Several factors make the Old Dominion a leading state for forensics colleges. First, Virginia (VA) 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 most of the world’s internet traffic, making it a veritable mecca for computer forensics experts. Finally, the Birthplace of a Nation has one of the top forensics colleges in the country: 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), 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 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 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.
There are various experiential and educational paths for prospective forensic techs in Virginia, although they typically pursue at least a four-year degree in natural sciences before being employed. In fact, Career One Stop (2023)—a job-planning tool sponsored by the U.S. Department of Labor—reports that 31 percent of forensic science technicians have a bachelor’s degree or higher, while 14 percent have associate degrees and 24 percent have some college education.
Following is one of the most common paths to becoming a forensic scientist or technician in VA:
In Virginia, the demand for forensic science technicians—one of many career possibilities for people in this field—is projected to grow considerably in the coming years. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS 2022) anticipates that openings will increase by 11 percent between 2021 and 2031, which is much faster than the average growth expected of all occupations during that time period (5 percent).
In addition to the 17,590 forensic science technicians currently working nationwide—510 of whom are in Virginia (BLS May 2022)—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.
Forensic science technicians 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 BLS (2022), 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 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.
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The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS May 2022) reported that there were 510 forensic science technicians in the state.
Furthermore, BLS found that the salary figures are somewhat higher 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 VA, the average salary in this field is $72,860.
In more detailed terms, here is a breakdown of the salary percentiles among all forensic science technicians in the country compared with those in VA (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 (July 2023), which relies on self-reported salaries. Among the forensic science techs reporting their annual salaries, Payscale found these percentiles for the US:
While the figures for Virginia are somewhat lower than the national salary ranges found by both the BLS (May 2022) and Payscale (2023), it’s important to note that the cost of living is substantially higher than in many other US states. For illustration, the Missouri Economic Research and Information Center (MERIC 2022) found that VA ranked 31st among all American states with respect to affordability.
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 (SACSCOC).
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 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 Virginia’s bachelor’s 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.
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, 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 the program’s curriculum provides students with an introduction to the basics of forensic investigation.
Made up of 66 credits, the program includes courses such as introduction to law enforcement; introduction to courts; ethics and the criminal justice profession; forensic science; criminal law, evidence, and procedures; and general chemistry. Students completing this curriculum will be able to transfer many of the credits to a four-year college or university.
Graduates will be able to take up roles such as criminal investigators, evidence technicians, police officers, police & sheriff’s patrol officers, private detectives, investigators, and police detectives.
Additionally, Northern Virginia Community College (NOVA) provides an associate of applied science (AAS) degree in the administration of justice. As part of the program, students can complete a one-year certificate focusing on general forensic investigation with specialized coursework in criminal law & procedures; forensic pathology, and a homicide seminar. The AAS program comprises 65 credits and the general forensic investigation career studies certificate consists of 20 to 21 credits.
Northern Virginia Community College also offers a 60-credit associate of science degree in criminal justice, including coursework in the survey of criminal justice; survey of criminology; principles of criminal investigation; the juvenile justice system; and ethics and the criminal justice profession.
Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) provides a FEPAC-accredited bachelor’s program in forensic science with interdisciplinary instruction in law, forensic science, allied health, and medicine. Students in this program can concentrate on either forensic biology, forensic chemistry, or physical evidence. In addition to forensics and general educational requirements, students can apply their knowledge in supervised internships or studying abroad.
The program’s core curriculum includes courses such as scientific crime scene investigation; survey of forensic science; forensic microscopy; forensic evidence, law, & criminal procedure; professional practices in forensic science; and general chemistry.
The forensic biology concentration includes courses such as cellular & molecular biology; forensic molecular biology; and genetics. Courses in the forensic chemistry concentration include forensic chemistry; forensic toxicology; and instrumental analysis. The physical evidence concentration includes classes in forensic serology; forensic pattern evidence; and forensic firearms & tool mark analysis.
In addition to the bachelor’s degree, Virginia Commonwealth University also offers a FEPAC-accredited master of science program in forensic science preparing students for careers as forensic scientists in private laboratories and government. Graduates receive in-depth exposure to specializations such as DNA analysis, drug analysis, criminalistics, legal issues, and trace evidence. This 42-credit master of science program includes courses such as analysis of pattern evidence; forensic evidence and criminal procedure; instrumentation in forensic chemistry; forensic microscopy; forensic serology and DNA analysis; and statistical methods.
Marymount University in Arlington, VA offers a bachelor of arts (BA) in criminal justice with a minor in forensics and criminal investigations. Students in this program will gain the skills and knowledge for landing rewarding careers in criminal courts, the correctional system, or law enforcement. Studying with expert faculty members, graduates will have hands-on experience in the criminal justice field and the tools needed for leading, serving, and protecting communities in the Metro D.C. area and beyond.
