In recent years, there’s been an explosion in television shows and movies related to crime scene investigation, including CSI, Dexter, and NCIS, among others. Not surprisingly, the intriguing work of collecting, documenting, and analyzing evidence from crime scenes has captured the hearts and minds of popular culture, and becoming a CSI can be a fulfilling career choice for born problem-solvers. Some related professions include evidence technicians (ETs), crime scene technicians (CSTs), crime scene analysts (CSAs), forensic investigators (FAs), scenes of crime officers (SOCOs), and criminologists.
So how does a person typically become a CSI? According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS 2020), CSIs may start out as police officers and receive their empirical training through academies, supervised investigations, and on-the-job mentoring. Others choose to pursue a postsecondary two- to four-year degree in crime scene investigation, forensic science, criminal justice, or a related discipline. Some even choose to get their degrees while working for a police department, forensics lab, or private investigations firm, an option facilitated by the increasing number of convenient online CSI programs.
Read on to discover what to expect from a certificate or degree program—including online (i.e., distance-based) and on-campus options at crime scene investigator colleges—in addition to program accreditation and professional certification information.
As is the case with many careers, crime scene investigation (CSI) and forensic science careers have some overlapping responsibilities. In general, CSIs collect and document evidence from a crime scene and draw conclusions to solve one or a series of related crimes. On the other hand, an individual with a law enforcement and forensic science background may be responsible for collecting and analyzing crime scene evidence as well as serving as a key witness in a legal case.
One distinctive difference between these two positions is education. According to O*NET, an occupational data source sponsored by the US Department of Labor, becoming a crime scene investigator requires graduating from a police academy and for some leadership positions, earning an associate’s or bachelor’s degree in criminal justice.
Forensic scientists, according to the BLS, typically need a bachelor’s degree in natural science, as well as on-the-job training in law enforcement and laboratory procedures.
The amount of time spent outside or in an office is a second consideration between CSIs and forensic scientists. The US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) shows that criminal investigators split their time between desk and fieldwork, while forensic scientists work almost exclusively in laboratory settings. Because crime happens at all hours of the day, so too does the work of CSI professionals who can be called in when needed to investigate a crime scene (BLS 2019).
And while it’s true that forensic scientists intelligence analysts work more regular hours, by comparison, forensic scientists may have to be on call to collect evidence if a CSI is not available and perhaps also analyze it if the testing needed is time-sensitive (BLS 2019).
Salary is the final difference between CSI and forensic scientists. The BLS shows that the average annual salary for private detectives and investigators is $50,510 per year compared to $59,150 for forensic scientists in 2019.
It’s important to note that while these two positions are distinct, they share some responsibilities and work environment settings. The certificate and degree programs featured here provide professionals with plenty of career pathways to pursue one or both of these careers.
Luckily for people with employment, familial, or other types of time commitments, there’s a growing array of online certificates and degrees for aspiring CSIs. These programs have more flexible scheduling for courses since students can login from anywhere with a decent internet connection for lectures, assignments, case studies, and exams.
Becoming a crime scene investigator (CSI) involves a mix of hands-on empirical experience and rigorous didactic instruction. The International Crime Scene Investigators Association (ICSIA) reports that while some CSIs start out as police officers, others may pursue an associate’s or bachelor’s degree in a field such as criminal justice, forensics, crime scene investigation, or a related field. ICSIA adds that only the largest (and busiest) police departments typically have full-time CSIs, whereas smaller, more rural areas may have other law enforcement personnel taking on the CSI responsibilities as they arise.
Who should enroll in an online CSI certificate program?
The entry-level certificate programs can be ideal for those interested in CSI work who have graduated from high school or completed their GED. Online certificate programs can also behoove police officers working in smaller, more rural departments far away from college campuses. For more advanced or specialized certificates, programs may have additional admissions requirements including years of work experience (e.g., on a police force); an admissions essay; official transcripts of previous schooling; and a background check. Since these are not degree-awarding programs, they typically do not require any tests such as the SAT. Finally, these programs can assist CSIs seeking certification since many certifying agencies require between 48 and 144 hours of approved coursework (e.g., International Association for Identification [IAI]).
Featured Online CSI Certificates
Columbia College in Missouri provides an online CSI certificate program comprising 18 semester hours of courses such as criminal investigation, crime scene photography, fingerprint evidence, forensic anthropology, and bloodstain evidence. Please note that this certification is offered as part of an associate’s or bachelor’s degree plan and courses must be completed with a grade of “C” or higher. Required courses include introduction to criminal justice administration, criminal investigation, crime scene investigation, and crime scene photography. Elective courses include forensic anthropology, bloodstain evidence, fingerprint evidence, and shooting incidents.
National University offers an online graduate certificate in crime scene investigation with 31.5 quarter units of courses such as forensic pathology, advanced criminalistics, and digital evidence. This training can be useful for law enforcement personnel, criminal investigators, nurses, and other professionals seeking to deepen their understanding of CSI. Upon completing this program, students will be trained in death investigation techniques, evidence collection and preservation, investigative techniques, and tools used in forensics, and fingerprinting.
