Forensic scientists collect, analyze, document, and present evidence to aid criminal investigations and bring perpetrators to justice. Forensic science represents a rapidly evolving field, and the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects the number of forensic science technician positions to grow by 17% from 2016 to 2026. Additionally, with a median salary of $57,850, these professionals earn about $20,000 more than the average U.S. worker.
Master's degree programs in forensic science prepare graduates for career advancement through specialized coursework, laboratory training, and practicum experiences. In addition to gathering and evaluating physical evidence, forensic scientists can obtain training in digital forensics and economic crime, working to assist individuals, companies, and communities in a variety of settings. This guide provides detailed academic information to help students find the graduate program that best fits their particular interests and goals. It also covers career options and professional development opportunities.
Should I Get a Master's in Forensic Science?
While a bachelor's degree allows students to pursue entry-level jobs as forensic technicians and assistants, a graduate education prepares them for specialized careers and leadership positions. A master's degree in forensic science also enables professionals to earn advanced certification in areas like trace evidence analysis, criminalistics, and forensic pathology. Additionally, forensic scientists can work for government agencies, which may require them to obtain a state-issued license. Earning a graduate degree can help professionals obtain and maintain these credentials.
Forensic science master's programs typically begin with core courses, covering topics like toxicology, serology, and applied statistics for data interpretation. Degree candidates also engage in intensive laboratory practice centering on quality assurance and control and gain hands-on leadership training through internship and other practicum experiences.
The degree plan culminates in an integrated capstone project where students pursue their own research interests. Beyond academics, graduate education offers networking opportunities. Many participants attend national conferences where they meet peers, learn from experts, explore professional opportunities, and present their own scientific discoveries. Additionally, many colleges and universities partner with professional organizations, such as Delta Delta Epsilon. By joining a professional organization, students can gain access to financial aid, internship, and job placement opportunities.
A graduate education shows employers that a candidate possesses ample skills, knowledge, and practical experience. A master's degree typically leads to higher pay and more job opportunities. BLS projections in 2017 showed that master's degree holders benefit from lower unemployment rates (2.2%) than professionals who only hold a bachelor's degree (2.5%), an associate degree (3.4%), or high school diploma (4.6%). Additionally, diverse program options exist to accommodate learners of all backgrounds. Working professionals often prefer the flexibility of distance education, whereas students who recently earned their bachelor's degree typically gravitate toward on-campus graduate programs, which provide direct access to university resources.
What Can I Do With a Master's in Forensic Science?
A master's in forensic science prepares graduates to pursue certification and advanced careers. Professions in the field divide into three major groups: forensic scientists, forensic pathologists, and associated specialists. Specialists come from several fields, including linguistics, anthropology, psychology, environmental science, and computer forensics. Regardless of their individual roles, forensic professionals must possess technical expertise and keen investigative skills. They also need to communicate effectively and distil complex information for varied audiences.
- Private Investigator
These detectives search for financial, legal, and personal information. They conduct background checks, find missing persons, and investigate online crimes, such as cyberbullying and identity theft. Because their duties vary drastically, private investigators usually specialize in a certain area, such as divorce, theft, or violent crime. In addition to a college degree, many of these professionals must maintain good physical conditioning. Many private investigators hold law enforcement experience.
Median Annual Salary: $50,700
Projected Growth Rate: 11%
- Environmental Specialist
Using their expert toxicology knowledge and research skills, environmental specialists help protect the environment and human health. They investigate polluted areas, conduct surveys, and analyze biological materials to facilitate clean-up. These professionals can also work with government agencies and private companies as policy consultants. This career requires at least a bachelor's degree, although graduate credentials and optional certification can lead to leadership and/or specialized roles.
Median Annual Salary: $69,400
Projected Growth Rate: 11%
- Postsecondary Instructor
College educators provide classroom and laboratory instruction in their subject area. They also help students find internships and write theses. Postsecondary instructors pursue research and publish their findings, often giving presentations at conferences. With a master's degree in forensic science, professionals can pursue teaching careers at community colleges or four-year institutions.
