For those whose hobbies include studying the periodic table of the elements and watching crime scene dramas, a career in forensic chemistry is an obvious choice.
A two-in-one degree program that straddles the disciplines of chemistry and criminal justice, forensic chemistry can be best described as laboratory detective work. Using the scientific method to examine evidence in a laboratory, forensic chemists play a critical role in the criminal justice system by ruling out or confirming a crime was committed. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) shows that most forensic technicians—a closely related occupation—work in local or state government laboratories analyzing evidence and collecting evidence at crime scenes.
Those interested in this stimulating career field can expect lucrative career growth in the coming decade. The BLS shows that job openings for forensic science technicians are expected to swell 14 percent between 2018 and 2028—much faster than the anticipated national average for all occupations at 5 percent (BLS 2019). What’s more, an estimated 2,400 new positions will be created in that decade.
When considering forensic chemistry programs, it pays to attend programs with a reputation for excellence. Students researching forensic science programs are encouraged to find a program accredited by the Forensic Science Education Programs Accreditation Commission (FEPAC). Students attending FEPAC-accredited forensic science programs can be assured that curriculum and teaching standards are of the highest educational quality by an independent peer-reviewed committee.
To this point, Kristen Malloy chose to study forensic chemistry at the University of Mississippi for its FEPAC accreditation: “With the addition of only seven credit hours, you have the opportunity to have your degree certified by the American Chemical Society. These two facts prove that the education you will receive at Ole Miss while studying Forensic Chemistry will fully prepare you for any career in forensic science.”
Read on to learn more about forensic chemistry programs.
The George Washington University (GWU) in Washington D.C. offers an on-campus combined bachelor’s and master’s of science degree program in forensic chemistry (BS/MFS), and a graduate certificate in forensic investigation. The 37-credit MFS in forensic chemistry is accredited by FEPAC and provides students with comprehensive background knowledge of forensic science disciplines including analytical methods, procedures, equipment, identification, investigation, analysis, and reporting. Specifically, the forensic chemistry component prepares students to analyze drug chemistry and use trace evidence analysis to draw conclusions based on samples of hair and fibers, glass and soil, ignitable liquids, and explosive residues.
Courses include fundamentals of forensic science, trace evidence analysis, and forensic chemistry. GWU has the world’s largest group of forensic chemists at a university and the department features new laboratory equipment including mass spectrometers to support the study of forensic chemistry and toxicology.
Florida International University (FIU) offers an undergraduate certificate in forensic science, as well as bachelor of arts and bachelor of science programs with concentration options in forensic chemistry, which are all accredited by FEPAC.
The certificate program, designed to prepare students for laboratory careers in forensic science, includes didactic coursework and hands-on training. Courses include chemistry and analysis of drugs, forensic chemistry with a laboratory component, and forensic science internship. The BA program is designed to prepare students for careers in forensic science and the concentration in forensic chemistry is for students wanting a comprehensive background in chemistry and an opportunity to apply chemistry knowledge to forensic science.
The BS in chemistry program can be completed on its own or combined with an MS of forensic science, allowing students to complete two degrees at an accelerated pace. Students have the option of earning a BS in chemistry with honors by meeting certain GPA standards and completing an honors thesis research project which can focus on forensic chemistry.
West Virginia University (WVU) offers three on-campus forensic science degree programs, including a bachelor of science in forensic chemistry. This FEPAC-accredited program prepares forensic chemists to evaluate the chemical evidence left behind at a crime scene. A unique feature of WVU is the opportunity for first-year students to live on campus in a forensic living-learning community where they can regularly engage with other forensics students, faculty, and events.
Required courses include the fundamentals of chemistry, forensic chemical analysis, and analysis of seized drugs. Graduates from this program go on to work in forensic laboratories where they work to analyze evidence left behind by drug chemical residue, arson and explosives, poisons, and trace evidence from explosives or firearms.
Ohio University offers a 30-credit online master of science (MS) in chemistry. While this degree program is not FEPAC-accredited, the Ohio University Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry offers an on-campus FEPAC-accredited BS in forensic chemistry and the master’s level courses are taught by on-campus teaching faculty.
