Best Forensic Science Degree Guide: 2022 Costs, Requirements & Job Opportunities

Best Forensic Science Degree Guide: 2022 Costs, Requirements & Job Opportunities
Imed Bouchrika, Phd by Imed Bouchrika, Phd
Chief Data Scientist & Head of Content

Thanks to many TV shows today, forensic science is often equated to simply “solving crime.” However, the formal study of forensic science—that is, pursuing a forensic science degree—is a little more complicated. For instance, forensic science students learn to use scientific principles and methods in interpreting crime scenes and analyzing evidence. Students also practice analytical skills to form evidence-based conclusions.

Moreover, in order to be a forensic scientist, one needs to be knowledgeable in areas such as chemistry, biology, psychology, computers, medicine, and law and government, among many. One should also be proficient in using tools, such as collection kits, lasers, UV lamps, dust print lifters, and camera lenses. In fact, a top professional organization in the field, The American Academy of Forensic Sciences, is a multidisciplinary organization.

Because of the complexity and sensitivity of the job, one needs to be well trained to join the ranks of bonafide forensic scientists. And where else would you get the best training but from the best forensic science degree programs? If you are seriously considering becoming a forensic scientist, then you must know which institutions have the best offerings.

In this article, we will not only list down the best programs but also lay down a brief guide on what you should expect when enrolled and what your career opportunities are after you graduate. In this way, you will be able to have a better idea of where a career as a forensic scientist will lead you.

What is a forensic science degree?

Forensic science professionals play a very important role in the justice system. They gather and analyze physical evidence to determine relevance to criminal investigations. They are experts in the collection and analysis of physical evidence to aid criminal investigations (Occupational Information Network, 2021). They test evidence, including weapons and substances, such as tissue, hair, and fiber to determine significance to the investigation. Forensic scientists can specialize in biochemistry, fingerprinting, ballistics, and handwriting, among others. Also, they serve as expert witnesses in judiciary proceedings.

The approach of the discipline is inherently interdisciplinary. The foundation spans from the natural sciences to criminal justice. Forensic science degree courses include those in biochemistry, physics, mathematics, and criminal justice. Students will learn not only both theory and practice in performing tests and analysis but also understand ethics and forensics as well as how to be an expert witness. Topics will range from examining blood spatter to toxicology and ballistics to case presentations. Students could expect a learning experience that is complete with in-class lectures, laboratory work, and internship hours.

Not all forensic science degree programs are created equal. The relatively recent growth in the number of these programs has been “consistent with the advent” of forensic dramas, such as the CSI series as Jackson (2009) stated. He also added that “growth in the number of programs has far exceeded the growth in the size of each program.” This, for many, raises concerns about the quality of such new programs. So, it is important for prospective students to choose the good ones, if not the best ones, out there.

The best forensic science degree programs are accredited by the Forensic Science Education Programs Accreditation Commission (FEPAC). This accreditation body oversees the quality of academic instruction and professional performance in the country. As Jackson (2009) noted in his article “The status of forensic science degree programs in the United States” published in Forensic Science Policy and Management, one of the “original goals of the FEPAC accreditation process was to ensure a minimum level of science-based curriculum, including math, physics, and chemistry.” This body not only ensures the quality of the program but also allows students “graduating with FEPAC-accredited forensic science or forensic chemistry degrees [to] find that their rigorous natural science education affords them career opportunities outside the forensic science field. These options include almost any kind of laboratory work, such as for chemical companies, pharmaceutical companies, government laboratories, and medical laboratories.”

Thus, it is best to make sure that your target programs are accredited by FEPAC. This is not only for the quality of forensic science education but also for you to have a chance to get opportunities to work in related fields.

What can you do with a Forensic Science degree?

Forensic science professionals work predominantly in laboratories and various field settings. Typical jobs titles include forensic scientist, forensic lab technician, forensic accountant, forensic computer analyst, and forensic psychologist. Employment can be found in both public and private institutions as well. However, the best paying ones are found in the Federal Executive Branch with an annual average salary of $120,790 (U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2021).

Source: BLS, 2021

Cost of Forensic Science Degree

The cost of a forensic science degree program depends on the degree type; on whether it is for associate’s, bachelor’s, master’s, or doctorate. Of course, tuition and fees also vary between individual institutions depending on their status (public or private) and whether you are an in-state and out-of-state student. Typically, out-of-state tuition and fees are more expensive than in-state ones.

How much does it cost to get a forensic science degree?

