Forensic Medicine Degrees: Master's, PhD & Online Course Info

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Master's and PhD degree programs in forensic medicine can lead to careers as forensic scientists, DNA analysts and toxicologists. Get the truth about requirements, courses and career options, as well as find out what you can do with your degree.
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Studying Forensic Medicine: Master's and Ph.D. Degree Programs at a Glance

Forensic medicine involves applying medical knowledge to legal evidence for the purpose of solving crimes and answering legal questions. While master's degree programs in forensic medicine are available, programs in biomedical forensic science are more common and can be beneficial if you already have a bachelor's degree but wish to advance in your career as a forensic science technician or death investigator. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) predicted demand for forensics technicians to grow 19% over the 2010-2020 decade.

Doctoral programs in forensic medicine are rare, but can provide you with the training necessary to oversee a forensic science department of a crime lab or teach forensic science in a college or university. The BLS estimated a 17% increase in the employment of postsecondary teachers in general from 2010-2020. Concentrations within Ph.D. programs in the field can provide you with the in-depth education needed to advance in a specialized career such as toxicologist or forensic scientist. These programs cannot prepare you to become a medical examiner, as that position requires the completion of a medical degree program.

Master's Doctorate
Who is this degree for? Individuals who already have professional experience or training in nursing or law enforcement, or students with an undergraduate background in forensic science People who want to become leaders of a forensic science department or teach at the collegiate level
Common Career Paths (with approximate salary) -Forensic nurse (RN) ($21,000-$91,000)*
- Forensic toxicologist ($70,000)**
- Medicolegal death investigator (salary unavailable)
- Forensic geneticist (salary unavailable)
- University professor ($43,000-$143,000)*
- Forensic director ($39,000-$209,000)*
Time to Completion Two years 3-4 years after master's degree
Common Graduation Requirements - Laboratory and/or research component
- Internship
- Capstone integrative experience
- Upper-level electives
- Qualifying examination
- Dissertation
Prerequisites Bachelor's degree with some credits in anatomy, biology and chemistry Master's degree in forensics
Online Availability Some courses may be found online None found at this time

Source: *PayScale.com (November 2012 stats) **Salary.com (November 2012)


Master of Science in Forensic Medicine

Professionals in the field of forensics who already have a bachelor's degree in the field can improve their knowledge and skills by pursuing a Master of Science program in forensic medicine or forensic science. You may also be able to pursue one of these programs holding a baccalaureate degree in another major, with many forensics programs designed to provide students from a wide variety of professional and educational backgrounds with an introduction to biomedical forensics. Courses focus heavily on topics related to professional forensics. When you graduate, you should have the skills and basic education necessary to find work in a variety of careers related to forensics and biomedical sciences in settings such as hospitals, medical examiners' offices and law enforcement agencies.

These programs can combine didactic classroom lectures with laboratory experiences. Some schools even offer the program through on-campus medical centers. You can look for schools that allow you access to state-of-the-art equipment in crime scene laboratories, microscopy laboratories, chemistry laboratories, forensic DNA laboratories and mock law rooms.

Pros and Cons

Pros

  • Most of these programs include an internship or hands-on training that can prepare you for employment upon graduation
  • You can sometimes focus on a particular specialization, such as forensic biology or DNA analysis
  • Some programs are offered part-time or online for working professionals

Cons

  • Most forensic technicians need only a bachelor's degree to find work
  • You may need additional education to pursue a particular career path
  • You may need to complete an additional apprenticeship or on-the-job training upon finishing a degree program

Courses and Requirements

Core courses provide students with the training necessary to work in a forensic laboratory and present forensic evidence in criminal proceedings. Students learn about the various aspects of forensic biology, including how to break down and analyze human tissue and body fluids. They might also learn the basics of forensic chemistry, DNA analysis and pathology. They should be trained to use these techniques to determine the cause of illness, injury or death, and then be able to testify to their findings.

Additional courses should prepare students to analyze a crime scene, prepare evidence and present evidence before a legal court. Examples of courses you might take in this program include:

  • Forensic medicine pathology
  • Principles of forensic medicine
  • Evidence-based forensic medicine
  • Evidentiary procedure
  • Criminal law

Many of these courses can take place in a laboratory environment. You might be required to complete a research project or capstone integrative experience before graduation.

Online Course Info

Although master's degree programs in forensic medicine do sometimes offer courses online, you will not likely be able to complete the entire degree program online. These programs are typically offered through a hybrid-learning format, mostly because hands-on laboratory experiences are such a vital component of forensic medicine. Some of the courses that can be completed online include non-lab courses in bioethics and evidentiary procedure.

