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Forensic Investigator (or Lead Detective): Career Outlook & Education Requirements

Crime scene investigation is composed of many different parts. Toxicology, psychology, ballistics, financial, and cyber divisions can all come into play within a single crime. These diverse elements work in the service of one individual: the forensic investigator, also known as the lead detective.

The role of a forensic investigator is a complex leadership position. Often working for a local, state, or federal law enforcement agency, he or she shares many responsibilities and competencies with detectives: conducting interviews, securing crime scenes, analyzing public and private records, and writing detailed investigative reports.

By taking on the lead role, a forensic investigator is also responsible for managing diverse and often siloed forensic teams while orchestrating the overall strategic direction of an investigation. Further still, a lead detective may have to coordinate with his or her counterparts at other federal, state, and local agencies to maintain smooth communication and chain-of-evidence integrity.

Forensic investigators may specialize in a particular discipline of criminal justice, such as cybercrime or financial crime, which may dictate where they work. A financial crime expert may work in the investigations arm of the Internal Revenue Service, and a cybercrime expert may work for the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s Cyber Division, for example.

However, as criminal elements grow increasingly sophisticated and investigations become more interdisciplinary, even local law enforcement agencies are looking for dedicated talent in previously niche areas of specialization. Lead detectives are now expected to be familiar with the varied languages of multiple investigative departments.

Lead detectives need to be detail-oriented, strategically-minded multitaskers who can manage multiple teams working in a fast-paced environment that contains little room for error as the stakes can sometimes involve human lives. The work environment varies and can be physically demanding as working hours can be long and arduous.

Considering all of the work in the pursuit of justice, a spotless sense of ethics—with background checks to verify that sense—is mandatory. While the stress and requirements of this job can be significant, so is the reward: the satisfaction of making the world a safer and fairer place to live.

Job Outlook and Salary Prospects

According to the New York Times, homocides are falling in the United States. However, the need for competent forensic investigators is not likely to fade any time soon. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS 2023) does not distinguish between police officers and detectives, but the general estimation for this group of professionals is a 3 percent job growth between 2022 and 2032.

Salary rates are similarly tricky to unpack. The BLS (May 2022) does have salary and employment data for detectives, but not for those in a lead detective position. The median salary of the 107,400 detectives on record was $86,280 a year.

Lead detectives, however, are likely to possess higher levels of education and more experience than the average detective and thus are more likely to earn an above-average salary. Returning to the BLS data, here is a breakdown of the salary percentiles among all detectives and criminal investigators in the country:

United States
Number of professionals employed 107,400
Annual mean wage $91,610
10th percentile $47,990
25th percentile $61,240
50th percentile (median) $83,280
75th percentile $110,530
90th percentile $150,570

A significant factor to consider when looking at salary and employment data is geographic location. Since forensic investigators typically work for federal, state, and local law enforcement, the largest number of detectives is in the states with the largest populations:

  • Texas: 17,890 detectives and criminal investigators employed
  • California: 11,280
  • New York: 9,950
  • Florida: 5,950
  • Arizona: 5,260

However, the top-paying states are uncorrelated with population size:

  • District of Columbia: $133,890 annual mean wage
  • Alaska: $128,410
  • Hawaii: $119,290
  • Maryland: $117,800
  • Washington: $110,620

All states mentioned above pay detectives an average of over $100,000 a year.

Large metropolitan areas like New York and Los Angeles, and geographically well-positioned places for the profession—such as Washington DC, home to all federal agencies—have high employment numbers.

  • New York-Newark-Jersey City, NY-NJ-PA: 9,310 detectives and criminal investigators employed
  • Washington-Arlington-Alexandria, DC-VA-MD-WV: 4,730
  • Los Angeles-Long Beach-Anaheim, CA: 2,930
  • San Diego-Carlsbad, CA: 2,800
  • Miami-Fort Lauderdale-West Palm Beach, FL: 2,140

Top paying metropolitan areas for detectives and criminal investigators include:

  • San Jose-Sunnyvale-Santa Clara, CA: $132,600
  • Washington-Arlington-Alexandria, DC-VA-MD-WV: $130,200
  • Anchorage, AK: $129,500
  • Santa Maria-Santa Barbara: $123,540
  • Urban Honolulu: $121,590

People do not become forensic investigators to make a lot of money, but they can expect to make more than a living wage for their efforts. Since public sector agencies make up the bulk of employers, lead detectives can also look forward to a robust benefits package. However, the road to this career can be arduous, and persistence and dedication are necessary.

