Forensic science provides the foundation for a rapidly expanding set of careers that apply scientific methods and technology to legal and criminal justice fields. A master’s degree in forensic science can help you move into specialized areas like forensic accounting, forensic anthropology, and digital investigation. Professional opportunities in forensics have never been better, and the U.S Bureau of Labor Statistics projects an impressive 17% job growth rate for forensic science technicians between 2016 and 2026 — much higher than the national average growth for all occupations.
This guide to a master’s in forensic science online provides a useful introduction for those who have a bachelor’s degree in a scientific or criminological major, or for professionals who already work in a criminal justice-related field and are seeking career advancement. It also illustrates career possibilities and salary potential.
The master’s in forensic science online and on-campus requires between 32 and 40 credits. Depending on program requirements, students who enroll full-time may need two to three years to complete the degree. Several factors affect the amount of time it takes to earn this master’s degree. Some schools offer accelerated programs, which shorten the time it takes to graduate. Students with family responsibilities or who work full-time may opt to take only one or two courses per semester.
Students typically come into a master’s program with a bachelor’s degree in one of the natural sciences — often biology, chemistry, or computer science. Other students may have backgrounds in criminology or a related field. Program features vary by school, but most degrees emphasize problem-solving skills, data analysis, and investigation. Almost all programs, regardless of delivery format, include technical training and software applications and require an internship, a hands-on fieldwork experience, or a thesis.
Depending on its focus, each forensic science program establishes its own unique curriculum. However, most programs offer similar core courses in forensic analysis, crime scene investigation, and other central areas that prepare students for more specialized electives and concentrations. The following descriptions cover some of the most common course offerings.
This gateway course for master’s degree students examines the major aspects of scientific physical evidence in the criminal justice system, using real criminal and civil cases. Themes include crime scene investigation; generation, preservation, and analysis of physical evidence; law/science interface, ethics, and professional responsibility; and quality assurance, analytical chemistry, toxicology, forensic biology, and pattern analysis.
This course trains students in techniques and procedures for approaching, protecting, and investigating crime scenes. Topics include documentation, evidence collection, presumptive chemical and biological tests, and the collection and preservation of impression evidence, particularly fingerprints and footprints. The course emphasizes the legal and scientific principles of crime scene searches and seizures.
This course introduces students to the identification and evaluation of biological evidence in criminal matters using molecular biology DNA technologies, including data interpretation, analysis, and reporting. It provides an overview of the forensic methods for characterizing body fluids and other biological materials and the techniques used to isolate DNA from cells.
Students acquire a basic knowledge of human anatomy and osteology, including human remains recovery, and learn to use physical anthropology techniques to analyze skeletal, badly decomposed, or otherwise unidentified human remains to solve crimes. The course emphasizes laboratory processes used by forensic anthropologists, and the application of physical anthropology to legal cases.
This course explores the application of clinical psychology in a legal setting, covering topics like criminal psychopathology, eyewitness testimony, the insanity defense, and profiling. Students learn how to perform basic legal research, including analyzing the legal concepts of criminal competence, legal insanity, and due process as it pertains to the mentally ill, developmentally disabled, and children.
Most forensic science master’s degrees require either a capstone course or a thesis based on independent research. Students typically take the capstone course in their last semester, and most capstones require a written paper or formal presentation that integrates key concepts from coursework to a particular forensic application or issue (e.g. speech recognition, facial recognition, or technological advances in DNA testing). A written thesis requirement involves independent research, under the supervision of a faculty committee. Many distance learning degrees in forensic science deliver their coursework fully online, but some programs require physical attendance on-campus for mandatory laboratory training or crime lab operations.
Students enrolled in a master’s in forensic science online may choose to specialize their studies by taking a set of courses that reflect their interests and career goals. Specializations represent every subfield of forensic science, including digital forensics, criminal investigation, forensic toxicology, serology, and drug chemistry. This list provides some examples offered by different programs.
