Forensic Science Degree Programs Investigating Evidence to Seek Justice

It seems like crime shows always call on a specialist to scour a crime scene for trace evidence or testify as an expert witness in court. While real forensic science work lacks a sinister soundtrack, professionals in this field do play a vital role in the criminal justice system. Read on to discover the many ways that people interested in a forensic science degree can delve into investigative crime work.

A Quick Look at Forensic Science Degrees

The forensic science field encompasses a wide range of knowledge and employment opportunities. Forensic scientists who participate in criminal investigations may engage with crime scenes, toxicology lab work, criminal pathology, or post-mortem medical examinations, depending on their specialty. They provide scientifically verifiable facts and well-supported, unbiased opinions that help deliver impartial justice. Their job requires precision and detail, crossing between the lab, interview rooms, and the court.

The American Academy
of Forensic Sciences lists 11
different disciplines of
forensic science, including
anthropology, digital and
multimedia sciences,
criminalistics, psychiatry
and behavioral science,
and toxicology.

The first known
forensic science book was
written in the 13th century by
the Chinese judge Song Chi, in
which he detailed proper
autopsy procedures and the
first record of forensic
entomology.

Most forensic science
technicians are employed in
medical and diagnostic
laboratories, followed by state and
local governments, according to
the U.S. Bureau of
Labor Statistics.

Hours and salary for
forensic scientists vary widely
depending on local crime levels.
The states that have the highest
annual salaries for forensic
science technicians are Illinois, the
District of Columbia, California,
Nevada, and Massachusetts,
notes the U.S. Bureau of Labor
Statistics.

Similar Degree Programs

For those who want to participate in the criminal justice system but are not interested in hands-on crime scene work and extensive laboratory testing, there are other education paths that prepare students for investigative or legal work.

  • Criminal Justice

    Degrees in criminal justice explore various aspects of crime, the law, and the justice system. A degree in this field opens up opportunities to work as a private investigator or law enforcement officer; a government agent; court and legal personnel; or in areas of crime-related prevention and support, such as victim help centers or substance abuse programs.

  • Computer Science

    A computer science degree program explores hardware, software, and networks. Computer forensics is a sub-discipline that helps expose criminal activity carried out using technology and establish a solid case based on computer and online evidence.

  • Law

    Undergraduate law programs prepare students for paralegal careers assisting lawyers and conducting legal research. Advanced law degrees explore the U.S. judicial system and legal theory, preparing students to pass the bar exam and practice law as full attorneys.

Degree Options in Forensic Science

The first thing students may notice when researching degree programs is that forensic science fits into different departments depending on the school: chemistry, biology, psychology, or criminal justice. The varied departments reflect the varied job paths possible with a forensic science degree. Generally, students spend undergraduate years finding the area of forensic science that suits them best, while graduate programs are dedicated to narrowing a student’s focus to become an expert capable of testifying in court.

Forensic Science Associate Degrees

Type of Schools:

Community colleges, technical schools

Time to Complete:

18 months to two years

Career Opportunities:

Parole/Probation Officer, Private Security, Entry-Level Forensics Laboratory Technician

An associate degree in forensic science exposes students to the range of topics they can pursue. Classes provide general education, transferable credits, and career preparation. An associate degree is a way to gauge what a student is interested in pursuing, and explore a range of options. There may be different departments supporting a forensic science associate degree: one as an associate in arts and one as an associate in science. Forensic science degrees in the arts explore social, behavior, and psychological classes, while forensic science degrees in science focus on chemistry, biology, and physics.

Since an associate degree in forensic science is designed to prepare students for further education, students are required to take general education classes. The following classes typically form the basic knowledge base for a forensic science associate degree.

Criminal Investigation I

Introduces criminal investigation procedures, including specific investigation tactics for selected offenses, questioning techniques for witnesses and suspects, and common problems in criminal investigations.

Intro to Forensic Science

Students learn to recognize, identify, and evaluate physical evidence, and study the role forensic science plays in modern criminal investigations.

General Chemistry I

Teaches the fundamental principles of chemistry, including the structure of matter, formulas and equations, chemical bonding, and the periodic table.

