CSI Degrees: Bachelor's, Associate & Online Training Info

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What will you learn in a crime scene investigation (CSI) program? Read about degree requirements, the pros and cons of bachelor's and associate's degrees, and potential careers.
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Crime Scene Investigation: Associate and Bachelor's Degrees at a Glance

Crime scene investigation has traditionally been performed by sworn police officers, and in some localities this is still the case. In other areas, this role has been delegated to non-police specialists, crime scene technologists, and investigators. Perhaps because of the exciting role these investigators are shown as having on TV and in the media, this career choice has become increasingly popular. Competition for these positions has increased over the years, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS).

The BLS reports that the field of crime scene investigation should grow 19% between 2010-2020, about as fast as average for the economy. Nonetheless, high interest in this field will lead to stiff competition for available jobs.

Associate Bachelor's
Who is this degree for? Individuals interested in roles that involve collecting evidence at crime scenes Individuals who want to develop careers collecting evidence at crime scenes or analyzing evidence in a laboratory
Common Career Paths (with approximate annual salary) - Crime scene investigator (national 10th to 90th percentile range: $24,000 - $69,000)*Same as associate, plus:
- Forensic science technician ($52,000)**
Time to Completion Two years, full-time Four years, full-time
Common Graduation Requirements - Roughly 18 courses - Roughly 36 courses
Prerequisites High school diploma High school diploma
Online Availability Some Some

Source: *Payscale.com (August 2012 figures), **U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (May 2011 figures - median salaries).

Associate in Crime Scene Investigation

Associate's degree programs in crime scene investigation train students to process evidence from crime scenes and familiarize them with the technologies and methods used. These 2-year interdisciplinary programs are designed to prepare students for entry-level positions with larger police forces. On-the-job training is still expected of graduates. Educational requirements for these positions may vary from one department to the next. Experienced crime scene investigators may be called on for other duties as well, such as participating as witnesses in criminal trials. As with all criminal investigation roles, documentation of evidence and the proper following of procedure are extremely important.

Pros and Cons

Pros

  • For some field CSI positions, the associate's degree goes beyond the minimum requirements of the position, providing specialized training that may increase applicant competitiveness in the job market
  • An associate's degree in crime scene investigation is a pre-professional degree that can lead to careers in law enforcement or in assisting law enforcement
  • As the need for technology in criminal investigations expands, CSI positions will continue to expand

Cons

  • Some police departments with openings for crime scene investigators choose to hire only from within
  • Crime scene investigation requires an apprenticeship or extensive period of on-the-job training
  • Competition for crime scene investigation positions is generally strong
  • For students interested in laboratory work processing evidence, further education will be required beyond the associate's degree level

Courses and Training Requirements

Coursework typically includes clinical laboratory science, criminal justice, toxicology, and other classes specific to biological and legal topics. Students learn how to identify and delineate crime scenes, how to collect evidence safely, the legal aspects of evidence collection, and its application to court cases. Coursework is cross-disciplinary and may include such topics as these:

  • College chemistry
  • System of criminal justice
  • Investigative principles
  • Law and enforcement
  • Technology for criminal investigations
  • Computer forensics

Online Degree Options

Some online associate's degree programs in crime scene investigation are available, though they aren't common. Like some other pre-professional degrees, a certain amount of hands-on training is useful for learning how to perform job duties. Students who choose to pursue online training options may want to incorporate internships in order to develop related work experience.

Stand Out with This Degree

According to the BLS, competition for CSI positions is significant, as the role has been glamorized by the media through television. According to professionals in the field, media representations show only part of the job. In order to stand out with this degree, the first step that a prospective CSI can take is to become familiar with the daily life of crime scene investigators and forensic scientists. Additional steps that can help you stand out could include pursuing additional physical science coursework and preparing to seek certifications in specific forensic areas by developing scientific know-how and job skills through internships and practical experiences.

