Forensics Schools & Training

A CSI guy's blog on forensics training in America

If you want to get started in forensics

I’m collecting in one place all of the forensic science schools, degrees and certificate programs out there for new students looking to start their careers. It’s the kind of thing I wish I had had back when I was just getting started. It can be tough choosing where to go to continue your education, what branch of forensics to study, or what kind of job to pursue once you’re graduated. Fortunately, though, it’s getting easier and easier to find a program because of the huge number springing up around the country. But it's hard to wade through all the for-profit websites to find actual information about the programs themselves. Hopefully this site helps you.

Job Versatility

If you’ve ever wanted to work in crime-scene investigation, whether as a CSI first-responder or forensics examiner, ask yourself a couple questions first: are you better-than-average at science, do you have a head for puzzles and a good mystery, and a real desire to do something worthwhile in the world? If you answered yes, then take a look here. I’ve tried my best to offer an overview of all the forensic science classes and curricula available in the United States. It’s an ongoing project, and I hope to add more states in the future.

No doubt, forensics can be a tough field to get into, especially if you don’t know too many folks doing this kind of work for a living. And until recently, there were only a handful of schools that taught forensic crime scene investigation, and they were usually brand-new, unaccredited programs 1000 miles from your house. But all of this has changed. Every other television show these days hypes some avenue of forensic science investigation, and the nature of the world we live in has created a huge demand for people qualified to do forensics. You’ll be pleased to know that there are tons of rock-solid forensics programs and forensics classes out there now. It doesn’t matter whether you’re twenty years out of high school, or an overeager 9th grader looking to college. There’s a forensics degree program that will fit you. And unlike your friends who are left wondering, “what next?” after graduating, you can be all-but-certain that you’ll be the one getting the calls about the forensic jobs, instead of peddling your resume around town.

A biology degree – great. What, go be a “biologist?”

Right now, the math is simple: there are a lot of schools out there in forensics, but a shortage of qualified forensics experts to do the work. And there are few fields you can get into like forensic science with the opportunity to do engaging, plentiful work; to get up each morning and not know what kind of crime scene you will be working, or what kind of evidence will come into your lab. And when you go to bed at night, you’ll sleep like a baby knowing that what you’re doing has a direct impact on people’s lives.

Enough jibber-jabber already…

I’ve tried to make it dead-simple. Use the links included here to find where you live and look at the programs that are near you. When you’re done with that, start thinking about the different fields of forensics you might be interested in. But even if you’re still not sure, take a deep breath. Most forensic schools out there will give you broad survey courses in crime scene investigation, arson, drug chemistry, DNA, ballistics, hair and fiber analysis, criminal profiling, and on and on. So you’ll have enough understanding under your belt to make an informed decision. (And if you’re like us, you still won’t know which one you like best, so you end up doing a few.)

So what kind of training do I need?

Unless you work in forensic science, around people all day who have studied this stuff, it’s impossible to figure out what kind of degree you need to do what type of forensics. Sure, many colleges will tell you to take this course and that course, take organic chemistry, take physics and math. So it’s important to understand that such broad prerequisites underscore the fact that forensic science is a really, really big field. It encompasses all manner of science — really, any kind of science that can be applied to the law. Traditionally, this has meant forensic chemists (who do lab analysis on drugs and arson residue, for example), forensic biologists (DNA analysis, blood typing, etc.) and even forensic engineers (figuring out why a bridge failed, and who’s at fault). Newer fields like Forensic Psychology, while novel at one time, have become accepted in courtrooms that have to determine a crook’s suitability to be released back into society, or fitness to stand trial.

Forensic Science for those not-so-interested in the science part

You need to understand that crime scene investigation can be as much science as you want, or as little science as you want. Take crime scene investigation, for example. When a crime is committed, often the first people on the scene are police officers. They’re usually the ones tasked with, at a bare minimum, securing the crime scene so stuff doesn’t get screwed up until the forensic scientists get there. In smaller towns and jurisdictions, though, the police are the only people available who can respond. So they have to know how to document evidence, collect fingerprints and evidence, and collect samples and specimens in a manner that doesn’t jack up the court proceedings and let the perp off scott-free. To this end, many Criminal Justice programs in the U.S. will offer undergraduate and graduate degrees in Crime Scene Investigation. About the only “science” you find in these programs is maybe fingerprint collection, ballistic trajectory interpretation, and maybe an hour or two on blood spatter interpretation. The degree you would get out of this is most likely a B.A. in criminal justice, or possibly a B.S. if your coursework in research, statistics and forensic science is substantial enough. With more than just a few science courses, these programs may grant you a “specialization” or “concentration” in forensic science.

