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01

01. An Introduction to Forensics

Forensic science is the application of scientific principles and procedures to the law. Many students think forensic science jobs are glamorous professions due to the popularity of television crime shows. But in reality, forensic scientists spend far more time analyzing potential evidence in the lab than they do at crime scenes.

If you decide to study forensic science, you will learn how to gather and analyze criminal evidence. You can work for law enforcement or at scientific laboratories. But first, you will need to earn a degree in forensic science. Although you can also qualify for forensics jobs with a bachelors degree in the natural sciences, like chemistry, biochemistry or biology, you should plan to get a graduate degree in forensic science if you want to work in this field.

You will have many educational options if you choose to earn a forensic science degree. For instance, at many schools for forensic science, you can earn both traditional and online forensic science degrees. And you can study both undergraduate and graduate programs in forensic science, although you will have a hard time finding a school that offers an associate degree in forensic science since the subject is so specialized.

02

02. Forensics Defined

Although there are several forensic science jobs, most forensic scientists help law enforcement officers to investigate crimes by analyzing evidence left at crime scenes like fingerprints, DNA and hair. They also write reports and are frequently asked to testify in court about their findings. But not all careers in forensic science lead to work in criminal justice. For instance, some forensic scientists work on civil cases, like forensic handwriting experts.

03

03. Things to Consider

Professional Certifications

If you choose to pursue this career path, you will have the option to obtain numerous professional certifications in different fields of forensic science. Certification typically requires that you work in the field for a number of years, pay a fee and pass an exam. You can earn forensic science certification in the following areas:

For more details about these professional forensic science certifications, see the Forensic Specialties Accreditation Board.

04

04. Types of Forensics Professions

A lot of students who earn degrees in forensic science continue their education in other fields. Therefore, some of the more common jobs in forensic science and in related fields include:

Evidence Technician

Job Description
Evidence technicians work for law enforcement agencies. Their tasks can vary according to their employer, but they are often responsible for receiving, cataloging and storing evidence in criminal cases. They also carefully package and ship evidence to laboratories for forensic analysis.
Average Salary
$49,000
Education Required
Associates (2 years)
Work Environment
Law enforcement agencies

Crime Scene Investigator

Job Description
Crime scene investigators create records of the appearance of a crime scene. They visit the scene and carefully document it by taking photographs, taking notes, and collecting physical evidence. In addition, crime scene investigators sometimes help forensic pathologists to collect biological evidence from bodies.
Average Salary
$56,000
Education Required
Bachelors (4 years)
Work Environment
Law enforcement agencies, criminal courts

Criminalist

Job Description
Criminalists may also be known as crime lab analysts. Criminalists identify and analyze evidence from crime scenes. They document their findings and speculations through written reports. They also frequently are called to testify in court. Sometimes they specialize in a certain type of evidence, like firearms examiner or document examiner.
Average Salary
$61,000
Education Required
Bachelors (4 years)
Work Environment
Law enforcement agencies, criminal courts

Forensic Pathologist

Job Description
Forensic pathologists are medical doctors who identify the cause of death when someone is killed through homicide, natural causes or other means. They look for external damages like traumatic wounds, and they perform autopsies to examine internal organs. In addition, they write reports about their findings and testify in court.
Average Salary
$201,000
Education Required
Doctorate (4 – 7 years of graduate school)
Work Environment
Coroners’ offices, morgues, criminal courts

Forensic Anthropologist

Job Description
Forensic anthropologists examine skeletal remains. They assist coroners and medical examiners to identify badly decomposed bodies and unidentified remains. For instance, forensic anthropologists can determine whether remains are human. If so, they can often tell the age, gender, ethnicity and health of the person who died.
Average Salary
$104,000
Education Required
Doctorate (4 – 7 years of graduate school)
Work Environment
Government agencies, research laboratories, civil and criminal courts