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.
Marymount also offers a master of arts program in forensic and legal psychology and a graduate certificate in ethics and leadership in criminal justice.
Liberty University also has a FEPAC-accredited bachelor of science program in forensic science that provides students with interdisciplinary training in biology, criminal justice, and chemistry. The main mission of this program is to provide students with a storing forensic science foundation and prepare them for careers in state, federal, and private forensic laboratories, clinical laboratories, and research laboratories.
This 120-credit program includes courses such as forensic DNA analysis; forensic entomology; trace evidence; introduction to forensics; criminal investigations; genetics; and analytical chemistry.
Graduates can take up positions such as criminal investigators, evidence technicians, forensic consultants, forensic autopsy technicians, forensic DNA analysts, trace evidence technicians, forensic scientists, and forensic entomologists, among many other such roles.
George Mason University offers a bachelor of science program in forensic science providing graduates with a well-rounded, hands-on forensic science education and preparing them for entrance into graduate-level educational programs, or entry-level careers in private and public forensic laboratories, the local, or federal government, defense, intelligence agencies, and homeland security.
Offering concentrations in forensic chemistry and forensic biology, this unique program includes an innovative curriculum that offers hands-on training with crime laboratory methodologies and crime scene techniques.
Made up of 120 credits, the program includes courses such as the survey of forensic science; introduction to criminalistics; forensic trace analysis; forensic evidence and ethics; crime scene investigations; introduction to criminal justice; and forensic DNA analysis.
George Mason University also offers a master of science program in forensic science with four concentration options in crime scene investigation; forensic chemistry analysis; forensic/biometric identity analysis; and forensic biology analysis. Comprising 36 credits, this master’s degree includes courses such as introduction to forensic science; basic crime analysis; survey of forensic chemistry, biology, and DNA analysis; law and forensic science; trace and physical evidence concepts; and quantitative methods for forensic scientists.
Marshall University offers a FEPAC-accredited two-year master of science program in forensic science with both thesis and non-thesis options. In addition to the core curriculum, the program offers four areas of emphasis to graduate students for more in-depth training and education in specific forensic science disciplines. These areas of emphasis include forensic chemistry, DNA analysis, crime scene investigation, and digital forensics.
Applicants to the program must have a bachelor’s degree in computer science, forensic or natural science, information systems or information technology, computer electronic or electrical engineering, (or its equivalent coursework in a relevant field) from an accredited institution with an overall GPA of 3.0 or better.
The program comprises 38 credits and includes coursework in genetics and DNA technologies; crime scene and death investigation; forensic microscopy; forensic comparative sciences; forensic statistics; forensic analytical chemistry; foundations & fundamentals in digital forensics; and legal issues in forensic science.
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.
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. Graduates will learn the analytical, communication, and research skills needed for working in complex criminal justice careers. The on-site supervised internships are offered through various local institutions such as prisons, sheriff’s offices, police departments, and law offices.
This 120-credit program includes courses such as an introduction to criminal justice; criminal procedure; criminology; minority issues in criminal justice; comparative criminal justice; law enforcement; critical perspectives in criminal justice; and psychology of criminal behavior.
Graduates of this program have gone on to careers in corrections, juvenile detention, law, and related fields. In addition, Bluefield offers an on-campus bachelor of science (BS) in forensics science.
Virginia Wesleyan University (VWU), located in Virginia Beach, offers an online bachelor’s degree in criminal justice. Well-suited to aspiring law enforcement officers and detectives, this program can be completed in as little as one year, depending on the student.
Consisting of 128 credits, the program includes courses such as introduction to criminal justice; criminology; introduction to social research; criminal law; corrections; extreme murder; law enforcement; and delinquency and juvenile justice.
Upon graduation, graduates will have the knowledge and skills necessary for entering a career in victim support, court support, or law enforcement. They can take up roles such as police officers, probation officers, crime scene investigators, homicide detectives, private investigators, fraud investigators, and many more such roles.
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.
Although professional certification is not always necessary to secure employment in forensics in Virginia, it may be advisable for several reasons. First, certification can indicate 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 transferable 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 10 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.
The Forensic Science Education Program Accreditation Commission (FEPAC) is the gold standard for programmatic accreditation. As of July 2023, several schools in Virginia offer FEPAC-accredited programs. Program applicants should note that several reputable forensic sciences, criminal justice, and crime scene investigation programs do not have FEPAC accreditation. In this case, the institutional accreditation of a particular school should carry more weight in the decision process.
For institutional accreditation, six regional agencies are recognized by the US Department of Labor. The Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges (SACSCOC) is the main accreditation body, offering program approvals across Virginia, Texas, Louisiana, Florida, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Kentucky, and Tennessee.
|George Mason University
|Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU)
|New River Community College
|Tidewater Community College
|Danville Community College
|Northern Virginia Community 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.