Median Annual Salary: $76,000
Projected Growth Rate: 15%
- Forensic Science Technician
These scientists aid criminal investigations by finding and collecting evidence. Through laboratory analysis, they explore links between suspects and crime scene elements. Forensic science technicians may also present information and testify during trials. Professionals who pursue forensic science positions often come from law enforcement backgrounds. To pursue career advancement in this role, individuals typically need to hold a master's degree.
Median Annual Salary: $57,850
Projected Growth Rate: 17%
- Information Security Analyst
Students who opt for a specialization in digital or computer forensics can pursue this career. Security analysts oversee cybercrime investigations, locating breaches and analyzing data to find perpetrators. They also help individuals, organizations, and government bodies bolster security measures through penetration tests and software upgrades. Information security analysts generally pursue industry certification in addition to their master's degree.
Median Annual Salary: $95,510
Projected Growth Rate: 28%
How to Choose a Master's Program in Forensic Science
As students research potential schools, they should keep a program's length in mind. A conventional master's degree in forensic science takes about two years to earn, although a program's type can alter this timeline. Some schools operate accelerated degree paths, enabling students to earn their master's significantly faster; however, these intensive programs may require applicants to hold relevant work experience as part of the admission criteria.
Graduate students should also take note of a program's format. Many colleges and universities allow learners to individually pace their schedules, taking as many or as few classes as they want each term. Alternatively, some schools facilitate cohort learning, where students take one or two classes at a time and progress through the program at the same rate as their peers.
Online forensic science master's programs typically offer a greater degree of flexibility than on-campus options. Through asynchronous coursework, students can access material, engage with instructors, and collaborate with peers at their convenience. Distance education may benefit working forensic scientists, who can sometimes use their career experience to earn college credit. Furthermore, most schools allow online students to fulfill internship or practicum requirements at organizations in their area, including with their current employers. However, distance learning comes with potential drawbacks, including a relative lack of course and specialization options. Finally, prospective students should also consider a school's location and how that affects living expenses, career prospects, and professional certification, especially for state-specific credentials, which may not easily transfer across borders.
Programmatic Accreditation for Master's Programs in Forensic Science
To confer valid degrees, colleges and universities must earn and maintain national, regional, or programmatic accreditation. Accreditation reflects a school's adherence to government and industry standards related to education, practical training, and student support. Vocational and for-profit schools typically earn national accreditation. Alternatively, nonprofit colleges and universities generally obtain regional certification; this designation tends to be more prestigious and is bestowed by one of six organizations depending on a school's location. For example, Pennsylvania colleges gain regional accreditation through the Middle States Commission on Higher Education.
In addition to institutional recognition, specific programs at a school can earn programmatic accreditation. Students looking at programs that award master's degrees in forensic science should look for a stamp of approval from the Forensic Science Education Programs Accreditation Commission (FEPAC). Professionals who earn their graduate degree from a FEPAC-accredited institution receive training from a program widely respected by employers. These graduates also benefit from the support of the American Academy of Forensic Sciences -- the leading professional organization in the field. Students interested in attending an online program should also look into schools backed by the Distance Education Accrediting Commission.
Master's in Forensic Science Program Admissions
Master's in forensic science programs ask for a variety of admissions materials, including an application, letters of recommendation, academic transcripts, a resume/CV, and GRE scores. Candidates also need to submit a personal statement detailing how their academic achievements and goals align with those of the school. Because graduate curricula build on fundamental theories and skills, forensic science programs typically require students to complete prerequisite coursework in areas like calculus, general chemistry, biochemistry, and physics. Students who lack this experience can pursue transitional training before beginning formal degree work. Additionally, learners applying to online programs may need to complete entrance assessments to demonstrate that they possess the discipline and self-motivation required for distance learning.
