The Volunteer State boasts a thriving employment and academic environment for aspiring forensic science professionals, particularly in cities with larger populations such as Nashville and Knoxville. Students may choose to take different paths toward this emerging career with each one involving a commitment to academics as well as hands-on training.
To assist these workers with their invaluable services to help solve crimes, there is a wealth of academic training programs and vibrant professional associations. For illustration, the American Academy of Forensic Sciences (AAFS) offers information on national employment opportunities, fellowships, and various specializations within the field. The Middle Tennessee Forensic Science Society, an affiliate of Middle Tennessee State University, coordinates research projects, organizes lectures with leading forensics experts, and offers opportunities for professional networking.
O*NET (2023)—a data group sponsored by the US Department of Labor—reports that forensic science techs must be trained in a variety of skills including collecting, analyzing, and carefully documenting evidence from crime scenes; liaising with medical, and law enforcement, and other professionals; performing laboratory tests on multiple types of evidence; and testifying as expert witnesses in court. It’s important to note that there are several specialties in forensics such as criminalistics, toxicology, forensic accounting, cybercrime, DNA analyses, document examination, arson investigations, ballistics, and other subfields.
One of the state’s top employers in the forensics discipline is the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation, which has labs in Nashville, Memphis, and Knoxville where employees reconstruct crime scenes, analyze various types of evidence, serve as expert witnesses in trials, and establish links between criminal perpetrators and victims. The TBI has services for varied subfields of forensics including forensic chemistry, toxicology, evidence receiving, latent print analysis, firearms & tool mark identification, microanalysis, breath alcohol calibration, composite imagery, and forensic biology.
This guide explores the various forensic science programs in Tennessee in addition to the occupational demand and credentialing options in the state.
For those interested in this strange and amusing world of forensics, there are various paths to becoming a forensic scientist in Tennessee. Some professionals may start at police academies or law enforcement. Others might jump straight into a college program for training. There also are several ways to prepare as forensic scientists specializing in evidence collection, analysis, and event reconstruction.
According to CareerOneStop (2023), 31 percent of these technicians in Tennessee hold a bachelor’s degree. Given the discipline’s emphasis on the scientific method and fields such as biology and chemistry, it’s no surprise that many crime-solving professionals hold at least bachelor’s degrees.
Here is one common path to becoming a forensic scientist in Tennessee:
Following the steps above, aspiring forensic scientists in Tennessee may seek jobs in various contexts, such as psychiatric hospitals, police crime labs, and government at all levels, to name a few.
In Tennessee and nationally, forensics is a high-growth and relatively high-paying occupation. The BLS (2022) projected an 11 percent explosion in job openings for forensic science technicians between 2021 and 2031, much more robust than the average growth expected across all occupations during that time period (5 percent). And this expected addition of 2,000 positions nationally is only one career possibility for people trained in forensic science.
The outlook is even brighter for residents of TN. Projections Central (2023) found that demand for forensic science technicians in Tennessee is expected to grow 20.8 percent between 2020 and 2030.
And becoming a technician is only one of many specialized occupations open to people with forensics training. These multivariate experts can work in federal, state, and local law enforcement agencies; laboratories; hospitals; medical examiner offices; public policy organizations; universities; private companies; and the military, to name a few common employers.
As mentioned in the introduction, one of the top employers of forensic science professionals in the state is the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation’s Forensic Sciences Division, with its main lab located in Nashville. To become a forensic technician with the TBI, candidates must have at least a high school degree and two years of full-time work in a relevant setting or a qualifying combination of education and hands-on experience.
Finally, the ForensicsColleges blog offers many in-depth career articles for graduates in forensic science in its How to Become series, with step-by-step instructions to becoming a profiler, crime scene technician, forensic psychologist, forensic accountant, detective, and more.
In Tennessee, the average annual wage for all occupations is $52,820 (BLS May 2022), but the 300 forensic science technicians in the state earned a mean annual salary of $61,670, 17 percent more. Furthermore, BLS found that the salary figures are somewhat lower than the national salary ranges. As proof of point, the United States employs 17,590 forensic science technicians with an average annual salary (mean annual wage) of $69,260.
