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. In fact, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS 2017) the greater Nashville metropolitan area boasts the fifth highest number of forensic science technicians among all US cities with 400 employed. And to assist these workers with their invaluable services to help solve crimes, there is a wealth of academic training programs and vibrant professional associations.
By 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.
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 & toolmark 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.
In Tennessee and nationally, forensics is a high-growth and relatively high-paying occupation. First, the BLS (2017) projected a 17 percent explosion in job openings for forensic science technicians between 2016 and 2026, much more robust than the average growth expected across all occupations during that time period (7 percent). Second, in Tennessee, the average annual wage is $43,550 (BLS 2017), but the 540 forensic science technicians in the state earned a mean annual salary of $51,180, 17.5 percent more. In more granular terms, TN forensic science techs enjoyed the following wage percentiles (BLS May 2017):
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 either two years of full-time work in a relevant setting or a qualifying combination of education and hands-on experience. To become a TBI special agent forensic scientist, candidates must have a bachelor’s degree in forensics (or a relevant field) with at least 24 semester hours of chemistry; weapons training; a clean background check and fingerprinting; a passing score on a psychological examination; and a driver’s license.
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 April 2018 did not have any programs 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 Commission on Colleges of the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACSCOC), one of six regional accreditation bodies approved by the US Department of Education’s Commission for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA).
One standout school in TN is 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. Courses include biochemistry, crime scene investigation, microbiology, genetics, criminal evidence & procedures, and the judicial process, among others. Programs at MTSU during the 2017-18 year cost $359 (in-state) or $1,098 (out-of-state) per credit hour.
King College based in Bristol also provides a BS in forensic science with coursework in microbiology & informatics, toxicology, cell biology, histology, introduction to criminal justice, and a forensics internship. For the 2017-18 year, these programs cost $29,714 total, not including room and board.
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. In fall 2018, this program costs $10,000 and will jump to $10,500 in the fall of 2019.
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 which is open to candidates with associate degrees. Classes include training in corrections; white collar crime; the criminal justice system; terrorism; ethics; cross-cultural issues; violence against women; and policing, among other areas. To learn how much the program costs, please use the UTC Bursar’s Office tool.
East Tennessee State University of Johnson City not only offers on-campus programs in criminal justice and criminology, but also 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. To estimate tuition, prospective students are encouraged to use the ETSU Bursar’s tool.
Lastly, there are many online forensics programs based in other states which admit students who live in Tennessee. Prior to 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 which 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 April 2018, 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 necessary credentialing and training.