What Does a Career in Forensic Science Entail?
Forensic science is a profession focused on analyzing evidence using scientific processes. Once the crime scene investigation is over and everything is analyzed by crime labs, the scientist presents their results to the police or other law enforcement, a court, regulatory panel, or similar organization that is a part of the criminal justice system.
While television and movies present forensics as a fast-paced tool used by law enforcement to prosecute criminals, it is, in fact, a meticulous profession that seeks accurate and unbiased results. Unlike in fiction, most current forensic scientists and forensic science technicians train in one branch and specialize in one or very few main areas or techniques within that branch. For example, if forensic science program graduates enter the field of digital & multimedia sciences (digital forensics), they might specialize only in digitized data, info, and materials or network analysis but not usually both. Either way, their role will be analytical. Tests, analysis, and similar processes typically take weeks or months to get results, so they may be working on several projects or cases as they wait.Read More
Because forensic scientists and forensic science technicians typically testify on the results from crime labs in court in tandem with law enforcement, your hands-on experience in the field will be just as important as your education. While scientists, in general, need to hold at least a bachelor's degree, students can usually enter the field as forensic science technicians in an assisting position with an associate degree in forensic science, which will allow students to accrue experience while they earn higher degrees from an accredited program, some of which are available as online programs.
There are many forensic science majors and 11 branches of forensic science recognized by the American Academy of Forensic Sciences (AAFS). Five of these branches require that students earn a specialized degree (undergraduate and graduate) before entering the forensics specialization and won't be covered in this article:
- Anthropology (PhD in anthropology)
- Jurisprudence (law degree and the Bar)
- Odontology (Doctor of Dentistry)
- Pathology/Biology (Medical Doctor)
- Psychiatry & Behavioral Science (Doctor of Psychiatry)
The remaining six branches of forensics each have a distinctive education path where students learn about a specific area of investigation:
- General (minimum bachelor’s degree in forensic science; many disciplines require a master’s or doctorate degree)
- Criminalistics (bachelor’s degree in some type of physical science)
- Toxicology (minimum bachelor’s degree in the life or physical sciences; a solid background in forensic chemistry as well as coursework in pharmacology and toxicology)
- Digital & Multimedia Sciences (minimum of a bachelor’s degree, preferably in computer science, information technology, or engineering)
- Engineering Sciences (minimum bachelor’s degree in engineering or science; depending on the field chosen, may require MS or PhD)
- Questioned Documents (20/20 vision, no color or form blindness, bachelor degree or higher in forensic science, sciences, or related subjects, and completion of a 24-month structured training program)
To simplify the career information process for a degree in forensic science this article will focus on the disciplines of general forensics and criminalistics, as the other disciplines require a specific degree and career path before entering the field of forensics. For example, you must have a degree in IT before studying digital & multimedia sciences and a degree in engineering before entering that branch.
Once you begin your career in forensic science, you'll most likely work a regular schedule. If your position requires evidence collection, you will spend time at crime scenes, but the majority of your time will be spent examining and testing evidence and compiling your results into reports. You will most likely be required to testify in court as to the process used to reach your conclusions, so your paper trail must be unimpeachable. Because courts require expert witnesses to have high qualifications, you will need several years of experience to complement your forensic science degree.
Since the results of your forensic examination will be used in court your processes must be detailed, methodical, and unbiased. As an expert witness, you will not only be called to give the results of your examination but may be asked to give an expert opinion; for example, a "white powdery substance" might be collected from a scene, tested in the lab, and shown to be cocaine. You will be called to testify to this fact and may be asked your opinion as to the potency of the sample based on your past experience analyzing samples of cocaine.
Components of a Successful Career in Forensic Science
Your first step in establishing your career in forensic science is to determine your area of specialization. General forensic science covers clinical work, field investigations, research, education, and a wide range of similar specialties as well as newer disciplines such as forensic veterinary sciences, digital forensics, and forensic nursing. This might allow students to work as crime scene investigators or forensic scientists after they graduate from their colleges and universities, especially if they also gain certifications or complete a related minor. Likewise, if you wish to enter the criminalistics discipline you should figure out your focus. You might specialize in fire investigations, illegal drugs, DNA, fingerprints, trace evidence, or even wildlife forensic science.Read More
Keep in mind that you don't need to identify your end goal before you start school; you do need to have a general idea so you can enroll in the right program with the right academics and have access to job opportunities afterward. Once you've taken your first-year forensic science courses, you'll most likely know what area holds your interest.
