Study Forensic Science: Master's, PhD & Course Info

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What kind of job can you get with a graduate degree in forensic science? Find out program requirements, online options and info on courses and forensic science master's and doctoral programs.
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Forensic Science Master's and PhDs: Degrees at a Glance

Forensic scientists use a variety of tools and tests to examine the physical and chemical evidence gathered by law enforcement departments. Some forensic scientists specialize in a specific analysis area, such as toxicology, document examination or chemistry. Many forensic scientists have a graduate degree, but the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that a bachelor's degree may be enough for some entry-level positions. Studying forensic science can lead to a number of additional career titles, including DNA analyst, biologist, research technician and lab specialist.

Master's Doctorate
Who is this degree for? Individuals seeking specialized knowledge within the field of forensic science Students hoping to secure a scientific research or academic position related to forensic science
Common Career Paths (with approximate salary) - Forensic scientist ($35,000 to $81,000)**
- Crime laboratory analyst ($13,000 to $64,000)**
- Biotech scientist ($86,000)*
- Toxicologist ($70,000 with 2-4 years of experience)*
Time to Completion About 2 years, full-time About 4 years, full-time
Common Requirements - About 5-7 core forensic science courses
- Roughly 3-6 additional specialization/elective courses
- Research/thesis project
- Comprehensive examination
- Approximately 6 core courses (may vary depending on the parent program)
- About 3-6 graduate-level electives
- Comprehensive exams
- Dissertation and defense
Prerequisites - Bachelor's degree; background in biological or physical sciences may be required
- GRE scores (varies between schools)
- Bachelor's or master's degree with an emphasis in science or a related field
- GRE scores
- Strong background in the sciences
Online Availability Yes No

Source: *Salary.com (November 2012 figures, median salary), **PayScale.com (December 2012 figures, 10th-90th percentile including bonuses)

Master's in Forensic Science

Master's degree programs in forensic science usually offer a couple of specialization options for students, which may include forensic toxicology, criminalistics, forensic chemistry and forensic biology. Since much of the work in forensic science takes place in laboratories, you can typically expect multiple hands-on courses and labs throughout the program. Students are also exposed to the legal side of forensics, which can help them learn about the proper procedures when examining evidence. Upon completion of this program, students are prepared to work in the private or public sectors at laboratories, law enforcement agencies and government organizations.

Pros and Cons

Pros

  • Can lead to a variety of careers in the public and private sectors
  • May offer specializations not found at the bachelor's level
  • Offer hands-on lab opportunities in forensic science procedures and methods

Cons

  • A PhD may be required for some scientific research positions
  • A bachelor's degree in a scientific field may be required for admission
  • Crime scene investigation positions usually only require a bachelor's degree

Courses and Requirements

Most master's programs require students to complete a core set of courses. These courses may include the following:

  • Crime scene investigation
  • Criminalistics
  • Forensic science principles
  • Forensic chemistry

Programs that don't have specialization choices follow the core courses with a series of forensic science electives, but most programs give students a couple of concentration options. Programs typically require a thesis or a research project, although some programs may give students the option of one or the other. Some programs may also require students to complete a comprehensive exam toward the end of their studies, but this is not a universal requirement.

Online Degree Options

Master's programs in forensic science are available in hybrid and online formats. Some schools may offer the options of completing coursework online and then travelling to campus for research work or completing the courses and the research project strictly over the Internet. The courses in an online program are typically comparable to what you'd find in an on-campus program. Programs that are completely online don't usually offer a thesis and require students to complete a research project instead.

Getting Ahead with This Degree

Forensic scientists looking to get ahead can join the American Academy of Forensic Sciences (AAFS). Members of the AAFS have access to newsletters, conferences and the Journal of Forensic Sciences. The AAFS also has a job post website where potential forensic scientists can search for jobs that may fit their set of skills.

Students who are interested in particular specializations within forensic science may want to join a more specific organization, such as the Society of Forensic Toxicologists (SOFT), Inc. This organization offers multiple levels of membership, and students who are pursuing related degrees can join while still in school. Members of SOFT can attend annual meetings to meet with professionals in the field, receive newsletters and participate in workshops.

Many of the jobs available to master's degree holders may require the use of advanced laboratory equipment. During your studies, you may want to seek out opportunities to work with such equipment and make yourself more marketable to employers.

PhD in Forensic Science

Forensic science programs at the PhD level are typically found as a research area or concentration within a broader doctoral program. Doctoral programs in chemistry with a concentration in forensic science tend to be the most common. Other programs that may offer a forensic science concentration include criminal justice, biology and forensic anthropology. Regardless of the broader program title, forensic science studies include coursework focused on scientific principles, and potential students should have a strong background in science and math. These doctoral programs are usually interdisciplinary and allow students to choose from a variety of course topics.

Pros and Cons

Pros

  • There are a variety of degree programs that offer specializations in forensic science
  • Could open up teaching and academic research opportunities
  • The interdisciplinary nature of these programs gives you practical skills and research experience useful in multiple industries

Cons

  • Only a handful of applicants are admitted each year
  • Only high-level research and academic positions usually require a PhD
  • You could spend more than 8 years in school

Common Courses and Requirements

Your core courses typically depend on the actual degree program you're enrolled in. For instance, chemistry programs may include courses like forensic chemistry, analytical chemistry and biochemistry. On the other hand, a forensic and investigative genetics program might have courses in biomedical science, molecular cell biology and biostatistics. Following your core coursework, you'll usually take a few comprehensive exams and complete some specialization/elective courses before starting your doctoral research. The completion of a dissertation and subsequent defense are typically the final requirements before you can earn this degree.

Online Course Options

PhD programs with coursework in forensic science are not currently offered over the Internet. If you happen to come across a program that claims to be administered online, be aware that you may have limited course options, since an on-campus program typically offers an interdisciplinary curriculum.

Stand Out with This Degree

PhD holders may be interested in joining a professional organization to keep up with the latest developments in forensic science. The Southern Association of Forensic Scientists (SAFS) was formed in 1966 and aims to spread information and encourage members to discuss topics of similar interest within the field of forensic science. SAFS can help members find training opportunities, and it holds an annual meeting. Additionally, you can also find employment opportunities on the SAFS website.

On the technical and technological side, you may want to familiarize yourself with the testing methods that are particular to your area of interest. These may include toxicology testing or the ability to interpret spectroscopic data.

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