Crimes defying imagination add to the allure of procedural TV shows. Programs such as “CSI,” “NCIS” and “Law and Order” present seasoned and stylish sleuths assembling clues and solving major crimes. Of course, real life is rarely this satisfying, as even the best crime labs and brightest investigators may take months or even years to process the evidence and create a valid case.
Becoming a professional mystery-solver is challenging, certainly, but forensic science is replete with opportunities, particularly for those interested in law enforcement. One subfield with high employment potential is digital forensics, which focuses on investigating cybercrime and properly preserving evidence of criminal activity on computers.
While digital forensics lacks the hands-on aspects of crime lab positions, it offers numerous career options in the public and private sectors. More companies realize that information security is crucial to monitor and defend their assets from internal or external threats. By illustration, large-scale cyberattacks on retailers such as TJMaxx and Home Depot have shown that companies can lose money and consumer confidence in their business.
Part of the appeal of solving or preventing cybercrime is that it can pay well, and the field is growing. By illustration, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS 2020) estimates that the median pay for information security analysts was $103,590 per year or $49.80 per hour. Furthermore, the number of positions in this field was expected to grow by 31 percent between 2019 and 2029, nearly eight times the average projected growth of all U.S. professions during that decade (4 percent).
So what does it take to succeed in this lucrative, high-growth career? Experts in digital forensics are familiar with common hardware, software, and computer networking systems. They need to master current methods of intrusion across different environments and how to defend against them. They also need a firm grasp of the legal standards of evidence and privacy and a working understanding of how to create proper chains of custody and safeguard digital data. It also helps to learn modern encryption and decryption methods, including how to access other people’s systems and digital media legally.
Digital forensics bridges investigative work and computer science, and several professional organizations in both fields offer support and continuing education in this field. These include CompTIA, which focuses on information technology topics; the International Society of Forensic Computer Examiners, available to public and private employers; and the International Association of Computer Investigative Specialists, which also offers training and certification in ways to inspect remote attacks on computers properly.
Fortunately for aspiring professionals in digital forensics, there is a wealth of training programs in the field. In addition to the traditional, campus-based degrees, there’s a growing number of distance-based programs as well. Most degree programs take an average of two years to complete.
This guide covers online master’s degrees in digital forensics, including the expected coursework, tuition, and four outstanding professors.
Online education has expanded access to higher education, meaning students can choose to earn degrees on-campus or online through accredited colleges and universities. When researching digital forensics master’s degree programs, it’s important to note that each type of program has unique benefits for students.
The first consideration is whether the program is offered on-campus or online. Students who can take time off from work or are in-between careers may choose an on-campus program. By comparison, a student who lives far from a university campus or needs to work full-time, or needs a flexible schedule for familial responsibilities may find an online program is a better fit for their needs.
After choosing an on-campus or online program, a second consideration is which type of digital forensics degree to pursue. Some digital forensics degree programs are more computer science-based, while others blend computer science with management courses. Some master’s of science degrees have specializations in information security or digital forensics.
Here’s a list of common types of digital forensics master’s degrees:
This online program provides training in assessing external and internal vulnerabilities of various systems. It includes instruction on ensuring security and analyzing risk assessments and general project management skills. Students take 40.5 units of core classes and 18 specialization credits in either ethical hacking and pen testing or information assurance and security policy.
The program also discusses cybersecurity’s legal and ethical aspects at state, federal, and international levels. The program is available online or on-campus at 49 locations nationwide, including many U.S. military bases.
This 33-credit online program offers advanced training in cyber-threats and defense, including network security, risk assessment, and security policy development. Instructors discuss current issues such as privacy protection, compliance, and security audits.
The program has been designated an official Center of Academic Excellence in Information Assurance and Cyber Defense from the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and National Security Agency (NSA).
Norwich University Online: Master of Science in Information Security and Assurance
This distance-based MS program focuses on information assurance, including best security, technology, policy development, compliance, and management strategies. Over the 36 credits of coursework, students review actual security situations and learn overall project management.
The program is recognized as a Center for Academic Excellence in Cyber Defense by the DHS and NSA and has a partnership with NBCUniversal. Please note that while much of the program is online, the final week is a required residency.
This online digital forensics program, referred to as “D4CS,” requires 33 credits and the choice to complete a thesis project, passing an exam for the certificate in applied digital forensic science, or complete six additional elective credits. Students receive an overview of computer science, forensics, and law and justice topics, which prepares them to advance in their workforce or continue with doctoral training.