Your forensic science degree program should have at least 24 semester hours of biology and chemistry, as well as advanced math classes, including statistics. The courses offered are more important than the title of your forensic science program, and you should make sure all courses are approved by the American Academy of Forensic Sciences and it is an accredited program, so your future degree meets the qualifications for certification by the American Board of Criminalistics.
Because experience is vital for students, you should look for internship or apprenticeship programs you can complete while on top of your studies. Students learn a lot from summer jobs, part-time positions, and volunteer hours, and they can all add to your experience requirement. Many colleges and universities can help you find these learning opportunities within your community, so visit your department, faculty, advisor, or alumni group to see if they provide help.
Since bachelor's degrees in forensic science (or an associate degree in some cases) are considered entry-level, you should have a long-term plan to earn an advanced degree, such as a master's degree, once you're working in your career field. Forensic science is constantly expanding and your employer should understand and encourage the need for continuing education, knowledge acquisition, and skill development, and may in fact help you pay for your graduate degree after a minimum employment requirement has been met. The top experts in the forensic science field hold doctorate degrees, so you may wish to have your PhD as your ultimate educational goal.
How to Earn a Degree in Forensic Science
What is the difference between Forensic Science and Criminalistics?
Criminalistics is a discipline within the realm of forensic science. While forensic science, in general, refers to any type of evidence, criminalistics specifically refers to evidence left at the scene of a crime. A criminalist is charged with comparing, analyzing, identifying, and interpreting physical evidence and may also use science to link evidence to a specific person.
Most criminalists have an area of specialization such as blood spatter patterns, tire tread patterns, body trace evidence, or botanical trace. They may specialize in bullets, firearms, tool markings, and footwear patterns and must be fluent in the software and literature available on their subject. They must also have a lot of experience in the field.
Typical Forensic Science Degree Requirements
On the level of an associate degree, forensic science students will take core classes as well as general forensics and science courses such as:
- Anatomy and Physiology
- Criminal Justice & Investigation
- Forensic Science Fundamentals
When you begin your bachelor's forensic science degree coursework you'll take additional forensics and science classes as well as courses pertaining to your specific field of interest such as:
- Bloodstain Evidence
- Crime Scene Photography
- Criminalistics Laboratory
- Fingerprint Evidence
- Forensic Microscopy
- Forensic Anthropology
- Laws of Criminal Evidence
Once you reach the master's level in forensic science degrees, students should have a clear vision of your career goals and their coursework will reflect their specialty:
- Drug Analysis
- Biological Evidence
- DNA Analysis
- Blood Splatter Patterns
- Trace Evidence
Typical Forensic Science Certifications Needed
The fields of forensic science are always evolving so your education will be ongoing. Once students finish their forensic science degree programs, theu should seek certification from the American Board of Criminalistics (ABC) or a similar organization that has been approved by the Forensic Specialties Accreditation Board for certification in their specialty. For example, the ABC offers certification for forensic science degrees in the following special fields:
- Comprehensive Criminalistics
- Drug Analysis
- Fire Debris
- Hair and Fiber
- Molecular Biology
- Paint and Polymer
Each discipline within the realm of forensics has its own certification requirements, so as you progress through your education you should determine the board or association that determines qualifications in your area of expertise and available certifications to your educational goals. For example, the Board of Forensic Document Examiners awards certification in that area of forensics so if documents are your field of specialization choice, should be well versed on the requirements for certification by that board. Certifying boards have exacting educational requirements, so by knowing these requirements before you enroll in a forensics program can assure you your education will meet certification requirements before you invest time in any forensic science degree programs.
