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Degrees in forensic science

Forensic science may not be quite the thrill ride that TV police procedurals often make it out to be, but the fact remains that analyzing crime scenes and conducting forensic tests on collected evidence can be a challenging and rewarding career. It's a fast-growing field, too; the U.S. Department of Labor's Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) predicts a 27 percent increase in employment for forensic science technicians between 2014 and 2024 — more than five times the average growth rate projected for the job market at large.

The high-tech nature of most positions and the need to follow strict institutional policies and legal regulations make formal training a virtual necessity for forensic science careers. Here's a count of how many schools in each U.S. region offer forensic science degree programs online and on campus, according to data from the National Center for Education Statistics:

Region No. of schools offering forensic science degrees No. of schools with online forensic science degree programs
Far West (CA. OR, WA, NV, AK, HI) 27 3
Rocky Mountains (ID, MT, UT, WY, CO) 7 0
Southwest (AZ, NM, TX, OK) 25 1
Plains (MO, KS, IA, NE, MN, ND, SD) 18 1
Southeast (AR, LA, MS, AL, FL, GA, SC, NC, TN, KY, VA, WV) 88 11
Great Lakes (IL, IN, OH, MI, WI) 35 1
Mideast (PA, NY, NJ, DE, MD, D.C.) 47 6
New England (CT, MA, RI, VT, NH, ME) 12 0
Total (all 50 states) 259 23

Entry-level forensic science degrees

Even though there may be some highly complex forensic science jobs that require several years of education and experience, candidates for entry-level positions can qualify with the right two- or four-year degree. Take a look at these brief descriptions of undergraduate forensic science degree programs online and on campus:

  • Associate degrees - Associate programs in forensic science typically give students a thorough introduction to the necessary activities of the field, including evidence photography, crash scene investigation, evidence management, laboratory methods and collecting techniques for trace and biological evidence. These programs most often culminate in Associate of Science (AS) or Associate of Applied Science (AAS) degrees and take around two years of full-time study to complete.
  • Bachelor's degrees - Study of forensic science at the bachelor's level characteristically extends the scope of instruction to include the underlying theories and scientific processes behind the applied skills of the discipline. Studying for a bachelor's degree in forensic science, your schedule of courses at this level may include anatomy and physiology, physics, psychology, organic chemistry, biochemistry and other work in the life, physical and social sciences alongside applied skills courses in such areas as fingerprint analysis, toxicology, DNA analysis and crime scene processing.
  • Non-degree study - The quickest possible route to a job on a forensics team is likely to be through an undergraduate certificate program. Some non-degree study plans in forensic science focus on lab skills, training students in the instruments and methods of behind-the-scenes lab work, while others give a basic introduction to the sort of deep forensic analysis that's typically fleshed out in longer degree programs. Credit requirements for forensic science certificates can vary quite a bit, with some programs having a length under 20 credit hours while others require 36 or more, and lists of prerequisites can vary as well.

Despite many programs relying on laboratory work and other hands-on training to teach forensic science technology, degrees and certificates for prospective online learners can also be found. Hybrid degrees, which take place partially on campus and partially through distance learning, may be the best option for students whose resources of time and money are limited but aren't quite ready for a fully online forensic science degree.

Advanced-degree forensic science programs

When hiring supervisors, senior technicians and other positions of increased responsibility, employers are likely to prefer candidates who combine their experience with advanced formal education. Here's some information on what to expect from graduate and post-graduate degree programs in forensic science:

  • Master's degree programs - Some graduate-level programs take students on a deeper exploration of forensic science concepts and their roots in the hard sciences, while others steer the study plan away from the laboratory and more toward the courtroom by placing forensic investigations in the larger context of criminal justice. There are a few master's degrees in forensic science that focus tightly on a single aspect of forensic analysis, such as fingerprinting, toxicology, chemistry, molecular biology or high-tech criminal investigations.
  • Doctorate programs - Forensic science degree programs beyond the master's level are uncommon, but a few Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.) programs in the field have historically been available for students looking to move into positions of leadership or independent academic research. Ph.D. courses in forensic concepts tend to be highly advanced, and most degree plans also include a heavy emphasis on research methods and study design that leads to an extensive dissertation project in your final semesters.
  • Graduate certificates - Non-degree programs in forensic science at the graduate level are fairly similar to the type of offered to undergraduates, albeit with some difference in the expected amount of prior study in the discipline's foundational sciences. Some programs that offer graduate certificates in forensic science give students a menu of specializations from which to choose, with options such as forensic death investigation, toxicology, DNA analysis and forensic drug chemistry among the more common offerings.

Perhaps owing to the large proportion of working forensic scientists who apply for graduate work in the field, the availability of distance education options for master's degrees in forensic science is at least as prevalent and perhaps more common than that seen in similar programs at the undergraduate level. It's the case at some organizations that a graduate degree can open the door to career advancement, and the ability to earn that degree without disrupting your professional schedule can be a great asset to someone looking to move up.

