Pursuing a degree in forensic science can open up an abundance of career opportunities for people interested in the intersection between the legal and scientific fields. With extensive training in a laboratory environment, some of the job possibilities for forensic science graduates include becoming a medical examiner; crime lab analyst; toxicologist; forensic biologist; forensic chemist; crime scene examiner; forensic engineer; forensic odontologist; criminal profiler; or forensic science technician.
According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS May 2019), forensic science technicians—one of many possible careers open to professionals in this field—make an average annual salary of $63,170. Openings for this group are projected to grow 14 percent between 2018 and 2028, which is much faster than the 5 percent growth expected for all occupations, plus the forensic science degree is versatile and can open up opportunities in a diversity of fields.
So what kind of skills can one expect to learn in a forensic science program? According to the American Academy of Forensic Scientists (AAFS), some of the competencies achieved in these programs include how to:
Forensic scientists work in range of environments, some of which students may be exposed to during university internships, real-world research projects, and other projects organized through forensic science schools. Forensic scientists may work in hospitals, morgues, labs, courts, police departments, government agencies, universities, research centers, and private companies. Employment opportunities for forensic scientists are also propelled by technological advances. New scientific methods and instrumentation are continually emerging (e.g., DNA analyses) for the collection and examination of criminal evidence, creating backlogs in forensic laboratories.
Although forensic scientists and technicians typically need at least a bachelor’s degree in biology, chemistry, or forensic science, there are exceptions. Read on below to discover what to expect from a forensic science school, as well as information on degree levels, curricula, professional certification, and program accreditation.
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Although there are a range of forensic science programs and degrees—including associate’s, bachelor’s, master’s, doctoral, and certificate options—this section focuses on programs accredited by the Forensic Science Education Programs Commission (FEPAC). For more information on the benefits of program accreditation, please reference the last section of this article. Please note that some of these programs are offered through other academic departments (e.g., chemistry, biology, etc) and offer forensic science as an emphasis or concentration.
Featured FEPAC-Accredited Forensic Science Programs
Buffalo State University of New York (SUNY Buffalo) provides a rigorous bachelor of science (BS) in forensic chemistry combining a solid, comprehensive foundation in forensics fundamentals with empirical research in real world laboratories. Established in 1971, Buffalo’s program imparts the hands-on applications of biology, chemistry, and physics to give its graduates sensitivity to the intricacies of scientific research and inquiry. With classes such as chemistry & criminalistics, scientific criminal evidence analysis, and optimal microscopy, Buffalo prepares its students to scientifically examine and test evidence in an ethical and evidence-based manner. Finally, students are given the opportunity to seamlessly integrate the lessons from the classroom into internships at local forensic labs around Erie County.
Arcadia University in Glendside, Pennsylvania offers an interdisciplinary master of science (MS) in forensic science program boasting small class sizes; excellent student performance on the American Board of Criminalistics (ABC) Forensic Science Assessment Test (FSAT, discussed below); and structured preparation for careers in a variety of scientific subfields. In addition to courses such as criminal law & ethics; genetics; and general principles of pharmacology, Arcadia students are guaranteed an internship at the Center for Forensic Science Research & Education Preparation.
The University of California, Davis (UCD) provides a master of science (MS) in forensic science with a strong emphasis on research and publication. Students in this two-year program study DNA identification analysis, as well as the collection, examination, analysis, documentation, and reporting of evidence. This program was established in 2002 and has produced some noteworthy forensic professionals who have published in peer-reviewed scientific journals and given presentations to renowned forensics organizations.
The two distinct tracks—DNA and criminalistics—offer instruction in molecular techniques, genetics, and bioinformatics. Forensic DNA analysis skills are added to the former, and advanced spectroscopy, analysis of toxicants, and microscopy microanalytical methods to the latter. Students in this program can opt to specialize in one or both tracks.
