Digital Forensics Degrees: Bachelor, Associate & Online Course Info

About this article
What will you learn in a digital forensics degree program? Read about program requirements, the pros and cons of associate's and bachelor's degrees and potential careers in digital forensics.
View available schools

Studying Digital Forensics: Degrees at a Glance

Digital (or computer) forensics combines criminal justice and computer science to help law enforcement and private companies investigate illegal or unauthorized activities. Degree programs prepare graduates to recover and analyze data from computers and digital media in a variety of situations, including identity theft, money laundering, credit card fraud, computer security breaches and cyber terrorism.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), increasing cyber crime has created a demand for investigative services. Graduates with a degree in digital forensics may find jobs in law enforcement, government agencies, insurance companies, banks and other businesses. They can work in data restoration, computer forensics, information security, systems administration and private investigation. The BLS predicted faster-than-average employment growth of 21% for private investigators, 22% for information security analysts and 28% for systems administrators from 2010 to 2020.

Associate's Bachelor's
Who is this degree for? Individuals looking for an entry-level job in computer forensics and/or to transfer to a 4-year degree program Individuals seeking a career in computer forensics
Common Career Paths (with approximate 10th-90th percentile salary ranges) - Private Investigator ($29,000-$105,000)*
- Systems Administrator ($35,000-$77,000)*
- IT Security Administrator ($39,000-$93,000)*
Employers preferring a bachelor's degree may accept an associate's degree plus work experience
- Forensic Computer Analyst ($36,000-$109,000)*
- Information Security Analyst ($43,000-$100,000)*
- IT Security Consultant ($46,000-$125,000)*
- Information Security Manager ($64,000-$132,000)*
The above jobs may require several years of work experience
Time to Completion 2 years, full-time 4 years, full-time
Common Graduation Requirements - Approximately 20-25 courses
-Approximately 32-40 courses
Common Prerequisites - High school diploma or GED
- High school diploma or GED
Online Availability Yes Yes

Source: *PayScale.com (July 2012 figures).

Associate's in Digital Forensics

Associate's degree programs in digital forensics prepare graduates for entry-level jobs in the field. Associate-level programs also equip graduates for bachelor-level programs should they decide to transfer to a 4-year school.

Digital forensics associate's programs focus on providing solid technical computer skills along with additional coursework in criminal justice, law and/or cyber crime. Graduates should be able to collect, analyze and document computer evidence, recover data from various types of storage devices using a variety of computer systems and have an understanding of the judicial system and investigative processes.

Pros and Cons

Pros

  • The hands-on nature of many digital forensics programs gives students the practical experience they need for employment in the field
  • Associate's programs may help prepare students for professional certifications, such as the Certified Computer Examiner (CCE) exam
  • An associate's degree can be completed in as little as two years
  • Credits can be transferred towards a bachelor's degree at a 4-year college

Cons

  • Graduates may face tough job competition from those with more advanced degrees
  • Job postings may include specific qualifications that require additional education, such as a private investigator's license or a Certified Information Systems Security Professional (CISSP) designation
  • Employers may request that you undergo a criminal background check or meet other legal requirements

Courses and Requirements

Associate's programs in digital forensics combine general education, computer science and criminal justice courses. The computer science portion of the program usually covers such topics as digital data recovery, computer security and specific operating systems such as Linux, Windows or Unix. Criminal justice coursework may include evidence and court procedures, business law or criminal investigation.

Many schools offer a single degree program, while some allow students to choose a specialization such as cyber crime or information assurance. Associate's degrees in digital forensics are likely to require courses such as the following:

  • Criminal law
  • Computer forensics
  • Introduction to cyber crime
  • Networking technologies
  • Information security fundamentals

Depending on the program, you may also take courses in electrical circuits, forensic accounting or forensic psychology. Additionally, a school may offer or require a capstone project or an internship.

Online Degree Options

Several associate's degree programs in computer forensics are available online. Some schools offer their associate's program completely over the Internet, while others have some on-campus requirements. Because computer forensics tends to cover several fields, an online program may be offered through a school's legal studies, criminal justice, computer engineering or information technology department.

Getting Ahead with this Degree

An advantage of computer forensics programs is that they tend to offer hands-on classes and training. You can increase this practical experience by opting for an internship or co-op, if available, or by participating in a student digital forensics or cyber-defense club. Some schools even send representatives to annual cyber-defense competitions to participate in simulated system attack situations.

Computer forensics associate's students and graduates can also increase their chances of success in the field by developing relationships with other computing and investigative professionals. You may want to join user groups or professional associations such as the High Technology Crime Investigation Association (HTCIA).

Bachelor's in Digital Forensics

Bachelor's degree programs in digital forensics provide students with an in-depth understanding of computer science and digital forensics as well as knowledge of criminal justice and investigative techniques. While many schools offer the digital forensics degree through their computer science/information technology department, some offer the degree through their criminal justice department.

Digital forensics graduates will be able to apply their knowledge of computers, the law and investigation to research possible criminal or civil violations. Graduates should be able to recover and preserve digital data and evidence, analyze the information collected and communicate the results of a forensic analysis to legal, technical and/or lay audiences. They may also be prepared to develop information security measures and computer usage policies.

