The Golden State—home to towering redwoods, crystalline sand beaches, and bustling cities—offers aspiring forensic scientists a uniquely favorable educational and professional landscape. The Forensic Science Education Programs Accreditation Commission (FEPAC) accredits relatively few programs nationally, including only those in forensic science, so this does not necessarily indicate California program quality. As of June 2023, there are no FEPAC-accredited programs in the state.
That said, the job prospects for forensic scientists in California (CA) are promising. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), California is the top-employing state for forensic science technicians at 2,600 (BLS May 2022). This figure will likely swell in the coming years, with openings for this profession expected to grow 11 percent nationally between 2021 and 2031 (BLS 2022).
Read below to discover more about becoming a forensic science specialist in California, including occupational demand, featured programs, and accreditation information.
While there are several paths to becoming a forensic scientist or technician in CA, many pursue a four-year degree in the natural sciences before joining the profession. Here is one possible route to joining this growing career:
Eureka! California is the most populous state in the U.S. and offers an abundance of employment options for graduates in forensic science.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), California is a top-employing state for forensic science technicians at 2,670 total (BLS May 2022). So what are the top regions? Here is a breakdown of the municipalities with the most forensic science technicians. Note that there is some overlap due to the sprawling nature of some California metro areas:
The Bureau of Labor Statistics (May 2022) anticipated that openings for forensic science technicians across the nation will swell 11 percent between 2021 and 2031, much faster than the growth rate projected for all occupations during that time period (five percent). Currently, there are 17,590 of these professionals nationwide, not including those in related occupations, and they make an average annual salary of $69,260.
The outlook is even brighter for residents of California. Projections Central (2023) found that demand for forensic science technicians in California specifically is expected to grow 15.4 percent between 2020 and 2030.
The BLS (2022) found that 89 percent of forensic science technicians work for the government, with those working variously in crime laboratories, morgues, police departments, or medical examiner offices. Depending on one’s specialty, there is a wealth of other places of employment in forensic science.
Degrees in forensic sciences can be versatile and these graduates in California may go into a variety of careers such as:
The education, training, and experiential requirements may vary for these professionals. The American Academy of Forensic Sciences (AAFS) provides a career resource list with professional associations, networking opportunities, and organizations across a range of disciplines in forensic science.
With the healthy job outlook for forensic science technicians in California, many professional organizations, resources, and networking opportunities exist. For example, the California Association of Criminalists (CAC) features events, training courses, biannual seminars, study groups, salary surveys, job listings, and various awards.
Another organization, the California Association of Crime Laboratory Directors, provides similar offerings with its resource lists, job posts, conferences, and other items of interest to these leaders in the industry.
Finally, the ForensicsColleges blog offers a number of in-depth career articles for graduates in forensic science in its How to Become series, with step-by-step instructions to becoming profilers, crime scene technicians, forensic psychologists, forensic accountants, detectives, and more.
In addition to a strong occupational outlook, California boasts salaries that are higher than the national average. According to the Bureau for Labor Statistics (May 2021), the 17,020 forensic science technicians across the nation earned an average annual salary of $66,850. In comparison, the 2,670 forensic science technicians working in California earned $90,300 per year (second highest in the nation).
In more detailed terms, here is a breakdown of the salary percentiles among all forensic science technicians in the country compared with those in CA (BLS May 2022):
|Number of Forensic Science Technicians Employed
|Annual Mean Wage
The national figures were slightly different according to another source of data, PayScale (June 2023), which relies on self-reported salaries. Among the forensic science technicians reporting their annual salaries, Payscale found these percentiles for the US:
It is important to note that while the wages in CA are higher than national wages, so too is the cost of living. For illustration, the Missouri Economic Research and Information Center (MERIC 2023) reported that CA is the fourth most expensive state in the country, particularly for housing. The state comes in behind only Hawaii, the District of Columbia, and Massachusetts. A high cost of living means that even higher than average salaries will not go as far as they would in other states, so prospective forensic science technicians should keep that in mind while evaluating the state’s salary data.
Not only does California boast one of the healthiest job outlooks of any state, but it also offers a wealth of forensic science programs across a range of levels and subfields. Although none of the California programs are accredited by FEPAC, as of 2023, they remain in good standing with their institutional accrediting agencies:
The University of California at Davis, with its campus located close to the Bay Area, hosts a renowned master of science (MS) program in forensic science at its scenic campus. This graduate program prepares students for forensic science careers and offers two academic emphasis areas: forensic criminalistics and forensic DNA. The DNA track focuses on DNA and molecular biology courses, while the criminalistics track emphasizes instrumental analysis and chemistry.