Q&A with experts

Igor Lednev, forensics expert and chemistry professor at the University at Albany - SUNY

Igor Lednev, forensics expert and chemistry professor at the University at Albany - SUNYWhy would you encourage someone to consider a degree in forensic science?

A degree in forensic science will open the opportunity for an exciting career. Job opportunities will always exist in various law enforcement agencies and demand will keep increasing for trained professionals with the ability to analyze the evidence.

What are the most common educational paths for those interested in forensic science?

Until very recently, the typical educational pathway to a career in forensic science was a bachelor's degree. However, there is a recent tendency that advanced degrees (M.S. and Ph.D.) are increasingly common in crime laboratories in the US. Forensic science students are encouraged to double major in chemistry or another primary science to broaden their basic expertise.

Are there entry-level jobs available to applicants with certificates or associate degrees?

There are still plenty of opportunities to get job in forensic science with BS degree. However, as indicated above, the tendency in forensic science is to utilize more sophisticated and advanced methods and techniques that require more advanced education.

What's some advice you would give to a student just starting out on the path toward a forensic science career?

I would recommend to work first and foremost on getting a solid degree in basic science including chemistry and biology; consider the possibility of graduate education to deepen your knowledge and expertise in forensic disciplines; look for a possibility of a forensically related internship whenever possible. Good luck!

Maria C Pettolina, Security Studies faculty member at Colorado Technical University and professional CSI

Maria C Pettolina, Security Studies faculty member at Colorado Technical University and professional CSIWhat would have been helpful to know about forensic science when you were looking into your own education?

Crimes occur all hours of the day, all seasons, and in a range of locations to include indoor and outdoor. Depending on the area the student is interested in pursuing, if they choose to be in the field, they need to be prepared to work in the elements, to work overnight, weekends and holidays, and occasionally in horrendous conditions. If the student is not prepared to accept the conditions, they may want to look at lab or office opportunities.

Do employers of forensic scientists typically prefer candidates with formal, classroom-based education or do they prefer to train new hires on the job?

The educational level and amount of field training given is dependent upon both the agency and the position. For the positions requiring a four year degree without experience, most agencies will provide in-depth, in-house training to new hires. The training can range from three months to a year.

What level of degree is necessary to get started in the field? Are there entry-level jobs available to applicants with certificates or associate degrees?

Many careers in the forensic science field require a four-year degree, while some will accept an associate's degree. For the positions requiring a four year degree, experience may not be needed. For the positions requiring an associate degree, it is not uncommon for the hiring agency to require experience. Most agencies receive a high number of applications for a single position, so it is best to set yourself apart with your education.

Types of forensic science careers

Many of the skills learned in forensic science programs can transfer fairly well into similar fields, particularly those that deal with laboratory instrumentation and proper protocols for chemical and biological analysis. Here's a quick table of careers where your forensic science skills might give you a leg up in the hiring process, featuring employment and salary data from the BLS:

Occupation title National mean annual salary
(2015)
Projected job growth
(2014-2024)
Total U.S. employment
(2015)
Entry-level education
Forensic science technician $60,090 27 percent 14.070 Bachelor's degree
Biological technician $45,230 5 percent 72,900 Bachelor's degree
Chemical technician $48,730 2 percent 64,770 Associate degree
Food science technician $39,00 5 percent 20,260 Associate degree
Environmental science technician $46,540 9 percent 34,250 Associate degree
Medical/clinical laboratory technologist $61,860 14 percent 162,950 Bachelor's degree

Common misconceptions about forensic science degrees

Despite the popularity of forensic science as a plot device — or perhaps because of it — there are a few misconceptions in the public imagination about it. Here are a few mistaken notions that you'd do well to keep out of your mind if you're thinking about a forensic science degree:

Misconception: A forensic scientist is basically a detective with a chemistry set.

  • Fact: They may be portrayed on TV that way, but real-life forensic scientists spend most of their time indoors, in the laboratory, actually doing science. CSIs may go to crime scenes to conduct analyses, and there are certainly some elements of pattern matching and problem solving inherent in any analysis, but the idea of forensic scientists as gumshoes with lab skills is a misrepresentation of the profession.

Misconception: The only place a forensic scientist can get work is in local law enforcement.

  • Fact: A large portion of forensic scientists work on crime scene investigations and laboratory evidence tests, but there are plenty of other fields that make use of their special investigative skills. Medical and diagnostic laboratory work, for example, makes use of very similar skills to those taught in forensic science degree programs, and the federal government was far and away the highest-paying employer of forensic scientists in 2014.

Misconception: Employers don't respect online degrees, in forensic science or any field.

  • Fact: This may have been true at one point, but the bias against online degrees is growing less prevalent by the year as more and more online graduates get into the workforce and succeed at the jobs they're given. Studies show that 3 out of 4 employers have embraced online degrees as no different from their campus-based counterparts, and the upward trend in reputation is expected to continue.

How can I enroll in an online forensic science degree program?

If you're confident that forensic science is the degree for you, the best way to move forward is to make contact with the admissions departments at schools that look right for you. Browse our listings below, pick out a few institutions to learn more about and get in touch to find out exactly what it takes to get your forensic science degree online or on-campus.