Likewise, sometimes these same schools will offer Masters Degrees in forensic-related fields. Still, these programs tend to be offered under the Criminal Justice wing of the school. You’ll see in a lot of course descriptions that the classes were designed for police officers in continuing education. Of course, a regular graduate student can enroll in these courses, graduate with the degree, then get a huge leg up on the job market when he graduates, being able to call himself a “criminalist” in the broadest sense of the word. In the end, this kind of degree is called an M.A. in Criminalistics or an M.A. in Criminal Justice — or, with enough research, sometimes an M.S. in the field. But — and this is the important distinction — it is still Criminal Justice, a social science.

Forensic Science for the scientist

When a college or university goes so far as to grant a B.S. in Forensic Science, they are usually very careful to make sure you know how to do science. Many will have curricula similar to what you find for medical schools: general chemistry and lab, organic chemistry and lab, math, physics and lab, and usually a course in cell biology and statistics to round things out. The school is not requiring this just to be a hard-ass, but instead wants you to be aware that you will be getting a degree (usually a B.S.) in a hard science. Granted, it is a hard “applied” science — as opposed to a hard “pure” science like plain chemistry or physics — but it is still a hard science nevertheless. So when you walk into a lab, you shouldn’t be in the position to embarrass your school when you don’t know what a gas chromatograph is.

You can also find Masters of Arts (M.A.) programs in Criminal Justice or Criminalistics throughout the United States. These are, in essence, a collection of courses in criminology, criminal psychology and forensic law all rolled into a social-science degree. This is not to denigrate the degree. Rather, it is to indicate that the practitioner of forensic science holding the degree is not a lab scientist.

Hard-science graduate degrees in forensics

By far, most hard-science graduate degrees in forensic science are not called “forensic science” at all. Instead, if you want to do forensics, the schools encourage you to get a degree in chemistry, biology or biochemistry, and focus your coursework with some electives in forensic science. Without a doubt, these science courses can be hard as hell (if you don’t know the difficulty difference between a course in Cell Biology and a course in Crime Studies, you will quickly learn).

There are, however, about six fully-accredited M.S. programs in Forensic Science in the United States. These are programs that teach the hard sciences to the extent that a pure-science degree would, but take a hands-on approach to ensuring that you have a well-crafted, planned approach to your training. They sometimes grant an M.S. in Forensic Science, and sometimes grant an M.S.F.S (Master of Science in Forensic Science). In fact, many graduates with an M.S. in Forensic Science who will put “M.S.F.S.” after their name, to signify that their Forensic Science degree is, in fact, a hard-science degree.

The difference here may seem trivial, but it serves the important function of distinguishing graduates from criminal justice programs from hard-science programs. It ensures that others can adequately gauge the experience and training of the forensic practitioner on a quick glance.

Advice for future Forensic Scientists

If you want to work in crime scene investigation, and can do science, then get a B.S. or M.S. in forensic science or a pure science. Your options will be so much better. If you get a B.S. or M.S. in forensic science, you will have enough criminal justice-type courses under your belt to work anywhere. If you get a B.S. or M.S. in a pure science only (like chem or bio), then be sure to supplement your work with courses in the Criminal Justice Department.

If you get a B.A. or M.A. in criminal justice, it is just not really possible because of time constraints to get enough courses in hard sciences to learn the science side of things. Even if you managed to, somehow, there’s really no way to illustrate this to a jury in a convincing manner, in such a way that demonstrates your mastery of the science to which you are testifying. I would not want to be the prosecutor putting on the stand my forensic scientist who analyzed the blood for DNA, who has a degree in criminal psychology with 18 hours of classes in biology.