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 cyber attacks on retailers such as Home Depot have shown that companies can lose money and consumer confidence in their businesses.
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 2022) estimates that the median pay for information security analysts is $102,600 per year or $49.33 per hour. Furthermore, the number of positions in this field was expected to grow by 35 percent between 2021 and 2031, seven times the average projected growth of all U.S. professions during that decade (5 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 legally access other people’s systems and digital media.
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, works 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 specialize 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 enterprise cybersecurity management.
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.
Penn State has been designated as a National Center of Academic Excellence in Cyber Defense by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and the National Security Agency (NSA). The designation demonstrates Penn State’s commitment to academic excellence in assurance education and information cybersecurity.
Graduates of this program will be prepared for careers in areas such as risk management and analysis, information assurance engineering, information security or digital forensics, computer systems security analysis, systems integration and networks, and intelligence analysis.
Notably, Penn State also offers a 15-credit graduate certificate in information systems cybersecurity, twelve credits of which may apply towards the master of professional studies in homeland security – information security and forensics option.
This distance-based MS program in cybersecurity helps students in developing the management skills and business acumen needed for leading the field. Norwich University has also been designated as a Center for Academic Excellence in Cyber Defense Education by the National Security Agency and Department of Homeland Security.
The curriculum of this 36-credit specialized program blends the technical and management aspects of an information security or assurance program, enabling students to develop the knowledge and skills required for protecting their organization and its information.
Students in this program will be able to tailor their learning experience with six concentration options: Computer forensic investigation and incident response team management; cyber law & international perspectives on cyberspace; critical infrastructure protection & cybercrime; project management; procurement and government contract management; and vulnerability management.
Admission requirements to the program include a bachelor’s degree from a regionally or nationally accredited U.S. institution, or an equivalent, a completed online application, a current resume indicating three professional references, official transcripts, a letter of intent, and proof of English language proficiency for students whose first language is not English.
This online digital forensics program, referred to as “D4CS,” requires 33 credits and the choice to complete a thesis project, pass 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.
Applicants to the program must have a computer science background and hold a bachelor’s degree from an accredited institution (or international equivalent) with a cumulative GPA of 3.0. Additional application requirements include three letters of recommendation, a personal statement, a current resume, and official transcripts from all post-secondary institutions attended.
Graduates will be able to pursue a variety of career paths in cybersecurity, information assurance, and digital forensics, such as digital forensic analysts, cyber investigators, cyber incident analyst responders, network security analysts, cybersecurity analysts, and information assurance consultants.
This fully online program includes 30 to 36 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 work with various software.
Upon successfully completing the program, graduates can take up roles such as computer forensics investigators, digital forensics examiners, digital forensics analysts, and digital forensics consultants.
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.
To get accepted into the program, applicants must have a bachelor’s degree from an institution accredited with a minimum GPA of 2.3, a background acknowledgment form, a valid, government-issued form of photo identification, and proof of English proficiency for students who have completed their most recent academic coursework, degree, or credential at an institution outside the United States. GMAT or GRE are not required for admission.
At the end of the program, graduates can pursue opportunities such as information security analysts, cybersecurity managers, cybersecurity specialists, network engineers, security engineers, security architects, information assurance analysts, information security officers, and chief information officers.
Students learn to acquire, analyze, preserve, 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. The major admission requirements to the program include a bachelor’s degree in a technical or quantitative field of study or related professional work experience, a cumulative GPA of 3.0, a personal statement, official college transcripts, and a completed online application. GRE scores are not required for admission.
Graduates of the program can pursue roles such as cyber security engineers, cyber security analysts, network engineers or architects, cyber crime analysts, cyber security architects, and IT auditors.
Stevenson also offers a bachelor’s degree in cybersecurity and digital forensics, a graduate certificate in digital forensics, and a post-baccalaureate certificate in digital forensics.
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, allowing real-time intrusion detection, data management, and information preservation training. It provides 30 credits and includes an overview of legal and security topics, plus some computer programming topics.
This degree is designed for students who have completed undergraduate criminal justice or computer science majors or minors and those with baccalaureate degrees in technical fields. Additional requirements for admission include a completed graduate application, official transcripts of all previous college work, a current resume, official GRE scores (waivers available), and two letters of recommendation. Preference will be given to applicants with a GPA of 3.0 or higher.
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 ensure 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 seven central regional accreditation bodies. These include:
Lastly, it’s essential to ensure 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 on 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 and MS in information sciences and technology from Penn State University. She also completed her MLS in library and information sciences from Pratt Institute School of Information and a BA in library science and bibliography from Moscow State University of Culture and Arts.
Dr. Sérgio Tenreiro de Magalhães is an associate professor and chair of the cybersecurity department at Champlain College Online. His research focuses on information security, intelligence and performance monitoring, and electronic government. His research has been published in journals such as the International Journal of Electronic Security and Digital Forensics. Dr. Magalhães completed his PhD in information systems and technologies and an MS in digital forensic science from the University of Minho (Portugal).
Dr. Henry Collier is the program director for Norwich University’s online MS in cybersecurity program and the program manager for Norwich University’s online BS in cybersecurity and computer science & information systems programs. He has developed and taught courses in systems administration, computer networking, relational database design and management, computer programming, network security, information assurance, digital forensics, and healthcare information technology. Before coming to Norwich, he was the program director for computer technology and cybersecurity & healthcare IT at River Valley Community College.
He holds a PhD in engineering with a concentration in security and a master’s degree in managing innovations and information technology from Champlain College. He earned his bachelor’s in information technology with a concentration in systems analysis and design from Granite State College.
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 a member of the graduate faculty in 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 criminal computer activity. He previously held positions with Argonne National Laboratories, Sandia National Laboratories, and Exxon Corp. Dr. Douglas completed his PhD and MS from SUNY Stony Brook and earned his undergraduate degree in mathematics from Queens College.
Jocelyn Blore is the chief content officer of Sechel Ventures and the co-author of the Women Breaking Barriers series. She graduated summa cum laude from UC Berkeley and traveled the world for five years. She also worked as an addiction specialist for two years in San Francisco. She’s interested in how culture shapes individuals and systems within societies—one of the many themes she writes about in her blog, Blore’s Razor (Instagram: @bloresrazor). She has served as managing editor for several healthcare websites since 2015.