Sources:

  1. College Navigator, National Center for Education Statistics, accessed March 18, 2016, http://nces.ed.gov/collegenavigator/
  2. School pages, accessed March 25, 2016: Forensic Science Technology Associate of Applied Science, Ogeechee Technical College, http://www.ogeecheetech.edu/docs/d_Programs/Forensics/Forensic%20Science%20Technology%20Associate%20of%20Applied%20Science.pdf; Course List for Forensic Science Associate Degree (AAS), Fox Valley Technical College, http://www.fvtc.edu/courses/public-safety/law-enforcement/10-504-4/forensic-science; Forensic Science, Associate of Science, Prince Georges Community College, http://www.pgcc.edu/Programs_and_Courses/Program_Detail.aspx?programID=6442462405; Online Bachelor's Degree in Investigative Forensics, University of Maryland University College, http://www.umuc.edu/academic-programs/bachelors-degrees/investigative-forensics-major.cfm; Bachelor of Science in Forensic Science, Grand Canyon University, http://www.gcu.edu/degree-programs/bachelor-science-forensic-science; Bachelor of Science in Forensic Science, Columbia College, http://www.ccis.edu/day/academics/degrees.asp?BSFS; Forensic Science Certificate, University of North Texas, http://catalog.unt.edu/preview_program.php?catoid=5&poid=955&returnto=225; Certificate in Forensic Science, International Forensic Research Institute, Florida International University, http://ifri.fiu.edu/academic-programs/certificate-in-forensic-science/; Forensic Science Certificate, Hamline University, https://www.hamline.edu/cla/criminal-justice-forensic-science/forensic-science-certificate/; Online Undergraduate Criminal Forensics Certificate Program, Colorado State University Global Campus, https://csuglobal.edu/undergraduate/programs/certificates-completion/criminal-forensics; Forensic Science, Arcadia University, https://www.arcadia.edu/academics/programs/forensic-science; Forensic Science Graduate Program, University of California Davis, http://forensicscience.ucdavis.edu/program-overview/; Master's Degree in Forensic Science, University of Florida, http://forensicscience.ufl.edu/programs/masters-degree/ms-forensic-science/; Master's in Forensic Science, Stevenson University, http://www.stevenson.edu/graduate-professional-studies/graduate-programs/forensic-science/; The Department of Forensic Sciences, The George Washington University, https://forensicsciences.columbian.gwu.edu/; Ph.D. in Forensic Science, Sam Houston State University, http://www.shsu.edu/graduate-catalog/2013-2015/forensic-science/doctorate-of-philosophy-in-forensic-science.html#degree-requirements; Graduate Certificate in Forensic Investigation, The George Washington University, https://forensicsciences.columbian.gwu.edu/graduate-certificate-forensic-investigation; Forensic Science Graduate Certificate, University of Florida, http://forensicscience.ufl.edu/programs/graduate-certificate/; Forensic Sciences Graduate Certificate Program, Iowa State University, http://anthro.iastate.edu/graduate/forensic-sciences/; Graduate Certificate in Forensic and Crime Scene Investigations, http://www.nu.edu/OurPrograms/CollegeOfLettersAndSciences/MathematicsAndNaturalSciences/Programs/GraduateCertificateinForensicandCrimeSceneInvestigati.html;
  3. Occupational Outlook Handbook, Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, accessed March 18, 2016: Forensic Science Technicians, http://www.bls.gov/ooh/life-physical-and-social-science/forensic-science-technicians.htm; Biological Technicians, http://www.bls.gov/ooh/Life-Physical-and-Social-Science/Biological-technicians.htm; Chemical Technicians, http://www.bls.gov/ooh/life-physical-and-social-science/chemical-technicians.htm; Agricultural and Food Science Technicians, http://www.bls.gov/ooh/life-physical-and-social-science/agricultural-and-food-science-technicians.htm; Environmental Science and Protection Technicians, http://www.bls.gov/ooh/life-physical-and-social-science/environmental-science-and-protection-technicians.htm; Medical and Clinical Laboratory Technologists and Technicians, http://www.bls.gov/ooh/healthcare/medical-and-clinical-laboratory-technologists-and-technicians.htm;
  4. May 2014 National Occupational and Wage Estimates, Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, accessed March 18, 2016, http://www.bls.gov/oes/current/oes_nat.htm
  5. Forensic Science Technicians, Occupational Employment and Wages, May 2014, accessed March 29, 2016, http://www.bls.gov/oes/current/oes194092.htm
  6. Real forensic scientists shake their heads at TV 'CSI' counterparts, Deseret News, accessed March 29, 2016, http://www.deseretnews.com/article/705395141/Real-forensic-scientists-shake-their-heads-at-TV-CSI-counterparts.html?pg=all
  7. What Employers Really Think About Your Online Bachelor's Degree, accessed March 29, 2016, http://www.usnews.com/education/online-education/articles/2014/02/28/what-employers-really-think-about-your-online-bachelors-degree
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