Forensic Odontologist

Job Description
Forensic odontologists use dental knowledge to identify human remains. After catastrophic events with many fatalities, like airplane crashes, floods and earthquakes, dental records are relied on to determine the identities of victims.
Average Salary
$162,190
Education Required
Doctorate (4 – 7 years of graduate school)
Work Environment
Government agencies, civil and criminal courts

Forensic Toxicologist

Job Description
Forensic toxicologists examine biological fluids like blood and urine to determine whether they contain evidence of drugs, alcohol and poisons. They often work with law enforcement to determine whether suspects were intoxicated during a crime. In addition, they help perform workplace drug testing and work with forensic pathologists to determine whether drugs contributed to the cause of death of a victim.
Average Salary
$61,000
Education Required
Doctorate (4 – 7 years of graduate school)
Work Environment
Research laboratories
05

05. Career Outlook

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, there were approximately 13,000 forensic scientists working in the United States in 2010. However, forensic science job growth is expected to increase by 19% through the year 2020. Approximately 30% of all forensic science careers are with state and local government agencies, and another 16% of these jobs are with medical and diagnostic laboratories.

Forensic Science Professionals Employed Nationally

2010
13,000
2020
15,400

Many students are curious about how job options relate to forensic science pay. The increase in demand for qualified forensic scientists result in competitive forensic science salaries. Even so, your forensic science salary will vary according to your position. For instance, if you earn a doctorate, you are likely to experience a much higher salary for forensic science than you would earn in an evidence technician position.

Previous salary growth information for forensic scientists are shown below:

Average Salary growth

2007
$50,310
2008
$52,960
2009
$55,070
2010
$55,040
2011
$55,660

Salary by Percentile

10th Percentile
$32,760
25th Percentile
$40,790
50th Percentile
$52,180
75th Percentile
$67,160
90th Percentile
$84,980
06

06. The Educational Timeline

If you want a career in forensic science, you should expect to spend at least 4 years at a forensic science school. That is because you need to earn at least a bachelors degree in forensic science or 1 of the life sciences. But if you want a more specialized forensic science career, you will need to get a masters or a doctorate in the specialized field that you want to study, like anthropology. Masters degrees usually take 2 to 3 years to earn, while doctoral degrees typically take 4 to 7 years of study. For medical degrees, that time period may be extended due to internships, residencies and fellowships. Therefore, it could take up to 13 years to finish your forensic science education, depending on the career that you choose to pursue.

07

07. Studying Forensics

You will gain the following knowledge and skills in your forensic science program:

KNOWLEDGE

Forensic Chemistry

Forensic chemistry uses the principles of chemistry to identify and analyze evidence. It teaches students how to examine chemical evidence such as explosives or fragments of cloth that are left at crime scenes. Students also learn how to test people for intoxication by examining blood alcohol levels.

Forensic Biology

Forensic biology pertains to biological evidence that is left at crime scenes. Biological evidence refers to things like tissue samples, stray hairs, blood and other bodily fluids. Forensic biology classes teach ways to analyze the properties of such evidence in a lab in order to confirm the identity of suspects or victims. Classes also include laboratory work in the extraction and analysis of DNA.

Criminal Evidence

Criminal evidence classes discuss the procedures for using physical evidence in the criminal justice system. It discusses legal considerations like search and seizure and the rules that govern what evidence can be used in a court of law. It also emphasizes the importance of documenting the “chain of custody,” which is a record of the people who have had physical possession of a piece of evidence.

Crime Scene Investigation

Crime scene investigation is the study of documenting and collecting physical evidence of a crime at the location that it took place. Students learn to recognize physical evidence and to document their investigation with notes, sketches and photographs. This subject also teaches students to write reports about their findings.

Courtroom Proceedings

The study of courtroom proceedings teaches the procedures of a criminal justice trial by judge and jury. Forensic scientists may be asked to give testimony, so this subject will teach them about courtroom expectations and proceedings so that they will be prepared to provide expert testimony by explaining their findings under oath.

