With cyber crime increasing and computers becoming more complex, the U.S. needs more professionals who can identify, analyze, and prevent those crimes. The skills learned in studying computer forensics are valuable in law enforcement, plus software development, network administration, and many other aspects of the tech industry. Local, state, and federal governments, along with businesses of all sizes, hire computer forensics professionals to make sure their information is secure, and that computer-managed services aren't interrupted.
Many colleges offer computer forensics degrees, or a computer forensics concentration within an information technology program. These degrees are available both on-campus and online. This guide gives some insight into how these programs work, and what applicants should consider when choosing a computer forensics program.
Should I Get a Bachelor's in Computer Forensics?
Computer forensics is ideal for students who are interested in studying and analyzing technology. Analysis acts as the foundation for a computer forensics degree, allowing professionals to determine what happened during an incident and why. Computer forensics professionals are trained to find information they might use to improve security features, track down culprits, and testify against offenders in court. Graduates can use their degree to pursue a variety of other career paths, as well.
While getting your degree, you'll have the opportunity to meet with your peers and teachers and network at internships, conferences, and in professional organizations. These people can help you launch your degree, whether that means working in a startup or turning an internship into a full-time position. Not all computer forensics professionals must have degrees, but they can give professionals an advantage when it comes to the job search, because candidates with degrees can demonstrate their knowledge. Some programs even offer job placement assistance, or help students earn specific certifications to help them stand apart from others in their field.
Even if you're already working, whether in computer science or another industry, a computer forensics degree can boost your career. Many programs that grant these degrees are available entirely online, allowing you to schedule your classes around your existing work or family obligations.
What Can I Do With a Bachelor's in Computer Forensics?
Your computer forensics degree can lead to a wide variety of careers and job titles. Expertise in computer security, and in the analysis of security and its failures, is useful in a number of industries. It is rare for employees to have only one skill set, or one type or responsibility over the course of their career. Computer forensics is just one of many skill sets that can apply to your work.
- Information Security Analyst
These professionals work to ensure the safety of an organization's data. They plan and implement preventive and responsive measures for networks and individual computers, and may contribute to the initial design of computer networks. They can work in a variety of industries, including banking, retail, law enforcement, and other government work.
Median Annual Salary: $95,510
Projected Growth Rate: 28%
- Network Architect
While other skills may be more common, network architects need at least a basic grounding in security. Especially in smaller organizations with only one or two people designing or maintaining a network, computer forensics can help make those networks much more secure.
Median Annual Salary: $104,650
Projected Growth Rate: 6%
- Systems Analyst
These professionals often focus on increasing the efficiency of networks and other computer systems, but security is also a major consideration, especially for large businesses and governments. These professionals can benefit from applying computer forensics in order to improve system security, response times, and other factors.
Median Annual Salary: $88,270
Projected Growth Rate: 9%
- Software Development
Software dealing with sensitive information needs protection, just like computers and networks do. Computer forensics experts can play an important part in creating security software, banking applications, operating systems, and other kinds of programs.
Median Annual Salary: $103,560
Projected Growth Rate: 24%
How to Choose a Bachelor's Program in Computer Forensics
Choosing where to get your computer forensics degree can be quite personal, but there are a few questions all students should ask themselves: how long do you have to earn your degree? Will you work while you attend school, or can you commit to a full-time college experience? If you have a more specific idea of what you want to study or need to learn, you can base your decision on the specific curricula offered by different schools. You can look for programs offering the concentrations, internship opportunities, and course structures that best suit you.
Moving away to go to college doesn't have to mean living in a dorm. You might live elsewhere in the city, or even attend college online. If you want to get a job in the same area as your school, consider attending an institution in an area with a rich technology industry.
Programmatic Accreditation for Bachelor's Programs in Computer Forensics
Only accredited schools can grant degrees, having proven to a regional or national board that they meet certain educational criteria. In addition to institution-wide national or regional accreditation, some schools also have programmatic accreditation, through which individual programs or departments have been accredited by a board in a related profession. In computer forensics, you'll want to keep an eye out for programs accredited by the Accreditation Board of Engineering and Technology (ABET). ABET is a nongovernmental organization which has developed standards for college-level natural and applied sciences education, and accredits programs that meet these standards.
