Complete Guide to an Online Forensic Science Degree
Forensic science is the use of a wide variety of scientific disciplines to answer important questions within the legal system. The studies of forensic science and crime scene investigation involve the science, technology, and chemistry related to forensic evidence and the prosecution of criminals. Forensic scientists use their knowledge to gather evidence that may be used in a criminal investigation or court of law. Online programs are available at the certificate. associate, bachelor’s, and master's degree levels.
When researching forensic science degree programs, it's important to ensure that the program you choose will adequately prepare you for your chosen profession. Many excellent online forensic science degree programs are accredited by the American Academy of Forensic Sciences (AAFS). This organization ensures that programs are designed to provide quality education in forensic science fields. Students should also consider enrolling in a program at a school that is regionally or nationally accredited. Read More
Comprehensive List of Schools for an Online Forensic Science Degree (44)
Overview of Available Online Forensic Science Degrees
Forensic science students at every degree level must have a basic background in biology and chemistry. Certificate programs in forensic science often require that students have a bachelor's degree or relevant work experience in the criminal justice field. Course subjects often include the basics on forensic science, investigative techniques, and criminal psychology.
Associate degree programs require courses in biology, chemistry, math, forensic science, legal proceedings, and report writing. Students within an associate degree program often concentrate their studies in forensic computer science, crime scene investigation, or forensic accounting. Bachelor's degree programs offer broader training in forensic science. Students can concentrate their studies in forensic chemistry or forensic biology. Many people with a bachelor's degree in forensic science move on to graduate school.
Master's degree programs give students the necessary education for in-depth crime scene analysis, with the option to concentrate their studies in forensic anthropology, chemistry, or biology. Graduates of these programs have the necessary theoretical knowledge and technical proficiency for advanced forensic science careers.
Associate programs in forensic science integrate the study of criminal justice, law enforcement, and natural science principles. Program applicants need a high school diploma or a GED. The 60-credit program can be completed in two years of full-time study.
The curriculum in this program includes classes in crime scene safety, biological evidence, fingerprint identification and development, laboratory methods, and criminal law. Other common courses discuss interview and interrogation, quality assurance for evidence, crash scene investigation, constitutional law, forensic entomology, forensic anthropology, computer data recovery, impression evidence, and digital video evidence. Students learn how to assess a crime scene and collect evidence without disturbing potential valuable information. Students are also expected to take a number of classes in general studies subjects, such as English, mathematics, physics, biology, technical writing, critical thinking, psychology, and chemistry.
Current law enforcement agents can use the associate forensic science and crime scene investigation program to expand their role as an officer and become a crime scene investigator. The associate degree program can also be used to launch a career in law enforcement, although most crime scene investigators and detectives have many years of professional experience. Graduates may be eligible for entry-level forensic lab technician positions, depending on the individual lab's hiring policies; however, many labs require that forensic technicians have a bachelor's degree.
Due to the prevalence of TV shows like "CSI" and "NCIS," the popularity of forensic science has grown significantly over the past several years. Bachelor's degrees in forensic science have popped up to accommodate the demand for people seeking an education that will help them find a role in this field. Earning a bachelor's degree on a full-time schedule takes four years, but students can shorten that time by taking summer courses or choosing accelerated degree options. There are also part-time options. Ideal candidates for these programs will have a high school diploma, excellent grades, strong recommendations from teachers, and exposure to the world of crime scene investigation.
Though it helps to have an inquisitive personality already, students will take courses in problem solving and critical thinking in order to earn a bachelor's degree in forensic science. Students also study the general criminal justice system to learn the role of forensic scientist, and they may also take courses in forensics law; a few programs also offer forensic psychology classes. Additionally, these programs place a lot of emphasis on general math and science classes. Any student planning on working in forensic science should get as much experience as possible, and there are many internship opportunities available to students at the undergraduate level.
Forensic scientists and crime scene investigators are usually employed by state or federal police departments, working on many different crimes over a short amount of time, or on one or two large cases over several years. There are many opportunities for people who wish to go this route. Some, however, decide to use their skills in the private sector, and therefore become private investigators. These professionals are usually self-employed.
The master's degree in forensic science is a two- or three-year degree. Students who are taking full-time courses take two to three per academic semester or quarter. To qualify for a spot in one of these programs, students must have a bachelor's degree and, oftentimes, some experience in forensics or law enforcement.
Earning a master's degree in forensic science is ideally a hands-on endeavor. Students will put their problem-solving skills to the test, sorting out actual crimes based on given evidence, learning how to interrogate or question people, and learning how to look for evidence that may not be obvious. There may be some technical training, working with forensics analysis software and general equipment. Students will get specialized experience by taking on an internship or relevant part-time job or by completing a master's thesis on a topic of their choice.