In more detailed terms, here is a breakdown of the salary percentiles among all forensic science technicians in the country compared with those in Tennessee (BLS May 2022):
|Number of Forensic Science Technicians Employed||17,590||300|
|Annual Mean Wage||$69,260||$61,670|
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 techs reporting their annual salaries, PayScale found these percentiles for the US:
Although the average Tennessee wages for forensic science techs were somewhat lower, it also has a cheaper cost of living than many states in the country. As proof of point, the Missouri Economic Research and Information Center (MERIC 2023) found that TN is the 10th most affordable in the country, boasting particular savings in housing costs. Prospective forensic science technicians should keep this in mind.
Not surprisingly, the wages for forensic science technicians tended to vary by region within the state of Tennessee as well.
To gain admittance into a forensics program in Tennessee, applicants generally must submit the following:
Additionally, some programs may ask for letters of recommendation, candidate interviews, or work experience (particularly for graduate-level programs).
Prior to seeking enrollment in a program, aspiring forensics professionals are encouraged to verify the accreditation status of their program or institution. In forensics, the predominant programmatic accreditation body is the Forensic Science Education Programs Accreditation Commission (FEPAC), which as of June 2023, has only one program in TN. However, FEPAC accredits very few programs and does not offer accreditation to criminal justice or crime scene investigation programs, meaning there are still plenty of worthwhile programs that do not have FEPAC accreditation.
For programs that do not have FEPAC accreditation, institutional accreditation becomes even more important. The main institutional accreditation body in TN is the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges (SACSCOC), one of seven regional accreditation bodies approved by the US Department of Education’s Commission for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA).
One standout school in TN is the Middle Tennessee State University of Murfreesboro, which offers a bachelor of science (BS) degree in forensic science with multidisciplinary training through three departments: biology, chemistry, and criminal justice. The program prepares graduates for advanced study in forensic science and for employment in specialized private laboratories, law enforcement agencies, and public crime laboratories. The program also helps them in understanding the role of forensic scientists in criminal justice systems and prepares them to present written and oral findings to the court.
Housed within the College of Basic and Applied Sciences, this bachelor’s degree comprises 120 to 131 credits and involves courses such as forensic anthropology; crime scene photography and documentation; forensic taphonomy; principles of toxicology; quantitative analysis; forensic chemistry; biotechnology; instrumental analysis in forensic science; criminal investigations; and crime scene investigation.
Graduates can take up roles such as crime scene managers, crime lab technicians, forensic pathologists, forensic scientists, forensic photographers, latent fingerprint examiners, forensic chemists, forensic biologists, forensic anthropologists, and evidence custodians, among many other such roles.
King University based in Bristol also provides a bachelor of science program in forensic science. Students in this program will learn how to make courtroom presentations. Courses will prepare them for roles such as medical examiners, psychological profilers, forensic specialists, crime scene technicians, toxicologists, crime scene analysts, and forensic molecular biologists. This program also requires students to complete an internship in a forensics-related field.
Made up of 124 credits, the program includes courses such as histology; bioinformatics; biochemistry; forensic chemistry; criminal investigation for forensic science; genetics; microbiology; and cell biology. Due to the vast number of common courses that forensic science shares with chemistry and biology, students cannot simultaneously major in forensic science and major or minor in biology, biochemistry, or chemistry.
Finally, the National Forensic Academy (NFA) based in Oak Ridge, TN has an array of forensics programs for qualified applicants working in law enforcement. One standout option is an intensive ten-week diploma program sponsored by the Bureau of Justice Assistance, which is tailored to meet the needs of police forces around the country.
In a combination of laboratory training, classroom instruction, and hands-on practicums in the field (230 hours), students receive employment-ready preparation across several foundational modules such as bloodstain pattern analysis, crime scene management, courtroom testimony, DNA, footwear & tires impressions, forensic fire investigation, photography, serial number restoration, shooting evidence reconstruction, trace evidence, post-blast investigation, and forensic anthropology, among other areas.
Notably, the NFA offers training for four levels of International Association for Identification (IAI) crime scene certifications: investigation, analysis, reconstruction, and senior analysis.
These are only a few of the training programs in forensics available in the state, not to mention the variety of degrees in related fields such as criminal justice, criminology, and the natural sciences. To discover the training available at various degree levels nationally, please check out the forensic science programs page.
