There are several factors which make the “Old Dominion” a leading state for forensics colleges. First, Virginia boasts one of the top forensics labs in the country: the FBI Laboratory. Located in a relatively rural region, the FBI’s first crime lab provides a wealth of services from leading professionals across all subfields, including crime scene documentation, technical hazards response, counterterrorism & forensic science research, firearms & toolmarks, questioned documents, and much more. Developed in 1932, this full-service lab employs over 500 forensics experts and special agents to solve crimes at home and abroad. Second, the “Mother of States” hosts a majority of the world’s internet traffic—anywhere from 50 to 70 percent by some estimates—making it a veritable mecca for computer forensics experts (Huffington Post 2014). Finally, the “Birthplace of a Nation” has one of the top forensics colleges in the country: the Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU).
So what can aspiring forensic scientists in Virginia expect to learn through competitive degree and certificate programs in the state? According to the American Academy of Forensic Sciences (AAFS 2016), these professionals master a variety of skills and role-related responsibilities such as processing and documenting evidence methodically; performing scientific analysis on various types of evidence (e.g., bodily secretions, fibers, plants, drugs, footprints, soils, plastics, ballistics, etc); working closely with medical and legal personnel; keeping abreast of methodological and technological developments in the field; and providing expert testimony in court cases. In its career brochure entitled “So You Want to Be a Forensic Scientist,” AAFS (2014) adds that forensic scientists typically have at least a bachelor’s degree and there is a range of specialized subfields of study, including arson, bite marks, fingerprints, firearms, DNA, child abuse, toxicology, death investigation, digital evidence, and more.
Quoted in the AAFS (2014) career brochure, Dr. Paul L. Kirk—one of the fathers of criminalistics— sums up how criminals inadvertently leave behind the clues which can put them behind bars: “Wherever [the criminal] steps, whatever he touches, whatever he leaves, even unconsciously, will serve as silent evidence against him. Not only his fingerprints or his footprints, but his hair, the fibers from his clothes, the glass he breaks, the tool mark he leaves, the paint he scratches, the blood or semen that he deposits or collects – all these and more bear mute witness against him. This is evidence that does not forget. It is not confused by the excitement of the moment. It is not absent because human witnesses are. It is factual evidence. Physical evidence cannot be wrong; it cannot perjure itself; it cannot be wholly absent. Only its interpretation can err. Only human failure to find it, study and understand it, can diminish its value.”
Read on to discover how and where to learn these crime-solving skills in Virginia, and find out more about the state’s employment outlook, the types of accredited forensics programs available, and professional certification for forensics professionals.
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In Virginia, the demand for forensic science technicians—one of many career possibilities for people in this field—is projected to grow considerably in coming years. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS 2015) anticipates that openings will increase 27 percent between 2014 and 2024, much faster than the average growth expected of all occupations during that time period (7 percent). In addition to the 13,570 forensic science technicians currently working nationwide—620 of whom are in Virginia (BLS 2014)—there are expected opportunities in related occupations such as medical examining, anthropology, handwriting analysis, latent evidence processing, toxicology, odontology, engineering sciences, psychiatry, DNA analysis, forensic nursing, questioned documents, computer crimes (i.e., digital evidence), forensic accounting, and more. For more information on these, the aforementioned “So You Want to Be a Forensic Scientist” (AAFS 2014) career brochure examines the job responsibilities and typical prerequisites to employment in each subfield.
The BLS (2014) reports that forensic science technicians make an average annual salary of $58,610 nationwide. In Virginia, however, these workers make 13.7 percent more, boasting an annual mean salary of $66,660. The salary ranges are also higher in the Commonwealth. In fact, the BLS (2014) found the following percentiles for forensic science technicians nationwide:
Interestingly, Payscale (2016)—an aggregator of self-reported salary data—found somewhat lower ranges among its 214 reporting forensic scientists around the country:
By comparison, in Virginia, the BLS (2014) found substantially higher salary ranges:
In more good news for Virginians, the cost of living is substantially lower than many other US states. As proof of point, the Missouri Economic Research and Information Center (MERIC 2015) found that VA ranked twentieth among all American states with respect to affordability, with particular savings in transportation and housing compared to other US states.
