The continually evolving path of scientific inquiry has led to a wealth of new careers, college programs, and specialized fields of knowledge. Among the most important biological discoveries of the twentieth century was deoxyribonucleic acid, more commonly known as DNA. This double-helix contains the instructions for how all life on earth is constructed and its applications in science and criminology are varied and growing. One emergent career combines the faculties of molecular biology and the legal system: DNA analysis.
There are varied academic paths to becoming a forensic DNA analyst, but a majority of job openings in this field call for candidates with at least a bachelor of science (BS) degree in biology, chemistry, forensics, or another applicable field.
By illustration, a Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) DNA analysis job requires that a candidate to 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.
So what competencies can students expect to acquire in a DNA analyst program? These forensic professionals gain a number of skills, including performing DNA profiling (e.g., DNA purification, PCR amplification, serological screening tests, calibrating instruments, fluorescent DNA analysis, etc.); interpreting laboratory results; explaining findings to medical and legal personnel; giving testimony in court cases; and maintaining records. DNA analysts also have the responsibility of maintaining their knowledge of procedures and scientific discoveries through continuing education (CE) in their field.
Read on to discover what to expect from a DNA analyst program, including university admittance prerequisites, coursework, types of degrees, professional certification, and program accreditation.
Across the US, there is a wealth of colleges and universities with 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 as well, including some distance-based options.
The University of Houston—Downtown offers a bachelor’s of science (BS) in chemistry with a forensic science concentration. This four-year program has hands-on instruction in organic chemistry, quantitative analysis, and biochemistry—three cornerstones of DNA analysis—as well as program minors in biology and microbiology.
As part of the degree requirements, students participate in supervised field research to round out their didactic coursework with real-world applications and can opt to work in a forensics lab learning the techniques of the trade. This degree curriculum is a combination of liberal arts and natural sciences courses.
Marshall University of West Virginia provides a two-year master’s program in forensic science accredited by the Forensic Education Programs Accreditation Commission (FEPAC), the gold standard in program approval for forensics. Marshall has four unique subspecialties: DNA analysis, forensic chemistry, digital forensics, and crime scene investigation. The 12-credit DNA analysis track boasts clinically trained forensic DNA analysts as faculty and a curriculum which exceeds the standards set forth by the DNA Advisory Board (DAB).
Finally, as part of its facilities, the school operates a nationally renowned Forensic DNA Laboratory, which provides services to regional and statewide criminal justice agencies. The Marshall lab has also earned accreditation from the ANSI-ASQ National Accreditation Board (ANAB).
Towson University of Maryland has a two-year, FEPAC-accredited master of science (MS) program in forensic science which focuses on DNA analysis. Towson’s curricula includes training in crime scene investigation and evidence analyses, featuring 37 credits of interdisciplinary coursework in population genetics, analytical chemistry, DNA technologies in forensic science, and advanced microscopy. Additionally, students can either complete an original thesis or a professional internship in combination with a rigorous research project.
Florida International University (FIU) hosts a PhD in chemistry program with a forensic science track. Students choose between two concentrations: analytical (i.e., trace or toxicological analysis) or biochemistry, which focuses on DNA typing. FIU is home to the innovative International Forensic Research Institute (IFRI) giving students the opportunity to collaborate with a variety of forensic laboratories on the local, state, and national levels.
This 90-credit program has courses such as forensic DNA chemistry, organic chemistry of nucleic acids, physical biochemistry, and spectroscopic techniques. Students are also required to serve as graduate teaching assistants in undergraduate classes during their program. FIU also offers an MS degree in forensic science, a professional science master’s degree in forensic science, as well as a combined MS in forensic science with a PhD in biology.
Here is a breakdown of what to expect from DNA analysis programs at all levels—bachelor’s, master’s, and PhD—in terms of prerequisites and curricula. At most universities, DNA analysis falls under the purview of other majors in science departments, including biology, chemistry, and forensics. At some schools, DNA analysis (or a closely related field such as biochemistry) is offered as a concentration or series of elective courses.
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, the vast majority of these programs will include some on-campus requirements and are therefore hybrid programs. Here are two distance-based programs focusing on DNA analysis:
The University of Central Florida (UCF) provides a hybrid master’s of science (MS) in forensic science degree with three unique concentrations: forensic analysis, forensic biochemistry, and professional forensics. The forensic biochemistry concentration is most relevant to DNA analysis, comprising courses such as forensic analysis of biological materials, forensic molecular biology, and population genetics & genetic data analysis. Please note that only three of the nine expected units of coursework per semester can be taken in a 100 percent online format.
The University of Florida (UF) offers an online master’s of science (MS) degree in pharmacology with an emphasis on 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 professionals in law enforcement, military, and crime laboratories.
As well, UF offers four 15-credit forensic science graduate certificate programs including a certificate in forensic DNA and serology for those who want to expand their knowledge of DNA analysis without committing to a two-year master’s program.
Although professional certification may not be necessary to work as a DNA analyst, to some employers it can serve as an indicator of a job candidate’s accomplishments and competencies.
Some DNA analysts choose to get certified through the American Board of Criminalistics (ABC), which offers a molecular biology specialty discipline.
Prerequisites for a five-year certification at the “diplomate” level include having a bachelor’s degree in the natural sciences; showing proof of at least two years of experience in criminalistics; and passing a 220-question exam. The ABC is accredited by the Forensic Specialties Accreditation Board (FSAB).
Aspiring DNA analysts are encouraged to verify their school’s accreditation status prior to enrollment.
In forensic science, there is one main programmatic accreditation agency: the Forensic Science Education Programs Accreditation Commission (FEPAC). This organization weighs criteria such as program objectives, faculty support, student support services, recruiting & admissions processes, and other factors to determine a program’s quality. As of 2020, FEPAC accredits mainly forensic science programs which may or may not cover options in the DNA analysis subfield.
That said, there are also institutional accreditation agencies that evaluate schools as a whole. There are six main regional organizations recognized by the US Department of Education:
Finally, students may also want to seek out forensic science laboratories accredited by the ANSI-ASQ National Accreditation Board (ANAB), a group that formally recognizes forensics labs for their competence, assuring compliance with federal standards by providing audits on services such as testing and instrument calibration.
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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).