Designed for science teachers and professionals who want to learn interdisciplinary knowledge to further their careers, students in this program can finish in as few as three semesters and take courses in physical chemistry, advanced analytical chemistry, basic biochemistry, chemical literature, and modern inorganic chemistry.
This program does not require GRE scores for admission nor a final thesis project. In order to graduate, students must complete a research literature review article on a topic assigned by a faculty advisor. Ohio University is accredited by the Higher Learning Commission.
The University of Florida College of Pharmacy offers two fully-online degree programs in forensic science: a graduate certificate in forensic DNA and serology and a master’s degree in forensic drug chemistry.
The 15-credit online graduate certificate is designed for working professionals and gives graduates a strong foundation in serology, nucleic acid chemistry, and theory of DNA analysis, blood spatter analysis, and the interpretation of biological evidence. The certificate program can be completed in as little as 12 months.
As for the online master’s degree programs, students can choose from one of four specializations, including the MS in forensic drug chemistry. In this 32-credit program, students learn analytical techniques, drug pharmacology, forensic drug chemistry, and organic synthesis. What makes this program unique is the modules on expert testimony and quality assurance/quality control (QA/QC) procedures. The College of Pharmacy is accredited by the Accreditation Council for Pharmacy Education.
The University of Massachusetts Lowell (UMass) offers a fully online graduate certificate in forensic criminology. This course is recommended for professionals working in criminal justice, nursing, public health, social work, and legal studies. While this program doesn’t include courses in forensic chemistry, working forensic chemists who want to enhance their science education with criminal justice can choose four courses including criminal profiling, forensic psychology, substance abuse, and victimology.
This program demands academic excellence; students must complete this program within five years of enrolling and earn a minimum 3.0 GPA. Students can expect to spend 6-10 hours per week for each course. UMass Lowell is accredited by the New England Commission of Higher Education.
Professional state licensure requirements for forensic scientists vary by state. To stay current and have professional abilities verified, some forensic scientists choose to pursue certification.
First, forensic scientists are advised to inquire about their local city and state laws in the area where they wish to work. In addition to local and state law enforcement offices, the Forensic Specialties Accreditation Board (FSAB) recognizes ten certifying organizations related to forensic science.
For example, the American Board of Criminalistics (ABC) has various five-year professional certifications in areas that relate to forensic chemistry: comprehensive criminalistics, molecular biology, drug analysis, fire debris, hair & fiber, and paint & polymer. Applicants seeking these credentials typically need a bachelor’s degree, two years of experience in criminalistics, and a passing score on a comprehensive examination.
Other FSAB-recognized certifying organizations related to forensic chemistry are:
Regardless of the discipline, when researching educational programs, students are strongly advised to seek out accredited programs and institutions. Accreditation is a process of peer-reviewed quality assurance where programs and institutions are held to the highest standards of educational quality. Graduates, employers, and anyone who relies on the services of professionals benefits from knowing that an educational program or institution has met industry professional standards. Accreditation is given to educational programs, as well as entire institutions.
As previously mentioned, forensic science programs are accredited by the Forensic Science Education Programs Accreditation Commission (FEPAC). As of July 2020, there were more than 50 bachelor’s, master’s, and doctorate programs in forensic science accredited by FEPAC, many of which were mentioned above.
Specific to forensic chemistry, as mentioned above, the American Chemical Society (ACS) approves bachelor’s degree programs. This process assures prospective students that a program curriculum and facilities have met the highest standards for chemistry education. As well, ACS-approved bachelor’s degrees could give forensic chemists a competitive edge when searching for positions and negotiating salaries.
In addition to programmatic accreditation, institutional accreditation is offered by one of six regional authorities recognized by the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA):
Lastly, students seeking enrollment in online forensic chemistry programs are advised to take the additional step to verify their school’s “state authorization” status. This dictates whether or not an institution based in one state can provide distance-based education to residents of another state. This information is typically available on program websites or by speaking to an admissions specialist.
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).