When human life is lost, law enforcement officers and forensic science specialists must determine the motivation for a crime and the cause of death. As simple as this formula seems, humans alone cannot be trusted to provide witness testimony. Enter the work of experienced forensic scientists who prove or determine probable fault using laboratory-based and carefully constructed questions when interviewing witnesses.
Leading forensic scientists and psychologists can practice their craft with a bachelor’s or master’s degree, but to delve into the nuanced areas of forensics and leadership, some senior-level positions require a doctoral degree in forensic science.
When two witnesses point fingers at each other, saying the other is guilty, forensic science takes a multidisciplinary approach to provide essential information to bring criminals to justice. A case report involving the murder of a 55-year-old man illustrates the need for a multidisciplinary approach. The man accused of killing his neighbor admits he killed him in self-defense, but relatives of the murder victim say that there were other motivations not being admitted.
To provide more details, a forensic scientist can serve as a medical examiner, a forensic chemist can do ballistics analysis, and a forensic psychologist can conduct interviews to determine the mental health state of the accused murderer so that justice can be served with accuracy.
Forensic scientists and psychologists working in the field can pursue doctoral degree options to bolster their expertise. Read on to learn more about online doctoral programs in forensic science.
At present, there are no online doctoral programs in forensic science that can be completed 100 percent online. Because forensic science is a laboratory-based discipline, most programs require students to be on campus at least part-time for research and clinical work.
However, there are PhD programs that fall under the umbrella of forensic science, such as forensic biology, chemistry, and psychology. Applicants interested in these programs are strongly encouraged to learn about the accreditation status of these programs, which is discussed in detail below.
Walden University (Related Program)
Walden University in Minneapolis, Minnesota is unique because it offers the only online PhD program in forensic psychology. Students in this program can choose from a regular or fast-track option which enables students to waive up to six courses or 53 credits from the master’s degree in forensic psychology. The program also has optional four-day intensives focused on key topics.
Students in this doctoral program can also choose from seven unique specializations to focus their studies on a specific field of forensic psychology: general, criminal justice (self-designed), crisis leadership management, crisis response, legal issues in forensic psychology, self-designed program, and victimology. This program also provides two tracks: one for students with a master’s degree in forensic psychology and one for those with a GPA of 3.0 on their bachelor’s degree or a master’s degree in another discipline.
Some of the courses in the curriculum include themes and theories of psychology; abnormal behavior; criminal behavior; understanding violence, risk, and threat assessment; advanced issues in forensic psychology; treatment of forensic populations; psychology in the courts; police psychology; and consulting for organizational change.
Fielding Graduate University (Related Program)
Fielding Graduate University offers a doctoral program in clinical psychology with an optional concentration in forensic psychology and is accredited by the American Psychological Association.
Blending in-person learning opportunities with digital formats, this PhD program includes in-person and online seminars, meetings with faculty members and other students, weeklong residential sessions, and clinical and research training experiences. The program includes a clinical practicum as well as a clinical doctoral internship. Apart from these, the program also includes two additional in-person residency requirements.
Admission requirements to the program include a bachelor’s degree, a minimum GPA of 3.0, an online application form, a curriculum vitae (CV), a statement of purpose, a critical thinking writing sample, three letters of recommendation, and official transcripts. GRE scores are not required for admission.
The curriculum includes core courses in developmental bases of behavior; history and systems of psychology; social bases of behavior; cognitive and affective bases of behavior; psychopathology; multicultural psychology. Courses in the forensic psychology concentration include forensic psychology; ethics in forensic psychology; forensic assessment in civil court; malingering and deception; evaluations for the immigration courts; forensic assessment in criminal cases; and forensic psychology lab.
University of Arizona Global Campus (Related Program)
The University of Arizona Global Campus offers an online doctor of psychology (PsyD) program that helps students in building their knowledge base in the systems and history of psychology, and then students will be able to focus their PsyD degree by selecting a concentration that aligns with their specific research and career interests.
With the criminology and justice studies specialization, students will develop their expertise in criminal behavior and the corrections systems and criminal justice. Students in this specialization will be prepared to use psychological principles to solve complex real-world issues regarding justice and crime.
