Forensic science degree programs

Back in the 1950s, Joe Friday was the stereotypical crime-buster. As the star character on "Dragnet," he unearthed the truth by questioning those involved and making sure they knew "all we want are the facts." Today, technology has taken the criminal justice field to places Joe Friday couldn't have imagined. Rather than relying on witnesses to provide just the facts, law enforcement officials turn to forensic scientists to review crime scenes, analyze evidence and uncover the minute details that could crack a case. It's a complex job, and the education needed to be a forensic scientist can be quite specific. If you're wondering what you need to do to become a crime scene investigator, keep reading to learn more about the degrees you can pursue and how you can position yourself to become an expert in the field.

What crime scene investigator training do you need?

Depending on your career goals and any prior education you might have, crime scene investigator requirements may differ. While associate degree and certificate programs exist, the American Academy of Forensic Sciences (AAFS) indicates most jobs in the field require at least a bachelor's degree. Here are the main types of programs offered by crime scene investigator schools:

Certificates

Crime science technician and forensic science certificates may be offered at the undergraduate and graduate level. While these certificates on their own may lead to entry-level positions, they may be more commonly used by students who are already pursuing a degree in criminal justice or a related field. The certificate complements their degree program and demonstrates competency in forensic science without requiring the student to earn a separate degree in the field.

Associate degree

Similarly, an associate degree in criminal investigations, forensic science or a related field may also be used for some entry-level jobs. However, those who want to widen their job opportunities may be better served by using their associate degree as the basis for a bachelor's degree. This makes associate degrees a good option for students who want to minimize their time out of the workforce, as they can pursue a job that requires a two-year degree and begin building their professional experience while they work toward a four-year degree and better career possibilities.

Bachelor's degree

According to both the AAFS and the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), a bachelor's degree is the standard level of education for forensic science technicians, criminalists and others to begin working in the field. These degrees, which typically take full-time students about four years to complete, can be offered under a variety of names including forensic sciences, criminal justice and criminology. What the degree is called is less important than the instruction it provides. The AAFS notes criminalists need to have a strong background in the following subjects:

  • Biology
  • Chemistry
  • Math

Master's degree

Finally, some students may choose to earn a graduate degree in forensic science. Students studying at this level may want to improve their opportunities for advancement in the field, or they may be studying in order to specialize their knowledge in a specific area of forensics or criminal justice. In some cases, students may earn a master's degree in forensic science after earning a bachelor's degree in a natural science field such as biology, chemistry or physics.

Before enrolling in a program not specifically named for forensic science, students should check with the school to determine its curriculum and whether it is suitable for a career as a crime scene investigator.

What colleges have degrees for crime scene investigators?

In addition to selecting the right degree program, students should consider their school choices. While most forensic science degrees are offered on campus, there are online schools for crime scene investigation. These schools may offer certificates, associate, bachelor's or even master's degrees, with some being available for completion entirely online.

Regardless of whether they are considering an online or on-campus program, students should ask the following questions to find the school that best fits their career goals.

  • What types of positions do recent graduates hold?
  • Does the program provide sufficient instruction in science and math?
  • If offered online, are there on-campus requirements?
  • Do students need to study full-time or can they enroll on a part-time basis?
  • For online programs, must students log in at certain times for lectures and discussions, or can they review class materials at their convenience?

To find online and on-campus programs in your area, check out the School Finder's list of crime scene forensics programs, or contact your local community colleges and universities to learn about their course offerings. The Forensic Science Education Programs Accreditation Commission also has a list of accredited programs on its website, including colleges in both the U.S. and Canada.

What certifications should you get after graduation?

With technology constantly evolving, the AAFS says criminalists should take continuing education courses throughout their career to stay current on the latest advanced in forensic science.

In addition, professionals in the field have the opportunity to pursue voluntary certification through the American Board of Criminalistics. The board offers a general certification as well specialty credentials in the following areas:

  • Molecular biology
  • Drug chemistry
  • Fire debris analysis
  • Trace evidence - hairs and fibers
  • Trace evidence - paint and polymers

To receive certification, applicants must hold a baccalaureate degree or the equivalent, have two years of professional experience and be actively working in the field of criminalistics. Although not required, certification can demonstrate mastery in a particular area of forensic science and potentially lead to new job opportunities.

Sources:

"So You Want to Be a Forensic Scientist!," American Academy of Forensic Sciences,
http://aafs.org/students/student-career/choosing-career

Criminalists - Education and Training, American Academy of Forensic Sciences,
http://aafs.org/students/student-career/criminalistics-education-training

Eligibility Requirements, American Board of Criminalistics,
http://www.criminalistics.com/WebPages.cfm?action=viewCat&BIZ_UNL_id=3783

Accredited Universities, Forensic Science Education Programs Accreditation Commission,
http://fepac-edu.org/accredited-universities

Forensic Science Technicians, "Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2014-15 Edition," Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Jan. 8, 2014,
http://www.bls.gov/ooh/life-physical-and-social-science/forensic-science-technicians.htm