Among the best schools offering bachelor’s degrees in forensic science programs, tuition and fees can range from $8,736 to $58,640 (NCES, 2021). The average cost among top schools is $22,533 with a median of $19,729. For graduate studies, public degree-granting institutions have an average cost of $12,171 (NCES, 2021). Private institutions cost $25,929 on average. The national average cost for attending is $19,314. The cost of graduate studies can range from $8,875 to $44,667 on average.

Is a degree in forensic science worth it?

The cost of a forensic science degree program can be quite high. However, a good career in forensic science can help you recoup the resources that you have invested. The job growth for forensic science technicians grows at a 14% clip, which is faster than average. Experts predict that by 2029, there will be a total of 17,200 jobs. And, the median pay is $60,590 a year. If graduates land in industries such as general medical and surgical hospitals and the federal executive branch, average annual wages can range from $75,720 to $120,790. These, combined with good personal finance skills and career planning, can make up for their educational investments.

cost of forensic science degree programs

Forensic Science Degree Jobs

There are many kinds of jobs that one can get with a degree in forensic science. Typically, entry-level forensic science technician jobs require a bachelor’s degree (U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2021). Also, a good amount of on-the-job training is required for those who work in the lab and crime scenes. There are, of course, different specialties in the field. One can become an expert in areas like firearms, criminalistics, anthropology, computer science, and biology, among others.

Is forensic science in high demand?

Yes, as mentioned, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (2021), forensic science technician jobs are growing at a 14% clip—faster than the average of 4% for all occupations. Other occupations in the life, physical, and social science fields only have a 5% growth. Year-on-year, jobs for more general forensic science and technology graduates are growing by 6.66%, with about 1.18 million employed in the workforce today (Data USA, 2021). The average wage is about $65,551 a year. It is also growing by 3.37%.

What jobs can you get with a forensic science degree?

There are different kinds of jobs that one can get in forensic science. Here are some of the popular job titles and their responsibilities (Indeed, 2021).

  • Crime Scene Technician. Works with law enforcement, including the police, detectives, and other officials in securing crime scenes, gathering physical evidence, analyzing them, and creating reports on findings. In the U.S., crime scene technicians earn $46,345 on average.
  • Fingerprint Technician. Processes fingerprint evidence brought in by crime scene investigators and law enforcement for analysis. A fingerprint technician typically uses devices like electronic fingerprinting devices and biometric scanners. Fingerprint technicians earn an average of $33,724.
  • Forensic Science Technician. These technicians fill two roles: laboratory analysis and crime scene investigation. In crime scene roles, they perform duties similar to crime scene technicians. In laboratory roles, they classify and perform tests on physical evidence brought in. Their national average salary is $50,178.
  • Forensic Scientist. These are roles that advance from lab assistants and technicians. They are involved in various specialized jobs. These include chemists, coroners, medical examiners, and toxicologists, among others. They have a national average salary of $65,160.
  • Forensic Accountant. They examine financial data to look for lost money and for ways to recover them. They use findings in court hearings and may testify as expert witnesses for financial crimes. The national average salary of forensic accounts is $89,161.

What kind of salary can I earn with a forensic science degree?

The average annual wage of forensic science graduates, as mentioned, is $65,551 in 2019. The figure is also growing by 3.37% per year. However, this really depends on which industry they are employed in. Again, the highest paying industry is the Federal Executive Branch with an average yearly salary of $120,790. This is followed by General Medical and Surgical Hospitals with a figure of $75,720. The state and local governments, however, have the highest concentration of forensic science jobs with 21% and 18%, respectively.

Forensic Science Degree: Top Industries for Employment in 2020

IndustryNumber of EmployedConcentrationAverage Hourly WageAverage Annual Wage
Local Government997018%$31.65$65,840
State Government463021%$31.14$64,770
Architectural, Engineering, and Related Services5504%$31.75$66,040
Medical and Diagnostic Laboratories51019%$22.63$47,060
College, Universities, and Professional Schools2301%$24.84$51,660
Source: BLS, 2021

Across the United States, forensic science technicians are paid the highest in California with an average annual wage of $88,090. As of May of 2020, the state employed 2,270 forensic science technicians. Illinois follows at a close second with an average annual wage of $85,690. The state employed 490 forensic science technicians in the same period. The following table shows the top five states when it comes to pay.