The PsyD includes ten core courses, seven specialization courses, and a capstone seminar. Students will then complete an applied doctoral project, which includes two planning courses and five units of the applied doctoral project.
Comprising 62 credits, the curriculum includes courses such as contemporary criminological theory; types & characteristics of crime; advanced analysis of criminal justice processes; juvenile justice; mental health & crime; drugs, addiction, & crime; and evaluating criminal justice interventions.
As previously mentioned, no fully online doctoral programs lead to a PhD in forensic science, but there are forensic science doctoral programs in related subfields.
Here are on-campus doctoral programs in forensic chemistry, forensic mental health counseling, forensic science, and forensic psychology.
West Virginia University’s PhD in forensic science program is unique in that it is only the second such program in the United States. Students in this PhD will be prepared to work as professionals in government laboratories, private industries, or academia as laboratory specialists. Students in this program must successfully complete a minimum of 71 credits. The program also includes a dissertation proposal presentation, an oral defense of the dissertation, and an oral qualifying examination.
In this research-intensive program, students study the foundations of criminalistics using research design, qualitative methods, statistical analysis, and communication skills in scientific writing and presenting. All students take a common core of advanced forensic science courses and other courses determined by their dissertation committees.
Florida International University
Florida International University offers a doctor of philosophy (PhD) in chemistry with a forensic science track. This track prepares graduates for research in environmental and biogeochemistry with an emphasis on forensic science applications. This track has two tracks to choose from: an analytical chemistry/trace concentration and a biochemistry/DNA analysis concentration.
Students in this program benefit from collaborative agreements with local, state, national, and international agencies and learn about detecting trace amounts of evidence at crime scenes, DNA typing in mass disasters, and canine screening for explosives.
Research projects are coordinated by the International Forensic Research Institute, and graduates from this program go to work in government laboratories with the FBI, Department of Homeland Security, Secret Service, and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives.
Sam Houston State University offers a doctor of philosophy in forensic science program providing students with problem-solving skills; advanced, discipline-specific knowledge; and critical thinking ability allowing them to advance into leadership positions. To achieve this, students will develop the ability to perform independent research, complete multidisciplinary academic coursework, gain hands-on experience in laboratories, and collaborate with accredited forensic laboratories, partners, and institutes.
Consisting of 86 credits beyond the bachelor’s degree, students will complete 43 credits of core coursework, a minimum of 15 credits of dissertation research, and an additional 28 credits of electives. Sample some of the courses in the curriculum: forensic instrumental analysis; controlled substances; pattern and physical evidence concepts; forensic biology; forensic toxicology; law and forensic sciences; and quality assurance and ethical conduct in forensic science.
Bachelor’s degree holders who want to begin graduate studies in forensic science and related fields can consider two-year master’s degree programs. This degree option offers clinical and research-based rigor to prepare students for future doctoral studies.
Here are three online master’s programs in forensic science and psychology and one hybrid (online and on-campus) forensic science program which can prepare graduates for doctoral-level coursework in forensic science or psychology.
Oklahoma State University (MS in Forensic Science)
Oklahoma State University offers a hybrid master of science in forensic science with several concentration options (two of them are FEPAC-accredited). These concentrations include arson and explosives investigation; forensic investigative sciences; forensic biology/DNA (accredited by FEPAC); forensic chemistry/toxicology (accredited by FEPAC); and forensic psychology.
The concentration in forensic biology/DNA is a 36-credit FEPAC-accredited program that can be completed part- or full-time and features a death scene investigation track for those who have taken forensic science or biology, genetics, or molecular biology courses at the undergraduate level.
In the first year of the program, students can choose to take courses on-campus or online and the second year includes laboratory and research courses that must be taken on campus. Students have seven years to complete the requirements and must maintain a 3.0 GPA throughout their time in the program.
The curriculum includes courses such as the survey of forensic sciences; molecular biology; population genetics; forensic bioscience; ethical research and scientific writing; quality assurance in forensic science; methods in forensic sciences; criminalistics and evidence analysis; advanced criminalistics; and forensic statistics.
University of North Dakota (MA in Forensic Psychology)
The University of North Dakota offers an online master of arts in forensic psychology that prepares graduates for civil and criminal justice systems work. This 30-credit program is offered fully online and part-time to meet the needs of working students.
