Forensic Science Graduate Programs

Forensic Science Graduate Programs delve into how to apply the physical, biomedical, and social sciences to the analysis of physical evidence. While forensic science is often affiliated with images from TV crime scene investigation shows like Law & Order, Dexter, or Bones, this is only one aspect of a broader and dynamic field of study.

Forensic Science Graduate Programs: Overview

Schools for Forensic Science Graduate Programs may offer degrees at the Masters and Doctoral levels as well as certificates. A graduate-level forensic science degree program often has both a didactic and a hands-on component.

Most curriculums stack courses in forensic biology, chemistry, toxicology, and trace evidence analysis with crime laboratory methodologies.

Students could therefore build a portfolio of relevant laboratory techniques in tandem with a deeper grasp of medico-legal developments. Additional coursework might help participants refine skills in a specific area such as forensic psychology or digital forensics.

About Forensic Science Graduate Programs

Program Formats: Campus & Online

In addition to on-campus programs, many forensic science schools offer online forensic science programs. These may appeal to at-work professionals who have access to a lab, but cannot head to campus to study at a set schedule.

What Is Forensic Science All About?

Per the American Academy of Forensic Sciences, “any science used for the purposes of the law is a forensic science.”While forensic science has become identified with law enforcement and prosecution of criminal cases, it is actually objective and unbiased.

Three of the many uses and practices of forensic science could assist in the following elements of a criminal investigation.

  1. Helps investigators understand how blood spatter patterns occur (physics)
  2. Discover the composition and source of evidence such as drugs and trace materials (chemistry)
  3. Determine the identity of an unknown suspect through DNA (biology)

Essentially, forensic science plays a key role in the criminal justice system by providing scientifically based information through the analysis of physical evidence.

For instance, when an investigation is conducted, evidence is collected at a crime scene or from a person, analyzed in a crime laboratory and then the results presented in court. Each crime scene is unique, and each case presents its own dilemmas.

DID YOU KNOW?

Many of those who seek to become forensic science technicians have an undergraduate degree in the natural sciences and a masters degree in forensic science.ii

What Courses Might a Forensic Science Major Study?

A forensic science major could study a variety of topics, though curriculums often line up with the theme of the program. See below for a few examples of what Forensic Science Graduate Programs may offer in the way of coursework.iiiThen, refer to the syllabus of individual forensic science schools.

  • Forensic Laboratory Technology
  • Autopsy Procedures, DNA, Blood Pattern Analysis, Fingerprint Technology
  • Document Analysis
  • Witness and Subject Examination Procedures
  • Professional Standards, Ethics, Law and Regulations
  • Anthropology and Psychology

Masters in Forensic Science

A Masters in Forensic Science program has a multi-discipline approach in which students could tailor their degree to specific needs and goals. Most forensic science schools award a Master of Science (MS) in Forensic Science, or a Master of Science in Criminal Justice – Forensic Science.

Requirements to Apply

Applicants often need a Bachelors degree in chemistry or biology or in forensic or natural science with a minor in chemistry or biology. Along with transcripts, it may be necessary to furnish GRE scores, letters of recommendation and a personal essay.

Length of Study

A general MS in Forensic Science degree plan could entail from 30 to 44 graduate semester hours, with coursework that a full-time student might complete in about two years. The aim of this type of program is often to help students acquire necessary knowledge, skills, and abilities essential to forensic science.

Topics of Study

Most curriculums include several components: core courses, advanced coursework and laboratory instruction. Compulsory courses could enable students to learn how to use forensic instruments and master techniques to analyze controlled substances. In addition, participants might study regulations, ethics and quality assurance.

Further topics could draw from the examples listed below.

  • Forensic Biology
  • Forensic Toxicology
  • Trace Evidence and Microscopy
  • Crime Scene Investigation and Pattern Evidence

Students may also be required to complete an internship is a forensic science laboratory. A final independent research project often caps the MS and may highlight good oral and written skills which are important in the lab as well as the courtroom.

