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Forensic Biology – Degree Programs, Certification, Career Outlook & Salary

For those with career interests in vastly differing fields such as the natural sciences and criminal justice, becoming a forensic biologist is an ideal career choice. Charged with the task of examining tissue samples to identify victims and crime scenes, forensic biologists provide essential information in criminal investigations to pinpoint the cause and time of death. These professionals also serve in pivotal roles involving public health crises (e.g.,) disease prevention or environmental protection disasters (e.g., oil spills) by providing scientific legal testimony through their analyses.

Due to the wide range of specialty fields within forensic biology, forensic biology professionals have access to several multi-disciplinary career pathways as forensic anthropologists, forensic chemists, forensic toxicologists, and forensic DNA analysts.

Forensic biologists must be detail-oriented because a careless sample collection could deem evidence invalid. Additionally, they must possess a solid grasp of scientific and mathematical knowledge as well as communication skills for writing detailed reports and summarizing salient points.

As the skills to perform forensic biology tasks are varied, so too are the work environments. An experienced forensic biologist is well-acquainted with working in natural settings, collecting evidence covered in dirt, leaves, and human fluids, as well as sterile laboratory environments. As is the case with most careers, forensic biologists can expect that some days will be spent doing repetitive and monotonous tasks while other days will be spent at a crime scene collecting evidence.

Students with interests in crime scene investigation and biology can rest assured that jobs in forensic science are on the rise. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects forensic science technician openings—one of many career paths—to grow 14 percent nationally between 2018 and 2028, which is much faster than the average for all occupations (5 percent).

Aspiring forensic biologists may wonder: what types of degree programs are required to become a forensic science professional? There are three common educational pathways:

  • A bachelor of science in forensic biology or natural science
  • A bachelor of science in biology or natural science
  • A bachelor of science in biology with a master’s degree in forensic investigation or criminal justice

The Forensic Science Education Programs Accreditation Commission (FEPAC) offers programmatic accreditation for nearly 50 forensic science education programs in the United States. If attending a FEPAC-accredited program isn’t possible, forensic scientist George Schiro, who works as a DNA technical leader at the Scales Biological Laboratory, suggests that future forensic science professionals should pursue a bachelor’s degree in natural science that is “most suited to the field of forensic science in which you are interested.” He goes on to say “The best thing to do is keep abreast of any curriculum guidelines for the various disciplines of forensic science […] by following the information from the National Commission on Forensic Science and its committees.”

Regardless of the chosen degree pathway, all students are advised to seek out degrees from regionally or nationally accredited colleges and universities. Read on to learn more about forensic biology programs.

Forensic Biology Programs: Common Admissions Prerequisites & Courses

Bachelor’s Degree in Forensic Biology

  • Application requirements: undergraduate application, application fee, official high school transcript, SAT/ACT scores, a written personal statement, a 2.5 or higher GPA, proof of high school coursework (English, grammar, composition, literature, a foreign language, algebra, geometry, integrated math, science, social studies, electives)
  • Common courses: chemistry, biology, physics, criminal justice, precalculus, public speaking, business communications, economics, humanities
  • Sample program: Fayetteville State University – Bachelor of Forensic Science, Biology Concentration

Master’s Degree in Forensic Biology

  • Application requirements: bachelor’s degree from an accredited university; previous coursework (general biology, cell/molecular biology, general chemistry, organic chemistry, biochemistry, chemistry lab, biology lab, etc.); GRE test scores; personal statement; three letters of recommendation; current CV highlighting research, laboratory, and academic accomplishments; TOEFL scores (ESL students); transcript evaluation report; official documentation of financial resources
  • Common courses: human biological evidence and DNA analysis, toxicology and controlled substance analysis, forensic analytical chemistry and trace evidence analysis, pathology and medicolegal death investigation, criminal law and ethics, crime scene investigation, pattern evidence recognition and interpretation, an internship
  • Sample program: Boston University – Master of Science in Biomedical Forensic Sciences

Doctoral Degree in Forensic Biology

  • Application requirements: a personal statement, GRE scores taken within the last seven years with a score of 300 or better, academic transcripts, research writing sample (peer-reviewed publication or thesis), three letters of recommendation
  • Common courses: thesis research course, advanced chemistry and biology, laboratory-based instruction in criminalistics, trace and compression evidence, statistics, professional communications, ethics, laboratory management, required core and colloquium courses
  • Sample program: West Virginia University PhD in Forensic Science

Forensic Biology Degree & Certificate Programs

Here are three FEPAC-accredited forensic biology or forensic science programs with forensic biology offered as a degree specialty.

George Washington University in Washington DC offers a master of forensic sciences in forensic molecular biology (FMB). Graduates from this program are prepared to work in crime laboratories as DNA analysts and laboratory managers. In state-of-the-art laboratory facilities, students apply theoretical and practical knowledge of data analysis and DNA extraction. Students also practice identifying body fluids at mock crime scenes and partake in mock court cases to gain first-hand experience in the collection and preservation of evidence, as well as practice providing court testimonies.

For students who want to focus on forensic biology, a specialty area of theoretical and practical aspects of advanced methods in forensic molecular biology is available. Graduate tuition for an academic year in this program is $32,846.