Online courses in forensic medicine may be ideal for working medical professionals who are interested in earning a graduate degree in forensics. Physician assistants, nurses and paramedics might be able to complete large portions of a master's degree program in their own spare time.

Getting Ahead with This Degree

Because forensic medicine can be so widely applied to different career choices, the best way to get ahead with this degree is to know exactly what professional outcome you're working towards. For example, if you wish to become a medicolegal death investigator, you should look for those programs with courses that offer a background in federal and state laws relating to death investigation. However, if you wish to become a forensic nurse, you should look into internship experiences that allow you to shadow current forensic nurses and gain hands-on experience before embarking on a job pursuit. You could also consider gaining voluntary certification from organizations such as the American Board of Medicolegal Death Investigators or the American Board of Forensic Toxicology.

In order to stay relevant in your profession, you could also stay on top of new technological developments in the field of forensic medicine. For example, you could stay abreast of new developments in DNA analysis and new methods of testing for toxins. Some subjects you may want to keep tabs on include spectrometry and chromatography, which can be used to find toxins in tissue. Medical journals and associations can be good sources of relevant information.

Other Degrees to Consider

Other degree programs might provide an attractive alternative based on your particular career objectives. For example, if your career interests involve nursing, you can combine this with forensics by enrolling in a Master of Science in Forensic Nursing degree program. Forensic nurses gather the physical evidence needed while assisting victims of a crime. Although the BLS does not offer data specifically related to forensic nursing, it did predict that the field for registered nurses in general would experience a job growth of 26% over the 2010-2020 decade, which is much faster than the average expected job growth for that time.

Doctor of Philosophy in Forensic Medicine

Similar to master's degree programs, doctoral programs in forensic medicine are very rare. However, a doctoral program can prepare you to become a professor or oversee a forensic department. Many of these programs also allow you to focus on a particular subject area, such as toxicology, chemistry or genetics. You should pick the program that most closely touches on your chosen area of interest. Curricula often include core classroom lectures, seminars, electives and research.

As a Ph.D. candidate in one of these programs, you will likely be required to produce original research as part of a dissertation. Some programs will even require you to have articles published in peer-reviewed journals.

Pros and Cons

Pros

  • A Ph.D. can prepare you for an advanced scientific career, such as forensic scientist or laboratory technical director
  • As a postsecondary teacher, you might have the opportunity to work part-time and conduct research, as 29% of professors worked part-time in 2010*
  • A Ph.D. can set you on the path to publish research and build a professional reputation, which can increase your demand to provide expert testimony in court

Cons

  • For some positions, you may be applying for the same job as someone with just a bachelor's or master's degree
  • You might have more difficulty finding a tenure-track position, as competition for these jobs is tough
  • Accredited Ph.D. programs in forensics are rare; the American Academy of Forensic Sciences currently accredits just seven in the United States**

Sources: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, **American Academy of Forensic Sciences

Courses and Requirements

Core courses offered in a Ph.D. program in forensic medicine might be similar to those found in a master's degree program. Basic courses might cover biomedical ethics, biochemistry and biomedical sciences. Students have to complete laboratory experiences, while taking courses that focus on research. These courses should prepare students to organize and write their dissertations and create contributions to the scholarly field of forensic medicine.

In the latter years of a Ph.D. program, courses focusing on individual research can take up just as much time as senior-level seminars. Other common courses might focus on grant-writing methods and qualifying exam preparation. Some universities offer the qualifying exam as a means to advance to Ph.D. candidacy. Before completing the necessary course hours, students may be required to complete an oral and written examination testing their knowledge of research techniques and course material. The exam is often offered on a pass/fail basis.

Online Course Info

At the doctoral level, online courses in forensic medicine are not typically offered. While enrolled in a doctoral program, students should be on campus in order to work closely with faculty advisors and develop research plans for a dissertation.

Stand Out with This Degree

One tested way to get the most out of your Ph.D. program is to craft a strong dissertation and work to get published articles into peer-reviewed journals. If you start building your professional reputation while still enrolled in a doctoral program, you will be more likely to be called upon as an expert witness or forensic specialist in legal matters.

If you are interested in becoming the director of a crime laboratory, you may want to consider joining an organization such as the American Society of Crime Laboratory Directors (ASCLD). Once a part of the organization, you will have the opportunity to network and confer with other directors from more than 250 crime labs around the nation.

Degree Alternatives

One alternative to pursuing your education all the way through a Ph.D. program would be to enroll in a Doctor of Medicine degree program. Choosing a residency or fellowship in medical pathology would allow you to become a medical examiner or forensic pathologist. According to Salary.com, pathologists make a median annual salary of about $250,000, as of November 2012. This professional avenue can take approximately seven years of schooling past the undergraduate level, however.

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