SKILLS

Documentation

Proper documentation is important because any misleading evidence can be thrown out in trial. Your forensic science courses will teach you to document your work with notes, photographs and sketches. You will also learn technical writing skills so that you can write clean and legible reports on your findings.

Public Speaking

You will need to be a proficient public speaker since your career as a forensic scientist will require you to give expert testimony in court before judges and juries. For example, you will need to explain the significance of your analysis in simple and clear language that the average person understands.

Laboratory Techniques

Many of your forensic science courses will include an important laboratory component. Before you can work in the lab, you will learn lab protocol like sterilizing your equipment to keep it free from contamination. You will also learn to use scientific equipment like fume hoods, microscopes and measuring devices.

Critical Thinking

As you progress through your forensic science curriculum, you will build your skills in critical thinking. You will use logic to solve problems and you will be able to look at many different scenarios for a crime before jumping to a conclusion. In addition, you will look at a body of evidence and consider all of the possible answers before you decide your theory.

Teamwork

Crime solving and forensic science are team efforts that will require you to work together with others. In your classes, you will participate in mock crime scene investigations and mock trials with your classmates to simulate life as a forensic scientist. And on the job, you will coordinate investigations with other scientists, law enforcement officers, attorneys and others.

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08. Types of Forensics Degrees

You can earn every level of education in the field of forensic science, including associates, bachelors, masters and doctoral degrees. You can also earn undergraduate and graduate certificates in the field. Although a forensic science associates degree program is rare, a few are available. Even so, an associates in forensic science is not enough to qualify you for most positions in the field. But a bachelors or masters in forensic science will qualify you for most positions in forensic science. Finally, a doctorate in forensic science will allow you to pursue research positions or qualify you for specialized positions.

  • Certificate
  • Associates Degrees
  • Bachelors Degrees
  • Masters Degrees
  • Doctorate Degrees

Certificate

If you want to learn about forensic science without putting in the time to earn a full degree, you may want to consider earning a certificate. Forensic science certificates can be useful if you are trying to get started in this field or a related field like law enforcement, healthcare or public administration. Remember that you can earn a certificate in forensic science at the undergraduate or graduate level. You can also pursue your certificate through traditional universities and a few online colleges for forensic science.

Types of Forensic Science Certificates

Undergraduate Certificate

Undergraduate forensic science certificate programs are intended to supplement bachelors or associates degree programs in related fields. But some undergraduate certificates are open to all students who are interested in forensic science.

Graduate Certificate

Graduate certificate programs are best for people who have a bachelors degree in the natural sciences and want to work in forensic science. Graduate certificates are also useful for forensic science professionals who are seeking career advancement.

Length of Forensic Science Certificate Programs

Undergraduate Certificates

Although there are some longer forensic science undergraduate certificates, most consist of 12 to 18 credit hours and take less than a year to complete.

Graduate Certificates

Graduate certificate programs in forensic science usually consist of 15 to 18 credit hours. Therefore, these programs usually take less than 1 year to complete. But you can earn an online forensic science certificate, which may mean that you can complete this certificate in even less time.

Common Courses in Forensic Science Certificate Programs

Undergraduate Certificate Courses

If you want to earn an undergraduate certificate in forensic science, the best forensic science colleges will require you to take basic science courses in chemistry and biology. You will also take classes like criminalistics, forensic analysis and trace evidence. And depending on your program, you may take specialized courses like fingerprint analysis or crime scene photography.

Graduate Certificate Courses

Courses in graduate-level forensic science certificate programs will build on your background in the natural sciences that you should have earned during your undergraduate education. Your exact classes might vary by program, but at a good forensic science college you will be likely to take courses in criminalistics, forensic analysis and trace evidence, similar to an undergraduate certificate.

Jobs That You Can Secure With a Certificate in Forensic Science

Undergraduate Certificates

By itself, an undergraduate certificate in forensic science will not qualify you for most jobs in this field. However, if you also have a background in subjects like chemistry or computer science, certificates can help you to stand out among your job competition.