When choosing a forensics program it is vital that you verify two things: that the school is regionally accredited and the forensics program is accredited by the Forensic Science Education Programs Accreditation Commission (FEPAC). Once enrolled you should strive to keep your grade point average (GPA) at 3.0 or higher. Although the standard for graduation from most Bachelor programs is lower, the higher GPA will guarantee you qualify for a Master's or Doctorate program if you decide to continue your education. In addition, your academic performance will most likely be reviewed by your future employer and a higher GPA will show you have an excellent grasp of the subjects covered.
Exam and Experience Needed
Although there are no state or national examination requirements for forensic employees you should plan to take one or more certification exams as soon as possible after graduation. The Forensic Specialties Accreditation Board (FSAB) recognizes 17 specialty boards and you should take the exams for your specialty as soon as you meet the qualifications.
Most employers and some certifications require experience so you should plan to work in your field of choice while attending school. For example, you may find employment as a lab assistant or as an intern; an internship typically grants college credit and is often a paid position.
While professional certification may not be required for employment, some forensic science professionals choose to become certified in order to enhance their employment candidacy and earning prospects. There are 17 specialty boards accredited by the (FSAB).
Important Questions to Ask
How long does it take to earn a Forensic Science bachelor's degree online?
The time it takes students to earn their degree will depend on whether they take a full class load or partial and whether students already have an associate degree or some college credits, perhaps in criminal justice. An associate degree will take two years of full-time attendance and a bachelor degree an additional two years; a master's degree will be an additional year or more of coursework. The forensic science degree at each of these levels is about equal in the amount of time they take for students to complete.
Many forensic scientists begin working in an assistant position in the field with an associate's degree and continue their education part-time to earn higher degrees.
How much does a Forensic Science bachelor’s degree cost?
Your total cost will depend on where you live and your school of choice. The U.S. Department of Education states the total cost of a bachelor's degree ranges between $22,000 and $50,000; some of the cost may be covered by grants, scholarships, and employer educational benefits.
Does the school have the major(s) you’re considering?
This may seem like an obvious question but just because a degree has "forensics" in the title doesn't mean it's the program you want or need. Take a close look at the curriculum of the program and make sure the courses are in line with your long-term goals. Compare the classes to the prerequisites of an advanced degree in your field of choice; if the courses don't mesh, it's not the major you want to take.
If your long-term goal is one of the medical fields listed at the beginning of this article, you'll want to enroll in a degree major for that path rather than starting with forensics. It's a good idea to make a spreadsheet that lists the classes in each program you're considering so you can compare them side by side with each other and with graduate degree requirements.
How many students graduate “on time,” in four years?
Check each school's student statistics page and verify that most students graduate on time. Even if you plan to attend part-time this statistic is a good indication of the way the school supports the needs of their students. If you can't find the graduation rates don't hesitate to ask, as a school that is hesitant to share these numbers may be more interested in enrolling new students than is seeing them succeed.
What kind of accreditation does the program hold? How is it regarded in the field?
Accreditation is vital in any degree program and twice as important in forensics. First you should verify your school of choice is accredited with one of the regional accreditation organizations as recognized by the Department of Education. Regional accreditation is a requirement for federal aid as well as most scholarships, grants, and student loans as it shows the school is well-established and reputable.
Forensic programs should also be accredited by the Forensic Science Education Programs Accreditation Commission (FEPAC). In addition, field-specific programs should be accredited by the Forensic Specialties Accreditation Board (FSAB). Make sure you have a clear answer about accreditation before you begin the admissions process.
Software, Technology & Skills Needed
Each area within the realm of forensics has specific software and technology and you'll need to learn the programs used in your field of choice. For example, fingerprint technicians and experts use biometric identity management and fingerprint software and are adept at using the federal and state fingerprint databases.
All areas of forensics rely on report writing as it is one of the key components in documenting your scientific findings. This means you should be well-versed in word processing programs as well as databases and programs that produce charts and graphs that can be easily explained in a court of law.