Oklahoma State University’s Center for Health Sciences in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma offers a hybrid master of science (MS) in forensic sciences with a concentration in forensic biology/DNA. Graduates from this 39-credit program pursue careers as forensic scientists, DNA analysts, research analysts, scientific laboratory technicians, and university instructors. Ninety percent of graduates find employment or begin doctoral degree studies upon completion of the master’s program.

The first year of this two-year program can be completed online or on-campus, while the second year laboratory and research courses must be completed on-campus. Graduate tuition and fees for in-state residents is $6,820 (16 credit-hours) and $17,150 (16 credit-hours) for out-of-state residents.

The University of North Texas in Denton, Texas offers a certificate of forensic science which can be earned in conjunction with a bachelor of science degree in biology, biochemistry, or chemistry. In addition to courses in biological sciences, chemistry, and criminal justice, students in this FEPAC-accredited program are also required to partake in a forensic science internship and take the Forensic Science Assessment Test (FSAT)—a general forensics knowledge exam offered through the American Board of Criminalistics (ABC).

Required courses in this 24- to 26-credit-hour certificate program include forensic science analysis, biomedical criminalistics, principles of forensic chemistry, forensic microscopy, forensic molecular biology, instrumental analysis with laboratory, and forensic chemistry. Undergraduate tuition for in-state residents is $10,852 and $20,812 for out-of-state residents.

Online Forensic Biology Programs

As mentioned above, the professional pathway to becoming a forensic biologist can be through a forensic biology program or a bachelor’s degree in biology. Degree programs are offered through on-campus, online, or hybrid course formats.

In addition to several online programs in forensic science, here are three online programs in forensic biology and closely-related fields. While the programs featured below are not accredited by FEPAC, each university is regionally accredited.

Michigan State University offers an online master of science (MS) in law enforcement intelligence and analysis. While forensic biology is not a featured aspect of this program, students in his program are prepared to collect, analyze, and interpret critical intelligence, as well as employ ethical research tactics while gathering and conducting research for use by law enforcement and intelligence agencies—a similar curriculum compared to other forensic biology programs.

This 30-credit fully online degree prepares graduates to work in the lucrative career fields of intelligence analysis, criminal research analysis, and crime analysis. Ranked tenth best online graduate criminal justice program by the U.S. News & World Report (2020), the program curriculum is informed by the U.S. Department of Justice. The cost per credit hour is $774.

The University of Florida offers a fully online bachelor of arts (BA) in biology. This degree program provides a broad background in general biology as well as specialization in subdisciplines and prepares its graduates for interdisciplinary fields. Students in his program are required to have at least a 2.5 overall GPA and have completed coursework in chemistry, biology, mathematics including calculus, trigonometry, and algebra. Undergraduate online tuition is $129.18 per credit-hour.

The University of Maryland Global Campus offers an online investigative forensics bachelor’s degree program and online minors in biology, criminal justice, and forensics. Graduates from this program are prepared for careers in civil or criminal justice and the aim of this program is to prepare students for professional work in evidence detection, collection, processing, reporting, criminal procedures, and analysis of evidence.

The curriculum is based on national guidelines and includes required courses in criminalistics, electives, and general education requirements. Undergraduate tuition for this program is $300 per credit for in-state residents and $499 per credit for out-of-state residents.

Forensic Biology Professional Certification

Credentialing requirements for forensic scientists vary widely by state and laboratory specialty. The Forensic Specialities Accreditation Board (FSAB) recognizes ten certifying forensic science organizations—four of which are related to forensic biology.

For example, the American Board of Medicolegal Death Investigators (ABMDI) certifies individuals who have knowledge and skills to perform medicolegal death investigations according to national professional standards. Other FSAB-recognized certifying authorities include:

  • American Academy of Forensic Sciences (AAFS)
  • American Board of Criminalistics (ABC)
  • American Board of Forensic Toxicology (ABFT)

Accreditation & State Authorization for Forensic Biology Programs

When investigating educational programs, accreditation is a major factor. As previously mentioned, accreditation can be earned at the regional or national level by colleges and universities or be assigned to specific educational programs. Accreditation standards are set by professionals with extensive experience.

Schools or programs seeking accreditation must prove the rigor and quality of their educational programs, student and faculty support, teaching standards, and curriculum. Without accreditation, students and employers cannot ensure that a program includes high-quality instruction compared to other institutions. What’s more is that students who plan on using federal aid money to fund their education can only attend schools with programmatic, regional, or national accreditation.

Regional and national accreditation is offered by one of six regional authorities recognized by the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA):

  • Higher Learning Commission (HLC)
  • Middle States Commission on Higher Education (MSCHE)
  • Western Association of Schools and Colleges (WASC)
  • Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities (NWCCU)
  • New England Association of Schools and Colleges (NEASC)
  • Commission on Colleges for the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS)

In addition, there are two relevant programmatic accreditation bodies to consider:

  • Academy of Criminal Justice Sciences (ACJS): accrediting agency for criminal justice degree programs.
  • Forensic Science Education Programs Accreditation Commission (FEPAC): is the leading accrediting agency for forensic science bachelor and master’s degree education programs in natural sciences such as forensic biology or forensic chemistry, or computer science such as digital forensics and cybersecurity.

One final consideration with regards to online educational programs is the issue of state authorization status. Some online college and university programs are limited to the types of students they can accept from out-of-state. This information is typically available on program websites or can be ascertained from talking with academic advisors or program coordinators.

Writer

Rachel Drummond

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: @oregon_yogini).