The curriculum includes courses such as psychology and law; research methods in forensic psychology; advanced social psychology; behavior pathology; readings in psychology; cognitive psychology; diversity psychology; eyewitness testimony memory; and supervised fieldwork.
Graduates from this program are prepared to conduct focus groups in legal settings for jury selection, select and use appropriate assessment tools, evaluate programs using research-based methods, and assist in addressing forensic issues in legal settings.
Walden University (MS in Forensic Psychology)
Walden University offers a 48-credit online master’s of science (MS) in forensic psychology. As mentioned above, students in this master’s program have the option of applying up to half of their master’s coursework towards an online PhD in forensic psychology which saves students time and money and enables them to earn MS and PhD degrees on a faster timeline.
The master’s program offers eleven specializations related to forensic psychology and other sub-fields of forensic science: criminal justice self-designed; cybercrimes; family violence; legal issues in forensic psychology; military; police psychology; self-designed learning; sex offender behavior; terrorism; victimology; and general program.
Some of the topics students will explore include foundations of graduate studies in psychology; abnormal behavior; criminal behavior; understanding forensic psychology research; understanding violence, risk, and threat assessment; psychological aspects of violent crime; victimology; and criminal investigative analysis and profiling.
Arizona State University (Master’s in Forensic Science)
Arizona State University’s online professional science master’s in forensic science (PSM) program allows currently working forensic science professionals to consider career advancement in sectors such as law enforcement, forensic science, medicolegal, and other closely related fields.
To be considered for admission, applicants must have earned a bachelor of science or bachelor of arts degree in a related field with a minimum GPA of 2.75. Additionally, applicants must complete an online application and submit official transcripts, two letters of recommendation, a personal statement, and an up-to-date resume. Proof of English language proficiency is required of applicants whose native language is not English.
The program comprises 30 credits, including coursework in forensic science and governance; ethics in forensic science; laboratory leadership, policy, and practice; advanced forensic psychology; advanced topics in human forensic DNA; applied biostatistics in medicine and informatics; biostatistics and data management; criminal procedure of investigations for social and forensic scientists; and forensic toxicology; among others.
To be admitted into a forensic science PhD program, applicants must meet certain academic requirements. Here’s a list of documents commonly requested when applying for a doctoral program in forensic science:
Each forensic science or psychology doctoral program has its own unique requirements for students to meet to be considered for admission and graduate from the program. Here is a list of common degree requirements and course titles.
As previously discussed, the nature of forensic science or forensic psychology involves on-campus or in-person research in laboratory or clinical settings and there are few to no online opportunities for residencies, internships, or practicums.
For illustration, Walden University requires students in its PhD in clinical psychology program to spend an Academic Year in Residence (AYR) in addition to four four-day PhD residencies. The AYR earns students 40 credits and numerous opportunities to develop skills and knowledge needed for a career as a forensic psychologist.
West Virginia University also partners with several governmental and private organizations that offer forensic science internships in federal laboratories and the Department of Homeland Security for students to gain hands-on experience during summer-only experiential learning.
When researching educational programs, accreditation is an essential factor to consider. Accreditation is granted to programs or institutions by national, regional, or programmatic accreditation organizations tasked with ensuring that high standards of educational quality are met.
Why is it important to verify a program or institution’s accreditation? First, accreditation validates the educational quality. Future employers look for graduates from accredited programs to ensure that their professional programs and clients receive the highest level of professionalism. And most importantly, accreditation is a requirement for state or national licensure for some careers, including forensic psychology. Sometimes, candidates can only sit for licensure exams if they have completed an accredited academic program.
The Forensic Science Education Programs Accreditation Commission (FEPAC) grants the gold standard in forensic science program accreditation. Forensic psychology programs are granted accreditation from the American Psychological Association (APA). To earn programmatic accreditation requires adhering to rigorously high standards in specialized areas.
If any institution does not hold programmatic accreditation, then a prospective student is advised to research a school’s institutional accreditation. The United States Department of Education’s Council for Higher Education (CHEA) recognizes the following regional accrediting organizations:
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).