This fully online program includes 30 credits that can be finished in one to six years. The curriculum offers an overview of legal issues and technical challenges, including accessing different digital devices. Notably, the Department of Defense’s Cyber Crime Center has declared the program a National Center of Digital Forensics Academic Excellence. Students use virtual environments to simulate real-world conditions and also work with a variety of software.
This online program focuses on the skills to investigate incidents related to data and assets. The 48-credit program covers the various legal challenges surrounding digital investigations and includes opportunities to work and practice in a virtual lab. Students are encouraged to take the exams to earn credentials as a Certified Cyber Forensics Professional or a Certified Hacking Forensics Investigator. Notably, the DHS and NSA have recognized the program for excellence.
Students learn to acquire, analyze, preserve properly, and document electronic data and digital evidence needed for security or legal purposes. Faculty members discuss current cybercrime plus how to design appropriate responses. A highlight of the 36-credit online program is an intrusion simulation which lets students demonstrate their knowledge and abilities as investigators to detect and analyze the attack.
The program is part of the school’s Center for Forensic Excellence, which provides cybersecurity services to the surrounding community. Much of the coursework is online except for the mobile device forensics course, which requires on-campus visits.
This online program gives students the tools to create and administer information assurance in public or private settings. The school offers its own Network Security Lab and Data Recovery Lab, which allows real-time training in intrusion detection, data management, and information preservation. It provides 36 credits and includes an overview of legal and security topics plus some computer programming topics.
Other digital forensic master’s programs include:
Also, several schools offer distance-based graduate certificate programs in digital forensics. These graduate certificate programs are designed for bachelor’s degree holders and require less time to complete than a two-year master’s degree.
While admissions processes vary by institution, a majority of online digital forensics master’s programs ask for applicants to have the following:
Whether a student is considering an online or on-campus program, it’s essential to make sure its curriculum has received appropriate approval from industry or educational sources. Various accreditation organizations exist nationally and by region. The U.S. Department of Education’s Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA) has recognized six central regional accreditation bodies. These include:
Lastly, it’s essential to make sure an institution accepts distance-based students from an applicant’s state. This is referred to as “state authorization.” If a school doesn’t list this information on its site, prospective students are advised to call a particular program to discuss their eligibility.
Dr. Anna Levy teaches research topics and other courses. She has more than 30 years of experience as a research librarian and bibliographer. Her research areas include e-government, research at the municipal level, public administration, and town-gown relations, and analyses of the impacts of social media and mobile technology and local governance in the information age.
Before her time at Penn State World Campus, Dr. Levy taught at the Queen College Graduate School of Library and Information Studies (CUNY) and holds a PhD in information sciences and technology from Penn State University.
Professor Bob Green has taught at Champlain College since 1999 and currently is the program director for the online master’s program in digital forensics, as well as the assistant dean for information technology for the school’s Division of Continuing and Professional Studies. He oversees many of the school’s online training courses and is part of the web development and management program. He previously worked with the IBM Burlington Center of Learning at Vermont Technical College.
As the college’s chief information security officer and associate program director of academics, Mr. George Silowash offers students a unique perspective that blends practical situations with academic theories. He previously worked as a cyber-threat and incident analyst with CERT and has focused on information technology topics and systems administration for more than a decade. Notably, he served as an information systems officer for the U.S. Department of Justice’s National Drug Intelligence Center.
Dr. Douglas Salane has been part of the school’s faculty since 1988 and is currently the chair of the Department of Mathematics and Computer Science; the coordinator for the computer information systems undergraduate program; and the interim director of the forensic computing graduate program. He also teaches graduate-level courses in data communication security and network forensics along with various math topics.
Since 2006, Dr. Salane has headed the college’s Center for Cybercrime Studies, which incorporates law, social sciences, and computing as methods to deter computer criminal activity. He previously held positions with Argonne National Laboratories, Sandia National Laboratories, and Exxon Corp.
Rachel Drummond is a freelance writer, educator, and yogini from Oregon. She’s taught English to international university students in the United States and Japan for more than a decade and has a master’s degree in education from the University of Oregon. Rachel writes about meditation, yoga, coaching, and more on her blog (Instagram: @racheldrummondyoga).