By obtaining their forensic science degree, online students prepare for positions like toxicologists, laboratory directors, private investigators, and analytical chemists. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects significant growth for careers in this field. For example, the BLS projects employment for forensic science technicians to increase 17% through 2026.
This guide helps prospective students find the online program that suits their financial needs and professional goals. The guide provides information about academic majors, accreditation, specializations, program structures, and sample coursework. Students can also learn about typical admission requirements and the application process, and the guide covers career options and professional development resources.
Overview of Forensic Science Degrees
Undergraduate-level online forensic science degrees introduce students to core topics in law, criminology, and scientific research. Many schools offer a standalone forensic science program, while others provide a forensic science concentration in a general criminal justice program. While students may use the terms criminology and criminal justice interchangeably, distinctions do exist between the two fields of study.
Criminologists study crime as a social phenomenon, applying psychological, developmental, and sociological theories. Criminal justice professionals work within the U.S. criminal justice system to reduce crime, punishing and rehabilitating offenders. Forensic scientists combine these two disciplines, using criminological concepts and criminal justice skills in a laboratory setting to analyze and present evidence.
Students earning a forensic science degree master fundamentals of mathematics and the physical sciences, primarily chemistry, biology, and physics. Students engage in classroom discussions and complete laboratory training. Because of the practical training most forensic science programs require, online students typically complete coursework in a hybrid format, occasionally attending classes and intensive experiences on campus. Learners can sometimes apply relevant career experience toward laboratory requirements. Fully online degree completion pathways are also available.
Students pursuing a forensic science degree online must typically meet general undergraduate admission criteria. Requirements for first-time students generally include a minimum GPA that ranges from 2.0-3.0. While an increasing number of online schools do not require standardized testing, many institutions still require minimum ACT or SAT scores. According to the College Board, the freshman class of 2018 earned a mean SAT score of 1068 -- 536 in the evidence-based reading and writing sections and 531 in the math section.
Applicants must often submit academic transcripts, a personal statement, a professional resume or CV, and recommendation letters. Students pursuing a forensic science degree may also need to complete prerequisite classes before enrolling. Preparatory topics may include college algebra, law enforcement communications, and introduction to forensic investigations. Online colleges may require applicants to have 20-30 transferable credits, usually in general education coursework, to enroll in accelerated or degree completion programs.
International applicants must typically complete immigration interviews and obtain an F1 student visa. Depending on their home country, international candidates may also need to demonstrate English language proficiency by submitting IELTS or TOEFL scores. All students should confirm specifics requirements with admissions counselors.
What Will I Learn?
To earn an accredited online forensic science degree, undergraduate students typically complete about 120 credits of coursework. Curricula vary by program, but most include about 60 credits of general education coursework in state-designated areas including liberal arts, math, and science. General education classes help students develop the communication, critical-thinking, and academic writing skills needed for college success.
The forensic science major typically requires at least 30 credits in core classes such as criminal law, professional ethics, research methods, and the U.S. criminal justice system. Most programs culminate in a capstone experience, which may comprise a senior seminar, a research project, and/or a comprehensive examination. Online students typically take exams under the supervision of a local, school-approved proctor. Students complete remaining credits through elective coursework, which learners can apply toward a minor or second major.
Crime Scene Investigation
This class provides an overview of the investigative process, including documentation techniques such as sketching, measuring, and photographing. Students also learn to collect and preserve information with regard to type, including impression evidence such as fingerprints and footwear imprints. Learners prepare conduct presumptive tests that assess biological and chemical evidence at crime scenes.
Introduction to Forensic Science
Students learn to conduct scientific analysis of physical evidence for civil and criminal cases. The class covers four core aspects: creation of physical evidence by criminal activity, collection and preservation of evidence, analysis of evidence in a laboratory setting, and presentation of evidence by a scientific expert in court. Additional topics may include analytical chemistry, forensic biology, and pattern analysis.