Forensic Science Technicians: Top 5 States by Average Annual Wage in 2020

StateNumber of EmployedAverage Hourly WageAverage Annual Wage
California2,279$42.35$88,090
Illinois490$41.20$85,690
Massachusetts90$38.08$79,200
Oregon250$37.01$76,970
Alaska50$35.63$74,100
Source: BLS, 2021

Types of Degrees in Forensic Science

There are different types of degrees in forensic science. The kind of jobs and responsibilities that you can get depends on the degrees, certificates, and experience that you have. In this section, we will outline the different kinds of degrees, their average time to complete, the focus of the study, and entry-level jobs that you can get.

What kinds of Forensic Science Degrees are there?

1. Associate’s Degree in Forensic Science

Average time to complete: 2 years

In an associate’s degree program in forensic science, students will learn the basics of gathering, analyzing, and testing physical evidence. They will receive an overview of various forensic laboratory technology and processes. These include fingerprint technology, crime scene analysis, and examination procedures. Courses will be a mix of lecture and laboratory work. Common courses include introductions to forensic psychology, dentistry, forensic medicine, psychology, and pathology.

Entry-level jobs: lab assistant, intelligence analysts, coroners

2. Bachelor’s Degree in Forensic Science

Average time to complete: 4 years

A bachelor’s program in forensic science is usually mapped onto the hours required by the Forensic Science Education Programs Accreditation Committee (FEPAC). This includes minimums of 34 hours in natural science core, 12 hours in specialized science courses, 15 hours in forensic science courses, and 19 hours in additional specialization courses (Fairmont State University, 2015). This is for a total of 80 required FEPAC course hours. Schools, however, can require more prerequisites for students to grant them degrees. Also, courses will be a mix of laboratory work and lectures. Also, FEPAC requires students to undergo a capstone course, internships, and independent research. Moreover, FEPAC requires the following topics to be covered in the curriculum (American Academy of Forensic Sciences, 2020):

  • Courtroom Testimony
  • Introduction to Law
  • Quality Assurance
  • Ethics
  • Professional Practice
  • Evidence Identification, Collection, and Processing

Entry-level jobs: fingerprint analyst, forensic science technician, forensic specialist

3. Master’s Degree in Forensic Science

Average time to complete: 2 years

A master’s degree in forensic science program can last up to two years or more. Programs feature a number of specializations, including those for financial forensics, criminalistics, and forensic pathology, among many. Different schools may offer different specializations. Typically, students will undergo more advanced courses and laboratory work. They will also learn how to better professionally interact with medico-legal death investigators and forensic pathologists. Examples of required courses are Advanced Forensic DNA Analysis, Advanced Forensic Toxicology, and Forensic Serology and DNA. Other specialized tracks like Forensic Accounting require training and degrees in other disciplines as well.

High-level jobs: forensic scientist, forensic computer analyst, crime scene investigator

4. Doctoral Degree in Forensic Science

Average time to complete: 4 to 5 years

Doctoral degree programs in forensic science emphasize the development and completion of a research problem. Core course subjects include foundations of criminalistics, including research design, statistical methods, quantitative analysis, and communication skills. Doctoral students may enter from a wide range of disciplines relevant to the field—from finance to computer science. Because of high specialization, the curriculum is tailored to the research interest of the students. Additional courses may be required or recommended by dissertation committees. Courses can also range from laboratory work to lectures. Common courses may include advanced topics in Forensic Toxicology, Crime Scene Reconstruction, Human Molecular Biology, and Criminal Law and Ethics.

High-level jobs: educator, forensic anthropologist, forensic pathologist

5. Certificate in Forensic Science

Average time to complete: 6 months or more

There are many kinds of certificates for forensic science. There are general ones and more specialized ones. Also, there are undergraduate certificate and graduate certificate programs. Typical undergraduate certificate coursework for forensic science includes courses like Forensic Evidence, Principles of Forensic Biology, and an internship. Typically, undergraduate certificates can be transferable to an associate’s or bachelor’s program. Also, they can be used to find entry-level jobs in laboratories or law enforcement, especially when students earn a degree in a different but related field. Graduate certificates, on the other hand, are targeted at current law enforcement or professionals working in related fields, including judges, evidence technicians, nurses, and attorneys. These allow them to get a better grasp of forensic science and acquire a better specialization in the field. Also, credits are generally transferrable to a full-fledged master’s degree program for forensics. Classes include those for pathology, digital evidence, crime scene investigation, criminal procedure, and human anatomy.