The overall graduate admissions process takes substantial time and energy. To make this process more manageable, students should consider applying to no more than five prospective schools, only choosing programs that closely match their financial and academic criteria.
- Bachelor's Degree: Graduate programs require students to hold an accredited bachelor's degree in a related field. Students should note that regionally accredited schools tend to only accept degrees from other regionally accredited institutions.
- Professional Experience: Some schools -- particularly those that operate accelerated or degree-completion programs -- require applicants to hold at least two years of paid work experience. Programs that emphasize clinical science and medicine may also ask that students hold an active state license/certificate.
- Minimum GPA: Most graduate programs require candidates to hold a GPA of 2.0 or higher, although competitive schools generally ask for a GPA of at least 3.0. Students can sometimes offset an unsatisfactory GPA with exceptional test results or ample work experience.
- Application: All applicants need to submit an application, which includes details like their legal name, address, and general academic information. Graduate programs do not use the Common Application.
- Transcripts: Candidates must submit official transcripts for all prior college-level work. Students can request these documents from their school's registrar's office, and they may need to pay a nominal fee to obtain these records.
- Letters of Recommendation: Applicants typically need to obtain two to three letters of recommendation from professors, supervisors, and/or mentors who can attest to their personal qualities and achievements. Some colleges restrict who may write these letters.
- Test Scores: While universities increasingly eschew standardized testing, many programs ask students to submit their GRE scores. Minimum requirements vary by individual program.
- Application Fee: Candidates can expect to pay at least $30 for each application, which can become a financial burden if they apply to several programs. Individuals who demonstrate financial need can contact prospective schools and ask about application fee reductions or waivers.
What Else Can I Expect From a Master's Program in Forensic Science?
At its core, forensics focuses on applying scientific knowledge and methods to criminal investigations. The field offers a variety of concentrations in areas like biology, chemistry, physics, psychology, nursing, and even accounting. Degree candidates can also pursue training in multidisciplinary areas, like environmental or computer forensics. The table below contains five popular concentrations in this field.
|Forensic Biology||This concentration trains students to use biological evidence -- including blood, hair, and bodily fluids -- in investigations and prosecutions. Students also learn to collect and analyze DNA, which provides statistically reliable information. Additional topics include human anatomy, population genetics, and forensic drug science.||DNA analyst, forensic science technician, toxicologist|
|Forensic Psychology||Forensic psychology centers on mental health assessment for legal proceedings, such as criminal investigations and child custody hearings. In addition to learning how to evaluate the mental state of defendants, students develop the skills needed to deliver ethical testimonies. Coursework includes behavior pathology and advanced social psychology.||Forensic psychologist, forensic case manager, victim advocate|
|Environmental Forensics||This concentration prepares participants to identify and analyze polluted sites. Students also learn about historical and anthropogenic reconstruction, allowing them to trace contaminants back to their sources. Classes cover topics related to water resources, organic geochemistry, and X-ray microanalysis. This concentration enables students to occupy roles as conservationists and consultants.||Environmental specialist, maritime forensic scientist, public policy consultant|
|Cybersecurity||Students in this concentration develop the skills needed to investigate cyber crimes, including identity theft and fraud. Candidates also learn to prevent intrusions by installing protective software and monitoring network activities. Coursework discusses cryptography, risk management, and secure software development. A cybersecurity concentration allows students to pursue some of the fastest-growing careers in the U.S.||Information security analyst, computer forensics specialist, security consultant|
|Criminal Justice||This concentration enables students to apply criminological theories to the areas of public policy, law enforcement, and judicial processes. Learners also develop an understanding of criminal behavior and the factors that contribute to social control. Additional topics include project leadership, victimology, and advanced research methods. The criminal justice concentration prepares students to sit for a variety of certification and licensure exams.||Private investigator, criminologist, homicide detective|
Courses in a Master's in Forensic Science Program
Most forensic science master's programs begin with core classes in toxicology, DNA evidence, and applied statistics. Beyond these fundamental topics, course options differ based on a program's emphasis and faculty expertise, although students can generally expect a program to lean heavily on either crime scene investigation or laboratory analysis. The list below details five classes that graduate students pursuing a master's in forensic science may encounter.