MS in Criminal Justice – Crime Analysis

By contrast, a MS in Criminal Justice with a concentration in Crime Analysis could explore the inner workings of investigations and modern trends in crimes. Curriculums might start students off with an exploration of today’s criminal justice issues (E.g. cybercrime).

Technical courses could include a class in research methods and statistical applications in criminal justice which could prepare students for a final Crime Analysis Project.

Other compulsory topics could build a deeper grasp of legal and ethical issues along with the following.

  • Computer Applications in Crime Analysis and Investigation
  • Criminal Intelligence Process
  • Geographic Information Systems

MS in Forensic Psychology

A Master of Science in Forensic Psychology (MSFP) program puts a microscope on criminal behavior and what motivates it. Forensic psychology is essentially an intersection of psychology and law. Though commonly associated with the practices used by criminal profilers, it is much more wide-ranging.

Forensic psychologists work within the criminal justice system to assess the mental health of individuals who have been charged with a crime. MS in Forensic Psychology programs could therefore immerse students in the psychology of criminality.

Students could be expected to develop an ability to think critically since, one day they may be asked to determine if a suspect is competent to stand trial, offer expert testimony, or make recommendations about an offender’s sentencing or treatment.

Curriculums at the Masters level might also examine the use and application of social psychological principles in correctional settings and root causes of aggression. Students might also develop deeper insight into the characteristics of victimization and offenders along with treatment strategies for perpetrators. See below for other potential course topics.

  • Psychology of Law and Justice
  • Diversity and Forensic Psychology
  • Criminal Profiling

Not all MS in Forensic Psychology programs may prepare students to seek licensure in the fields of counseling and psychology. However, they could set students up with research design skills and coursework in applied statistics. These courses may help students with a capstone project. A non-clinical internship may also be required.

PhD in Forensic Psychology

A Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) in Forensic Science is an interdisciplinary research degree. Courses often aim to go wide and deep to help students refine their ability to think critically, solve problems, and refine leadership skills in their area of interest.

Who Can Apply

Applicants to some PhD in Forensic Science schools may need a Bachelor's degree in chemistry or biology. Alternatively, a bachelors degree in forensic or natural science with the equivalent of a minor in either chemistry or biology.

Forensic schools often look for candidates with a 3.5 GPA and may ask for GRE scores. Things like a resume, personal essay and letters of recommendation usually need to be furnished with official transcripts.

Typical Course Work

To further the program goals, PhD students might perform independent, original research, complete academic coursework along with hands-on experience in the laboratory. Some forensic science schools may also encourage participants to collaborate with accredited forensic laboratories, institutes and partners.

The way a PhD program is divided depends on the university. Sometimes, students complete 86 credit hours beyond the bachelors degree, with the bulk of courses devoted to compulsory courses. These may cover science (forensic toxicology, forensic biology), law, ethical conduct and quality assurance along with some others.

  • Forensic Science Laboratory Management
  • Controlled Substance Analysis
  • Forensic Instrumental Analysis

In addition, students could study how to conduct research and communicate scientific research results. Electives could draw from a list of approved graduate courses in areas such as forensic science, criminal justice, biology or chemistry.

Graduate Certificate in Forensic Science

A Graduate Certificate in Forensic Science is a non-degree award that could bolster skills in a targeted area. Most certificates are shorter than a full grad degree and could cover a set series of courses and about 20 credits.

For instance, a Forensic Science/Criminalistics Certificate could cover criminalistics coursework and related labs as well as physical and DNA analysis. Students might also take an elective which could cover analytic chemistry or drug chemistry and identification.

Forensic Science Concentrations

Different Forensic Science Graduate programs and curriculums could help students carve out specific skills to pursue various career paths in this extensive field. It is good to keep this in mind when it comes to choosing a program.

Different forensics schools may offer distinct emphasis. Consider your goals, then read course lists and program descriptions to find forensic science programs that could support your endeavors.

Forensic Pathology: A focus in forensic pathology could prepare students to perform autopsies in order to determine how and why the victim died. This is especially in cases where foul play is suspected or when the death is sudden or just unusual. Aside from these techniques, students might study how to move beyond the lab to inspect crime scenes.