How to Become a Forensic Investigator

Read on to get a step-by-step guide on becoming a forensic investigator.

Step 1: Complete a bachelor’s degree (four years).

After graduating from high school, aspiring lead detectives typically earn a bachelor’s degree in a relevant field. Criminal justice and forensic investigation are majors that can prepare a graduate for various positions. Students who intend to specialize later in their career—for example, in biological sciences, cybercrime, financial crime, or digital forensics—may choose to orient their undergraduate education in that direction.

Outside of the standard curriculum, many students choose to get an internship while completing their degree. The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF), and the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) all offer opportunities for students to get a head start with some real-world experience.

Step 2: Gain real-world experience (one to five years).

No one’s putting a rookie in charge of much more than picking up donuts and coffee. To earn the role of the lead detective, young detectives will need to gain a lot of experience first. For those with a degree in criminal justice, the next step could be working up through the ranks of a municipal or state police department towards the role of detective. Those who work at any public sector agency will often be put through rigorous hands-on training.

Those who completed a specialized degree can find roles in the private sector. Jobs in finance and IT, for example, can provide critical experience in actual investigations. Law enforcement agencies, especially at the federal level, take such hands-on knowledge into account when hiring from outside for positions in their cybercrime or financial crime departments, for example.

No matter which path one chooses, this step of gaining experience is critical in the pursuit of becoming a lead detective.

Step 3: Earn a master’s degree (optional, two years).

Investigative work is a thinking person’s game, and with an increase in both the quantity and complexity of criminal evidence, advanced education is a definite plus. Aspiring lead detectives can pursue master’s degrees in generalist tracks like criminal justice or forensic science, or they can either add a new specialization or bolster an existing one.

Furthermore, graduate-level degrees in relevant fields can include leadership and organizational training in preparation for someone to manage an investigative team later in their career. Many master’s programs can be completed online so that they do not inhibit an aspiring forensic investigator from continuing with his or her work and gaining further hands-on expertise.

Step 4: Continue professional development (ongoing).

For leaders in any field, the cycle of gaining experience and further education never ends. As technology and investigative practices evolve and become more sophisticated, detectives must stay on top of new trends in the field.

One way to keep abreast of developments is to join a professional society, such as the Federal Criminal Investigators Association (FCIA) or the International Crime Scene Investigators Association (ICSIA). These types of organizations not only provide academic and technical resources but also foster a network of like-minded professionals dedicated to becoming experts.

Another avenue for aspiring lead detectives to explore is gaining official certification. Programs like the National Detective/Investigator Test (NDIT) help identify candidates for lead detective and forensic investigator positions at federal, state, and local agencies.

Those who specialize in a particular area of investigation can look into professional journals in their sub-disciplines, such as the Journal of Digital Forensics, Security, and Law or the International Journal of Information Security and Cybercrime (IJISC).

Online & On-Campus Forensic Investigator Programs

For those ready to get started on their journey to becoming a forensic investigator, below are a few bachelor’s- and master-level programs:

Arizona State University

Arizona State University’s Watts College of Public Service and Community Solutions offers both a BS in criminal justice and an MA in criminal justice, which can be completed online. The BS program equips students with the skills and knowledge to explore the impact of crime and implement effective strategies for reducing it. The MA degree prepares students to advance their criminal justice careers.

Made up of 120 credits, the BS in criminal justice includes courses such as introduction to criminal justice; criminology; criminal justice crime control policies and practices; introduction to corrections; courts and sentencing; and gender, crime, and criminal justice. The MA program consists of 33 credits, including coursework in applied data analysis in criminal justice; criminal justice planning and program evaluation; and theory and practice in criminal justice.