Graduate Certificates

A graduate certificate in forensic science can help you to become a crime scene investigator, a criminalist or a forensic computer examiner. However, that depends on your background. Your certificate will not be very useful unless you already have a science background.

Studying Online for a Certificate in Forensic Science

If you are interested in taking online forensic science courses, you may have some options. As of 2012, you cannot earn a forensic science certificate online at the undergraduate level. However, some online forensic science schools do offer graduate-level forensic science online classes that lead to a certificate. Even so, a graduate certificate from an online forensic science school is generally not a good idea. If you take online classes for forensic science, you cannot conduct laboratory work, which is a major component of forensic science. But if you have gained practical lab experience during your bachelors degree or while working in the field, considering online schools for forensic science might be a good option for your graduate certificate.

Associates Degree

Very few forensic science associates degrees exist. If you do manage to find either a traditional or online associates degree in forensic science program, you should only pursue that degree if you plan to transfer your credits into a bachelors degree program at a 4-year college for forensic science.

Bachelors Degree

You can earn a bachelors degree in forensic science at many schools. Even so, many forensic science professionals do not hold a bachelor in forensic science. More commonly, forensic scientists earn bachelors degrees in the natural sciences and gain specialized training later through a forensic science masters degree program.

Types of Forensic Science Bachelors Degrees

Bachelor of Science (BS) in Forensic Science

A BS in forensic science teaches the basic math, science and lab skills of forensic science. This degree will prepare you for a variety of entry-level positions in the field.

Bachelor of Science (BS) with a Focus on Forensics

A BS degree in the natural sciences, like chemistry or biology, with a concentration in forensics is a good option if your school does not offer a specialized forensic science degree.

Bachelor of Science (BS) in Forensic Chemistry

A BS in forensic chemistry focuses on the applications of chemistry to forensic analysis. This degree is a good option if you want to work in crime laboratories.

Length of Forensic Science Bachelors Degree Programs

A forensic science bachelor degree usually consists of about 120 credit hours. Therefore, students are usually able to complete a forensic science bachelors degree in about 4 years.

Common Courses in Forensic Science Bachelors Degree Programs

At the top colleges for forensic science, you can expect to take the most common courses for forensic science, like chemistry, biology, criminalistics, basic forensic analysis, trace evidence, criminal justice and report writing. In addition, some programs allow you to take very specialized courses like crime scene reconstruction and identification of skeletal remains. And while it is usually not a good idea to pursue forensic science classes online, if they have a lab component you may be able to learn forensic theory through forensic science online courses. Make sure that you research any school for forensic science that offers forensic science courses online so that you can be sure that its program is reputable.

Jobs That You Can Secure With a Bachelors Degree in Forensic Science

A bachelors degree in forensic science will qualify you to work as a crime scene investigator, criminalist and crime lab examiner. In addition, keep in mind that chemistry degrees can give you most of the fundamental science and lab skills that you need to perform these jobs. And a degree in biology, biochemistry or genetic engineering will qualify you to work as a DNA analyst or forensic serologist, who examines blood and other bodily fluids.

Choosing a School to Attend for a Bachelors Degree in Forensic Science

Although you can earn forensic science degrees at many schools, the top schools for forensic science are accredited. Therefore, you should look for forensic science universities with accreditation from the Forensic Science Education Programs Accreditation Commission (FEPAC). But in 2012, there were only 17 FEPAC-accredited universities for forensic science. So if you cannot attend 1 of the best colleges for forensic science, you should compare the curriculum at the school that you are considering with the course requirements of a FEPAC-accredited program to make sure that you will be getting your money’s worth from a school.