Forensic pathologists typically work closely with dentists, who use dental records to identify human remains, or forensic toxicologists, who analyze blood and tissue samples to detect the presence of drugs, alcohol, or other chemicals. Key courses could therefore include Forensic Medicine and Forensic Dentistry.

Forensic Anthropology: A focus in forensic anthropology could help students address cases where human remains are severely decomposed. Forensic anthropology primarily delves into the study of the human skeleton to find clues that relate to the victim’s identity (E.g. age, sex, stature, and ancestry).

In addition, forensic anthropology could be used to determine the cause of death, and/or uncover evidence of a crime. Forensic anthropologists may use tools such as facial reconstruction software as part of their investigation. Key courses could cover osteology, biology and research methods.

Crime Scene Investigation: Crime scene investigation is all about the procedures used to carefully comb a crime scene and document all the evidence collected. Investigators take photos, make sketches, look for hairs, blood, fibers, fingerprints, bullet fragments, and other pieces of evidence.

All these pieces form part of the puzzle to point to a suspect or help to formulate a theory of what events took place. Students might therefore study more intensively things such as how to collect evidence, analyze findings in the lab, and reconstruct crime scenes.

Criminalistics: A focus in criminalistics is all about the scientific analysis of evidence collected from the crime scene. Criminalists analyze physical evidence in the crime lab, including hairs, fibers, gunshot residue, arson accelerants, and body fluids such as blood or saliva (for DNA testing).

Students who choose this emphasis might therefore study in-depth topics such as chemistry, biology, or related subjects. They may also become familiar with multiple instrumentation and scientific techniques. A course in scientific communication could help students learn to present and explain complicated scientific evidence to a jury.

Digital Forensics: A focus in digital forensics might appeal to the tech-savvy student. Participants often complete coursework in cyberspace and cybersecurity. They could also learn how to conduct a digital forensic investigation as well as study cybercrime and cyber incident analysis.

What Do You Do As a Forensic Scientist?

A forensic scientist is first a scientist. Scientists who use their knowledge to help lawyers, juries, and judges comprehend the results of scientific tests are forensic scientists.

The scientific analyses and tests conducted by a forensic scientist could either exonerate or convict an accused person, prove or disprove allegations in various legal suits. 

Are Forensic Scientists in High Demand?

Per the Bureau of Labor Statistics, employment of forensic science technicians is anticipated to grow 17 percent from 2016 to 2026, which is considered really fast.ivNonetheless, competition for jobs is expected to be fierce, and applicants with a graduate forensic science degree could have an edge. iv

Forensic Science Professional Certifications

A national certification may not be necessary in order to work in the field of forensic science. iiHowever, a range of licenses and certifications is available to help credential or enhance professional development of many types of forensic science technicians.

These certifications may be available through organization which are accredited by the Forensic Specialties Accreditation Board (FSAB). For instance, the American Board of Criminalistics offers proficiency tests in 5 areas: (1) drug analysis, (2) fire debris, (3) hairs and fibers, (4) molecular biology, paints and polymers.v

Accredited Forensic Science Schools

Regionally accredited universities may offer professionally approved Forensic Science Graduate programs. The preeminent accreditor in this area is FEPAC – The Forensic Science Education Programs Accreditation Commission.

FEPAC takes into account factors such as faculty support, student services, the program’s mission statement and the school’s fiscal stability before they approve each forensic science program.

Choose a School for a Forensic Science Graduate Degree

The jury is out - you want to earn a graduate forensic science degree. Easily compare Forensic Science Graduate programs right here. Set filters for degree level and program format, then review the list of partner forensic science schools.

Choose the ones you like, then use the on-page form to apply. It’s simple, so take that next step now.


[i] aafs.org/students/choosing-a-career/what-is-forensic-science/ | [ii] bls.gov/ooh/life-physical-and-social-science/forensic-science-technicians.htm#tab-4 | [iii] nces.ed.gov/ipeds/cipcode/cipdetail.aspx?y=55&cipid=88545 | [iv] bls.gov/ooh/life-physical-and-social-science/forensic-science-technicians.htm#tab-6 | [v] criminalistics.com/proficiency-testing.html |

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