Pursuing a degree in forensic science can open up an abundance of career opportunities for people interested in the intersection between the legal and medical fields. In fact, US News & World Report (2013) included forensic science among its list of “11 hot college majors which lead to jobs.” 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 2014), forensic science technicians—one of many possible careers open to professionals in this field—make an average annual salary of $52,840. Although openings for this group are projected to grow only 6 percent between 2012 and 2022—somewhat slower than the 11 percent growth expected for all occupations—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—such as 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.
Here are four featured FEPAC-accredited forensic science programs:
Buffalo State of New York (SUNY) 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 of 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 which gives students training in criminalistics and DNA identification analysis, as well as the collection, examination, analysis, documentation, and reporting of evidence. This program—established in 2002—has produced some amazing forensic professionals, including 59 students (and staff) published in peer-reviewed scientific journals and 47 students who have given presentations to renowned forensics organizations. Additionally, 80 percent of all graduates in 2014 were employed in crime labs or similar work environments. The curricula has two distinct tracks—DNA and criminalistics—offering instruction in molecular techniques, genetics & bioinformatics, and forensic DNA analyses in the former, and advanced spectroscopy, analysis of toxicants, and microscopy microanalytical methods in the latter.
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 has nationally recognized professors who regularly publish in peer-reviewed journals, as well as a one-of-a-kind curriculum, extensive research and presentation opportunities for students, and impressive facilities with state-of-the-art tools (e.g., mass spectrometry [tandem] technology). The master’s program offers instruction in analytical spectroscopy, forensic science administration, and separations chemistry. Finally, since 2007, over 90 percent of master’s program graduates have secured employment in forensic science, crime scene investigation, and closely related fields.
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.
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 is 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:
Barry is Managing Editor of ForensicsColleges.com, operated by educational web publisher Sechel Ventures Partners LLC, which he co-founded. Barry was previously VP for a financial software company, and currently sits on the board of a K-8 school and lives with his wife and daughters in the San Francisco Bay Area.