This 54-credit program’s core curriculum includes courses such as forensic science fundamentals; homicide crime scene investigation; and forensic case reports. The forensic DNA track includes courses such as molecular techniques; forensic DNA Analysis; and population genetics. Courses in the criminalistics track include forensic statistics; advanced spectroscopy; and analysis of toxicants.
National University offers a master of forensic sciences program that studies the components of death investigation, basic human anatomy, identification of unknown dead persons, and analysis of trauma and disease. Students will learn how to interact professionally with forensic investigators and pathologists and apply scientific methods for resolving legal problems. This MFS program offers two specialization areas: Criminalistics and Investigation.
Applicants must hold an undergraduate degree in laboratory science for the criminalistics specialization. The investigation specialization does not have a specific major requirement for the undergraduate degree.
Made up of 54 credits, the program includes core courses such as forensic pathology; forensic anthropology; forensic photography; crime scene investigation; fingerprint analysis; and digital evidence.
Courses in criminalistics include trace evidence; advanced forensic toxicology; forensic serology and DNA; and advanced forensic DNA analysis. The specialization in investigation includes courses such as advanced criminalistics; forensic psychology; law and criminal procedure; and major case investigation.
San Jose State University’s Department of Justice Studies has a bachelor of science (BS) program in forensic science with distinct concentrations in chemistry, digital evidence, or biology. The interdisciplinary courses are designed not only to give students a working knowledge of the field through hands-on, supervised instruction but also to provide students with an awareness of the intersection of law, ethics, and scientific investigation in criminalistics.
As part of this 120-credit program, students will delve into topics such as crime scene investigation; forensic photography; human anatomy and physiology; organic chemistry; pathophysiology; forensic entomology; principles of biochemistry; instrumental analysis; physical evidence analysis; body fluid and DNA analysis; and toxicology.
California State University at Stanislaus is located just east of the Bay Area. Its bachelor of arts (BA) program in criminal justice provides a broad, multidisciplinary exploration of the complex criminal justice system. The program incorporates techniques and knowledge from various academic and applied disciplines. In addition to concentrations in corrections, law enforcement, juvenile justice, and criminal legal studies, the program also offers a concentration in forensic science.
The program includes core courses such as causes of crime; criminal procedures; juvenile justice; hate crimes; immigration and the American criminal justice system; sex crimes and gender issues in criminal justice; and race, ethnicity, and the criminal justice system. The forensic science concentration includes courses such as bodies of evidence; forensic DNA technology; criminalistics; scientific evidence and the law; digital photography; and crime intelligence and analysis, among others.
Southwestern College offers an associate of science degree in forensic studies ideal for criminal justice students who have a particular interest in evidence collection. Preparing students for positions such as forensic lab technicians and evidence technicians, the program provides students with the ability to observe objectively and collect data and facts to make informed judgments.
Some topics students will delve into include digital forensic photography; evidence technology; principles of investigation; legal aspects of evidence; concepts of criminal law; written communication in the administration of justice; biological anthropology; and an introduction to the administration of justice.
Southwestern College also offers a certificate of achievement in forensic studies.
East Los Angeles College’s Administration of Justice Department offers an associate of science degree in forensic crime scene investigation. This program is particularly ideal for candidates interested in pursuing careers such as forensic specialists, crime scene investigators, or identification technicians, or those who wish to continue on to bachelor’s degree programs in forensic science.
The program’s faculty includes forensic specialists, ballistics and weapon experts, fingerprint experts, and experts in the forensic science field through local agencies.
The AAS degree program offers a hands-on learning approach to topics such as crime scene diagramming, crime scene investigation, evidence collection, photography, and advanced techniques in crime scene investigations such as dusting and lifting fingerprints, blood spatter analysis, weapon identification and gunshot residue testing, and chemical enhancement of fingerprints.
Notably, East Los Angeles College also offers a certificate of achievement in forensic crime scene investigation that comprises 17 credits. It includes courses such as ethics in forensic science; directed studies in the administration of justice; offender profiling in criminal investigations; criminalistics; and criminal investigation.