A master's degree in forensic science can make it easier to get your foot in the door at federal or state investigative agencies, which are usually very selective about whom they hire. Still, having experience is key, and even with a master's degree, some graduates will have to start in entry-level positions. Many investigators were originally police officers. Federal agencies are also more apt to hire people who have master's degrees, as they work on some of the most challenging and high-profile crimes. With experience and the education provided by a master's degree, a forensic scientist can choose to work privately, as there are many private investigation agencies that work on everything from violent crimes to missing persons.
The certificate in forensic science combines courses in natural science, criminal justice, and policing to introduce students to the concepts of evidence analysis. These programs usually take one year to complete and require 6 to 12 courses. Certificates are offered as a part of a natural science undergraduate degree or as a graduate certificate. Applicants generally need undergraduate coursework in basic chemistry and biology.
The curriculum in the forensic science program is as interdisciplinary as the profession itself. Natural science courses, such as molecular biology and instrumental analysis, cover the basic science behind many forensic tests and include laboratory training on analysis equipment. Courses in criminal investigations and law enforcement systems look at the criminal justice side of the equation. Students learn about collecting evidence such as hairs, fibers, and pieces of glass, and how to prepare evidence for the courts. Other common courses discuss criminal psychology, fingerprinting, and skeletal analysis.
The forensic science certificate can be used to support a career in law enforcement or crime labs. Depending on the graduate's degree level and ambitions, the certificate could be useful for a career as a police officer, detective, or laboratory technologist in a local or national lab. Less common career opportunities include employment in other laboratory analysis settings, such as medical diagnostic labs, archaeology labs, or paternity labs. Most careers in forensic investigation require a bachelor’s degree in addition to the certificate program.
Regardless of which postsecondary institution you decide is best for you, it's important to choose one that has been accredited. Accredited schools undergo a series of in-depth evaluations to demonstrate that their curricula, faculty members, and student resources meet established academic standards. In addition to selecting an accredited school or program, it's also wise to look for programs that offer hands-on training and the latest technological equipment. Both of these factors will help give students experience that employers are looking for.
The Council for Higher Education Accreditation recognizes several institutional accrediting agencies, as well as a specialized accrediting agency for forensic science programs: the Forensic Science Education Programs Accreditation Commission (FEPAC). Students can verify a school or program's accreditation through the individual school's website or through the website of the accrediting board. The United States Department of Education also maintains a public database of all accredited postsecondary programs.
Students who are planning on using federal financial aid grant or loan money to fund their education must attend an accredited school. Any student who is earning an associate or bachelor's degree with the intention of transferring or advancing to another school must also attend an accredited school, as accredited institutions will not accept credits earned at non-accredited schools.
The American College of Forensic Examiners International (ACFEI) is an organization that supports scientific forensic study and education. To promote a variety of fields that fall under the umbrella of forensics and criminal justice, students may complete one of the organization's 11 specific certification programs. Each has its own set of requirements, ranging from prior education, training at the time of applying, experience, mentors, reviews, and examinations, as well as its own set of personal and professional benefits. In order to participate in any one of the certification programs, applicants must be members of ACFEI.
Some certification options are very specific to a certain type of forensics career and may be the only professional certification option available in the discipline. For example, the Certified Forensic Nurse option is available to registered nurses who are interested in incorporating forensic studies into their everyday career, and the Certified Forensic Physician option is similarly designated for professional physicians. There is also a Certified Medical Investigator option.
Those who complete the Certified Forensic Accountant designation can work as investigators who analyze financial documents and testify about them in courtroom proceedings. The Certified Master Forensic Social Worker designation is available for licensed social workers who assist families and children with legal conflicts and cases of abuse and neglect.
The Certified Instructor program qualifies one to work as a forensics instructor and is a valuable tool for anyone who hopes to train others who are seeking ACFEI professional certification. The three available designations are Instructor, Senior Instructor, or Master Instructor, and after earning their CFI, graduates will be able to work as instructors and counselors for any of the other certification programs, regardless of their personal experience.
The Certified Forensic Consultant program introduces students to the inner workings of the legal system. In order to qualify for a spot in this program applicants must have a bachelor's degree or five years of relevant forensics experience. In order to maintain the CFC certification, a professional must complete at least 30 hours of continuing education credits every three years.
The Certified Criminal Investigator program recognizes the training and knowledge of people who work as private or public detectives and investigators. Eligible applicants should have either two years of relevant experience, an associate degree along with one year of experience, or a bachelor's degree. In order to earn certification, individuals must successfully pass an exam and prove that they have some qualifying experience in the field.
