The world’s fascination with forensic science took hold when the spate of forensic science procedurals such as CSI, Law and Order, and Bones topped television ratings. In fact, a 2014 study demonstrated that these crime related TV shows not only influence the court system and academia, but also influence the major selection of college students. Some schools saw double and triple the amount of applications to their forensic science career programs and had to expand their faculty to accommodate.
While the science of the show is relatively accurate, the time tables and day-to-day activities depicted are not. Even though some of those shows are off the air, forensic science degree programs have expanded and deepened, and the job possibilities are still opening up.
Forensic science degree requirements
Many may use the terms criminal justice and forensic science as if they were almost the same thing, but they’re very different. Criminal justice prepares students to go into law enforcement while providing a broad look at the legal system and many social aspects of that career path. While criminal justice is a B.A. degree with some math and science, forensic science requires a sound knowledge in multiple scientific disciplines to comprehensively process a crime scene.
To be a forensic science professional, you can start with an associate degree. This gives students a good idea of what to expect of the work, and if they are already in law enforcement, this helps them see if it’s the path they want to pursue.
With a bachelor’s degree, a student can become an entry-level forensic science technician that will give them the necessary on-the-job-training to start building a solid career. They can also narrow down their specialization and go deeper into it. Law enforcement and government employers who happen to hire majority forensic science professionals look more favorably on a master’s degree.
In fact, it is a requirement for higher-level projects in laboratories and government agencies as well as for pursuing management roles. With a Ph.D., not only are professionals primed for academia, they’re eligible for senior director level positions as well.
There are a few accredited forensic science doctoral programs available, but it’s more common for professionals to combine a masters with one of the post-baccalaureate certificate programs available. These graduate-level classes not only fill in learning gaps but also sharpen the training in a particular specialization or educate professionals in altogether new skills.
Types of forensic science degrees
When it comes to understanding the types of degrees available and the specializations, it’s important to know what are the outcomes of earning your degree. As a forensic science graduate, you’ll be expected to not only explain basic anatomy as a means of properly identifying their bodies, but you also need to execute the necessary technical methods, including trace and toxicology analysis, as well as know and execute chain of custody processes and procedures.
You also need to understand the legal, ethical, and the constitutional ties between society and the various contexts that can create conflict. Forensic professionals need to understand the legal and basic principles that tie into forensic photography in addition to profiling and crime scene analysis parameters and variable.
Some examples of various degrees include:
- Crime scene technology is an associate’s degree that prepares students to become forensic or criminal science technicians who are detail-oriented laboratory staff responsible for analyzing all sorts of evidence.
- Investigative forensics, a bachelor’s degree, is a general definition for investigators that look at all crime-related evidence. There are numerous specializations, including cyber forensics, crime scene forensics, and forensic accounting. There is also forensic psychology, which is a master’s-level path where professionals dig deeper into the ‘why’ behind crimes and can determine if a suspect is sound enough to stand trial.
- Biomedical forensics is a master’s-level specialization that is heavy in medical and chemical disciplines. It focuses on disciplines, such as biological evidence and DNA analysis, toxicological analysis, and pattern evidence interpretation.
Forensic science disciplines and specializations
There are several disciplines within the forensic science umbrella
- Forensic anthropology: Forensic anthropologists are part archaeologist. They deal with the recovery of skeletal remains, use those skills to identify the remains, and figure out how they died. This is the profession of Dr. Temperance Brennan, the main character in the TV series Bones, created by Kathy Reichs, who is herself a forensic anthropologist.
- Criminalistics: Criminalistics is all about identifying evidence and tying that evidence to people, places, and things using physical and natural sciences. Evidence means something as minute as a hair strand or a piece of fiber to anything that’s larger than a vehicle.
- Digital & multimedia sciences: Computer forensics is a specialization that deals with the mobile, internet, or computer access involved in the crime. This extends to other forms of media, such as photo and video analysis. Within this discipline, there are several specializations and opportunities, including managing digital forensic laboratories.
- Engineering & applied sciences: Forensic engineers investigate incidents by researching, designing, maintaining, and building structures that can apprehend or exonerate suspects in cases that involve the tangible and intangible. On one hand, a forensic structural engineer can investigate bridge and building collapses or automobile collisions, and on the other hand, an e pert in mechanical design can help prove patent infringement.