As mentioned before, an Associate's degree in forensics is an excellent place to start if you're not sure what field you'd like to specialize in. An Associate's degree program is basically the first two years of a Bachelor's degree; you'll take all your core classes in English, Math, and Science as well as general forensic courses. You should plan on taking chemistry and biology, as your Bachelor degree will require these as a prerequisite. An Associate of Science (AS) in Forensic Science might also offer classes such as:
- Human Behavior in Criminal Justice
- Basic Fingerprinting
- Crime Scene Technology
- Introduction to Forensic Psychology
- Investigative and Forensic Interviewing
- Investigative Forensic Photography
If you're not sure what specialization to focus on, you can enroll in a Bachelor's program for chemistry, biology, or biochemistry as these have the same basic requirements you'll need in most forensic fields. Because forensics relies as much on experience and certification as education you'll have a solid foundation by the time you figure out what area of expertise is perfect for you. A BS in Forensic Science will include courses in general subjects as well as specific forensic classes such as:
- Cybercrime and Security
- Fingerprint Analysis
- Firearms and Toolmark Analysis
- Forensic Biology
- Medical and Legal Investigations of Death
- Organic Chemistry
- Principles of Digital Analysis
By the time you're ready to earn your Master's you will have a clear career plan and your education will reflect that goal. Your classes will follow the discipline of forensics you've chosen and should mesh with the certifications. Here are some examples of Master's level coursework; you can choose a concentration in any one of these fields:
- Drug Analysis
- Biological Evidence
- DNA Analysis
- Blood Splatter Patterns
- Trace Evidence
A good way to judge a program is to compare it with the requirements for certification in your field of concentration. For example, if you're going to be involved in crime scene investigations you can test for four certifications, depending on your experience and career goals:
- Crime Scene Investigator
- Crime Scene Analyst
- Crime Scene Reconstructionist
- Senior Crime Scene Analyst
Associates, Bachelors, Masters with Cost Ranges
The cost of your degree will depend on your school of choice, whether it is public or private, and whether you are charged tuition at a resident rate or out-of-state rate. Because an associate's degree is a two-year program and a Bachelor's degree is a four-year program your Bachelor's will cost approximately twice the price of your Associate's. A Master's degree program is usually more expensive and the overall cost will reflect that expense. Here's a look at the average cost of each degree at both public and private schools:
|Degree||Public School||Private School|
Forensic Science Careers and Salary Options
Your salary as a forensic scientist will depend on your field of study, level of education, and experience on the job. As a rule of thumb, those who hold an associate's degree will be in the lower end of the salary range because employment is usually in an assistant capacity. Once you earn your Bachelor's you should qualify for entry-level positions and when you hold a Master's degree you can expect to earn the highest ranges of salary.
Fields of Study
As mentioned above, there are 11 recognized forensic fields; three of those require a medical degree, one a law degree, one an engineering degree, and one a degree in anthropology. A degree in chemistry or pharmacology is required for forensic toxicology and IT degree for Digital & Multimedia forensic science. The remaining three fields can be entered with a degree in forensics and are as follows:
identify, analyze, compare, and interpret physical evidence within the criminal justice system using verified and recognized scientific processes. Most criminalists specialize in one or more sub-disciplines, such as firearms and blood spatter patterns, DNA and controlled substances, or fire and explosive debris analysis.
laboratory investigation, clinical work, research, education, and field investigation in any occupation such as accounting, geology, firearms analysis, veterinarian services, and aviation. Forensic nursing falls into the General category as does crime scene investigation.
- Questioned Documents:
this area of forensics covers all types of document examination from recovering information from burned or liquid-soaked papers to verifying the signature or hand writing on sample documents. They may specialize in identifying and classifying computer printers, typewriters, and staplers or deciphering erased and altered entries.
Field of Study Average Salary by Degree Level
|Field of Study||Associates Salary||Bachelors Salary||Masters Salary|
Salaries by Occupation
Your potential salary will depend on many things: your specialty and occupation, experience, level of education, and employer. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) the highest paying industry for forensics is the federal government, followed by medical and diagnostic laboratories, local governments, and state governments.