Furthermore, salaries for forensic science technicians also vary by metropolitan area. In the two designated regions of VA, the BLS (2014) found the following figures:
Virginia Beach-Norfolk-Newport News, VA-NC: 80 forensic science technicians employed
Richmond, VA: 110 forensic science technicians employed
In the aforementioned career brochure—“So You Want to Be a Forensic Scientist”— the American Academy of Forensic Sciences (AAFS 2014) details where forensic science experts tend to work. They typically work in laboratories, police departments, international organizations, medical examiner offices, insurance companies, law firms, hospitals, morgues, universities, and independent forensic science groups. According to O*NET (2014)—an affiliate of the US Department of Labor—89 percent of forensic science technicians are employed by the government. While some work regular business hours, forensics experts may be called upon to work weekends, evenings, and holidays due to the 24-hour nature of crime scene processing.
One prestigious employer of forensics professionals in this state is the Virginia Department of Forensic Sciences (DFS), which has comprehensive services including analysis of breath alcohol, controlled substances, digital evidence, toxicology, trace evidence, latent prints, documents, and firearms & toolmarks. It also has 20 to 30 cross-disciplinary training programs annually for Virginia police officers and civilian personnel, including the Virginia Forensic Science Academy in crime scene technology. This nine-week program has advanced training in photography, crime scene investigation, bullet trajectory, forensic biology, drug recognition, and more. Furthermore, the DFS offers internships to qualified college students, giving preference to master’s degree candidates at the Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU).
Finally, as mentioned in the introduction, Virginia also has one of the top, state-of-the-art forensics labs in the country: the FBI Laboratory. Its employees travel the world on assignment, offering technical support, forensic exams, advanced training, and expert witness testimony in the full range of forensics subfields such as DNA casework, forensic imaging, racketeering & cryptanalysis, chemistry, and counterterrorism.
There is an abundance of forensics colleges in Virginia. Prospective students are urged to seek out programs accredited by either the Forensic Science Education Program Accreditation Commission (FEPAC) or the regional Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges (SACS). The former focuses on programmatic accreditation, particularly interdisciplinary bachelor’s and master’s programs offered through hard sciences departments (e.g., biology, chemistry). The latter is an institutional accreditation body, one of the six regional higher educational accreditation organizations recognized by the US Department of Education. Please see the section on accreditation below for more information.
For Virginia’s associate degree programs in forensics, admissions requirements generally include submitting official secondary school (i.e., high school) transcripts; sending TOEFL test scores (for non-native speakers of English); and paying an application fee. For example, New River Community College in Dublin, VA offers an associate of applied science (AAS) degree in forensic science. Ideal for entry-level law enforcement, this school has an innovative laboratory and coursework in crime scene processing, toolmark & impression analysis, latent evidence processing, chromatography, and spectrophotometry. Additionally, Northern Virginia Community College (NOVA) provides an associate of applied science (AAS) in the administration of justice. As part of the program, students can complete a one-year curriculum focusing on general forensic investigation with specialized coursework in criminal law & procedures, forensic pathology, and a homicide seminar.
For Virginia’s bachelor degree programs in forensics, typical admissions requirements include sending official high school transcripts with a competitive GPA (e.g., >3.0); writing a personal statement; getting letters of recommendation; submitting official scores from the SAT or ACT tests (and TOEFL for non-native English speakers); passing a background check; and paying an application fee. Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) provides the sole FEPAC-accredited bachelor’s program in forensic science in this state with interdisciplinary instruction in law, forensic science, allied health, and medicine. Courses at VCU include forensic chemistry, microscopy, ethics, criminalistic examinations, and evidence collection & preservation. In addition to forensics and general educational requirements, students have the opportunity to apply their knowledge in supervised internships or studying abroad. Virginia State University (VSU) in Petersburg, VA offers a bachelor of science (BS) in chemistry with a forensics concentration. As part of this specialty, VSU provides instruction in forensic chemistry and an advanced forensics laboratory, as well as an internship at a local preceptor site. Marymount University in Arlington, VA offers a bachelor of arts (BA) in criminal justice with a minor in forensics and criminal investigations. Courses include careers in criminal justice, applied research methods, juvenile justice, principles of forensic science, and criminology. Also, Marymount’s Forensic Scholars Program through the Forensic and Legal Psychology Departments—an opportunity typically available to graduate students only—is open to qualified undergraduates in criminal justice or psychology. Please note that Marymount also has a post-baccalaureate certificate in forensic computing.