There are many different areas of forensic science that students may choose to focus their studies on, depending on their interests and career goals. Here are a few examples of some of the available forensic science concentrations:
- Forensic Anthropology: Forensic anthropology refers to the identification and study of human remains. These examinations provide various characteristics about the deceased, such as age, ancestry, health history, and gender. Data samples and collections in this area also help determine the time of death and if there was any suspicious activity involved.
- Forensic Chemistry: Forensic chemists are responsible for identifying and characterizing physical evidence brought to them from a crime scene. They typically handle blood stains, paint chips, shattered glass, hair, fibers and other investigatory materials. They rely on the study of a variety of disciplines, such as genetics, chemistry, biology, and materials science. Forensic chemists utilize several tools to perform their duties, including the use of gas-chromatograph spectrometers, microtomes, infrared spectrophotometers, optical microscopes, and thermoplastics.
- Forensic Entomology: Forensic entomology is the study of bugs. Professionals in this realm apply their knowledge and findings to legal investigations, using their assessment of insects that feed on human remains to help determine location and time of death. Maggots, for instance, are a valuable indication of how long a person's decomposed body has been left unattended. The field mostly draws from the discipline of medicology and has roots that can be traced back as far as the 14th century. Subfields in the specialty include stored-product entomology, urban forensic entomology, and medico-legal forensic entomology. Common bugs that are examined are centipedes, arachnids, bees, wasps, flies, beetles, and moths.
- Forensic Nursing: Established in 1992, this profession consists of nurses who specialize in sexual assault examinations. They take care of and obtain forensic evidence from victims of physical attacks, such as blood and semen. Other types of concentrations in the field include postmortem investigations and child abuse. There's a constant demand for workers in this industry. They may work in hospitals, community organizations, or private medical offices.
- Forensic Psychology or Psychiatry: This offshoot of forensic science explores the psyche of suspects and those asked to stand trial. Forensic psychiatrists assess a person's competency and test for any signs of mental illness that may influence their performance and the overall outcome of a criminal case. These professionals are frequently called to be expert witnesses in civil and criminal hearings to provide a detailed report of their findings on a certain issue. Many of them also form teams that oversee past offenders for risk management purposes. There are generally two areas of criminal scrutiny in this field: Mental State at the Time of the Offence (MSO) and Competency to Stand Trial (CST). To qualify as an expert in this profession, individuals are required to undergo at least a one-year fellowship under the direction of a seasoned psychiatrist, as well as become eligible for board certification.
- Forensic Reconstruction: Individuals in forensic reconstruction focus on reconstructing the scene of a crime for investigatory purposes. These professionals attempt to mimic the events leading up to an incident in order to figure out who's at blame and to find out the purpose behind it. An associate or bachelor's degree is generally the minimal requirement, as most aspiring reconstructionists are given a considerable amount of hands-on training on the job. Professionals draw from kinetic energy and mathematical concepts to form the basis of their conclusions. They also use several instruments during the process, such as forensic animators and computer-aided design software.
Computer networks and the information within them have become more and more sophisticated in just a few short decades, but this sophistication also makes these systems more vulnerable. The work of computer forensic professionals helps to protect computer systems from the work of cyber criminals who not only steal from individuals, but who also attempt to hinder commercial activities over the Internet.
Computer forensic professionals can also work within criminal justice fields, investigating computer-related criminal activity, finding evidence, and often using it in court. Careers within the computer forensics fields can be found both in the public and private sector. Many US states require that computer forensic specialists obtain certification from an agency like the Global Information Assurance Certification so that they may testify as a specialist in court.
Degrees in computer forensics are available at the certificate, associate, bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral degree level. Certificate programs in computer forensics are often intended for people who already have a formal education and are working in the computer and information technology industry. In order to take part in certificate programs, applicants must typically have a bachelor’s degree in computer science or computer engineering.
Associate degree programs offer a more in-depth education in computer forensics then a certificate program. They are designed to give students an education that prepares them for entry-level career opportunities in the government, private sector, or in law enforcement. Students can often choose from specializations such as cyber crime or information assurance.
Bachelor’s degree programs in computer forensics offer a broader education. In most schools, students must complete general requirements before taking courses in computer forensics. Bachelor's programs give students hands-on experience with the latest information in the forensic analysis of computers, networks, and mobile devices. Courses cover criminal law, networking fundamentals, laboratory forensic science, cyber crime, and much more. Those who wish to earn a master’s or doctoral degree in computer forensics must already have a bachelor’s degree in a related matter, science, or business field. Graduate-level degree programs offer specialized education within the computer forensics field.