You can expect your salary to rise in direct correlation to your level of education and experience. Certification in your specialized areas will add to your earning potential. Here's a look at some occupations within the three featured fields and their corresponding salary ranges:
Occupations & Careers
Here's a look at four of the most popular forensic science occupations and what the job might entail:
Crime Scene Investigator:
examine the scene of a crime collecting evidence that may include trace evidence, impressions, and similar items. May interview witnesses and typically testify in court about their findings.
trace the path of a fire from conclusion back to point of origin; determine the cause by chemical and physical analysis of the evidence. May testify in court as to the evidential findings.
typically specializes in one or more areas such as insects, bodily fluids, soils, or bones. May examine all types of trace evidence in a laboratory setting to determine cause and time of death and testify to findings in a court of law.
may collect samples in person, especially if there is a question of safety in handling unknown substances. Determines the chemical makeup of each substance and may be required to testify on findings. Typically works with controlled substances.
Annual Salary by Occupation
|Occupations||Entry Level Salary Range||Mid-Career Salary Range||Late-Career Salary Range|
|Crime Scene Investigator||$33,880||$57,850||$95,600|
Scholarships and grants can pay for part or all of your education so you should dedicate some time to finding and applying for any you may qualify for. Check your state and local governments as well as your school of choice to find sources for tuition funding. Here are some national scholarships you might apply for:
The Association of Firearm and Toolmark Examiners (AFTE)
Deadline: April 1
The AFTE provides scholarships for forensic science students hoping to enter a career in the fiels. Selection factors include student GPA; another good reason to keep your grades up. This scholarship is renewable, so you can apply each year.
The J Edgar Hoover Foundation Scientific Scholarship
Amount: $25,000 (Law Enforcement); $1,000 (Forensic Sciences); $40,000 (30 Awards, Forensics)
Deadline: April 6
This is the most prestigious award and is available to forensic students who plan to pursue a career in law enforcement. $25,000 is awarded based on need and merit.
The American Society of Crime Lab Directors awards $1,000 scholarships in forensic chemistry, forensic science, natural sciences, and physical sciences.
The Edison International STEM Scholarship awards $40,000 to 30 high school seniors each year, and forensics is included in the STEM criteria.
As soon as you enroll in school you should plan on joining one or more associations dedicated to the fields of forensics; once you decide on a specialization you can join a corresponding association to stay on top of developments in your chosen field. Here are a few you might consider:
The American Academy of Forensic Sciences
The American Academy of Forensic Sciences (AAFS) is the premiere association for forensic scientists and students. AAFS also sponsors groups dedicated to each of the 11 forensic fields.
Association of Firearm and Toolmark Examiners
Association of Firearm and Toolmark Examiners (AFTE) covers all aspects of firearms and toolmarks as used in forensics.
Association of Forensic DNA Analysts and Administrators
Association of Forensic DNA Analysts and Administrators: dedicated to the legal aspects of DNA analysis and how it affects the judicial system.
International Association of Bloodstain Pattern Analysts
International Association of Bloodstain Pattern Analysts: research, training, and educational standards of all aspects of bloodstain analysis.
Choosing an Accredited College
Keep accreditation in mind when choosing a school. Make sure your college of choice has both regional accreditation as a school and programmatic accreditation for the forensics program. If you're not sure, you can do a web search of the acronyms listed on the school website or cross reference the school with the accrediting agency.
Online vs On-Campus vs Hybrid
Each type of school has advantages and disadvantages, so decide what works best for your schedule and lifestyle. Online classes offer flexible times but you need to be self-disciplined and be prepared to work alone. Traditional on-campus courses offer more support and face-to-face interaction but have rigid schedules. If your school of choice is within driving distance you might consider a hybrid program which is a combination of the first two. You can take a few of your more difficult classes on campus and the rest online, or you may be asked to participate in a few seminars or meet-ups each semester.
Does the College Have Post-Graduate Job Placement Help & Assistance?
Job placement assistance indicates your school of choice is committed to your success and not just a degree mill. Look for graduate placement, internships, and partnerships with local employers as an indication. A school that is committed to its students will have this information readily available on their website.
Why You Need to Consider the Rating/accreditation Can Affect Your Salary
As stated above, accreditation is vital to your forensics degree. If your school of choice isn't properly accredited with a good rating your credits may not be accepted for a graduate program and your forensics degree may not be accepted for certification. Highly rated schools are also easily recognized by future employers and can be key to a higher income when you're ready to enter the job market.
Criminal Justice & Law Paths