As you travel west across the U.S., states get bigger and mountains get taller. In Utah (UT), you will find the 30th most populous state with the 10th lowest population density. Utah covers nearly 85,000 square miles and is home to five of America’s national parks: Zion, Bryce Canyon, Capitol Reef, Arches, and Canyonlands.
Most people in the U.S. know that Salt Lake City and surrounding areas in Utah are home to a large concentration of members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (also known as Mormons), although certainly not every Utahan is a member of the church. The population of the Beehive State lives peacefully with fairly low crime rates, plentiful outdoor recreation opportunities, and an affordable cost of living.
In fact, the Missouri Economic Research and Information Center (2021) shows that Utah ranks 25th in its cost of living data series which means the cost of housing, utilities, groceries, and other expenses falls in the middle compared to the other 50 states.
Forensic science is a great career option for anyone considering a move to Utah or Utahans looking for a career that blends science and law enforcement. The demand for forensic science technicians in Utah is growing tremendously, with CareerOneStop (2021) reporting an expected growth of 14 percent between 2019 and 2029. A strong educational background is the best path to success as a forensic science technician, so prospective students should investigate their opportunities in the state.
Keep reading for more details on how to become a forensic science technician in Utah and what types of higher education programs are available in-state and online.
Becoming a forensic scientist in Utah depends on developing a foundation in science and the analytical behavior necessary to assess scientific findings. Some forensic science technicians will take a winding path towards their final career, but the following are the most common steps.
Step 1: Graduate High School (four years)
According to CareerOneStop (2021), an employment statistics site sponsored by the U.S. Department of Labor, 97 percent of forensic science technicians have at least a high school diploma or GED. Therefore, high school students interested in pursuing a forensic science career should do well in their coursework, particularly science courses like biology and chemistry.
Step 2: Earn an Undergraduate Degree (two to four years)
A career in forensic science requires a strong background in the scientific method, data collection, and careful analysis. While a forensic science degree is not a requirement, a bachelor’s degree with a science focus (chemistry, biology, etc.) is generally the minimum education required for work in a crime lab.
Around 14 percent of forensic science technicians have an associate’s degree (two years), while 30 percent have a bachelor’s degree (four years). Many schools require fingerprinting, criminal background checks, and letters of character reference as part of their application process.
Step 3: Gain Entry-Level Experience (timeline varies)
Upon graduation from an undergraduate program, most forensic scientists will find an entry-level position at a lab or police department. In Utah, the Salt Lake City Police Department, Salt Lake County Sheriff’s Office, West Valley Police Department, and Weber County Sheriff’s Office are the largest employers of forensic science technicians and other crime scene personnel, according to the Utah Department of Public Safety.
Step 4: Become Professionally Certified (timeline varies)
After some entry-level work, technicians who wish to specialize further often seek professional certification. Professional certification is available in a range of fields. In fact, as of 2021, the Forensic Specialties Accreditation Board (FSAB) has approved 10 different organizations to issue professional certification. Some of the available certifications include forensic toxicology, forensic document examination, forensic anthropology, and forensic engineering sciences.
Step 5: Earn a Graduate Degree (timeline varies)
Around 12 percent of forensic science technicians have a master’s degree, and an additional 4 percent of forensic technicians have a PhD or other doctoral-level degree (CareerOneStop 2021). Earning a graduate degree is not required to succeed in this career, but those who do may be more likely to obtain professional advancement opportunities.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 16,640 forensic science technicians are employed in the United States (BLS May 2020). While there are no state-level specific data for how many forensic science technicians are employed in Utah, websites such as Indeed.com (2021) show up-to-date job openings in metropolitan and rural areas across the state.
In terms of salary, forensic technicians in Utah should expect to earn wages slightly lower than the national average. While there are no specific salary data for forensic science technicians employed in Utah, the BLS shows that professionals working in life, physical, and social science occupations in Utah earn lower than the average annual mean wages of $64,390 (BLS May 2020). This future is 21 percent less than the national average of $79,360 per year for those working in life, physical, and social science occupations (BLS May 2020).
Wages depend on several factors such as years of experience, levels of education, and cost of living in a particular area. The BLS reports the national salary percentiles for forensic science technicians as follows (BLS May 2020):
Although the difference in mean annual salaries is significant, it is worth noting that the cost of living in Utah is below the national average, according to the Missouri Economic Research and Information Center (2021), with utilities and healthcare being remarkably affordable compared to other states.
Students will find some forensic science programs in Utah with courses offered on campus. On-campus programs are typically available to both residential students and commuters and can foster a greater sense of discipline and community for some students.
Generally, students will want to look for a program focused on forensic science rather than criminal justice because doing so will provide a stronger foundation in the hard sciences. However, forensic science concentrations and tracks are sometimes offered through broader criminal justice degree programs.
Utah Valley University in Orem offers two degree options for pursuing an education in forensic science. UVU is the only university in Utah that offers a bachelor of science (BS) degree in forensic science and a minor degree option in forensic science. Students choose from two emphasis areas that meet their future career goals: forensic laboratory or forensic investigation. The forensic laboratory emphasizes scientific skills that can lead to careers in criminology, while the forensic investigation option prepares graduates to work in the field as crime scene investigators.