There is also an abundance of degree programs for those interested in becoming a CSI.
Who should enroll in an online CSI degree program?
These programs can be ideal for busy professionals in law enforcement, forensics, or criminology who are looking for more formal instruction (and subsequent credentials) in crime scene investigations. Typical prerequisites to online degree programs may include submitting official transcripts with a minimum GPA (e.g., >3.0, especially in science courses); letters of recommendation; a personal statement; and test scores (e.g., SAT or GRE). Please note that some programs, especially at the more advanced levels, may include specific coursework or experiential requirements as well.
Featured Online CSI Degree Programs
Stevenson University offers an 120-credit online bachelor’s degree in criminal justice to people with at least two years of work experience. In courses such as the juvenile justice system, criminology, corrections, victimology, and civil liability, students are prepared to confront the moral, sociological, and legal issues of the administration of justice around the world.
Purdue University Global hosts several online programs including a crime scene technician (CST) certificate, as well as an associate of applied science (AAS), a bachelor of science (BS), and a master of science (MS) in criminal justice. The BS program features five distinct emphases: forensic psychology, homeland security, juvenile justice, law enforcement, and CSI. The CSI track offers classes such as forensic fingerprint analysis, supervisory practices in criminal justice, and forensic chemistry & trace evidence analysis.
The University of California at Irvine (UCI) provides a renowned online master’s program (MA) in criminology, law and society. With exciting coursework in crime & social deviance, hate crimes, and leadership, this comprehensive graduate program typically takes two years to complete, requiring only one on-campus, five-day intensive at the beginning of the fall quarter for the introduction to criminology, law & society class. Furthermore, it was ranked number one by the US News & World Report’s (2020) best online graduate programs in criminal justice.
There is an abundance of traditional, campus-based CSI programs available to qualified students. Given the hands-on nature of the field—using lab equipment, forensics tools, and trained powers of perception to extract, analyze, and document evidence from crime scenes—pursuing a “brick-and-mortar” experience can be the preferred option for some students.
The prerequisites for these programs are similar to those outlined above for the online CSI certificates and degrees.
Here is a selection of some on-campus CSI certificate programs:
The University of California at Riverside (UCR) Extension offers a comprehensive CSI certificate to beginners in the field or working professionals looking to learn more through coursework in crime scene management, crime scene photography, and forensic entomology, to name a few. This 20-unit program typically takes between eight to 12 months, and it’s highly recommended that students have a digital camera—preferably with a good quality lens—to visually document evidence from crime scene case studies.
The California State University at Long Beach (CSULB) provides an 80-hour certificate in CSI, ideal for those looking to become crime scene investigators. This ten-module model includes units on fingerprints at the crime scene, impression evidence & chemical processing of evidence, and death investigations. Through hands-on, mock crime scenes and rigorous didactic instruction, CSULB graduates are prepared to take on entry-level CSI responsibilities and may be assisted in finding internships at local agencies.
Here is a selection of campus-based degrees in CSI:
Miami Dade College’s School of Justice offers an associate of science (AS) degree in crime scene technology. There are a number of required courses for the major such as human behavior in criminal justice, criminal investigation, and basic fingerprinting. Students can also choose from a variety of elective courses tailored to specific competencies such as courtroom presentation, criminal justice ethics and professionalism, and crime scene photography.
Horry Georgetown Technical College in South Carolina hosts an associate of applied science (AAS) degree in crime scene investigation. This curricula is designed for those in law enforcement who are looking to join special investigative units or CSI teams, combining courses such as case preparation, forensic science techniques, and CSI equipment with a 135-hour internship to apply skills students acquire.
George Washington University—based in DC—provides a comprehensive, multidisciplinary master of science (MS) in crime scene investigation with three convenient, annual starting dates. This program is designed for people with a few years of professional experience as CSIs, lawyers, special agents, or other related occupations. It prepares students with specialized training in forensic pathology, homicide investigation, scrutiny of questioned documents, trace evidence analysis, and crime scene photography.
Prior to enrolling in any college, it’s important to check the accreditation status of the program and school as a whole. Being accredited by a recognized entity demonstrates that the institution meets expected educational standards in the field. There is a wealth of accreditation organizations which measure factors such as student outcomes, program facilities, comprehensiveness of curricula, faculty effectiveness, and other variables in their evaluation process.
There are a number of institutional accreditation bodies based on the state in which a program is located. The six recognized agencies include:
After successfully completing a certificate or degree program, some prospective CSIs choose to get certified. The certification process typically involves submitting an application; completing a number of training hours (or a degree program); showing proof of experience in the field; and passing a competency exam.
According to the Forensic Specialties Accreditation Board (FSAB), there are currently 10 approved individual certification boards in forensics. The certifying groups most closely related to crime scene investigation include:
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).