For Virginia master’s programs in forensics, admissions requirements generally include sending official post-secondary transcripts in a relevant major with a competitive GPA (e.g., >3.25); completing prerequisite courses (e.g., forensic science, organic chemistry, biology, genetics, DNA analysis, etc); writing a personal statement; submitting letters of recommendation; sending official scores from the GRE or MCAT tests (and TOEFL for non-native English speakers); passing a background check; having an interview; and paying an application fee. For example, the Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) provides the only FEPAC-accredited master of science (MS) program in forensic science in this state with comprehensive instruction in specializations such as drug analysis, DNA analysis, trace evidence, and criminalistics. This program began in 1978, boasting small class sizes, accomplished faculty, and access to world-class forensics facilities including the Virginia Department of Forensic Science (DFS) Central Laboratory. Core requirements at VCU comprise a directed research project and coursework in forensic microscopy, analysis of pattern evidence, forensic serology & DNA analysis, and professional practices.
For more information on forensics schools and specializations, please visit the forensic programs page.
For residents of rural Virginia or aspiring forensics students with professional, familial, or other types of commitments, attending an on-campus degree program can be difficult. Luckily there are various distance-based programs available.
For example, Bluefield College provides an online bachelor’s degree in criminal justice with didactic instruction in community-based corrections, constitutional law, forensic science, social research methods, and an internship. The on-site supervised internships are offered through a variety of local institutions such as prisons, sheriff’s offices, police departments, and law offices. Graduates of this program have gone on to careers in corrections, juvenile detention, law, and related fields. Please note that Bluefield also provides an on-campus bachelor of science (BS) in forensics science. Virginia College (VC)—boasting locations throughout the South—offers an online master’s degree in cybersecurity, one popular subfield of computer forensics. To give students a feel for this growing specialty, VC imparts the fundamentals of forensics, cryptography, intrusion detection, and firewall devices.
Due to the nature of online programs, the host institutions need not be located in Virginia. For more information on distance-based education at all levels and specialties, please visit the online forensic science degrees page.
The Virginia government provides a Career Guide for Forensic Scientists and mentions that licensure, certification, or registration is generally not required for forensic scientists in state government. That said, although professional certification is not always necessary to secure employment in forensics in Virginia, it may be advisable for several reasons. First, certification can serve as an indicator of a job applicant’s knowledge in a particular area and improve one’s resume. Second, it can enhance a person’s earning potential, opportunities for advancement, and leadership responsibilities. Lastly, a national certification can be transferrable to other states across the country.
Requirements for common professional certifications in forensics vary, but they generally include having at least a bachelor’s degree in forensics, biology, chemistry, or another relevant field; having several years of verifiable experience; sending professional references; and passing an exam. There are currently 17 professional certifications recognized by the Forensic Specialties Accreditation Board (FSAB), including:
As mentioned above, aspiring forensics students in Virginia are strongly encouraged to verify the accreditation status of their programs and educational institutions. Recognized accreditation agencies serve to gauge educational effectiveness by evaluating program faculty, student outcomes, school finances, quality of curricula, and other variables.
For programmatic accreditation, the Forensic Science Education Program Accreditation Commission (FEPAC) is the gold standard. As of February 2016, only one school in Virginia offers FEPAC-accredited bachelor’s and master’s programs: the Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU).
For institutional accreditation, there are six regional agencies recognized by the US Department of Labor. The Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges (SACS) is the main accreditation body, offering program approvals across Virginia, Texas, Louisiana, Florida, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Kentucky, and Tennessee.
|School Name||City||Website||Degrees Awarded||Certificates Awarded||Total Forensics Grads|
|Virginia Commonwealth University||Richmond||www.vcu.edu||86||0||86|
|George Mason University||Fairfax||https://www2.gmu.edu||59||8||67|
|Northern Virginia Community College||Annandale||www.nvcc.edu||0||12||12|
|New River Community College||Dublin||www.nr.edu||3||0||3|
|Dabney S Lancaster Community College||Clifton Forge||www.dslcc.edu||0||3||3|
School data provided by IPEDS (2013), and includes all certificates and degrees awarded for the following programs: Arson Investigation, Computer Forensics, Forensic Accounting, Forensic Chemistry, Forensic Psychology, Forensic Science and Technology, and Law Enforcement Investigation