- Forensic Toxicology
A perfunctory course for forensic scientists, toxicology focuses on determining the presence/absence of drugs and other chemicals in human tissue and fluids. Students develop a systematic approach to forensics, applying their discoveries to discern causes of death and disease. Additional topics include sample preparation, extraction techniques, analytical screening, and confirmation.
- Forensic Anthropology
This course covers the fundamentals of human anatomy and osteology. Students also develop laboratory skills related to sample testing and data analysis, allowing them to identify human remains and causes of death. Furthermore, forensic anthropology addresses issues like human rights and ethical research practices. This topic greatly benefits aspiring pathologists and other science technicians.
- Crime Scene Investigation
This class trains students to conduct crime scene searches and seizures. Degree candidates learn to approach and protect the area in question, developing skills in initial evidence collection and packaging with consideration to the chain of custody. Crime scene investigation coursework provides integral training for future law enforcement professionals.
- Criminal Profiling
Students acquire the knowledge and skills needed to analyze and profile potential criminals. Candidates also learn to conduct comprehensive crime analysis, interpret findings, and translate results for team members. Additional topics include victimology, crime scene variables, and offender type recommendation. Aspiring criminologists, forensic psychologists, and behavioral specialists may find this course especially useful.
- Blood Distribution and Spatter
This course prepares students to collect, record, and process blood stains and blood spatter. By applying spatter creation principles, students learn to interpret blood stains as biological evidence during criminal investigations. This class also includes topics like hemodynamics, motion/directionality, and courtroom testimony. Crime scene investigators and forensic scientists must cultivate an understanding of blood distribution and spatter.
How Long Does It Take to Get a Master's in Forensic Science?
A typical master's degree in forensic science takes two years to complete and requires candidates to earn 30-40 semester credits. Learners can sometimes expedite graduation by taking maximum course loads every term and/or attending optional winter and summer sessions. As previously mentioned, some colleges and universities offer accelerated degree plans that allow students to obtain their master's in as little as one year. These intensive programs use eight-week courses, usually provided with a fully online or hybrid delivery method.
Adult learners who need to juggle school, work, and family responsibilities may extend their graduation timeline by enrolling in fewer classes each term. Many graduate programs let students take up to six years to earn their credentials. However, part-time enrollment limits financial assistance and can lead to higher overall tuition prices. Students in many programs can also hasten degree completion by earning transfer credits for previous coursework, job experience, professional training, civic service, and/or volunteering. To earn these credits, students can undergo prior learning assessments.
How Much Is a Master's in Forensic Science?
A master's degree represents a substantial financial investment that can help workers earn larger salaries and pursue more career options. A 2017 report by the Urban Institute -- a nonprofit education research organization -- reported that graduate students paid about $11,000 in annual tuition when attending an in-state public university. Tuition rates doubled if they enrolled at an out-of-state public school and ballooned to more than $25,000 at private schools. Fortunately, schools assist many students by providing scholarships, grants, and loans. Learners can also take advantage of government funding by filling out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid. Learners can also find awards provided by local businesses and professionals organizations. For example, the Ellis R. Kerley Forensic Sciences Foundation offers a generous scholarship for graduate/doctoral students pursuing a degree in forensic anthropology.
Students who pursue online master's degrees in forensic science often pay lower tuition prices because many distance programs disregard residency status. For example, La Salle University, Florida International University Online, and the University of Central Florida each charge distance learners the same tuition, regardless of where they live.
In addition to academic fees, prospective students need to budget for living expenses. Those who plan to relocate to attend school can use websites like PayScale to calculate and compare the cost of living in different cities. Students should also consider expenses associated with technological purchases, conference attendance, and professional development and certification.