Bachelor's in Computer Forensics Program Admissions
The main goal of undergraduate admissions is to filter out applicants who don't seem like they're going to finish their degree. The most appealing applicants demonstrate that they know what they want from their college experience, so prospective students should make sure to illustrate their interest in a computer forensics degree. This guide can give you an idea of what you'll need, but check with your potential schools to make sure you have everything they need by deadline.
Undergraduate admissions processes vary by school, but applicants must generally submit the following information and materials:
- Minimum GPA: Minimum GPA varies by school. If your GPA doesn't meet requirements, consider taking some community college courses to give it a boost.
- Application: This online form usually includes contact and identifying information, such as a birthdate and address. Some schools use a program called The Common Application, which allows students to apply to multiple schools with a single application.
- Transcripts: Transcripts record which classes you've taken and how you performed in them. Schools usually charge a nominal fee to release official transcript copies and send them to other institutions.
- Letters of Recommendation: These are best submitted by teachers or bosses that you have worked with in the past, who can speak to your strengths and skills.
- Test Scores: The most common standardized tests for undergraduate applicants are the SAT and ACT. Each school has its own minimums score requirements.
- Application Fee: Colleges receive a lot of applications, so they generally attach a fee to make sure applicants are serious about their interest. Some schools may waive this fee for students who demonstrate financial need.
What Else Can I Expect From a Bachelor's Program in Computer Forensics?
The following section provides a sample curriculum for a bachelor's in computer forensics, and what graduates can do with their degree. Curriculum requirements vary between schools, but commonly follow these general guidelines.
|Smartphone Forensics||Smartphones are an increasingly common part of modern life, and are increasingly the target of cyber crimes. They are different from computers, both in structure and use, so the same tactics can't always protect them. With this concentration, you can help improve security for average users.||Law enforcement, software development|
|Forensic Analysis||Analysis makes up an important part of computer forensics and cyber security, and some students focus on combing through data to determine incident details. These details can reveal who caused the incident, how they did it, and how they breached existing security.||Law enforcement, software development, network security|
|Cyber Criminology||Like criminologists in more traditional fields, some students focus on which crimes can be committed using computers. They focus more on who may have committed the crime than what the results were, in an effort to bring them to justice.||Law enforcement|
|White Hat Hacking||These hackers use cyber criminals' practices and apply them to existing networks to test for weaknesses. Some students focus on this aspect of cybersecurity help prevent criminals from exploiting network weaknesses.||Law enforcement, network security, software development|
|Cyber Intelligence||Computer forensics can help develop a better understanding of individuals who commit cyber crimes in order to apprehend them or prevent other attacks. Some students focus on the human side of evidence in order to work up better understandings of criminals and the threats they pose.||Law enforcement|
Courses in a Bachelor's in Computer Forensics Program
There are as many different computer forensics courses as there are schools offering them, but a few subjects are common to most programs. Below, you will find five examples of courses you're likely to find at most institutions, many of which form the basis of a computer forensics education.
- Basic Computer Forensics
Most programs offer this course to give students a solid starting point. You'll learn about the history and development of the field, along with the major ethical and practical guidelines that determine how professionals in the field work.
- Cyber Criminology
Courses like this introduce students to the various forms of cybercrime. You'll discuss how and why these crimes are committed, and whom they typically target. This includes the distinction between computers as the target or the tool of a given cybercrime.
- Network Security
These courses introduce students to the basics of network security, including how to protect networks and the kinds of threats they face. You'll develop an understanding of how to prevent, contain, and recover from incidents, and how to collect data about them.
- Incident Response
These courses introduce students to the ways in which professionals detect and respond to threats. Response is often a matter of mitigating damage and then investigating how an incident occured in the first place, both of which students will learn about in a course like this.
- Vulnerability Analysis and Testing
Sometimes referred to as "white hat hacking," finding and testing weaknesses in security is an important part of preserving information. Courses like this teach the practice of probing networks to find weaknesses, so companies can strengthen their networks and prevent cyber criminals from exploiting those weaknesses.