- Odontology: These forensic scientists deal with teeth, specifically comparing dental remains to dental records. Odontology is a discipline that extends to animal bite marks and evaluating dental injury settlement in malpractice and negligence cases.
- Pathology/biology: Forensic pathologist determine the cause and manner of death. It’s the application of pathology, the study of disease, and medicine to determine if deaths were natural, suspicious, or even undetermined. Forensic biology is a diverse field that deals with life sciences, such as genetics, veteran veterinary medicine, or entomology. They examine the evidence that deals with perimortem and postmortem. All present pathologists are medical doctors while biologists have a master’s or doctorate in biological sciences.
- Psychiatry & behavioral science: Forensic psychiatrists and psychologists work with a broad range of competencies when dealing with criminal, civil, or domestic laws. The have ample experience with criminal psychology to help investigators determine culpability and are acutely familiar with the legal and mental issues behind the offense.
- Questioned documents: These professionals deal with handwriting and signature authentication. They are experts in anything to do with identifying and analyzing the written word and identifying how it was published.
- Toxicology: Forensic toxicologists answer the questions about the type of drug used to cause death, destruction, or facilitate a crime.
Benefits of getting a degree in forensic science online
Why consider a forensic science degree
When trying to understand your current skill level and knowledge, it’s important to be in an environment that allows you the ability to learn anywhere. Learning forensic science from home used to be looked down upon, but these days it’s generally accepted and even desired. Here are a few simple reasons why you should consider in online forensics degree.
- Convenience: There’s real value in being able to study anytime and anywhere you want. You decide the best time and place, whether it’s on your lunch break or overnight while your kids are asleep. You decide when you need to take a break, or if you need to go over a particular lesson repeatedly because you didn’t get it the first time.
- Extra support: Whether you’re going to school full-time or working a full-time job while taking classes, going for forensics degree online means you have a well of support that you can draw from whether it’s an advisor or your community of fellow students.
- Skill-building: There is a vein of self-discipline you develop when you dedicate yourself to studying online. Your ability to organize, prioritize, and multitask demonstrate management acumen. Don’t underestimate this when it’s time to speak with potential employers.
Average salary and potential growth
Forensic science careers are experiencing significant growth, estimated at around 14 percent. However, that varies depending on the specialization. Here are what some forensic professionals earn on average:
- Technician: Forensic technicians analyze evidence from the scene, work with scientists, and liaise with other specialists. An average annual salary is about $59,000 or a little under $28.50 per hour.
- Blood spatter expert: These experts specialize in examining the location and shape of blood droplets to determine key information related to time and directionality. Their median salary is a little more than $53,000 annually.
- DNA analyst: As more crime scenes start relying on the accuracy of DNA to provide crystal clarity, DNA analysts need to be meticulous professionals. While it’s possible to get in as a technician with a bachelor’s degree, a master’s degree is the minimum to move beyond that level. Starting salaries are about $40,000, while the average is between $50,000 and $60,000.
- Computer analyst: Digital media is becoming vital in discerning the digital fingerprints criminals leave behind. This area of forensics touches upon many types of associated digital media criminal behaviors leave behind during the growing cybercrime problem. Public sector salaries are around $74,000 annually, but those in the private sector can earn hundreds of dollars an hour. It’s important to note that the need for computer forensics professionals has a 32 percent growth rate, which more than double the sector average.
- Ballistic specialist: Ballistic experts are the ones who trace bullets to the guns used during crimes. They figure out the trajectory and the type of firearm used. Their salary ranges from as low as $30,000 to as high as $80,000 per year with an average of around $55,000.
- Accountant: Forensic accountants specialize in financial crimes and know how to follow the money trail to uncover fraud or links to terrorism. At a minimum, they need a bachelor’s in finance or accounting, prefrrably with a minor in criminal justice. While the average salary is about $70,000 per year, being a CPA would probably add to those earnings.
- Toxicologist: Toxicologists must have a firm grasp of chemistry, biology, andmpharmacology. They need all of those discipplines to discern the substances that may have led to someone’s death, among other tasks. Forensic toxicologists take home an average of about $72,000 per year and have a job growth rate of 14 percent.
- Engineers: Forensic Engineers are mostly mechanical, electrical, structural, and civil engineers that deal with the difference between structural failure and poor maintenance. They earn about $85,000, but with added certifications, that could be more.
