional experience, dentists interested in forensic odontology can take classes or workshops as well as receive certification from the American Board of Forensic Odontology.
Students are required to attend multiple seminars and perform independent research over a 23-month period, which concludes with presenting their findings during the annual meeting of the American Academy of Forensic Sciences. Their research includes learning about identifying human remains, interpreting bite marks, estimating age, and case management of abuse victims of all ages.
Students have 16 months to complete 350 hours of lectures, self-study, and independent research. Their research includes classroom lectures; visits to a forensic laboratory; and working with the Knox County Medical Examiner’s Office, where they will examine human remains in varying conditions.
There are plenty of opportunities for nurses to directly help patients. They work in public hospitals, private clinics, and even grade schools. For nurses eager specialize in the intersection between patient care and the legal system, forensic nursing is a high-growth and well-paying subfield of the discipline.
There are various pathways to become a forensic nurse, and some of them offer subspecialty training. For instance, several academic programs offer training in working with inmates at correctional centers or with victims of sexual assault. Nurses can also learn methods to investigate death and assist with various analyses. Some programs are offered online, which is useful for working professionals who aren’t able to return to a campus program full-time.
Master of Science Nursing, Forensics Track, Xavier University (Cincinnati, OH)
Students take 26 credit-hours of general nursing curriculum, and the forensic program adds another 10 credits. The courses are designed to integrate nursing with other healthcare systems and criminal justice, including emphasis on investigating trauma and death.
Master of Science Nursing, Advanced Forensic Subspecialty, University of Alabama at Birmingham (Birmingham, AL)
Advanced forensic nurses learn how to evaluate and diagnose patients and their families involved in physical, mental or emotional trauma, including providing physical exams, creating therapeutic plans, and consulting with other medical and legal professionals. The program requires at least one NP specialty track, plus at least one three-credit subspecialty such as palliative care, oncology, or emergency nursing.
Identifying how someone died isn’t easy, especially if they die suddenly, unexpectedly or lack obvious signs of trauma. That’s why a trained medical examiner is requested (or required) to perform an autopsy. Not everyone knows that coroners do not always perform these tasks; this elected position is only required to sign a death certificate or approve an examiner’s findings.
Forensic pathologists may be asked to perform more detailed analysis on tissue, organs or fluid to establish a more accurate cause of death. Clinical forensic pathologists can perform similar roles by examining patients when they’re still alive, such victims of rape or assault. Public agencies and labs can use pathologist skills, as can private companies such as hospitals.
This position can be interesting for a trained physician who may enjoy the investigative aspects of medicine and requires continuing education. Some of the analysis and testing methods can also be useful for a forensic science technician.
UF offers a 32-credit master of science program in forensic science, but people interested in crime and death investigation can also earn a 15-credit certificate. It focuses on areas such as anthropology, DNA analysis, and general pathology. Students also learn about sexual offenses, wounds, drugs, and odontology.
Death Investigation Training, University of North Dakota (Grand Forks, ND)
This non-credit online program satisfies continuing education units (CEUs) required for the medical or teaching fields. Students have three to six months to complete each module that ranges from basic investigation for 7.75 CEUs to advanced training to forensic pathology. The 18-CEU forensic pathology class is approved by medical examiner or POST programs in several states, and covers how to recognize methods of natural and violent death, toxicology testing, and proper documentation.
While much of criminal forensics focuses on figuring out “how” a crime was committed, one branch looks at the “why.” Forensic psychologists are asked to assess whether a defendant fully understand the judicial system, including standing trial or the prospect of various sentences if they’re convicted or plead guilty. Psychologists can be asked to testify for the prosecution or defense and can recommend treatment plans if their research shows rehabilitation is possible.
These assessments affect whether someone is incarcerated, sent to a mental health facility, released or even executed, so the person creating them must be especially qualified, often at the PhD level.
Training programs can focus on the legal system and general criminology plus general behavioral analysis, including past trauma, violence, and modern treatment methods. Possible career paths can include non-profits, health centers, or public agencies such as court systems.
Learning forensic options could be interesting for a clinical psychologist who wants to do more to help people with potentially more severe mental health conditions.
ULM Psychology offers an MS degree with concentrations in psychometrics, general psychology, and forensic psychology. The MS in forensic psychology program is available online. It helps students gain an understanding of psychology, along with criminal and legal procedures. Graduates from the program can choose to work in law enforcement, child protection, and correction centers.
Master of Arts in Forensic Psychology, University of North Dakota (Grand Forks, ND)
This 30-credit online program can be completed in two years. It prepares students for a career in criminal justice systems. Students learn about forensics, legal systems, evaluation, as well as advanced psychological concepts. Graduates can go on to pursue doctoral programs in forensic science, criminal justice, and psychology.
While some forensic career paths focus on investigative methods, other areas require more of a deeper look into the science and research, analyzing bacteria, algae, and viruses, or even trying to find molecular matches to blood, DNA, and other substances. This information can be used to identify suspects; determine causes of death or disease in humans or animals; and track contamination to a specific structure or facility, among other uses.
There are a variety of career paths in forensic science, but one science-heavy area of interest may be forensic biology, which uses biological and physical testing methods to look closer at evidence. Someone studying to be a microbiologist, for example, can learn to look closer for microorganisms. In some cases, a bachelor’s degree may be enough for entry-level positions, but a master’s degree or doctorate can lead to more prominent positions, such as a lab supervisor.
Master of Science Forensic Science, University of Florida (Gainesville, FL)
The 32-credit online program through the school’s College of Pharmacy covers larger topics such as criminalistics plus research- and science-based topics such as blood spatter analysis, toxicology, drug analysis and biological evidence.
Master of Science in Forensic Sciences, Oklahoma State University (Stillwater, OK)
The 39-credit online program provides an overview of advanced criminal investigative methods, which can benefit students in a variety of professional capacities. Students can also specialize in various tracks, including arson and explosions, nursing, and administration.