Studying Online for a Bachelors Degree in Forensic Science

Many students are curious about forensic science online schools, but as of 2012, there were no accredited online bachelors in forensic science. That is because forensic science classes require students to master laboratory techniques, which are impossible to learn through an online bachelor degree in forensic science. However, even though you should not earn an online forensic science degree, bachelors degrees are offered online in related subjects. Therefore, you could earn your undergraduate degree online in a field like criminal justice and then apply to a traditional forensic science graduate program.

Masters Degree

A masters in forensic science will train you for the majority of forensic science careers. Whether you have just finished your undergraduate degree or you are a professional seeking career advancement, you will gain job skills in a forensic science masters program. Some programs have a narrow focus, while others are broad enough to appeal to people in fields like criminal justice and law enforcement. You can earn masters degrees through forensic science online degree programs and at traditional universities.

Types of Forensic Science Masters Degrees

Master of Science (MS) in Forensic Science

The MS in forensic science provides a general education in forensic science. The MS degree is preferable if you want to earn a broad forensics education.

Master of Science (MS) in Criminalistics

The MS degree in criminalistics teaches skills in lab analysis and evaluation of physical evidence. This option is best if you want to work in a forensics lab.

Master of Science (MS) in Forensic Biology

The MS in forensic biology is also called “forensic genetics.” This degree prepares you to work as a DNA analyst in crime laboratories.


Master of Science (MS) in Biomedical Forensic Sciences

The MS in biomedical forensic sciences focuses on biology and the human body. This degree prepares you for a variety of specialized jobs in the field.

Length of Forensic Science Masters Degree Programs

Most masters degree programs in forensic science require students to complete 35 to 48 credit hours, which means that students can generally earn their degrees in 2 to 3 years. But keep in mind that some online masters in forensic science programs can take less time since you can arrange your own schedule.

Common Courses in Forensic Science Masters Degree Programs

As a masters student in forensic science, you will need to choose a concentration, like criminalistics or forensic biology. A lot of your coursework will consist of electives in your concentration. But no matter what your area of focus, the best forensic science programs offer core courses like crime scene reconstruction, trace evidence analysis, forensic serology and DNA analysis. You are also likely to take classes in forensic toxicology and legal issues. In addition, if you decide to get an MS in forensic science, you will probably need to write a thesis based on your original research into forensic science issues. Writing a thesis is a particularly valuable experience if you plan to apply to forensic science PhD programs.

Jobs That You Can Secure With a Masters Degree in Forensic Science

If you go to graduate school for forensic science, you will increase your career prospects immensely. A masters degree qualifies you for most jobs in forensic science. Some of the jobs that you could do with this level of education include crime scene investigator, criminalist and crime lab analyst.

Choosing a School to Attend for a Masters Degree in Forensic Science

There are a couple of things that you should look for if you want to attend the top forensic science graduate programs. First, you should look for a program that is accredited by the Forensic Science Education Programs Accreditation Commission (FEPAC). Although you can earn a good education from a program that is not accredited, FEPAC accreditation takes the guesswork out of your choice because you can be sure that you will earn a quality education if your program is accredited.

In addition to accreditation, you should inquire about the quality of the labs that you will get to use. The best forensic science graduate programs have technical resources for their students like state-of-the-art equipment and laboratories.

Admissions Requirements for Masters Degree Programs in Forensic Science

Top forensic science colleges require masters degree applicants to have bachelors degrees in forensic science or 1 of the natural sciences like chemistry, biology or biochemistry.

Studying Online for a Masters Degree in Forensic Science

A number of schools offer forensic science degrees online at the masters level. If you are interested in forensic science online graduate programs, you need to consider your level of practical experience in forensics. In general, it is not a good idea to enroll in an MS forensic science online program. But if you are considering earning your forensic science masters degree online because you are not able to attend an on-campus program, keep in mind that you will not be able to learn laboratory techniques through a forensic science online degree. Therefore, if students have no experience in the lab, earning forensic science degrees online will greatly hinder both their success in the field and their job prospects.