Applicants to the BS will need to possess a high school diploma, while MA degree applicants must have a bachelor’s or master’s degree from a regionally accredited institution with a minimum grade point average of 3.0.

High-achieving students in the BS in criminal justice program with a GPA of 3.40 or higher will be eligible to apply for an accelerated program that will allow them to complete their BS and MA in criminal justice in just five years.

  • Location: Phoenix, AZ
  • Accreditation: Higher Learning Commission of the North Central Association of Colleges and Schools
  • Expected Time to Completion: BS (48 months); MA (24 months)
  • Estimated Tuition: BS ($654 per credit); MA ($720 per credit)

Maryville University

Maryville University’s online bachelor of arts in criminal justice program prepares students for cutting-edge careers in criminal courts, corrections, and law enforcement. Students will choose between two tracks: police academy training and a project-based learning experience.

Comprising 128 credits, the program includes courses such as introduction to criminal justice; criminal law and procedure; multicultural policing; criminological theory; corrections in society; and critical thinking in social science.

Maryville University also offers an online bachelor of science program in cybersecurity comprising 128 credits and an online master of science program in cybersecurity made up of 30 credits. All three programs can be completed entirely online and do not require any campus visits.

  • Location: St. Louis, MO
  • Accreditation: Higher Learning Commission (HLC); Accreditation Council for Business Schools and Programs (ACBSP)
  • Expected Time to Completion: BS and BA (48 months); MS (12 months); transfer students will be able to complete their bachelor’s in 30 months
  • Estimated Tuition: BS in cybersecurity ($622 per credit); MS in cybersecurity ($816 per credit); BA in criminal justice ($500 per credit)

George Mason University

George Mason University’s College of Humanities and Social Sciences offers an on-campus master of science program in criminal justice preparing students to be change agents and leaders in this criminal justice field. Students in this program receive real-world insights and scientific knowledge necessary for evaluating, selecting, and implementing efficient, fair, and effective criminal justice practices and policies.

A unique feature of this program is the resume-building research practicum project, where students will partner with a justice agency to translate research into practice and present their work before a panel of criminal justice experts.

The program consists of 30 credits including courses such as evidence-based crime and justice policy; implementing crime and justice policy; leadership in justice organizations; legal and ethical issues in criminal justice; criminal justice research methods and data analysis; and evaluation of crime and justice policies and practices.

George Mason University also offers an MS in digital forensics (30 credits), a BS in forensic science (120 credits), an MS in forensic science (36 credits), and a forensics graduate certificate (18 credits).

  • Location: Fairfax, VA
  • Accreditation: Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges (SACSCOC)
  • Expected Time to Completion: BS (48 months); MS (24 months)
  • Estimated Tuition: In-state ($13,132 per semester); out-of-state ($29,584 per semester)

Utica University

A master of science in cybersecurity offered by Utica University equips students with the knowledge, skills, and know-how for leading cybersecurity efforts in government agencies, investigative units, or business. Students will have seven specialization options to choose from: computer forensics; cyber policy; cyber operations, data analytics; intelligence; electronic crime; and malware analysis.

The program includes a two-day online virtual residency during which students will interact with their classmates and professors and will work together in a truly immersive environment. Utica University’s unique partnership with CipherTrace (a leading cryptocurrency intelligence company) will allow students to become CipherTrace Certified Examiners (CTCE) where they learn about analyzing and tracing funds lost in cryptocurrency theft and fraud.

Admission requirements to the program include a completed online application, a bachelor’s degree with a minimum grade point average of 3.0, transcripts from all previous universities and colleges attended, two recommendation letters, a current resume, and a personal statement.

Comprising 30 credits, the program includes courses such as principles of cybersecurity; cyber intelligence; critical national infrastructures and national security; principles of cybercrime investigations; international terrorism; network forensics; autonomous cyber operations; cyber ethics; and data mining, among others.

At the undergraduate level, students can pursue either a BS in fraud and financial crime investigation, or a BS in cybersecurity program that allows students to specialize in either cybercrime and fraud investigation, network forensics and incident response, cyber operations, or information assurance.