Certifications and Licenses a Master's in Forensic Science Prepares For
- American Board of Forensic Toxicology Certification Programs
ABFT offers certificates at the diplomate and fellow levels. Individuals can earn credentials in forensic toxicology, forensic alcohol toxicology, and forensic drug toxicology. To apply, candidates must hold a regionally accredited degree in the natural sciences and have three years of professional experience.
- Association of Firearm and Tool Mark Examiners Certification Program
AFTE provides certification in firearm evidence, tool mark evidence, and gunshot residue. To apply, candidates need at least two years of approved training and three years of paid and relevant work experience. AFTE provides study guides for all three exams on its website. Each exam costs $250.
- International Association for Identification Certification Programs
IAI facilitates crime scene certification at four levels: investigator, analyst, reconstructionist, and senior analyst. To sit for the investigator exam, candidates need at least 48 hours of approved instruction and one year of work experience. The proctored exam lasts three hours and contains 200 questions. IAI also offers certification in specialized areas, including forensic art and bloodstain pattern analysis.
- American Board of Criminalistics Certification Program
ABC operates certification at the diplomate and fellow levels. To sit for exams, candidates need to hold at least two years of relevant work experience. They must also currently work in the forensic science field. ABC provides online study guides for its exams.
- International Information System Security Certification Consortium Certification Programs
- (ISC)² offers programs in fields that include software security, IT administration, cloud security, and healthcare services. Candidates can also pursue a comprehensive certified information systems security professional credential. Recent graduates who do not possess relevant work experience may enroll in an entry-level associate program.
Resources for Graduate Forensic Science Students
Established in 2010, AWIFS supports female forensic science professionals by hosting skill development workshops, leadership programs, and youth outreach initiatives. The association also posts employment, grant, and fellowship opportunities.
A federal government agency, NIJ advances the criminal justice and forensic science fields through research, policy work, and education. The institute provides seminars and industry-specific training courses. Professionals can also take advantage of funding and awards opportunities, including eight fellowship programs.
Founded in 1978, this board-certified professional organization provides awards and grants to forensic psychologists and students. The academy also offers online and in-person skill development workshops. New professionals can access career advice through AAFP's mentorship program.
Boasting over 150,000 members in 141 countries, ACS stands as the world's largest scientific organization. The society also provides awards and educational resources to teachers, students, and practitioners.
Established in 1963, ACJS fosters criminal justice research, education, and policy advancement. Professionals can connect by attending national conferences and summits. ACJS also hosts award programs and an employment bulletin.
Professional Organizations in Forensic Science
A master's degree in forensic science provides graduates with the specialized training required to pursue job entry and advancement. However, to cultivate career longevity, students and workers should consider joining a professional organization. Membership usually requires paying an annual fee but comes with benefits such as access to job boards, leadership training opportunities, and certification programs. Professional organizations work to connect members around the world by hosting annual conferences and summits. Members often enjoy access to academic scholarships, research/travel grants, and other financial support. For example, the International Association of Forensic Toxicologists funds five award programs, including one targeting young scientists and researchers.
The AAFS supports over 7,000 members by maintaining academic and professional standards. Members can access scientific meetings, national conferences, and an international educational outreach program. Student members enjoy career resources, including a summer camp and a young forensic scientists forum.
Founded in 1963, the TIAFT connects members through local, regional, and national networking events. Membership also comes with award opportunities, including student scholarships and travel grants. TIAFT operates a mentorship program for new scientists.
In addition to certification programs, AFTE provides research-based journals and annual seminars. Members enjoy access to scholarships, research assistance, and on-demand training opportunities.
CAP promotes excellence in pathology and laboratory medicine through research and education initiatives. Members benefit from learning programs, including inspector training, journal-based courses, and self-assessment seminars. CAP also provides career guidance and a job board.
ASCLD promotes leadership and innovation in the forensic science field through research, best practices, and advocacy concepts. Members can access on-demand training, regional workshops, national conferences, and a leadership academy. ASCLD also operates a resource library and a career board.