However, if you are currently a forensic science or law enforcement professional with experience in the hands-on skills of this field, you may want to consider an online masters degree in forensic science. In an online forensic science program, you can learn the advanced theory of forensic science, which may be enough to qualify you for a promotion. Forensic science online degree programs are not as good as offline programs, but any education is better than none.

Doctorate

A doctorate in forensic science is the highest degree that you can get in this field. Only medical schools and the best schools for forensic science offer doctorates, which require intensive research and dedication.

Types of Forensic Science Doctorates

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

PhD programs are available in forensic chemistry, forensic biochemistry and forensic plant pathology. This degree is best if you want to conduct research or teach in forensic science.

Doctor of Medicine (MD)

MD programs in forensic science train students to work as medical doctors. The MD is preferable if you want to become a pathologist or medical examiner.

Doctor of Dental Surgery (DDS)

DDS programs train students to become dentists, and you can choose to concentrate in forensics. These programs are ideal if you want to work as as forensic odontologist.

Length of Forensic Science Doctorate Programs

PhD programs generally take 4 to 7 years to complete since students must earn 60 to 72 credit hours. But MD and DDS programs can take up to 12 years to finish when you factor in residencies and fellowships.

Common Courses in Forensic Science Doctorate Programs

The top forensic science programs at the PhD level require you to take classes like criminalistics, toxicology, spectroscopy, serology and genetic marker identification. And since the PhD requires so much original research, you will take many specialized courses in your area of interest.

If you decide to earn an MD, you will take classes like anatomy, biochemistry, physiology, pathology and medical ethics. But remember that you may not take a forensic science course until you are well into your program. The same goes for a DDS program. You will take similar classes, including anatomy, microbiology, biochemistry and physiology.

Jobs That You Can Secure With a Doctorate in Forensic Science

The jobs that you are qualified for with a doctorate vary according to the specific degree that you earn. For instance, with a PhD in forensic science, you can teach classes in forensic science at a college or university and conduct research. But if you earn an MD, you can work in a coroner’s office as a pathologist or medical examiner. And with a DDS, you can become a forensic odontologist.

Choosing a School to Attend for a Doctorate in Forensic Science

Not all forensic science graduate schools offer the same opportunities. So when you are researching forensic science schools online, you should keep a few things in mind. First, consider that some programs partner with forensic science agencies. If that is the case, the school’s curriculum may be of higher quality since it is likely to have been designed by practicing professionals at forensic science laboratories. Second, you should investigate how much funding the programs that you are considering receive. Programs with more money will be able to provide students with better laboratories and state-of-the-art facilities.

There are special requirements for MD and DDS programs too. If you are considering applying to an MD program, you should only attend schools that are accredited by the Liaison Committee on Medical Education (LCME). This is important because you cannot be licensed as a medical practitioner unless you graduate from an accredited medical school. And for a DDS program, you should only attend a school that is accredited by the American Dental Association Commission on Dental Accreditation.

Admissions Requirements for Doctorate Programs in Forensic Science

If you want to earn a PhD in forensic science, you need to have a bachelors degree in forensic science or 1 of the life sciences, like biology or chemistry. But medical schools and dental schools have different admissions requirements. To apply to medical school, you need at least 3 years of undergraduate pre-medical work, including courses in physics, biology, mathematics and chemistry. And for dental school, you need 2 to 3 years of college-level pre-dental classes in biology, chemistry, physics, health and mathematics.

Studying Online for a Doctorate in Forensic Science

Although many students are curious about online forensic science programs, you cannot earn an online PhD in forensic science. PhD programs require immense amounts of research, so you could not complete a forensic science degree online at this stage of education. Likewise, there are no forensic science online colleges for medical and dental programs, which you also cannot earn online. They require laboratory work and clinical experience working with patients, so online degrees are impossible. However, you may be able to find a program that offers knowledge and skills that are similar to those that you would gain by earning an online degree in forensic science. For example, you could look into online PhD programs in criminal justice.