  • Location: Utica, NY
  • Accreditation: Middle States Commission on Higher Education
  • Expected Time to Completion: BS (48 months); MS (24 months)
  • Estimated Tuition: BS in fraud ($450 per credit); BS in cybersecurity ($475 per credit); MS in cybersecurity ($895 per credit)

Stevenson University

Stevenson University’s online’s master of science in forensic investigation program prepares students for effectively conducting interviews and collecting physical evidence to synthesize the results into reports and court testimony. This degree will equip students with the knowledge and skills for analyzing and evaluating testimonial evidence and documentary vital to criminal trials and investigations.

As part of the program, students will delve into topics such as litigation theory and practice; investigative techniques or physical evidence; criminology; forensic information technology; fraud investigation and analysis; and white-collar crime.

The major admission requirements for the program include a completed online application, completion of a bachelor’s degree from a regionally accredited institution, a cumulative grade point average of 3.0, a personal statement, and official college transcripts from all previous academic work.

Students who wish to advance their careers in this field can pursue a fully-online graduate certificate in forensic investigation. Additionally, Stevenson University offers an online master of science program in either cybersecurity and digital forensics or crime scene investigation.

  • Location: Owings Mills, MD
  • Accreditation: Middle States Commission on Higher Education (MSCHE)
  • Expected Time to Completion: 24 months
  • Estimated Tuition: $705 per credit

University of Maryland Global Campus

A master of science program in digital forensics and cyber investigation offered by the University of Maryland Global Campus prepares students with knowledge and skills needed for analyzing and mitigating cybercrime. Students will learn how to determine whether a digital system has been compromised and attacked and will master reliable methods for identifying, preserving, analyzing, and presenting evidence for administrative proceedings and legal prosecution.

The curriculum of this 36-credit program includes coursework in cyberspace and cybersecurity foundations; digital forensics technology and practices; digital forensic response and analysis; advanced forensics; and a capstone in cybersecurity.

The University of Maryland Global Campus also offers a bachelor of science program in investigative forensics which comprises 120 credits and includes courses such as introduction to investigative forensics; criminal procedure and evidence; crime scene investigation; cybercrime and security; medical and legal investigations of death; and principles of digital analysis.

  • Location: Largo, MD
  • Accreditation: Middle States Commission on Higher Education
  • Expected Time to Completion: BS (48 months); MS (24 months)
  • Estimated Tuition: BS (in-state, $312 per credit; out-of-state, $499 per credit); MS ($694 per credit)

John Jay College of Criminal Justice

The on-campus master of science in digital forensics and cybersecurity degree program offered by John Jay College of Criminal Justice provides a balance of theory and practice through study in law, criminal justice, and computer science. Graduates will be qualified to work as digital forensic scientists.

To get accepted into the program, applicants must have a bachelor’s degree from an accredited institution with a cumulative grade point average of 3.0, GRE scores, three letters of recommendation, a personal statement, and official transcripts from all post-secondary institutions attended.

Consisting of 33 credits, the program includes courses such as the law and high technology crime; network security; architecture and vulnerabilities of operating systems; digital forensic applications; and forensic management of digital evidence.

John Jay College of Criminal Justice also provides students with an opportunity to pursue, simultaneously, their baccalaureate and master’s degrees. These are available for students studying forensic psychology, public administration, and criminal justice.

  • Location: New York, NY
  • Accreditation: Middle States Commission on Higher Education
  • Expected Time to Completion: 24 months
  • Estimated Tuition: Resident ($470 per credit); non-resident ($855 per credit)

Matt Zbrog

Matt Zbrog is a writer and researcher from Southern California. Since 2018, he’s written extensively about the increasing digitization of investigations, the growing importance of forensic science, and emerging areas of investigative practice like open source intelligence (OSINT) and blockchain forensics. His writing and research are focused on learning from those who know the subject best, including leaders and subject matter specialists from the Association of Certified Fraud Examiners (ACFE) and the American Academy of Forensic Science (AAFS). As part of the Big Employers in Forensics series, Matt has conducted detailed interviews with forensic experts at the ATF, DEA, FBI, and NCIS.