Cedar Crest College of Allentown, Pennsylvania is one of the few schools in the nation to have multiple FEPAC-accredited programs: the bachelor of science (BS) in forensic science, the BS in genetic engineering with the forensic science concentration, and the master of science (MS) in forensic science. Cedar Crest also has three full-time faculty members who are certified by the American Board of Criminalistics.
Since 2015, 50 percent of the graduates from the undergraduate program have pursued advanced degrees and 95 percent of graduates from the master’s program are employed in forensic science positions. This program features a one-of-a-kind curriculum, extensive research and presentation opportunities for students, and impressive facilities with state-of-the-art tools like mass spectrometry tandem technology.
The master’s program offers instruction in analytical spectroscopy, forensic science administration, and separations chemistry. Cedar Crest is committed to educating women scientists and is the only women’s college to offer degrees in forensic science, chemistry, biochemistry, and genetic engineering.
Here is a breakdown of what to expect from forensic science programs of all levels in terms of application requirements and curricula, as well as examples at each level:
In addition to the vast array of online forensics programs in forensic science, crime scene investigation (CSI), forensic accounting, and other subfields, here are two additional online forensic science programs to consider:
Brandman University of Irvine, California offers an online bachelor of arts (BA) in criminal justice with a concentration in forensics. Preparing its students for careers in forensic science, Brandman boasts demanding coursework in applied criminology, forensic studies, and forensic documentation. Additionally, the nationally renowned faculty imparts to students a grasp of forensic science fundamentals such as the management & documentation of evidence, exercising high ethical principles, and complex problem-solving.
The University of Florida (UF) provides a number of online forensics programs, including a master of science (MS) in forensic science through its College of Pharmacy. This program won the Award of Excellence in Distance Education. Designed for working professionals in crime labs and other relevant settings, UF’s two-year master’s program has units in forensic anthropology, entomology, biological evidence, blood spatter, and forensic medicine. Please note that UF has three additional master’s program concentrations: forensic DNA & serology, forensic drug chemistry, and forensic toxicology. Finally, UF also has several 15-credit, online graduate certificates in the following concentrations: forensic drug chemistry, forensic death investigation, forensic DNA & serology, and forensic toxicology.
Curry College of Milton, Massachusetts provides a bachelor of science (BS) degree in applied forensic science and also offers a minor. It aims to impart skills in critical thinking, composition, investigative methods, and scientific research. Core courses include introductory chemistry, forensic photography, independent research in forensic science, physics, genetics, and an introduction to criminal justice, among other courses. While this program is not 100 percent online (and several courses require in-person labs), Curry College offers various classes in a distance-based format every term.
Although having a national certification may not be necessary in order to work in the field of forensic science, some professionals choose to pursue one of the many certifications available through certification organizations accredited by the Forensic Specialties Accreditation Board (FSAB).
For example, the American Board of Criminalistics (ABC) offers several five-year professional certifications in six unique areas: comprehensive criminalistics, drug analysis, fire debris, hair & fiber, paint & polymer, and molecular biology. Prerequisites for these certification exams include having a bachelor’s degree in the natural sciences and at least two years of experience working in criminalistics. Additionally, ABC provides the 220-question Forensic Science Assessment Test (FSAT) which gauges undergraduate students’ knowledge in areas such as questioned documents, firearms & toolmarks, ethics & the law, and other relevant subjects. Results from this exam can illustrate a student’s abilities to prospective employers.
Other FASB-accredited professional certification agencies relevant to forensic scientists are listed here:
Those interested in forensic science colleges and universities are encouraged to check their school’s accreditation status prior to enrolling. This process can serve as an indicator of programmatic or institutional excellence for prospective students.
As mentioned above, the Forensic Science Education Programs Accreditation Commission (FEPAC) is the preeminent programmatic accrediting agency for forensic science programs. This organization takes into consideration factors such as faculty support, student services, a program’s mission statement, and school finances in order to award this distinction.
There are also a number of institutional accrediting agencies which examine universities as a whole. There are six common, regional accrediting organizations which are recognized by the US Department of Education:
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).