This specialization focuses on techniques that help advance the fields of forensic biology, forensic molecular biology, DNA analysis, and serology. Research encompasses both nuclear and mitochondrial DNA. The primary focus deals with the human species and practical DNA typing, but laboratory work also includes trace evidence from non-human DNA, including domestic animal remains, insects, and plants that may exist at a crime scene.Forensic Chemistry and Toxicology
Students focus on the principles of forensic chemistry and toxicology and the use of instruments, chemical reagents, and precise methodologies. Laboratory work emphasizes the practical applications of tools, including gas-chromatograph spectrometers, microtomes, infrared spectrophotometers, optical microscopes, and thermoplastics. This specialization also introduces students to the field of forensic toxicology, including forensic pharmacology, doping control, postmortem toxicology, and drug metabolism.Forensic Psychology
The coursework in this specialization analyzes the behavioral assumptions underlying legal issues, and examines the roles of psychology and clinical prediction, treatment, and assessment in civil and criminal justice systems. Themes include expert testimony, techniques for presenting psychological evidence as testimony, classification of offenders, dangerousness and psychopathology, competency and criminal insanity defenses, and ethical conflicts between psychology and the law.
Forensics is a rapidly growing field, with applications in a variety of career paths that require the collection and analysis of evidence. Earning a master’s in forensic science may provide a competitive edge for investigative positions with federal and state agencies. While many graduates work in law enforcement and medical examiners’ offices, others find work in corporate settings.
A master’s degree in forensic science does not guarantee employment, but the demand for graduates with specialized training continues to expand in areas such as forensic psychology, criminal investigation, and computer forensics. Some careers in forensics may also require a strong natural science background, plus laboratory experience, medical training, or specialized licensure.
These professionals work with law enforcement agencies to retrieve information from computers and other data storage devices that have been damaged or corrupted by hacking or viruses. Computer forensic analysts monitor threats, investigate breaches, assess damage, and implement solutions. They must keep current on IT security and the latest threats to computer systems and networks. The demand for computer or digital forensic specialists who hold a master’s degree continues to grow in both public and private settings.
Forensic psychologists must possess an advanced graduate degree and extensive knowledge of how the criminal justice system works. They use their knowledge of cognitive, emotional, and behavioral disorders to help judges, attorneys, and other legal professionals understand how psychological principles affect civil or criminal court cases. They interview and assess criminal defendants to determine their competence to stand trial, and they provide expert testimony. Many forensic psychologists seek specialty certification from the American Board of Professional Psychology
Many investigators enter this field after working as firefighters and completing a master’s in forensic science, fire science, or chemistry. They collect and analyze evidence from fires and explosions, reconstruct the scene of a fire or suspected arson, interview witnesses, and document and analyze evidence. They catalog and preserve evidence for use in civil and criminal proceedings, and offer expert testimony on the origin and causes. Many professional associations offer specialized certifications for fire and explosion investigators.
These professionals collect and analyze evidence for criminal investigations. Crime scene technicians determine what evidence to collect and how to handle it, and they catalog and preserve the evidence for transfer to the crime lab. Technicians who work in laboratory settings perform chemical, biological, and microscopic analyses on the evidence removed from crime scenes. Many of these technicians hold a bachelor’s degree in one of the natural sciences, plus a forensic science master’s degree.
Forensic laboratory technology managers work in laboratory settings, overseeing the analysis of body fluids and tissue samples. They may present their findings for use in legal and criminal cases, and sometimes provide testimony. They must have the skills to operate sophisticated laboratory equipment, including microscopes, cell counters, and computerized instruments. Laboratory managers make sure staff technicians follow safety regulations and protocols. Managerial positions usually require a master’s degree, and some states require professional certification.
Membership in one of the forensic science professional associations provides a competitive advantage to students and recent graduates preparing to enter the job market. Student members benefit from the opportunity to network with experienced practitioners in the field. Many associations sponsor internships, fellowships, and certification programs. Student members may also access career resources and job listings.
AAFS promotes the application of forensic sciences to the criminal justice system. It draws members from across the forensic sciences, including practitioners and researchers who share an interest in collaborating to improve education and practice.
AAFP serves as the educational division of the American Board of Forensic Psychology, which assumes responsibility for the certification program in the field. AAFP offers continuing education opportunities, and confers awards to outstanding practitioners in the field of forensic psychology.
One of the oldest associations in forensic sciences, this international group boasts 3,000 members across 60 countries. It sponsors an expert registry and a job bank, and offers a discounted student membership rate.