In addition to traditional campus-based programs in forensics, there are also some online options, which combine distance-based courses and in-person practicums completed at approved facilities close to a student’s home. Online forensics programs may be ideal for residents of more rural areas of Tennessee or those who wish to keep their employment while advancing their education.
The University of Tennessee, Chattanooga provides an online bachelor of science (BS) in criminal justice, open to candidates with associate degrees. Promoting an understanding of the justice and legal systems, the program is committed to coursework grounded in research, theory, and community engagement to help students prepare for careers in social services and criminal justice. Emphasis is placed on experiential, intellectual, problem-solving, and critical-thinking abilities.
Consisting of 120 credits, the program includes courses such as criminology; introduction to the criminal justice system; introduction to criminal law; criminal justice research methodology; corrections; courts; race, class, genders, and crime; and ethics in criminal justice.
East Tennessee State University’s Department of Criminal Justice & Criminology offers not only on-campus undergraduate programs in criminal justice and criminology but also an online master of arts program in criminal justice and criminology. Students in this program will learn about crimes, society’s reaction to crime, and the efforts to control it. They will be prepared for advancement in criminal justice professions, teaching at the college level, and studying at the doctoral level. Graduates will be provided with the knowledge, skills, and tools they need to become leaders in fields such as corrections, legal services, and policing.
Admission requirements to the program include an undergraduate degree in criminal justice or a related field from an accredited college or university with a cumulative GPA of 3.0, three letters of recommendation, and a personal statement. GRE or thesis is not required for admission.
This 36-credit program includes coursework in criminological theory; American policing; American corrections; seminar in courts; research design in criminology; quantitative methods in criminology; criminal justice administration; juvenile justice; crime prevention and environmental design; and victimology.
Notably, East Tennessee State University also offers an online graduate certificate in forensic document examination. This four-course program is 100 percent online and includes training in forensic document examination; forensic handwriting identification; forensic document analysis; and a practicum.
Students completing Austin Peay State University’s online master of science program in criminal justice with an optional concentration in homeland security will be well versed in courts, law enforcement, ethics, corrections, homeland security, research methodology, theoretical underpinnings, current social issues, and complex challenges facing the criminal justice system and national defense.
Applicants to the program must hold a bachelor’s degree in any field from a regionally accredited institution showing a cumulative undergraduate GPA of 2.7.
The program comprises 30 credits and includes courses such as issues in criminal justice; advanced research methods in criminal justice; advanced criminology; issues in homeland security; correctional ideology; ethics in the criminal justice system; criminal justice in popular culture; and theories and practices of the police.
Austin Peay State University also offers a bachelor of science program in criminal justice, which can be completed entirely online, in person on campus, or as a combination. This four-year undergraduate degree includes courses such as introduction to criminal justice; introduction to criminology; criminal law; research methods in criminal justice; courts and law; and crime and deviance.
Lastly, there are many online forensics programs based in other states which admit students who live in Tennessee. Before applying, TN-based students are encouraged to verify the school’s state authorization status; due to differing regional laws, sometimes an institution based in one state is unable to offer distance-based degrees to students residing in other specific states. The state authorization information typically is available on program websites or can be ascertained from program coordinators.
Lastly, many employers in forensics prefer job candidates who have achieved some form of certification. There are varied institutions that offer professional credentialing in the subfields of forensics. To qualify, candidates typically need to send their official postsecondary transcripts; show proof of at least one year of work experience; and pass a comprehensive examination. As of June 2023, there were 10 professional certification bodies approved by the Forensic Specialties Accreditation Board (FSAB), including:
Also, while there’s no centralized licensing authority in TN, the Office of Forensic & Juvenile Court Services provides training for the certification of those who conduct forensic evaluations, and the TN Department of Commerce & Insurance issues licenses in professions related to forensics such as private investigators or polygraph examiners. Overall, prior to seeking employment in forensics, it’s important to make sure one has all the necessary credentialing and training.
|Middle Tennessee State University||Murfreesboro||x||7|
|East Tennessee State University||Johnson City||x||6|
|Tennessee Wesleyan University||Athens||x||5|
|Christian Brothers University||Memphis||x||x||4|
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.