The need for forensic scientists has never been greater. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects a 17% job growth rate for forensic science technicians over the next decade — much higher than the national average for all occupations. An online master's degree in forensic science prepares graduates with the methodological skills and specialized technological applications they need to succeed. Earning an advanced degree opens one to a rapidly expanding and diverse set of careers in forensic psychology, computer forensics, or forensic toxicology.
A master's in forensic science provides bachelor's degree holders a competitive advantage in the marketplace, while established working professionals benefit from career advancement. This guide provides a useful overview of online master's degrees in forensic science and illustrates career possibilities, expected job growth, and salary potential.
Many students enter a master's program in forensic science holding a bachelor's degree in biology, chemistry, or computer science. Others possess a background in criminology or a related social science — or work in law enforcement or another criminal justice field. Program requirements vary by school, but most degrees emphasize critical thinking skills, data analysis, and investigative methods. Students receive hands-on technical training and learn to use current software applications. Both campus-based and online master's in forensic science programs require between 32-40 credits. Most of these curricula culminate with an internship, a fieldwork experience, or a thesis.
Several variables affect the amount of time it takes to earn a master's in forensic science. Depending on the program, full-time students usually take two to three years to complete the degree. Some schools even offer accelerated programs that students can finish in 18 months. Students with work or family responsibilities may enroll in only one or two courses per semester, extending the length of the degree to three or more years.
Each forensic science master's program establishes its own unique curriculum. Programs may offer distinctive electives and specializations in areas like computer forensics, pathology, DNA analysis, and forensic psychology. While requirements differ by school, most programs offer similar core courses in forensic analysis, statistical analysis, and crime scene investigation. The list below provides descriptions of some of the most common course offerings.
This introductory course for first term students in a forensic science master's program examines the collection and uses of scientific physical evidence in the criminal justice system. Topics includes crime scene investigation; generation, preservation, and analysis of physical evidence; ethics and professional responsibility; and quality assurance. The course also introduces students to applications from analytical chemistry, toxicology, and forensic biology.
Forensic psychology applies psychological and behavioral science principles in legal and criminal justice settings. The course covers criminal psychopathology, eyewitness testimony, the insanity defense, and profiling. Students learn to analyze and apply legal definitions including criminal competence, legal insanity, and due process as it pertains to the mentally ill, developmentally disabled, and children.
This course explores the identification and appraisal of biological evidence presented in criminal cases through data interpretation, analysis, and reporting. Forensic biology draws from molecular biology and DNA technologies. The course presents the forensic methods for characterizing body fluids and other biological materials, along with the techniques used to isolate DNA from cells.
Forensic anthropology describes the study of human anatomy and osteology as it applies to criminal investigations. Coursework emphasizes both laboratory processes used by forensic anthropologists and case studies of the application of physical anthropology to legal cases. Students use physical anthropology techniques to analyze both skeletal fragments and badly decomposed or otherwise unidentified human remains.
Students learn the major techniques and procedures for approaching, protecting, and investigating crime scenes. Topics include evidence collection and documentation, presumptive chemical and biological tests, and the collection and preservation of impression evidence, particularly fingerprints and footprints. The course also emphasizes the legal and scientific principles of crime scene searches and seizures.
Many master's programs offer specializations for students to more narrowly focus their interests and career goals. Specializations represent every subfield of forensic science, such as computer forensics, forensic toxicology, and serology. However, each school's program offers a small number of concentrations that generally reflect the research interests and strengths of the faculty. This list provides some representative examples.
This specialization includes courses in forensic biology, forensic molecular biology, DNA analysis, and serology, with research applications in both nuclear and mitochondrial DNA. The primary emphasis lies with practical human DNA typing, while laboratory work also covers trace evidence from nonhuman DNA, including domestic animal remains, insects, and plants at crime scenes.
This specialization trains students to analyze non-biological trace evidence, drugs, and controlled substances found at crime scenes for use in criminal investigations. Coursework includes forensic chemistry and toxicology, forensic pharmacology, drug metabolism, and postmortem toxicology. Students learn about several applications, including gas chromatography and optical analyses like UV, infrared, X-ray, and microscopy.
Students in the computer forensics specialization apply appropriate investigation and analysis techniques to gather and preserve evidence from computing devices for criminal investigations and court presentations. Courses emphasize technological applications and chain-of-evidence documentation. Students become familiar with protocols and procedures for combating computer viruses, identity theft, hacking of government and corporate networks, and consumer fraud.
Most forensic science master's degrees require either a capstone experience or a written thesis. The capstone course — usually completed in a student's final semester — requires students to produce a written paper or formal presentation. These culminating capstone projects integrate core concepts from coursework into a specific forensic application or analysis of a current issue. For example, topics may include an evaluation of facial recognition software or technological advances in DNA testing. A written thesis requires the student to conduct independent research or an in-depth critical evaluation of secondary data under the supervision of a faculty committee. Depending on the program, online students sometimes need to fulfill on-campus residency requirements to complete capstone or research requirements.
Selecting the right online master's degree in forensic science requires some homework. You should investigate factors that indicate educational quality and affordability, such as graduation rates, in-state versus out-of-state tuition costs, the types and availability of electives and specializations, online course delivery formats, and on-campus residency requirements.
If you plan to attend part time, determine whether your intended program delivers courses asynchronously — allowing you the flexibility to progress through the degree at your own pace. If you anticipate enrolling full time, consider whether a program offers an accelerated degree, or whether it groups students together into a cohort that takes synchronously formatted classes at fixed times each term.
Accreditation is one of the most important variables to consider when choosing a program. Not only should you look for regionally or nationally accredited colleges and universities, you should also note those forensic science programs that receive specialized programmatic accreditation from the Forensic Science Education Programs Accreditation Commission.
Forensic science provides a foundation for a broad range of careers focused on the collection and analysis of evidence. Students prepare for an array of employment possibilities in federal and state law enforcement agencies, crime labs, legal and criminal justice organizations, and even opportunities in business and educational settings.
A master's degree in any field does not guarantee employment, but it does deliver a competitive edge to graduates entering the workplace. Master's degree holders with specialized training in forensic psychology, computer forensics, and criminal investigation can expect to find expanding career opportunities through the next decade. While most forensic scientists already possess a strong natural science background, some positions may also require advanced laboratory experience or specialized credentials or licensure.
These professionals work in law enforcement agencies, businesses, and government and educational organizations to retrieve corrupted information from computers and other data storage devices affected by hacking or viruses. They investigate breaches and attacks, assess damage, and implement solutions. They must keep current on IT security and software applications and continuously monitor the latest threats to computer systems and networks. Many employers prefer to hire forensic specialists who hold a master's degree and specialized certifications in digital forensics and information security.
Forensic technicians work as crime scene investigators or in crime labs collecting and analyzing evidence for criminal investigations. Crime scene technicians work with other law enforcement officers to determine the best evidence to collect and how to handle it. Technicians who work in laboratory settings use a variety of technical applications to perform chemical and biological analyses on the evidence removed from crime scenes. Many of these technicians hold a bachelor's degree in one of the natural sciences in addition to a forensic science master's degree.
These professionals possess an advanced graduate degree in psychology with a specialization in forensic applications and a comprehensive understanding of the criminal justice system. They use their training in cognitive, emotional, and behavioral disorders to help attorneys, judges, and other legal professionals understand the effect of psychological conditions on civil or criminal cases. They assess criminal defendants to determine their competence to stand trial, and they may provide expert testimony in court. Forensic psychologists often seek a specialty certification from the American Board of Professional Psychology.
Source: BLS, 2018
The field of forensic science looks poised to see above-average growth in occupations that require forensic science master's degrees. These salary projections support recent findings by the BLS that forecast a 17% growth rate for master's-level occupations between 2016 and 2026. The growth rates for information security analysts, forensic science technicians, and forensic psychologists — well above the national average for all occupations — indicate the rapidly expanding demand for graduate-trained and technologically savvy professionals.
Several professional associations promote and support the interests of forensic scientists. Membership in these organizations offers graduate students important benefits as they prepare to enter the workforce and develop their professional networks. Many associations sponsor internships, fellowships, and certification programs, and student members may take advantage of career resources and job placement services.
AAFS promotes the application of scientific principles and technological applications to legal and criminal justice issues. It welcomes members from every forensic science specialization who share an interest in improving education and professional practice.
Established in 1959, The Society boasts 3,000 members across 60 countries. This professional organization promotes and develops regulation in forensic science education and practice. Students receive a discounted membership rate and access to a job bank.
As the educational division of the American Board of Forensic Psychology, AAFP offers continuing education workshops for those seeking board certification or professional development credit. It also confers awards to outstanding practitioners in the field of forensic psychology.
This professional association draws its membership from forensic DNA analysts, supervisors, and administrators engaged in forensic applications of DNA analysis for the judicial system. Students preparing for these kinds of careers receive discounted membership rates.
This professional association provides continuing education and certification opportunities and shares information about new developments in forensic toxicology. It sponsors the Young Forensic Toxicologists program to promote education and networking opportunities for practitioners just beginning in the field.
An online master's degree in forensic science represents a major financial investment. Many students defray the cost of their education by applying for loans, scholarships, grants, or fellowships. In addition to federally sponsored assistance programs, prospective graduate students should research other funding sources geared specifically for forensic science studies.
Regardless of their personal circumstances, all students should submit the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). The FAFSA serves as the first step in determining eligibility for any form of federal aid, including assistance for graduate studies. Many graduate students in forensic science find that they qualify for low-interest direct unsubsidized loans and direct PLUS loans.
The National Science Foundation (NSF) provides significant funding for students in NSF-supported disciplines — including forensic science — at accredited U.S. institutions. These fellowships support outstanding graduate students pursuing research at the master's and doctoral level. The GRFP awards an allowance for tuition and other education-related costs, plus a stipend of $34,000 per year.
This criminal justice honor society sponsors an annual $1,500 scholarship for one graduate student enrolled in a forensic science or criminal justice-related program at an accredited U.S. college or university. Applications must include evidence of academic achievement, three letters of recommendation, and a personal statement describing educational and career plans.
Several forensic science professional associations offer scholarships to students interested in entering careers in particular forensic specializations. ASCLD sponsors a $1,000 scholarship for graduate work in forensic science, forensic chemistry, or a related natural science field. Applicants must provide documentation of overall academic achievement, a personal statement, and a recommendation from a faculty member or lab supervisor.