Forensic science and crime scene investigation (CSI) have become popular fields of study in the United States. Several major universities offer degree programs that combine science with criminalistics.
The programs featured here are accredited either by the Forensic Science Education Programs Accreditation Committee (FEPAC) or are hosted at an institution of higher education with regional or national accreditation. This is just a sampling of the schools covered at length in the detailed state pages below:
Texas A&M University in College Station, Texas offers a bachelor’s degree program in forensic and investigative sciences. This program teaches students to apply life sciences to legal and corporate disciplines such as crime scene investigation. Students in this FEPAC-accredited program learn hands-on skills such as collecting evidence in the form of human hair or clothing fibers and examining them at the molecular level. Through learning how to use specific types of microscopy techniques, students simulate real-world tasks to practice delivering accurate forensic analysis.
Pennsylvania State University’s Eberly College of Science in University Park, Pennsylvania offers undergraduate and graduate degree programs in forensic science. These two FEPAC-accredited programs provide a strong criminalistics education rooted in science and allow students at the undergraduate level to choose from forensic biology or forensic chemistry. Graduate-level coursework allows students to further their studies with individualized options to research and practice advanced hands-on training at crime scenes and laboratories.
Indiana University and Purdue University (IUPUI) in Indianapolis, Indiana offers undergraduate and graduate degrees in forensic and investigative science. Students in these programs learn to assess biological and physical evidence in some of the nation’s leading laboratories. Located in downtown Indianapolis, the hub of Indiana’s state and local crime labs, state police, and other law enforcement agencies, students in these programs gain hands-on experience through internships at state-of-the-art crime laboratories.
Columbia College in Columbia, Missouri has an extensive track record of helping local law enforcement solve murder cases. Offering a bachelor’s degree and a minor in forensic science, this program is one of the most well-respected in the midwest and allows its students to specialize in areas such as physical evidence, DNA, trace evidence, toxicology, and more.
John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City offers science-based undergraduate forensic science degrees and the opportunity to specialize in one of three tracks: criminalistics, molecular biology, or toxicology. Graduates from this program are prepared for work in forensic science laboratories or advanced degrees in research or practical applications of forensic science. Students accepted to this program take a prescribed schedule of classes and courses related to their chosen specialization in their third or fourth year of studies.
Check out any of the state guides below to learn about how to become a forensics professional, including information on local accredited degree programs and certification.
Most entry-level forensic science positions require a minimum of a bachelor’s degree. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports that forensic science technicians—one career possibility among many—enter the profession with a bachelor’s degree in biology, chemistry, biology, or forensic science and that on-the-job training is required for professionals investigating crime scenes and working in forensic science laboratories (BLS 2020).
So what kind of coursework is to be expected in a forensic science bachelor’s degree program?
Each school has unique course sequencing and internship opportunities, but typically forensic science programs include extensive coursework in biology, chemistry, mathematics, criminal justice, and experiential learning. Specifically, they can include:
Experiential learning courses often include internships and can be focused on job-shadowing, laboratory research, real-world crime investigation, or related to an area of specialization such as toxicology (studying poisons) or molecular biology (analyzing evidence with specialized microscopes).
It is worth mentioning that the experiential learning portion of a forensic science degree program often includes an internship at state, local, and federal law enforcement crime laboratories. To gain professional access to professional learning opportunities in forensic science, students may be expected to complete a background check or drug test prior to starting an internship.
Fortunately for budding forensic scientists who are watching their wallets, a number of economical community colleges offer certificates and degrees in forensics.
Virginia's Community Colleges offers an associate degree in forensic science and a certificate in cybercrime investigation. The degree and certificate programs are offered at different satellite campuses of Virginia’s Community College system. The certificate requires 30 semester-hours and a minimum of 15 percent of the coursework in general education including one three-credit course in English. The associate degree is designed to be transferred towards a four-year degree.
Pima Community College offers a bioscience laboratory technology certificate program. Students in this program learn to perform routine bioscience lab procedures such as working safely with biological hazards, documentation, scientific measurement, spectrophotometry, and critical thinking skills for problem-solving.
Upon completion of this program, graduates are able to assist biological and medical scientists in laboratories and private practice and be able to conduct laboratory tests and experiments. Courses in this program can be applied toward an associate of science degree.
Nashville State Community College offers a police science associate’s degree with an emphasis on crime scene investigation or police administration. Graduates from this program are able to apply critical thinking skills, conduct criminal investigations, and apply criminal legal procedures in investigative settings. Students can enter into law enforcement positions or apply for a four-year bachelor’s degree program in forensic science.
Required courses include college algebra, introduction to criminal justice, basic crime scene investigation, bloodstain evidence, and evidence photography.
Because laboratory forensic science and crime scene investigation rely so heavily on hands-on experience, it is difficult to find 100 percent online programs. Required courses like DNA testing, serology, and sample analysis must be completed in a laboratory. For this reason, most of the online criminal investigation and forensics degrees are actually hybrid programs, meaning many of the content courses are offered online, but the laboratory courses must be completed on campus.
Still, these programs are often a perfect choice for students who are already working or are unable to travel often to attend school. Several hybrid forensic science programs take time constraints into account and provide compressed lab experiences over the course of a few weekends or months.
There are a few forensic science schools that offer 100 percent online programs, such as the master’s degree in forensic science from the University of Florida. This institution offers four specializations in its 32-credit graduate program and students can choose to specialize in forensic science, forensic DNA and serology, forensic toxicology, and forensic drug chemistry.
Students and instructors interact through email, discussion boards, and live chat sessions. Fully online programs in forensic science are designed to provide flexibility to busy professionals and the courses in this program are organized into modules. Lecture content is supplemented with visuals, case studies, and step-by-step electronic access instructions.
Overall, prospective students are advised to carefully research laboratory course requirements before enrolling in an online program to learn if these classes are offered completely online or in a hybrid (online and on-campus) format. Some online courses are designed for working professionals with laboratory experience while others cover a theoretical framework of laboratory coursework. An example of a required theoretical laboratory course in an online program is the laboratory quality control and assurance (QA/QC) course required by the graduate program at the University of Florida.
To learn more about distance-based programs in crime scene investigation, criminal justice, and various fields of forensics, check out the detailed guide to online forensics degrees.