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 2021.
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 median 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 4 percent between 2019 and 2029). 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 them 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.
Whether an aspiring crime scene investigator wants training for a new career or to expand on the knowledge they’ve already received, this program comprises 120 credit-hours, focusing on investigation techniques, the documentation of research, and general methodology, plus an overview of the judicial process. This program is available online or in a hybrid format(on-campus/online).
To apply for this program, applicants are required to complete the application process with documents such as a completed online application, a minimum cumulative grade point average of 2.0, official transcripts from all colleges and universities attended, and 12 or more transferable baccalaureate level credits or the equivalent.
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 choose specialties such as digital forensics/computer crime, financial crimes, or general criminal investigations. This is a 100 percent online program.
Admission requirements include a completed application form, official transcripts from all undergraduate, graduate, and professional schools attended, a brief statement of purpose, a resume or CV, two letters of recommendation, and all non-native English language speakers must demonstrate English language competency by providing IELTS or TOEFL scores. GRE or GMAT scores are not required. The program prepares students for careers as an investigator in both public and private organizations.
This 36 credit-hour program can be completed in a hybrid format, allowing students to combine online and in-person coursework. The program is designed for students seeking careers as detectives, investigators, lawyers, medical examiners, special agents, forensic pathologists, and crime scene technicians. Students will delve into crime scene analysis, collection and protection of evidence, and drawing conclusions. They will also learn how to use software such as SketchUp, Photoshop, Rhinoceros 3D, and more.
To apply for this program, students must have a bachelor’s degree from an accredited university with at least one semester in chemistry and one semester of biology. Application requirements include an application form, transcript, GRE test scores, resume, statement of purpose, letters of recommendation, and an application fee. Graduate applicants who have not completed a post-secondary degree from a US institution are required to submit TOEFL, IELTS, or PTE scores.
The criminal justice 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. This nationally-ranked program can be completed online, on-campus, or a combination of both.
For admission to this program, students are required to possess a bachelor’s degree from a regionally accredited institution and a grade point average of at least 3.0. International students are required to meet the minimum language proficiency score requirement. Application requirements include two letters of recommendation and a statement of purpose.
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.
To apply for this program, students are required to submit a graduate admissions application form, an official transcript from their baccalaureate degree-granting institution, a grade point average of 3.0, three letters of recommendation, a personal essay, and TOEFL or IELTS scores for international students. Official GRE scores may be requested to demonstrate graduate study readiness if the GPA is low. The program prepares students to take up careers in law enforcement, corrections, securities, and social services. Students can take up roles such as that of a judge, administrator, or victim advocate.
This Graduate Certificate in Criminal Justice Administration is offered by the John Glenn College of Public Affairs in partnership with the Department of Sociology. Designed for working professionals, this 15 credit hour online program offers various options for students. Those who wish to gain further knowledge and skills to work in administrative roles in criminal justice are welcome to take up this course. It is also ideal for professionals who are looking for a career change to the criminal justice sector.
Admission requirements include a baccalaureate degree from an accredited institution with a minimum cumulative undergraduate grade point average of 3.0, personal statements, resumes, transcripts, and TOEFL scores for international students.
Master of Arts in Criminal Justice, Arizona State University (Phoenix, Arizona)
Made up of 33 credit hours, this fully online program allows students to learn from nationally-recognized scholars. The program offers valuable training in statistics and research methods, management and program planning, program evaluation, and policy analysis. Graduates of this program have several career opportunities and can take up roles such as U.S. marshal, police chief, detective, inspector, police attorney, secret service agent, corrections officer, probation officer, and many such roles.
Applicants are eligible to apply to the program if they have earned a bachelor’s or master’s degree in criminology or criminal justice or another closely related field from a regionally accredited institution. Other requirements include a minimum cumulative grade point average of 3.0, graduate admission application, official transcripts, two letters of recommendation, a written statement, and proof of English proficiency.
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 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. All courses in this program are offered on-campus.
Acceptance into the program requires that students have a computer science background as well as the skills to succeed in graduate-level courses in law, criminal justice, and computer science. Other requirements for admission include a bachelor’s degree from an accredited institution with a cumulative grade point average of 3.0 or better, GRE scores, three letters of recommendation, personal statement, and official transcripts from all post-secondary institutions attended.
Graduates of this program pursue a variety of career paths in cybersecurity, information assurance, and digital forensics such as cyber investigators, digital forensic analysts, information security specialists, cybersecurity analysts, network security analysts, and many more.
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 an 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. The program can be completed online or on campus.
To apply for this program applicants need to submit the graduate application form, official transcripts of all previous college work, a current resume, official GRE scores (can be waived), and two letters of recommendation.
This degree is available for students with a major or minor in criminal justice or computer science at the undergraduate level, or those who have a baccalaureate degree in a technical field as well as a criminal justice or computer science minor, or professional experience in the field. Admission preference will be given to candidates with a grade point average of 3.0 or higher.