The California Forensic Science Institute (CFSI) at California State University in Los Angeles has an interdisciplinary master of science (MS) in criminalistics program. Providing discipline-specific knowledge for those who wish to enter the criminalistics field, this master’s program emphasizes current scientific and analytical methods.
With coursework in areas such as crime scene reconstruction; forensic microscopy; forensic pathology; forensic toxicology and controlled substances analysis; courtroom and legal issues in criminalistics; forensic anthropology; and trace evidence analysis, students in this 41-credit program are prepared to conduct original research for their graduate thesis and take the Forensic Science Assessment Test (FSAT) offered by the American Board of Criminalistics (ABC).
Notably, the California State University in Los Angeles also offers a forensic specialist certificate program combining specialist training in crime scene investigation and friction ridge examination. This program requires a total of 300 hours. Topics include an introduction to friction ridge analysis; friction ridge examination process; basic photography; general crime scene photography & procedure; specialized impression photography and recovery; fingerprint processing & development; and mock crime scene practicums and courtroom testimony.
There are also several training and education facilities outside of traditional university systems. For example, the California Criminalistics Institute (CCI) of the California Department of Justice enrolls more than 1000 students per year for training in digital evidence, toxicology, and other areas. Designed to keep forensic science professionals abreast of discoveries and innovative methods, these courses are open to city, country, state, and federal employees in the field.
In addition to the national hybrid and online forensic science programs, some California schools have catered their specialty certificate coursework to meet the needs of distance-based students:
California State University at Fullerton offers a broad-based certificate program in crime and intelligence analysis, ideal for newcomers to the discipline or working professionals looking to learn the fundamentals.
With coursework in the basic elements of criminal intelligence; criminal intelligence analysis; crime analysis applications; criminal investigative analysis; and computer applications for crime and intelligence analysis, this training program can help qualify people for forensic science assignments within their occupation.
California State University at Fullerton also offers a fully online computer forensics certificate program. Ideal for IT specialists, network administrators, systems analysts, and computer forensics professionals seeking career development, this 92-hour program can be completed in just nine to ten months.
The University of California at Riverside has an online forensic nursing certificate program that teaches students how to summarize medical records for legal proceedings and act as medical consultants in various legal settings. Graduates of this program may go on to work in medical examiners’ offices, law enforcement agencies, social service agencies, or specialized hospital units.
This 16-credit program includes courses such as forensic approaches to blunt force and firearm injuries; occupational considerations in forensic nursing; forensic photography in the healthcare setting; sworn testimony for the healthcare specialist; introduction to forensic pathology for healthcare specialists; and forensic nurse death investigation.
As mentioned above, there are no forensics colleges in California accredited by the Forensic Science Education Program Accreditation Commission. However, the schools featured here hold institutional or regional accreditation from organizations recognized by the US Department of Education’s Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA).
In addition to discipline-specific program approval, prospective students should look for institutions that have been accredited. California’s most common accrediting agency is the Western Association of Schools and Colleges (WASC), including its Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges (ACCJC).
Finally, there are some specialty-based individual certification agencies for forensic science professionals in California that have achieved academic and experiential milestones in their careers. The prerequisites for certification vary by discipline but generally involve a competitive application process and a test of competence.
The Forensic Specialties Accreditation Board (FSAB) provides a list of ten organizations approved to award professional certification. Some of these specialties include:
|The Chicago School of Professional Psychology at Los Angeles
|Alliant International University-San Diego
|California Baptist University
|East Los Angeles College
|Riverside City College
|University of California-Davis (UC Davis)
|San Jose State University
|The Chicago School of Professional Psychology at Irvine
|California State University-Los Angeles
|Long Beach City College
|Fresno City College
|Holy Names University
|City College of San Francisco
|Diablo Valley College
School "total forensics grads" data provided by IPEDS (2018) for the 2016-2017 school year, and includes all certificates and degrees awarded for the following programs: Criminalistics and Criminal Science, Forensic Chemistry, Forensic Science and Technology, Forensic Psychology, Cyber/Computer Forensics, and Financial Forensics and Fraud Investigation.
Jocelyn Blore is the chief content officer of Sechel Ventures and the co-author of the Women Breaking Barriers series. She graduated summa cum laude from UC Berkeley and traveled the world for five years. She also worked as an addiction specialist for two years in San Francisco. She’s interested in how culture shapes individuals and systems within societies—one of the many themes she writes about in her blog, Blore’s Razor (Instagram: @bloresrazor). She has served as managing editor for several healthcare websites since 2015.