How Long Does It Take to Get a Bachelor's in Computer Forensics?
Full-time students typically take four years to earn a bachelor's in computer forensics. Students who take classes part time, or take time off for work or personal reasons, may take longer to complete their degree. You can speed up your degree by taking on extra courses each term, or by taking summer courses. Online programs are often faster than on-campus ones, because they usually offer intensive or accelerated options. These programs generally work by allowing students to attend more classes over shorter periods of time. Some on-campus or hybrid programs also offer these options.
Speeding up your degree can also save you money, especially if you live on campus or otherwise have to move in order to attend your chosen school.
How Much Is a Bachelor's in Computer Forensics?
Cost can be an important issue when deciding where to get your computer forensics bachelor's degree. In 2017, the average cost of a bachelor's degree in the United States was almost $20,000. Cost doesn't always equate to quality, and sometimes better schools charge less. Most colleges charge lower tuition for in-state students.
If you need to save money, online classes are usually cheaper than on-campus ones. Housing is another considerable expense, especially for those living on campus, which tends to be more expensive than living off campus. The faster you earn your computer forensics degree, the less you'll spend on housing costs.
Applicants should also account for books, supplies, and fees, though these expenses tend to cost less than tuition. Buy used books to reduce these costs, or sell back your books to help reduce the overall cost.
Certifications and Licenses a Bachelor's in Computer Forensics Prepares For
- Certified Cyber Forensics Professional
ISC2 offers the certified cyber forensics professional certification, which verifies that the holder is able to collect accurate data, which is admissible in court. This is a more advanced certification, and most who earn it already have other certifications in the field.
- GIAC Certified Forensic Analyst
The GIAC forensic analyst certification verifies that the holder is familiar with the practices of information security, incident response, and computer forensics. This aims primarily at early-career professionals, and does not require any specific education or experience. This is a good choice for recent graduates.
- GIAC Cyber Threat Intelligence
The GIAC cyber threat intelligence certification focuses on intelligence and counterintelligence techniques as they pertain to cyber threats. This is a good certification for those interested in incident response, threat hunting, or law enforcement work. It is best pursued by established professionals, but doesn't have specific requirements.
- GIAC Advanced Smartphone Forensics
The GIAC advanced smartphone forensics certification focuses on incident response and security for smartphones. These contain immense amounts of data, but increasingly act as backdoors into larger networks. Smartphones are different from computers, so they require specific knowledge to secure and investigate.
Resources for Computer Forensics Students
A wiki dedicated to the topic of computer forensics, this site hosts more than 800 pages covering the history, tools, people, and organizations of the industry.
The Department of Defense Cyber Crime Center hosts information on the most recent advances and challenges in computer forensics and information security. Many certifications and programs adhere to DoD standards.
Though intended for regular Internet users, this site contains useful information for computer forensics students and professionals, especially those looking for nontechnical ways to explain threats.
The United States Computer Emergency Readiness Team is an arm of the Department of Homeland Security and collects a variety of data of use to computer forensics students and professionals, including bulletins on newly discovered threats.
Created by a group of universities with funding from the National Science Foundation, National CyberWatch Center provides online courses, podcasts, internships and other resources to help educate computer forensics professionals.
Professional Organizations in Computer Forensics
Professional organizations help people working in the field, along with students working toward their computer forensics degrees. Some organizations award scholarships or other funding, but all offer resources to help professionals and students improve their education and get started on finding work and obtaining certification. Computer forensics is a growing and constantly changing industry, and having access to peers outside of your program can be a huge help.
The HTCIA's mission is provide professional development and networking opportunities to members in order to improve the prevention and investigation of computer crimes.
Founded in 1990, this nonprofit trains, certifies, and supports computer forensics professionals in more than 60 countries, developing new certifications to keep up with changing technology.
With over 165,000 members globally, the SANS Institute is a leading organization in the information security field, and has been providing training, certification, and research since 1989.
The ISFCE provides certification, networking opportunities, continuing education opportunities, and research to improve the field of computer forensics and promote professional development.
The DFA brings together professionals to promote education and professional development, regardless of experience. It also provides research to help investigators stay at the forefront of an ever-changing field.