Forensic Analysis of Drug and Alcohol
This advanced course trains students to analyze and present physical evidence, with an emphasis on controlled substances. Learners explore techniques including microscopy, spectroscopy, toxicology, and chromatography. Students learn about relevant instrumental methods and topics related to quality assurance. They also examine the intersections of law and science, particularly how scientific concepts can serve as evidence during court proceedings.
Criminal Justice Ethics
Students examine the multifarious ethical issues in the U.S. criminal justice system. Using case studies, learners analyze the practices of real law agencies to compare and contrast ethical theories and principles of moral philosophy. Students develop a professional code of conduct based on accountability and personal responsibility, rejecting groupthink.
Cybercrime and Security
This specialized course helps students understand the nature of computer-based crimes. Students learn about preventive methods and security measures that comply with federal and state laws. They also explore investigative methods such as digital analysis. Learners identify and collect digital evidence at a crime scene and report the information verbally and in writing.
Forensic Science Internship: Preparation and Practice
During the preparatory portion of this course, students find an internship that aligns with the outcomes of their online forensic science degree. They prepare for interviews and learn about expectations for forensic science professionals. Students maintain work hours during the practicum, and the faculty adviser and agency head jointly monitor the student's performance and progress.
What Can I Do with an Online Bachelor's Degree in Forensic Science?
This section details the skills forensic science degree candidates gain during classroom instruction and practical training experiences such as internships. Students learn to apply these core skills in professional settings. The section also lists popular roles for graduates, such as laboratory manager, chemist, and forensic scientist. The job profiles contain typical duties, salary potential, and career advancement opportunities. Students can use this information as a foundation for job research and planning.
The general competencies of an online forensic science degree vary by program and student objectives. However, most programs help students develop core skills in theoretical knowledge, the U.S. criminal justice system, ethical standards, quantitative and qualitative analysis, and technological acumen. Most forensic science professionals pursue continuing education to develop additional skills and remain effective in the field.
Students learn to understand and communicate theoretical approaches to deviance, crime, punishment, and rehabilitation. Students also explore the fundamental workings of the American criminal justice system, including legal codes, court procedures, government regulations, and the democratic political process. Students must understand the justice system's limitations and prepare to balance crime control methods with civil liberties by applying ethical and professional standards. All criminal justice professionals must learn to communicate the needs of offenders, victims, and affected communities.
As aspiring scientists, students complete extensive laboratory training, during which they determine, apply, and interpret investigative and forensic research methods. They learn to generate logical theories about crimes by synthesizing diverse information sources. Students pursuing a forensic science degree also learn to use laboratory equipment, electronic tools, and computer hardware and software.
Potential Careers and Salaries
Undergraduate online forensic science degrees prepare students for entry-level careers. Graduates may enter careers in law enforcement, including positions as police officers, corrections officers, and private investigators. Other common roles include crime scene investigators and laboratory technicians.
Forensic scientists may specialize in a particular aspect of the investigative process like serology and toxicology. Graduates can also pursue careers as medical examiners, who evaluate corpses and biological remains. These forensic scientists use techniques in odontology (the study of tooth structure) and entomology (the study of the relationship between insects and their environment) to determine the time and probable cause of a person's death. Specialized occupations may require additional academic training and certification or licensure.
Forensic science degree holders may pursue careers in civil and social justice, including positions as victims' advocates and community educators. Learners who specialize in environmental law may work as park rangers or climate change specialists. Forensic science graduates with a concentration in economic crime may occupy roles as fraud investigators or forensic accountants. The profiles below detail common career opportunities in the field.
Annual Median Salary: $52,758
Working in the field and laboratory settings, these professionals collect, store, analyze, and document physical evidence to aid investigations. They also prepare official reports and testify in court. Forensic scientists generally work for state and local government agencies, but they may also pursue employment at the federal and private levels.
Annual Median Salary: $66,756
These professionals oversee the effectiveness, safety, and maintenance of laboratories. They develop standards, best practices, and training programs for employees. They also work with other organizational leaders to create and implement special projects. Laboratory managers work in diverse settings, including university medical facilities, pharmaceutical corporations, and manufacturing research and development sectors.