This professional association for practicing forensic toxicologists provides a forum for exchanging information and ideas. SOFT sponsors an annual meeting, and publishes technical publications and newsletters. It also shares information about continuing education and certification opportunities in forensic toxicology.
This professional association of forensic DNA analysts, supervisors, and administrators working in the judicial system shares new developments about DNA analysis techniques, methods, and procedures. AFDAA offers a discounted membership to students preparing for careers in forensic DNA analysis or administration.
The BLS reports above-average job growth rates for careers in forensic science. A master’s degree in forensic science does not necessarily guarantee employment in any of the below fields, but many employers favor applicants with this credential over those with less training, especially for positions that require specialized technological skills. This chart presents salary ranges and median annual income data for some common career paths for graduates with a master’s degree in forensic science.
|Job Title||Lowest 10% Earned Annually||Median Annual Salary||Highest 10% Earned Annually||Job Growth 2016-2026|
|Information Security and Computer Forensic Analysts||Less than $55,560||$95,510||More than $153,090||+28%|
|Forensic Psychologists||Less than $42,339||$77,030||More than $124,520||+14%|
|Arson Investigators and Fire Inspectors||Less than $34,800||$59,260||More than $95,960||+10%|
|Forensic Science Technicians||Less than $33,880||$57,850||More than $95,600||+17%|
|Laboratory Technology Managers||Less than $29,640||$51,770||More than $79,530||+13%|
Source: BLS 2018
The BLS projects a 7% growth rate for all jobs in the U.S. between 2016 and 2026, and a 17% growth rate for master’s-level occupations in the same time frame. The above salary information reinforces these statistics, indicating above-average growth in occupations that attract holders of forensic science master’s degrees. The 28% growth rate for information security analysts and the 17% rate for forensic science technicians reflect the high demand for technologically savvy professionals.
A recent study from the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce (CEW) reports above-average salary boosts for graduate degrees in the social sciences (including criminology) and physical sciences. These subjects include many forensic science specializations. Criminology graduates with bachelor’s degrees earn a median annual salary of $54,000, compared to $71,000 for those with a master’s or higher. In the physical sciences, graduates at the bachelor’s level earn $62,000, compared to $79,000 for those with master’s degrees.
Before you enroll in a master’s in forensic science online, make sure to choose an accredited school. Accreditation demonstrates that a school has met established standards of academic quality through an extensive review by an independent evaluating agency. To qualify for federal financial aid, you must attend an accredited institution, and if you plan on transferring credits to another school or advance into graduate work, consider that accredited schools will not accept prior credits from non-accredited institutions.
Some academic programs within accredited schools receive specialized programmatic accreditation. The Forensic Science Education Programs Accreditation Commission (FEPAC), affiliated with the American Academy of Forensic Sciences, administers accreditation for high-quality undergraduate and graduate forensic science programs. Check any school or program's accreditation status through its website, or the databases maintained by the ED or the Council for Higher Education Accreditation.
Paying for graduate school poses a major challenge for many students. Most students rely on some form of financial assistance, such as federal aid, scholarships, grants, or fellowships. This list suggests some potential funding sources for students interested in pursuing a master’s in forensic science.
All students, regardless of their personal circumstances, 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 low-interest loans need-based requirements. Many graduate students in forensic science find that they qualify for direct unsubsidized loans and direct PLUS loans.
The National Science Foundation provides significant funding in the form of fellowships for students pursuing research-focused master’s and doctoral degrees. The GRFP recognizes and supports outstanding graduate students in NSF-supported disciplines, which include forensic science, at accredited U.S. institutions. The GRFP awards an allowance for tuition and other education-related costs, plus a stipend of $34,000 per year.
Several professional associations in forensic science award scholarships to students interested in beginning forensic science careers. The American Society of Crime Laboratory Directors offers a $1,000 annual scholarship to students pursuing graduate study in forensic science, forensic chemistry, or a natural of physical science. Selection depends on overall academic achievement and a personal statement.
Alpha Phi Sigma, the National Criminal Justice Honor Society, awards this $1,500 annual scholarship to one graduate student enrolled in a criminal justice, forensic science, or related program at an accredited university. Applicants must demonstrate academic achievement and submit three letters of reference, along with a personal statement describing their educational and career goals.