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. The digital forensics 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 30-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. All courses in this program are offered online making it convenient for busy professionals.
In order to qualify for admission into this program, students must have English proficiency and one of the following: A bachelor’s degree with a 3.0 grade point average or better, or equivalent undergraduate and/or graduate degrees from a foreign university. Application requirements include two letters of recommendation, a current resume, undergraduate degree transcripts, a statement of purpose, GRE scores, and proof of English proficiency for international students.
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.
For admission into this program, students are required to have prior knowledge of all essential computer science disciplines, a bachelor’s degree in either computer science or computer engineering, among other requirements.
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.
Admission requirements include an undergraduate degree from an accredited United States college or its equivalent in another country, GMAT/GRE score, official transcripts from each college or university attended, essay responses, a current resume, and English language proficiency for international applicants.
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. This is a 100 percent online degree program, with no residency requirements. GRE or GMAT scores are not required for admission to this program.
To apply for this program applicants should have a bachelor’s degree from a college or university in the United States, accredited by one of the six regional accrediting bodies, and an undergraduate GPA of 2.75 or higher. International students should have the equivalent of a U.S. bachelor’s degree, and TOEFL or IELTS scores for students who do not have English as their first language.
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 16 to 18 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 applying should have a DMD, DDS, or an equivalent degree and pass a background check. This fellowship also requires that students complete a minimum of 330 on-campus hours
These must consist of periodic visits to the campus as well as an equal number of hours off-campus including both study, research, and casework.
Students will have 16 months to complete this program, which includes 350 hours of lectures, independent research, and self-study. As part of their research work, they will attend classroom lectures, visit forensic laboratories, and work with the Knox County Medical Examiner’s Office. Here, they will get a chance to examine human remains.
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 to 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 deaths 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 credits 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 an emphasis on investigating trauma and death.
This program is open to nurses with a bachelor’s or an associate degree or a diploma at an entry point customized to their particular level of preparation.
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.
Admission requirements include an MSN degree from a regionally accredited institution, possess an unencumbered and unrestricted nursing license, cumulative graduate grade point average of at least 3.0, three letters of professional reference, and an official transcript from every college or university ever attended. International students are required to submit TOEFL or IELTS scores.
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 as 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.
To apply for this degree students are required to have a baccalaureate degree in a natural science subject from an accredited institution, and an upper-division grade point average of 2.0 or better. Students who do not English as their native language should provide TOEFL scores as well.
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 12 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 peace officer standards and training (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 understands 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 and is made up of 36 credit hours. 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.
Applicants for admission to the master of science in psychology program will have an undergraduate GPA of 3.0 or higher.
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. This is an online, part-time program that can be completed in two years. This program has been ranked as the number one online master’s in forensic psychology by CollegeChoice.
For admission to this program, students must have a baccalaureate degree from an accredited college or university with a behavioral or social science major allied with psychology, a cumulative undergraduate grade point average of 3.0 or better, a curriculum vitae, personal statement, three letters of recommendation, and English Language Proficiency.
Master of Science in Forensic Psychology, Arizona State University (Phoenix, Arizona)
This online Master of Science in Forensic Psychology program provided by Arizona State University is a 33 credit-hour program providing students with a detailed overview of forensic psychology. Designed for working professionals, this program helps students gain a thorough understanding of human behavior and mental health issues, as they relate to crime and the law. Graduates of this program will be prepared for a variety of positions in corrections, law enforcement, mental health administration, policy analysis, mental health, and crime analysis.
To be eligible to apply for this program, applicants are required to have a bachelor’s or master’s degree in psychology, criminal justice, social science, or a closely related field from a regionally accredited institution, a minimum cumulative grade point average of 3.0, graduate admission application, official transcripts, letters of recommendation, and proof of English proficiency.
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 the 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 University of Florida, 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. This program is offered entirely online with asynchronous elements and can be completed anywhere.
In order to qualify for admission, students are required to have a bachelor’s degree in a natural science subject from a regionally accredited institution, an upper-division GPA of 3.0 or higher, acceptable GRE scores, and TOEFL scores for international applicants.
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 explosives investigation, Forensic Investigative Sciences, and forensic science administration. Some tracks can be completed entirely online while some may require campus visits.
Admission requirements include a completed online application, a bachelor’s degree, grade point average of 3.0 or higher, three letters of recommendation, statement of purpose, and international students are required to submit transcripts that have been evaluated to U.S. standards and TOEFL or IELTS scores.
Farheen Gani is a freelance writer, marketer, and researcher. She writes about technology, education, and marketing. Her work has appeared on websites such as Tech in Asia and Foundr, as well as top SaaS blogs such as Zapier and InVision. You can connect with her on LinkedIn and Twitter (@FarheenGani).