Entry-level jobs: evidence custodian, forensic autopsy technician, property officer

national average salary, forensic science jobs

Forensic Science Degree Requirements

Different schools have, more or less, the same requirements to enroll. These include proof of graduation from a lower level of education, minimum test scores, recommendation letters, and the like. In this section, we will list the most common things that schools require prospective students for enrollment.

Admission Requirements

  • Proof of Graduation. One needs to show proof that they have graduated in a lower-level degree program. For instance, to enroll in a bachelor’s program, one is required to have earned a high school diploma or something similar. For a master’s program, this is a bachelor’s degree in forensics science or a related field, and so on.
  • Transcript (Minimum GPA). Schools will require that you submit your transcript of records. Many programs also have cut-offs and require prospective students to have a minimum GPA. This, however, varies from program to program and from school to school.
  • ACT or SAT Scores. Usually, more prestigious programs have higher minimum test scores. Some programs, however, have no minimum GPA requirements. The requirements vary from school to school. Also, because of the pandemic, many universities temporarily waived this requirement because of testing logistics issues.

General Requirements

  • Recommendation Letter(s)
  • Application and Processing Fees
  • Statement of Purpose
  • CV/Resume
  • TOEFL/IELTS for International Students

Skill Requirements

Forensic science occupations require professionals to perform assorted complex tasks, ranging from technical laboratory work to communication. This is because forensic scientists may not only work in the field or the lab. They are often called to be expert witnesses for criminal justice proceedings. As such, they need to have a wide variety of skills, knowledge, and abilities across different disciplines.

For instance, as they are tasked to keep and maintain records, they must have the necessary technological skills for database management. As they have to communicate their findings, they also have to be proficient in various software tools and plugins for presentation, word processing, image processing, and many more. This is on top of being able to operate technical lab equipment for tests and analysis. Of course, social skills and critical thinking are also very important in the field. This is why forensic science students are also trained in active listening, critical thinking, writing, inductive and deductive reasoning, and interpersonal communication.

The field is also ever-evolving as it refines both objective and subjective methods of inquiry. It is also pushing for a more multidisciplinary approach to investigations and practice. In a study conducted by Arilie et al. (2021) titled, “Contemporary issues in forensic science—Worldwide survey results” published in Forensic Science International, it was found that practicing forensic scientists and researchers favored a more “holistic, multidisciplinary and collaborative approach” for evidentiary or intelligence purposes. Thus, prospective students should expect that they will be trained in different facets of adjunct disciplines.

Source: Occupational Information Network, 2021

What to Look for in a Forensic Science Program

The first thing that you should look for in a forensic science program is accreditation. As mentioned, in the United States, programs are accredited by FEPAC. Virtually all programs offered by prestigious schools are. However, it does not hurt to check whether your target schools’ programs are accredited. This is because getting to work in the profession depends on this.

Secondly, forensic science is a wide field with many specializations. Some students may be more interested in working in other areas than others. So if you have a target area, it is best to look into the specializations of your target programs. Also, more specializations are available during graduate studies and in professional certificate programs. If you are looking for a long-term career in the field, it is advisable to get to know higher-level or professional educational offerings as well.

In relation to this, another important thing to consider is the expertise of the faculty. You would want to have the right mentors with a deep knowledge of the subject matters that you want to explore and research in the field. They will guide you through your studies and maybe even help you with your career in the future. And, this is why the student-to-teacher ratio is also a good thing to consider. A lower one will afford you more chances of getting personalized attention and training from your mentors.

Furthermore, because forensic science has many technical aspects and lab work, it is also prudent to see the available facilities for forensic science students. You can easily get this information through the program’s website. Also, you can ask on forums or social network sites with groups for professionals. You would be surprised how helpful other students, alumni, and professionals are. Moreover, you can use this tactic to fish for other information for financial aid options, student-to-teacher ratio, faculty expertise, and many more.

And, speaking of such, these are also other factors that you should take into consideration. Financial aid options can be available directly from schools, foundations, or professional organizations. For instance, The Association of Firearm and Tool Mark Examiners awards an annual $2,000 grant to qualified applicants. Grants like this can help you work your way to earning your forensic science degree. Also, you can also ask your target schools directly if they know of any financial aid options available.

Majors Related to Forensic Science

  • Criminal Science
  • Law
  • Chemistry
  • Biology
  • Toxicology
  • Psychology
  • Computer Science
  • Anthropology
  • Statistics

Best Forensic Science Degree Programs in 2021

In 2019, there were a total of 3,600 forensic science and technology degrees awarded in the United States (Data USA, 2021). Most graduates during the year came from public four-year institutions, with 1,695 completions. In 2021, 80% of the top 10 institutions with the best forensic degree programs are also public institutions. Here they are in no particular order.