The specific forensic science degree program you choose will depend on the career path that you plan to pursue. Some careers require that professionals work directly at crime scenes and at all hours, while other careers focus on analyzing evidence within a lab with a more structured routine. For example, medical examiners are required to have a medical degree and complete a residency with forensic emphasis, which takes more than seven years. Crime scene examiners must have either a bachelor’s degree within forensic science, a natural science degree with an emphasis on law enforcement and crime scene processing, or a criminal justice degree with an emphasis in natural science. Students should examine their state's education requirements for forensic science professionals before choosing a program.
Here are some examples of potential career opportunities for forensic science graduates:
- Bloodstain Analyst: Also known as a “blood pattern analyst” or “blood spatter analyst,” a bloodstain analyst studies the nature of blood evidence to determine what occurred at the scene of a crime, including cause and time of death. Bloodstain analysts work with such tools as luminol, hemastix, stringing, and blood pattern analysis software to determine if blood evidence is the result of blunt-force trauma, stabbing, or gunshot wound.
- DNA Analyst: These analysts extract DNA from items found at a crime scene to determine the identity of the perpetrator or the identity of the victim in the absence of a body. Unless the individuals involved in the crime already have an existing criminal record, the DNA analyst will usually have to find other trace evidence containing DNA to match what was found at the crime scene, such as a handkerchief or a hair or blood sample of a relative.
- Forensic Botanist: A forensic botanist studies plant and mineral matter found at the scene of the crime. With their specialized knowledge of where certain types of plants and soil can be found, forensic botanists can determine the place of death if a body was moved. For example, investigation of soil particles found on a body may be matched with soil from the victim's own yard, determining that the individual died at home and was then moved to another location.
- Forensic Dentist: Those in forensic dentistry are also called ondontologists. They are mainly in charge of determining the identity of a deceased person through the use of dental records. Frequent interaction with law officials is also common, as they sometimes aid police in creating sketches of a person's physical appearance based on the position of the teeth and jaw line. There are a variety of concentrations in this profession, including analysis of abuse cases, identification of mass fatalities, age estimation, assessment of bite mark injuries, and classification of human remains.
- Forensic Psychologist: Forensic psychologists are required to have a PhD in psychology, as well as extensive knowledge of and experience with criminal justice, making them some of the most well-educated professionals in the criminal justice system. They work with criminals to determine whether or not they are mentally competent, then testify about their investigations in court. They also work with victims of crimes to provide appropriate counseling services. Unlike other forensic science professions, forensic psychology deals with circumstantial evidence, such as an individual’s psychological makeup and past behaviors, rather than physical evidence.
- Medical Examiner: Medical examiners are government officers who are trained physicians that perform postmortem assessments to determine if a person was involved in foul play or suspicious activity. They're not to be confused with coroners, who also investigate and confirm the cause of deaths but typically don't have an extensive background in forensic science, pathology, or medicine. In many cases, both professionals participate in a case. Medical examiners focus on identifying several factors, such as distinguishable physical characteristics, patient history, time of death, and trace evidence, in order to come to an accurate conclusion.
- Toxicologist: Toxicology is a process that draws from medicine, biology, and chemistry to determine specific chemicals found in living things. Professionals in this field are concerned with identifying the negative impact that toxic materials have on humans, animals, and the environment. Many individuals specialize in one area, including forensic toxicology, which involves the use of clinical chemistry, pharmacology, and analytical chemistry to investigate drug use, poisoning, and death. Forensic toxicologists may be called upon in investigations to determine whether an individual was poisoned or died by self-administration (such as a drug overdose.)
- Trace Evidence Expert: A trace evidence expert analyzes tiny (sometimes microscopic) pieces of evidence found at a crime scene to determine the cause of death or place the perpetrator at the scene of the crime. Trace evidence includes such items as hairs, fingerprints, plant and mineral fibers, glass, gunshot residue, paint chips, and cosmetics.
- Private Investigator: These professionals are also referred to as criminalistics agents, evidence technicians, and crime scene investigators. They're often involved in ongoing investigatory law services. Many of them work in police stations or medical examiners' offices. They may take on a number of criminal investigations, causing them to perform a wide array of tasks, such as interviewing witness and prime suspects, reviewing legal documents, taking photographs and measurements of crime scenes, attending autopsies, and collecting physical evidence.
- American Society of Forensic Odontology. Accessed November 30, 2014. http://asfo.org.
- Forensic Certification Programs. ACFEI. Accessed November 30, 2014. http://www.acfei.com/forensic_certifications.
- Forensic Chemistry. American Chemical Society. Accessed November 30, 2014. http://www.acs.org/content/acs/en/careers/college-to-career/chemistry-careers/forensic-chemistry.html.
- Forensic Science Technicians. Occupational Outlook Handbook. Bureau of Labor Statistics of the US Department of Labor. Published January 8, 2014. http://www.bls.gov/ooh/life-physical-and-social-science/forensic-science-technicians.htm.