The BS degree program requires 121 credits and includes coursework that ranges from criminalistics to organic chemistry. In addition, students take 23 elective credits as part of this program. The minor degree program is 24 credits overall and requires tire imprint evidence and fingerprint examination classes. Students take 12 elective credits as part of this minor degree in forensic science.
Weber State University in Ogden offers a minor degree concentration in crime scene investigation, an adjacent field to forensic science. This degree program combines criminal justice, basic science, and forensic science courses to prepare students for criminal justice work in field and laboratory settings. The crime scene investigation minor concentration courses include laboratory safety, friction ridge analysis, chemistry, and advanced forensic photography.
In addition, students are encouraged to pursue other minor degree programs related to forensic science, including photography, anthropology with an archaeology emphasis, foreign language, and chemistry, to name a few.
In addition to general math and science courses, the criminal justice major requires 120 credits, 40 of which must be upper-division credit hours. An additional 79-82 credits are needed to earn the crime scene investigation concentration minor.
Dixie State University in St. George offers a bachelor’s of arts or science degree program in criminal justice with two areas of emphasis in criminology and digital defense and security. The criminology emphasis prepares students for careers in criminology, sociology, and forensic psychology. In contrast, the digital defense and security emphasis prepares students to fight and lead teams preventing computer-based crimes.
Courses in the criminology emphasis include laws of evidence, policing in U.S. society, and ethical issues in criminal justice. Courses in the digital defense and security emphasis include programming fundamentals, introduction to Unix/Linux, and ethical hacking and network defense.
To graduate with this degree, all students must earn a minimum of 120 college-level credits and 70 upper-division credits and maintain a C minus average in the discipline core requirements.
These days more students are opting for distance learning for two reasons: to save time and continue working. Online degree programs offer working students the flexibility to take complete coursework on nights and weekends. In addition, enrolling in an online degree program provides access to out-of-state educational programs outside of the universities in Utah.
Just south of the Utah border, Arizona State University in Phoenix offers an online bachelor of science in criminology and criminal justice. Students in this program learn how to conduct research that adheres to protocols, develop theories, investigate crime scenes, and document evidence. Other topics covered include behavioral science, psychology, and logic. Graduates from this program work in law enforcement, corrections, and criminal justice case management.
Courses in this program emphasize social over life science compared to the previously mentioned forensic science degree programs. This means that graduates from this program may be prepared for more field-based careers rather than laboratory science work. Required courses include statistical analysis and research methods that can prepare students for forensic science careers with a solid background and prepare them for graduate-level forensic science programs.
Across the country in Lynchburg, Virginia, Liberty University offers an online bachelor of science degree in criminal justice (crime scene investigation) that provides students with the analytical and scientific practices germane to forensics and law. Graduates from this program learn essential skills to participate in criminal investigations and techniques for documenting and preserving evidence for analysis.
To graduate from this program, students must complete 120 hours of courses from several disciplines, including civic and global engagement, Christianity and contexts, and criminology courses. In addition, Liberty University strives to save students money by providing all electronic textbooks free of charge and has not raised tuition rates for the past six years.
Located in San Diego, California, National University offers an on-campus and a fully online master of science degree in forensic science and a graduate-level certificate in forensic and crime scene investigations.
Students in the graduate program can choose one of two areas of specialization: criminalistics or investigation. The criminalistics specialization emphasizes CSI skills such as trace evidence, advanced forensic toxicology, and forensic anthropology. The investigation specialization teaches advanced forensic investigative field techniques and a solid background in forensic sciences.
The graduate-level certificate program is designed for current law enforcement personnel, and students can transfer coursework from this program to the master’s degree program in forensic science.
Graduates from this program are prepared to apply scientific methodologies to solve criminal cases and legal protocols. The master’s program requires 54 quarter credits to graduate, while the graduate-level certificate requires 31.5 quarter units in forensic pathology, crime scene investigation, and digital evidence, among others.
Students evaluating forensic science programs in Utah and beyond should look for both institutional and programmatic accreditation. Institutional accreditation means that the school as a whole has been evaluated for its standards and efficacy. For instance, Utah Valley University holds accreditation from the Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities.
The Forensic Science Education Programs Accreditation Commission (FEPAC) offers accreditation specific to forensic science programs. Although this accreditation is not necessary for most entry-level jobs or certifications, it can be an essential indicator of a program’s history in higher education.
As of September 2021, no program in Utah holds FEPAC accreditation. Utah students should remember that FEPAC accredits very few programs overall, meaning that plenty of reputable forensic science, criminal justice, and crime scene investigation programs have not earned FEPAC accreditation. When applying to programs that have not earned FEPAC accreditation, institutional accreditation should carry more weight.
Requirements for professional certification differ for each specialty. For instance, to earn certification from the American Board of Medicolegal Death Investigators, there are no specific educational requirements, only a knowledge of local, state, and federal laws. On the other hand, to become certified by the International Association of Computer Investigative Specialists, applicants must complete at least 72 hours of relevant training in the field. Therefore, those interested in pursuing certification should be sure to learn the requirements for their certificate of choice before pursuing a degree.
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.