Forensic Science Analytical Techniques

Introduces the role of the expert witness and proper procedures for handling evidence. It also explores major laboratory techniques in processing evidence.

Forensic Science Bachelor’s Degrees

Type of Schools:

Four-year universities and colleges

Time to Complete:

Four years

Career Opportunities:

Fire and Arson Investigator, Forensic Science Technician, Crime Scene Investigator, Information Security Analyst

A bachelor’s degree in forensic science combines science and law; students explore biology, physics and chemistry as well as criminal justice. Bachelor’s students should know what area of forensic science they wish to focus in, and have some background classes or experience in that area. Bachelor’s degree programs in forensic science prepare students for entry-level positions and for careers in criminal justice and science. Some programs have separate degree tracks for students wishing to specialize in chemistry or biology, and graduates may go on to medical school or graduate forensic science studies.

Students may enter a forensic science bachelor’s degree program with previous coursework credits that fulfill general education requirements, and so they can dive right into forensic science-specific classes such as:

Evidence

Students learn how alleged matters are established or disproved. Emphasizes foundations of courtroom testimony, witness examination, dying declarations, and confessions.

Introduction to Toxicology

An introductory class on what dangerous substances do to living organisms. Topics include the biochemistry of toxic substances within the body, hazards and methods of handling toxic substances, and treatment of their effects.

Arson Investigation

Covers criminal and scientific investigation tactics associated with suspicious fires, including social, psychological and environmental factors associated with arson.

Crime Scene Processing

Teaches the basic techniques and principals used to document, preserve, and collect physical evidence at crime scenes.

Graduate Degrees in Forensic Science

Type of Schools:

Four-year universities and colleges

Time to Complete:

Four years

Career Opportunities:

Drug Laboratory Technician, Toxicologist, Medical Examiner/Coroner, Forensic Science Technician

Applicants for a master’s in forensic science program range from current legal professionals and criminal investigators looking to upgrade their existing skills, to students interested in pursuing a specialized career in the medical or legal fields of criminal justice. Students learn communication skills, current forensic science techniques in the field and in the lab, and greater intricacies of the law and the court system. Programs require laboratory experience, and some programs expect students to have an undergraduate degree in a laboratory science. Graduates can confidently handle crime scene procedures, legal proceedings, profiling, computer and multimedia forensics, and scientific research methodology.

Graduate degrees help students specialize even further and develop specific skills that they can use in the forensic science field. The following are some advanced classes in forensic science that students may take, depending on their interests.

Forensically Oriented Human Anatomy and Physiology

Teaches the fundamentals of human anatomy and physiology, particularly the form and function of the human body.

Trace Evidence

Explores the principals and methods of physical examinations and analysis of trace evidence (such as hair, soil, and fingerprints). Students also learn about the chain of custody and how to serve as expert witnesses in a trial.

Forensic Serology and DNA

Students learn about forensic identification and analysis. They compare biological evidence samples using various tactics, from electrophoresis to DNA extraction and purification procedures.

Forensic Anthropology

Explores how to apply forensic anthropology in a medicolegal setting. Students learn techniques for recovering and identifying individuals, interpreting skeletal features for a biological profile, and determining cause of death from skeletal trauma.

Choosing a Forensic Science Program: Checklist

  • Blend of physical & social sciences

    While chemistry and biology classes are essential components of forensic science degrees, the field requires students to analyze human interactions and psychological principles as well. Understanding how other people think and how to communicate effectively are essential abilities that good programs cultivate in their students.

  • Internship opportunities

    Because forensic science degrees lead to hands-on careers, it is important for students to spend time in labs and in the field. There are strict legal and scientific procedures forensic scientists must follow, and any chance to practice in a professional setting will help students work well under pressure.

  • High-quality laboratory work

    Forensic science relies heavily on biology and chemistry. Testing substances and analyzing trace evidence is a key part of the job, and learning to use state-of-the-art laboratory technology develops these skills.

  • Accreditation

    Students should look for forensic science associate degree programs with accreditation from The Higher Learning Commission. Bachelor’s and graduate degree programs should be accredited by the Forensic Science Education Programs Accreditation Commission. This society evaluates forensic science programs for their quality and research value to the field.

