The expansive field of scientific exploration is full of opportunities for specialization and growth, none more important than the biological breakthrough that revolutionized interrogation techniques: DNA. The double helix holds invaluable information on how living organisms are formed, and its usage in science and justice proceedings has multiplied over time. A dynamic new career combining molecular biology knowledge with legal acumen now exists; a professional engaging in DNA analysis can bridge these two traditionally disparate disciplines while unlocking powerful insights into crime scenes past and present, making them an integral part of modern investigative teams.
There are varied academic paths to becoming a forensic DNA analyst. Still, most job openings in this field call for candidates with at least a bachelor of science (BS) degree in biology, chemistry, forensics, or another relevant field. By illustration, an analysis of 185 DNA Analyst resumes by Zippia shows that 67 percent of DNA analysts have completed a four-year college-level program in biology, chemistry, or forensic science (with a biology emphasis) or have academic and professional experience equivalent to a bachelor’s degree. With a four-year degree, the US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS 2022) shows faster than average growth for qualified forensic science technicians (11 percent) in the coming decade. In addition, these positions pay higher-than-average median annual salaries of $61,930.
Becoming a DNA analyst equips students with the technical and legal knowledge to analyze complex scientific evidence. Forensic professionals gain competency in performing several tasks, such as conducting genetic profiling using various methods like purification, amplification, or serological screenings; interpreting laboratory results; testifying on behalf of their findings in court cases; educating medical personnel about their discoveries and recording all data related activities regarding the case. In addition to these practical skill sets, diligent self-learning through continuing education (CE) is also expected from successful DNA analysts for them to keep up with new developments within this field.
Read on to learn how DNA analyst programs offer exciting and rewarding pathways to a career in forensic science. Prospective students should familiarize themselves with the university prerequisite criteria, range of courses, degree types available, and professional certification opportunities—all backed by accreditation from respected institutions.
Across the US, many colleges and universities have programs to train aspiring DNA analysts. As mentioned above, these professionals typically have at least a bachelor’s degree, but there are relevant master’s and doctoral programs, including distance-based options.
University of Houston—Downtown offers a bachelor of science (BS) in chemistry with an emphasis on forensic science. This innovative, four-year program prepares students for success through hands-on instruction and research opportunities focusing on the three cornerstones of DNA analysis – organic chemistry, quantitative analysis, and biochemistry.
Additionally, deemed necessary to enhance their studies further still are two essential minor programs: biology and microbiology. With this blend of liberal arts courses combined with natural science subjects abundant within the degree curriculum, graduates will be well-equipped to pursue careers in forensics labs nationwide as they master techniques used by industry professionals.
Marshall University of West Virginia provides a highly-esteemed two-year master’s program in forensic science accredited by the Forensic Education Programs Accreditation Commission (FEPAC), setting the gold standard for forensics accreditation. The university’s curriculum features four subspecialties – DNA analysis, forensic chemistry, digital forensics, and crime scene investigation – allowing students to customize their studies according to their professional interests.
The forensic science program at Marshall University provides salient academic instruction and imparts practical experience through its renowned nationally accredited Forensic DNA Laboratory. This facility serves regional criminal justice agencies throughout West Virginia while further exceeding standards set forth by the world leader in genetic research. A graduate certificate in digital forensics is also available.
Towson University has a two-year master’s degree in forensic science, boasting an impressive curriculum accredited by FEPAC. The program specializes in DNA analysis with courses ranging from population genetics and analytical chemistry to advanced microscopy techniques for evidence processing. Students can complete the MS degree through either contemporary research or internship opportunities coupled with intensive project-based assignments.
Students in this program benefit from small classes, hands-on laboratory experience, and a 92 percent job placement rate after graduation. Course courses are designed for working professionals in late afternoons and evenings so students can complete their degrees while working full time.
Florida International University (FIU) offers four graduate-level degrees: a master of science (MS) in forensic science, a combined MS in forensic science with a PhD in biology, a professional science master’s in forensic science, and a PhD in chemistry. In addition, FIU is home to the innovative International Forensic Research Institute (IFRI), allowing students to collaborate with various forensic laboratories on the local, state, and national levels.
The two-year MS in forensic science program allows science graduates to complete a research project and thesis under faculty direction. In addition, practicing forensic scientists may take courses at FIU, transferring up to six credits from another institution and conducting research within their current laboratory. This program is designed for those who wish to work in casework examinations and graduate students continuing towards terminal degrees such as PhDs or law degrees; it still meets all of the standards set by DNA Advisory Board Technical Leaders positions.
Here is a breakdown of what to expect from DNA analysis programs at all levels—bachelor’s, master’s, and PhD—regarding prerequisites and curricula. At most universities, DNA analysis falls under the purview of other majors in science departments, including biology, chemistry, and forensics. In addition, DNA analysis (or a closely related field such as biochemistry) is offered as a concentration or series of elective courses at some schools.
In addition to the online forensics programs in forensic science, crime scene investigation (CSI), forensic accounting, forensic psychology, forensic nursing, and computer forensics, there are some online program options for aspiring DNA analysts. Due to the hands-on nature of laboratory work, most of these programs will include some on-campus requirements and are, therefore, hybrid. For example, here are two distance-based programs focusing on DNA analysis:
The University of Central Florida (UCF) offers an innovative hybrid master’s of science, allowing students to pursue one of three specialized concentrations. The forensic biochemistry option is ideal for those interested in DNA analysis; courses cover biological material examination and population genetics data evaluation.
Other tracks include forensic professional and forensic analysis. Graduates from this program become biochemists, chemists, physicists, scientists, and statisticians in forensic science. Please note that students in this program can take three units out of nine per semester online.
The University of Florida (UF) offers an online master of science (MS) degree in pharmacology, emphasizing forensic DNA & serology. This 32-credit program—organized to meet the FBI’s National Standards in education for DNA technical leaders and supervisors—includes work in blood distribution and splatter, forensic immunology, and principles of nucleotide activity. This program typically takes two years to complete. This degree program is designed for current or aspiring law enforcement, military, and crime laboratory professionals.
UF also offers four 15-credit forensic science graduate certificate programs, including a certificate in forensic DNA and serology for those wanting to expand their DNA analysis knowledge without committing to a two-year master’s program.
Although professional certification may not be necessary to work as a DNA analyst, it can indicate a job candidate’s accomplishments and competencies to some employers.
For example, becoming certified in forensic DNA examination with the American Board of Criminalistics (ABC) is an exceptional accomplishment. Backed by the Forensic Specialties Accreditation Board (FSAB) accreditation, this certification requires applicants to have a bachelor’s degree in the natural sciences and demonstrate two years’ experience in criminalistics, followed by passing a rigorous 95-question exam. Those who meet these stringent requirements may join an elite group of DNA analysts well-positioned for success.
Other certification organizations related to DNA analysis include:
Aspiring DNA analysts must verify their school’s accreditation status before enrollment.
The Forensic Science Education Programs Accreditation Commission (FEPAC) is the premier accreditation agency in forensic science, evaluating programs on criteria such as faculty support and student services to ensure quality education. Forensic science accreditation encompasses a variety of disciplines, from DNA analysis to other subfields; FEPAC’s rigorous standards identify those that stand out for their excellence.
That said, institutional accreditation agencies also evaluate schools as a whole. There are six leading regional organizations recognized by the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA), an organization affiliated with the US Department of Education:
Students looking to pursue forensic science can confidently choose laboratories accredited by the ANSI-ASQ National Accreditation Board (ANAB). This certification, based on federal standards and includes a regular audit of testing and instrument calibration services, ensures a lab’s competence in providing quality results.
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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.