Annual Median Salary: $76,280
These material scientists study substances and relevant interactions at the molecular and atomic levels. In a forensic setting, chemists analyze bodies to determine decomposition levels and locate drugs and other controlled substances within bodily fluids. Chemists also work with DNA evidence.
Annual Median Salary: $77,637
Research scientists gather and interpret knowledge and must have substantial academic and professional training. Because their work does not require immediate application, these professionals work primarily in academic settings as researchers, educators, and/or published authors. Research scientists may also create and improve forensic techniques and tools.
Crime Scene Investigator
Annual Median Salary: $45,277
These professionals secure crime scenes and examine details found in the area. They also locate, collect, and evaluate evidence to help prosecutors build cases. Crime scene investigators must be precise, meticulous, and detail-oriented and must maintain objectivity to process information and evidence effectively.
Will I Need a Graduate Degree for a Career in Forensic Science?
An online bachelor's in forensic science qualifies graduates to apply for entry-level occupations in evidence analysis and law enforcement. However, many graduates pursue a master's degree to advance their careers. Advanced forensic science programs emphasize the development of leadership skills necessary for program managers and laboratory directors. These programs typically offer specializations in high-need areas such as toxicology, forensic data analytics, and homeland security. Master's students can also focus on a type of infraction, such as economic crime, environment crime, or cyberattacks.
Forensic science practitioners who choose not to pursue post-baccalaureate credentials may earn optional certifications or licensure. These professional programs typically require one year or less and help individuals develop career-specific skills. For example, the American Board of Forensic Toxicology offers specialized certificates in drug or alcohol toxicology. Similarly, the International Association for Identification offers four levels of certification, from investigator to senior analyst.
Accreditation for Forensic Science Bachelor's Programs
To confer valid online forensic science degrees, colleges and universities must earn national or regional accreditation. Accreditation demonstrates that the institution meets academic, research, and professional standards set by government agencies. Schools obtain national accreditation from agencies recognized by the U.S. Department of Education and the Council for Higher Education Accreditation. Institutions receive regional accreditation from one of seven organizations, depending on location. For example, Michigan colleges earn regional accreditation from the Higher Education Commission. Regional accreditation is more common and more highly regarded than national accreditation, since regional accreditation requires schools to meet both state and federal standards.
In addition to national or regional accreditation, students researching forensic science degrees should look for online programs accredited by the Forensic Science Education Programs Accreditation Commission (FEPAC). Attending an FEPAC-accredited program ensures that students gain skills and credentials aligning with employers' expectations and requirements. A degree from a program with specialized accreditation also qualifies graduates for many major professional certification and licensure programs.
Forensic Science Professional Organizations
Undergraduate students pursuing online forensic science degrees gain the core knowledge and skills needed for entry-level positions and graduate studies. Learners can gain access to career opportunities by joining professional organizations. While membership generally requires an annual fee, member benefits often include scholarships, research grants, and travel funds.
Many professional organizations connect members through online forums, regional meetings, and national or international conferences. These events provide opportunities for professionals to share ideas and collaborate on projects. Forensic science organizations often provide professional development opportunities, such as the certification program from the Association of Firearm and Tool Mark Examiners.
American Academy of Forensic Science
Founded in 1948, the AAFS supports more than 7,000 members, including laboratory examiners, toxicologists, educators, and engineers. The academy helps students find academic programs and plan their careers. AAFS also maintains a searchable career database.
Academy of Criminal Justice Sciences
Established in 1963, AJCS promotes research, education, and policy analysis. In addition to accrediting academic programs, the academy facilitates conferences and award programs. AJCS also offers an employment bulletin through which members can post resumes, find open positions, and discuss career prospects and strategies with other criminal justice professionals.
The Association of Firearm and Tool Mark Examiners
Created in 1969, AFTE works to further research, establish up-to-date best practices, and facilitate information exchange in the forensic science field. The association offers specialized certificates in tool mark evidence, firearm evidence, and gunshot residue. Members also benefit from in-person training opportunities and a scholarship program.