  • Courtroom preparation

    The criminal justice system requires employees involved in investigations to testify in court. As experts in their fields, forensic scientists will have to speak knowledgeably and clearly about their findings. Degree programs should prepare students with public speaking tactics and standard courtroom procedures.

  • Possibilities to explore specialties

    Forensic scientists function in many different areas of the criminal justice system, and students in the early stages of a degree program might delve into several different aspects of the field to find what area interests them most. Narrowing focus to one area should only be necessary in the later stages of a bachelor’s degree or graduate program.

Careers & Specializations for Forensic Science Graduates

Earning a degree in forensic science opens students up to careers across the criminal justice and forensic science spectrum. Explore possible career paths below with information on salary, projected job growth, and the typical education to enter the field.

Forensic Science Technician/Crime Scene Investigator

Projected Job Growth (2014-2024) : 27%
Annual Salary (2014): $55,360
Typical Education: Bachelor’s or graduate degree

Most forensic science technicians and crime scene investigators are employed in local or state governments. They are in charge of collecting, identifying, classifying, and analyzing physical evidence to determine its relevance to a criminal investigation. They may specialize in areas such as ballistics, fingerprinting, handwriting, or biochemistry, and serve as expert witnesses in these areas for court cases. While laboratory forensic science technicians typically work standard hours, crime scene investigators may work extended or unusual hours and travel to crime scenes within their jurisdiction.

Forensic Pathologist/Medical Examiner

Projected Job Growth (2014-2024): N/A
Annual Salary (2014): $100,200
Typical Education: Doctoral degree

Description: Forensic pathologists and medical examiners are required to perform autopsies, assist in investigations of suspicious deaths, and offer an objective, expert opinion in court. Most medical examiners undergo 14 years of education, including four years of medical school and five years of residency training in anatomical and clinical pathology. Employers require a doctorate degree as well as clinical or forensic pathology certification. Overall, their salaries and hours may depend on local crime levels.

Information Security Analyst

Projected Job Growth (2014-2024): 18%
Annual Salary (2014): $88,890
Typical Education: Bachelor’s degree

Description: Information security analysts protect an organization’s computer networks and systems. They plan, upgrade, and monitor technological security measures, and prevent cyberattacks. Information security analysts work for computer companies, consulting firms, and business and financial companies. In the role of computer forensics analysts, they investigate security breaches and recover data. They may also give expert counsel about electronic evidence or train law enforcement officers in computer evidence procedures.

Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (2014)

Fundamental Skills & Experience for Forensic Scientists

  • Objectivity

    Forensic scientists must evaluate evidence without bias. They back their conclusions up with facts based on extensive testing, knowledge, and experience. Forensic scientists must demonstrate integrity as they carry out their duties.

  • Knowledge of laws and legal procedures

    Dealing with evidence, crime scenes, suspects, and law enforcement is an essential part of a forensic scientist’s job. They should be familiar with laws, legal codes, government regulations, court procedures, agency rules, and the justice system’s processes.

  • Public speaking

    As expert witnesses and specialists, forensic scientists will have to testify in court. They must cultivate the ability to maintain professionalism, speak clearly and confidently, and support all of their conclusions with evidence.

  • Attention to detail

    A forensic scientist’s job requires finding the little details that can support larger theories. From a handwriting loop to a fleck of blood, any shred of evidence could be crucial to solving a case.

  • Chemistry experience

    Many forensic science jobs require lab work and chemical testing. This could be to identify trace evidence, analyze DNA, or investigate unknown or toxic substances. Forensic scientists should know chemical compositions and interactions, production techniques, signs that a substance is dangerous, and proper disposal methods.

  • Pass a background check

    Because of the sensitive nature of the information forensic scientists handle, careers in forensic science demand a high level of trust, professionalism, and ethics. Employers perform background checks that review arrest and conviction records, alcohol and drug screenings, credit reports, interviews with acquaintances or friends, and/or polygraph testing.

Ongoing Support for Forensic Scientists