Pros and Cons

Pros

  • A bachelor's in digital forensics may qualify you to enter a career with a high top-end salary, such as information security manager, in which the highest paid ten percent of workers earned $132,000 or more annually*
  • The hands-on nature of many digital forensics programs (which often include software training and computer science labs) provides the practical experience needed for immediate employment in the field
  • Some bachelor's programs specifically aim to prepare students for professional certifications, such as Certified Hacking Forensic Investigator (CHFI), Computing Technology Industry Association (CompTIA) and EnCase Certified Examiner (EnCE)

Cons

  • Bachelor's degree holders may face job competition from those with master's degrees
  • Jobs in the field tend to require a criminal background check and/or high-level security clearance
  • Employers may look for a number of professional certifications that may need to be completed (and paid for) in addition to the degree program

Source: *PayScale.com (June 2012 figures).

Courses and Requirements

Bachelor's degree programs in computer forensics consist of foundational coursework in computer science, digital forensics and criminal justice. A number of programs add substantial requirements in the areas of business, math and science. As an undergraduate, you'll likely also be required to take credits in general education subjects such as English, social science and history.

Common digital forensics courses include the following:

  • Criminal law
  • Criminal investigation
  • Digital forensics
  • Computer networking and security
  • Operating systems
  • Discrete structures

You may also take required or elective classes such as computer programming, database management, financial accounting, forensic science or project management. Some bachelor's programs in digital forensics include an internship portion and/or a capstone project.

Online Degree Options

Several digital forensics bachelor's degree programs are available completely online. While online and on-site programs cover many of the same core subjects - computer science, criminal justice, business and general education - the exact focus depends on the school and whether the program is offered through the legal studies/criminal justice or computer science/information technology department. In a limited number of cases, a school may offer an internship component to their online program through special arrangements with local employers.

Stand Out with this Degree

An advantage of many computer forensics programs is that they offer hands-on classes and laboratory experiences. You can increase this practical training by opting for an internship or co-op experience (it may be required), or by participating in a student club dedicated to digital forensics or cyber defense. Some of these organizations send representatives to annual local or national cyber-defense competitions.

Computer forensics bachelor's students and graduates can also increase their chances of successful employment by networking with other computing and investigative professionals. You may want to join local user groups or international professional associations such as HTCIA.

Degree Alternatives

While a degree in digital forensics provides the strongest background for jobs in the field, professional certificate programs are also available for those seeking the forensic computing specialization. Certificate programs generally range from 16-28 credits (4-10 classes), and are offered both on-site and online. These courses may help prepare students to sit for such industry certification exams as the CCE, CompTIA, Certified Computer Forensics Examiner (CCFE) and CyberSecurity Forensic Analyst (CSFA).

Certificate programs are frequently designed for working professionals with a background in IT or law enforcement and generally have educational or experience requirements for admission. Certificates are available at the post-associate's or post-bachelor's levels; some programs may consider work experience in addition to or in lieu of formal degrees. Depending on the school, certificate programs may be open to those with a degree in a related field, those with a degree in any field plus industry experience or those with related experience but no degree.

Popular Schools

  • Online Programs Available
    1. Kaplan University

    Program Options

    Associate's
      • Associate: Information Technology
      • AASIT: Network Admin
  • Online Programs Available
    2. ECPI University

    Program Options

    Associate's
      • Associate's - Network Security
  • Online Programs Available
    3. Keiser University

    Program Options

    Associate's
      • Associate of Sciences - Information Technology
  • Campus Locations:
    4. Virginia College

    Program Options

    Associate's
      • Associate: Network Engineering
  • Online Programs Available
    5. Indiana Wesleyan University

    Program Options

    Associate's
      • A.S. Computer Information Technology
      • A.S. General Studies - Computer Information Technology
  • Online Programs Available
    6. Excelsior College

    Program Options

    Associate's
      • AAS in Technical Studies (Computer Technologies)
      • AAS in Technical Studies (Electromechanical Technologies)
      • AAS in Technical Studies (Electronic / Instrumentation Technologies)
      • AS in Science in Technology (Computer Technologies)
      • AS in Science in Technology (Electromechanical Technologies)
      • AS in Science in Technology (Electronic / Instrumentation Technologies)
  • Milwaukee, WI

    Milwaukee Area Technical College

  • Online Programs Available
    8. Herzing University

    Program Options

    Associate's
      • Associate of Science - Information Technology Admin and Management
      • Associate of Science - Technology Studies

Featured Schools

Kaplan University

  • Associate: Information Technology
  • AASIT: Network Admin

Which subject are you interested in?

ECPI University

  • Associate's - Network Security

What is your highest level of education?

Keiser University

  • Associate of Sciences - Information Technology

What is your highest level of education?

Virginia College

  • Associate: Network Engineering

What is your highest level of education completed?

Indiana Wesleyan University

  • A.S. Computer Information Technology
  • A.S. General Studies - Computer Information Technology

What is your highest level of education?

Excelsior College

  • AAS in Technical Studies (Computer Technologies)
  • AAS in Technical Studies (Electromechanical Technologies)
  • AAS in Technical Studies (Electronic / Instrumentation Technologies)

What is your highest level of education completed?

Herzing University

  • Associate of Science - Information Technology Admin and Management
  • Associate of Science - Technology Studies

What is your highest level of education?