- Pathologist: They are medical examiners who let investigators know if there was a crime committed. Pathologists are licensed medical doctors who can work for the state, the government, or as private practice consultants. In the public sector, forensic pathologists earnaverage salary between $75,000 and $100,000. According to the industry, their job growth is between 18 and 24 percent
- Arson investigator: Arson investigators don’t need to have advanced degrees as their career path is similar to that of a law enforcement professional. While a associate degree in criminal justice or some science-based subject would definitely help prospects, Expertise is mostly about on-the-job training. The need for fire investigation is growing at 8 percent and salaries average between $60,000 and $62,000 a year.
- Odontologist: With their doctorates in dental medicine, forensic odonologists are actually practicing dentists that consult on forensic cases when DNA and fingerprints aren’t possible. Their forensic experience comes from training in forensic science, and they can apply for a diploma from the American Board of Forensic Odontology. On average, they can earn over $150,000 annually.
- Psychologists: A forensic psychologist professional provide an array of services, including training law enforcement and criminal profiling. These are practical clinical psychologists that have their doctoral degrees and licenses, so they can have their own private practice. On average, forensic psychologists with the right expertise, certifications, and experience earn between $77,000 and $79,000 annually.
What to expect during an online forensic science degree program
How long does it take to earn a forensic science degree?
The time it takes to earn a forensic science degree depends on many factors. While it typically takes two years for an associate’s, four years for bachelors, and two years for masters, students may be working full-time or have other commitments that require them to take go part-time. There are also graduate-level certification courses that go along with or can be taken in lieu of a full-fledge graduate program that can take anywhere from weeks to months.
Attaining a degree in forensic science requires in-depth knowledge of specific life sciences, such as biology, chemistry, and anatomy. Forensic professionals need to take exact measurements and perform precise calculations. To do this, they’ll need different types of math:
- Proportions: Simple proportions can be used as an identification mechanism. For example, if a human femur is discovered as part of the crime scene, the length of the bone can be used to estimate the person’s height and weight.
- Trigonometry: The study of triangles helps a blood splatter specialist study how the fluid got on a surface. Lines, angles, and distances give professionals an idea of the height of an attacker or victim, the distance and velocity of the weapon, location of the suspect, and their dexterity, among other facts.
- Probability and statistics: Probability is a vital mathematical measurement when it comes to DNA analysis for example forensic DNA analysts judge the likelihood that the DNA collected belong to a suspect or victim. Statistics becomes crucial for fingerprint analysis. If the print found at the scene matches the sample from the suspect, a forensic scientist needs to explain how this is possible. Additionally, statistics can be used to improve quality assurance processes in laboratories by way of reanalysis and verification. This strengthens the accuracy of the findings. New ways and types of statistical methods are always being developed that can make the analysis easier to interpret and explain.
Math is fundamental to crime-solving, and there are always new discoveries being made. A strong, in-depth mathematical foundation becomes essential.
Fieldwork required for a degree in forensic science
When it comes to understanding what fieldwork means in forensic science, we need to understand the difference between two professions that have been conflated by Hollywood.
So, what is the difference between a forensic scientist and a crime scene investigator (CSI)?
Both play equal roles in solving crimes, but how they go about it is the challenge. Whereas being a forensic scientist requires a formal education, it’s not really necessary for a CSI, as they are usually from law enforcement background. CSIs meticulously collect evidence at the scene, forensic scientists analyze the evidence in a lab after it’s been collected. Finally, CSIs work in shifts and at unexpected locations, while forensic scientists may be on-call, especially if it’s a particularly tough case. As a result of these differences, hands-on experience for forensic science majors can involve going out into the field, but it may also mean working in a lab or doing much of the paperwork, such as research documentation and reports.
Best schools for online forensic science degrees
What to look for in an online forensic science degree
Apart from figuring out which special to you may want to pursue, there are three other characteristics to look for when choosing a school
- Accreditation: Forensic Science Education Program accreditation commission, FEPAC, accredited programs lead to a bachelor’s or master’s in the U.S. and internationally. For certificate programs there are specialized organization accreditation entities, such as the American Board of criminalistics, (ABC), and the Forensic Specialties Accreditation Board, (FSAB), that accredit certification programs
- Virtual labs: For upper-level courses, particularly chemistry and physics, it’s tough to teach online, because part of the curriculum is practical hands-on exercises. Some schools have adopted virtual labs that allow simulations of various activities, including crime scenarios
- Video course modules: Video course modules, which are separate from lectures, help students to master key applied scientific concepts and ideas. Students can watch and re-watch these videos anytime they like and as often as they like.
Comparing online forensic science degree programs
When choosing between online programs it’s important to take a few characteristics under consideration
- Program relevance: This is where the faculty makes a world of difference. They’re up on the latest techniques and processes, making the courses more active and relevant to real life. Faculty that are active in their professions bring more to the table and to the program.
- Flexibility: As we mentioned, it’s hard to teach hands-on courses online, but some schools doing virtually or they require students to be physically on campus for a limited time. For those who are actually working or have other commitments, it may be a challenge to physically attend live labs regularly, so flexibility will be a key decision point when choosing an online program.
- Affordability: For in-state students, tuition cost will be significantly lower than for those who are out-of-state or International, even if trying to do online courses. Ensure that the cost of the online program is something that you can afford and can get financial assistance for, if necessary. It’s also important to take into consideration whether they’re offering ebooks at low and no cost as well as any other associated material costs.
Most respected online forensic degree programs
When looking for a trusted, accredited online forensic degree program, there are three that will consistently be in the top 10.
UMGC offers an investigative forensic science program that helps students to recognize, evaluate, interpret, and apply data to draw conclusions. It has 120 credits, and students get to examine virtual crime scenes and write reports. Admission requires a high school diploma or GED, but no standardized tests are necessary. All text books are electronic, which can save students thousands of dollars. Tuition starts at $300 per credit, and it’s open to international students as well. There are scholarships for qualified U.S. and international students as well as reduced tuition fees for members of the military and their families.
Liberty’s B.S. in criminal justice is a combination of 8-week courses that give students the skills to conduct a criminal investigation properly. It’s open to U.S. and international students, and can accept up to 75% of transfer credits. Full-time rates start at $390 per credit for undergrads or part-time students pay $455 per credit. Military service members get a discount.
Columbia College offers criminal justice B.A. with forensic concentration courses in toxicology, DNA, FBI fingerprinting, and crime scene investigation. This school accepts unofficial transcripts, and students can transfer up to 90 credit hours from regionally accredited institutional. SAT and ACT scores are optional, and annual tuition starts at $395 per semester hour.
For those with a bachelor’s in forensic science who may not have any idea about what specializations are out there, graduate-level certificate programs provide insight. They can also be used to count towards a master’s degree specialization, if they choose to pursue one.
- University of New Haven: Henry C. Lee College provides over 20 short part-time certificate courses in specializations such as fire/arson investigation and transnational cyber security. It’s a great alternative for students who aren’t yet ready to commit to a graduate specialization or professionals who want to branch out into another forensic science path.
- University of Florida: University of Florida has four certification concentrations: forensic death investigation, DNA and serology, toxicology, and drug chemistry. These courses are entirely online, and students are accepted year-round. Up to 15 credits can be applied to the master’s program, and classes can be completed in one year.
- MercyHurst University: MercyHurst’s certificate program in forensic and biological anthropology exposes students to the areas of archaeology, osteology, and taphonomy, which is the study of decay and fossilization. They’ll also get hands-on experience dealing with active cases. Total costs are $955 per credit with a maximum of 18 credits. GRE, official transcripts, and letters of recommendation are just a few requirements.
- University of Massachusetts Lowell: UMass Lowell’s certificate in forensic criminology is a part-time certificate for working professionals as well as graduate students. Classes include domestic terrorism and violent extremism and criminal mind/behavior. Courses take about six to 10 hours per week and while it’s only four classes, students have up to five years to complete their certificate. Tuition for online courses start at $575 per credit hour. Students are required to have a bachelor’s degree, and those who complete the certificate for the 3.5 GPA or higher are eligible to waive the GRE requirement for grad school.
- George Washington University: GWU’s certificate in forensic investigation is designed for professionals and includes deeper instruction on fingerprinting, medicolegal death investigation, crime scene investigation, and forensic photography. The only eligibility requirement is to have a bachelor’s degree from an accredited university.