InstitutionTypeDegree nameIn-State Tuition and FeesOut-of-State Tuition and FeesAcceptance RateGraduation RateStudent-to-Teacher RatioLocation
Texas A&M UniversityPublicB.S. in Forensic and Investigative Sciences$12,783$39,34058%80%21:1College Station, TX
Penn State UniversityPublicB.S. in Forensic Science$18,450$35,51476%85%15:1State College, PA
Towson UniversityPublicB.S. in Forensic Chemistry$10,198$24,33476%76%16:1Towson, MA
George Washington UniversityPrivateB.S./M.F.S. in Forensic Chemistry$58,640$58,64014%94%13:1Washington, D.C.
West Virginia UniversityPublicB.S. in Forensics and Investigative Science$8,976$25,320 84%56%20:1Morgantown, WV
West Chester University of PennsylvaniaPublicB.S. in Forensic and Toxicological Chemistry$10,471$22,29523%85%19:1Chester County, PA
University of Mississippi PublicB.S. in Forensic Chemistry$8,828$25,10088%59%16:1Oxford, MI
University of North TexasPublicB.S. Biochemistry, Biology, and Chemistry - Forensic Certificate$11,090$20,90674%64%26:1Denton, TX
Loyola University ChicagoPrivateB.S. in Forensic Science$46,060$46,06067%75%41:1Chicago, IL
Sam Houston State UniversityPublicB.S. in Forensic Chemistry$8,736$18,55283%67%21:1Huntsville, TX

A Growing Multidisciplinary Field

Forensic science, as a practical field, develops as the knowledge and technology in other fields develop. This is apart from research done in the field as well. Being multidisciplinary, advances move in various areas. Thus, research is quite vibrant in the community. If you want to be active in its development, there are plenty of avenues by which to contribute. These include work in computer science, cognitive science and psychology, biology, law, and medicine. It can also be approached via multidisciplinary collaboration. So, doing research in forensic science can be very rewarding as you meet other experts and share your own expertise.

Career-wise, the field is actively growing at a faster rate than others, especially with the forensic science technician occupation. Again, the job growth for this operation is faster than average at 14%. That is an employment change of 2,400 in 2019 from a total number of jobs of 17,200 in 2019. This is a way faster growth rate than other technicians in the life, physical, and social sciences. There are also many shoes to fill in other forensic-science related jobs. While most of these jobs are in the justice, public order, and safety sector, there are also other occupations that forensic science graduates can fill in legal services, schools, and in national security or state affairs.

The life of a forensic scientist may not be as exciting as the television version, but it can be authentically exciting in its own right. So if you are pondering what degree to take, these just might be good reasons to choose forensic science.

 

References:

  1. Airlie, Melissa, James Robertson, Matt N. Krosch, and Elizabeth Brooks. “Contemporary issues in forensic science—Worldwide survey results.” Forensic Science International 320 (2021): 110704. ScienceDirect.
  2. American Academy of Forensic Sciences. (2020, February 16). Accreditation Standards. FEPAC.
  3. The Association of Firearm and Tool Mark Examiners. (2021). Scholarship program. Retrieved September 21, 2021, from AFTE.
  4. Data USA. (2021). Forensic science & technology. Data USA.
  5. Fairmont State University. (2015). Forensic science curriculum requirements. Retrieved September 21, 2021, from Fairmont State University.
  6. Forensic science & technology. (2021). Data USA.
  7. Indeed. (2021, February 23). Definitive guide to majors in forensic science. Indeed.
  8. Jackson, G. P. (2009). The status of forensic science degree programs in the United States. Forensic Science Policy and Management, 1(1), 2-9. West Virginia University.
  9. National Center for Education Statistics. (2021). Average and percentiles of graduate tuition and required fees in degree-granting postsecondary institutions, by control of institution: 1989-90 through 2018-19. NCES.
  10. O*NET OnLine. (2021). 19-4092.00 – Forensic science technicians. O*NET OnLine.
  11. U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. (2021). Forensic science technicians. Retrieved September 21, 2021, from BLS.
  12. U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. (2021, April 9). Forensic science technicians. BLS.

Newsletter & Conference Alerts

Research.com uses the information to contact you about our relevant content. For more information, check out our privacy policy.