Other Degrees to Consider

Students interested in careers in crime scene investigation may consider enrolling in a traditional law enforcement associate's degree program and continuing on through the police academy. As crime scene investigators may be selected from current officers and train on the job, this is a viable way to achieve the career goal of becoming a CSI. This may create more opportunities to become a crime scene investigator as well as providing an alternate career path.

Bachelor's in Crime Scene Investigation

A bachelor's degree in crime scene investigation is an interdisciplinary degree that prepares students for entry-level positions as crime scene investigators and also as a laboratory analyst. Not all programs will focus on the laboratory work, however, and students may choose to pursue science courses as a way to strengthen their applications.

Pros and Cons

Pros

  • A bachelor's degree in crime scene investigation can prepare students for investigative roles both in the field and the lab, expanding job opportunities
  • A bachelor's degree may assist graduates in standing out during the job application process
  • Prospective students may use the curriculum of the American Academy of Forensic Sciences (AAFS) to easily compare programs (aafs.org)

Cons

  • The daily work of an investigator may have little to do with public perceptions of it
  • Individual criminal investigations may take years to complete
  • Field technicians may be scheduled to work at any time of day or night, and many work holidays as well

Courses and Requirements

The coursework involved in becoming a crime scene investigator is a combination of criminal justice topics and science courses that address specific technologies used in investigations. Course topics might include these:

  • Chain of evidence
  • Computer forensics
  • Crime scene photography
  • Criminal justice system
  • Criminal law for law enforcement
  • Fingerprints
  • Forensic science
  • Chemistry
  • Investigation practices and procedures
  • Justice administration
  • Technology for crime scene use
  • Trace evidence identification collection

Online Degree Options

While some online programs in forensic science do exist, the hands-on nature of the field and the competition for positions means that these programs may be best used to enhance an already existing career. In addition to online bachelor's degrees, students may look at certificate options which might be combined with other degrees.

Getting Ahead with This Degree

Aspiring crime scene investigators may want seek out internships and professional connections within the field. In order to stand out with a crime scene investigation bachelor's degree, students interested in becoming lab technicians may want to look for a program accredited by the American Academy of Forensic Sciences (AAFS). These programs have significant coursework in the physical sciences and will provide the scientific background for developing a career.

Newly hired crime scene investigators serve as apprentices to more experienced investigators. During their apprenticeship, investigators learn proper procedures and methods for collecting and documenting evidence.

Popular Schools

  • Online Programs Available
    1. American InterContinental University

    Program Options

    Associate's
      • Associate of Science in Criminal Justice
      • Associate of Science in Criminal Justice
  • Online Programs Available
    2. Kaplan University

    Program Options

    Associate's
      • Associate: Criminal Justice
      • AAS in Public Safety and Security
      • AAS in Criminal Justice and Criminology
      • Associate: Fire Science
  • Online Programs Available
    3. Indiana Wesleyan University

    Program Options

    Associate's
      • A.S. Criminal Justice
      • A.S. General Studies - Criminal Justice
  • Online Programs Available
    4. Keiser University

    Program Options

    Associate's
      • Associate of Arts - Criminal Justice
      • Associate of Arts - Homeland Security
  • Goldsboro, NC

    Wayne Community College

  • Monticello, AR

    University of Arkansas at Monticello

  • Online Programs Available
    7. Excelsior College

    Program Options

    Associate's
      • AS in Science in Criminal Justice
  • Pine Bluff, AR

    University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff

  • Bellingham, WA

    Whatcom Community College

Featured Schools

American InterContinental University

  • Associate of Science in Criminal Justice

Are you a US citizen?

Kaplan University

  • Associate: Criminal Justice
  • AAS in Public Safety and Security
  • AAS in Criminal Justice and Criminology

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Indiana Wesleyan University

  • A.S. Criminal Justice
  • A.S. General Studies - Criminal Justice

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Keiser University

  • Associate of Arts - Criminal Justice
  • Associate of Arts - Homeland Security

What is your highest level of education?

Wayne Community College

University of Arkansas at Monticello

Excelsior College

  • AS in Science in Criminal Justice

What is your highest level of education completed?

University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff