How to Get a PhD in Forensic Science

Forensic scientists work hand-in-hand with law enforcement, using advanced scientific techniques to analyze and interpret criminal evidence. The National Center for Forensic Science (NCFS) defines forensics as "science exercised in the service of law." Common applications of forensic science in crime scene investigation include fingerprint analysis, ballistics, body identification, DNA profiling, and toxicology.

Leaders in forensic science research typically come to the field with a PhD in a related scientific field. Chemistry, biochemistry, and computer science are the most common contexts of advanced forensics education. A growing number of science PhD programs offer a concentration in forensic analysis. Several programs have also developed a dedicated PhD in forensic science.

Achieving the highest degree in forensics takes vision and dedication. Whether you choose to pursue a PhD in analytical chemistry, computer forensics, or forensic science, you can expect a rigorous four to six years of graduate education culminating in original scholarship. This guide helps you prepare for a successful academic journey, from defining your research interests to submitting your PhD applications.

A Guide to the PhD in Forensic Science

Forensic science practices date back centuries. The development of forensics as an academic discipline, however, is a more recent phenomenon. Forensic science entered the academy in 1902, with the establishment of a forensic photography department at the University of Lausanne, Switzerland. By mid-century, forensics gained recognition as a criminal justice discipline. The American Academy of Forensic Science (AAFS) was formed in 1950, and several years later the influential guide Crime Investigation offered a comprehensive account of forensics theory and practice.

Forensic science has gained momentum in the past decades, in response to advances in chemical and digital analytics. As the field grows more and more technically advanced, demand is increasing for forensics experts trained in advanced scientific methods. To learn more about forensics, visit WorldWideLearn.com's Guide to Majors, where you'll find a specific section devoted to crime scene investigation.

Doctoral Degree Options in Forensic Science

Despite the growing demand for forensic scientists, PhD programs in forensic science remain scarce. Advanced scholars and practitioners typically come to the field with an advanced degree in a related science--chemistry, biology, or computer science. Some programs in these sciences offer a forensic science concentration or a joint master's-PhD degree. Sample degree titles include: "PhD in Analytical Chemistry and Master of Forensic Science," "PhD in Chemistry and Forensic Science," and "PhD in Computer Science with a concentration in Digital Forensics."

Other sciences that may be combined with a forensic science master's degree include: entomology, geology, anthropology, psychology, pathology, dentistry, and archaeology.

Specializations

Forensic science specializations generally fall into one of three categories: biological evidence, physical evidence, and digital evidence. Biological and physical forensics doctorates are typically available in the context of an analytical chemistry or biochemistry department. Digital forensics is a computer science specialty.

Biological Evidence

The biological evidence field draws on biochemistry and molecular biology knowledge to analyze biological specimens such as blood, hair, semen, and genetic material. Research specialties in biological forensics include:

  • Messenger RNA profiling
  • DNA analysis
  • Serology
  • Mass disaster genetics
  • Genome amplification
  • Y-Chromosome analysis

Physical Evidence

Physical forensics applies chemistry and physics knowledge to the analysis of non-biological trace evidence such as ignitable liquids, explosives, fiber specimens, and glass.

Research specialties include:

  • Explosives and accelerant analysis
  • Textile and fiber dye analysis
  • Fire debris analysis
  • Glass and paint analysis
  • Polymer Science
  • Controlled biological systems for evidence detection

Technologies used in physical forensics include liquid chromatography-mass spectrometry (LC-MS) for explosives and fiber analysis, gas chromatography-mass spectrometry (GC-MS) for explosives, scanning electron microscopy, capillary electrophoresis (CE), ion mobility spectrometry (IMS), laser-induced breakdown spectroscopy (LIBS) for glass, and advanced computational methods.

Digital Evidence

Digital forensics is the analysis of "information of probative value that is stored or transmitted in a binary form"--that is, data collected from electronic or digital media such as computers and portable hard drives.

Specialties in digital forensics include:

  • Intrusion forensics
  • Network forensics
  • Device-based specialties (game console, Mac OS, portable electronic devices)
  • Digital evidence markup language (modeling digital evidence to facilitate data sharing among law enforcement agencies)

Developing a specific vision of your research interests will help you seek out a program with the resources--faculty, lab equipment, and funding--to support research in your chosen forensic science specialty. Since most forensic science graduate students pursue their PhD in the context of a general science department, the availability of forensics research support cannot be taken for granted.

Career Track

A PhD in forensic science typically leads to an academic or public-sector career. The academic career path emphasizes university teaching and research. Professional career opportunities emphasize research, consulting, and lab director positions at government agencies. County and state law enforcement, the FBI, and the Department of Homeland Security employ top forensic specialists. Doctoral graduates may also pursue senior scientist and director positions in private research laboratories.

The doctoral degree qualifies you for job titles such as:

  • University professor
  • Crime lab director
  • Crime scene examiner
  • Forensic engineer
  • Senior forensic scientist

It's important to have a general idea of your career ambitions before you apply to the PhD program. An academic career goal, for example, will lead you to a campus program with a strong faculty mentorship and graduate student teaching program. Professional career ambitions, by contrast, are better served in a campus or online PhD program with strong industry ties.

 

Plan for a PhD in Crime Scene and Forensics

Once you've clarified your research interests and career goals, you're in a good position to research doctoral program options in forensic science. This guide takes you through the logistics of preparing for graduate school, from finding a program to completing and submitting your applications.

Step One: Find the Right Graduate Forensic Science Program

Your forensic science PhD is likely to be a custom program created in the context of a general science field. It's important, therefore, to find a university that not only offers a forensic science concentration, but also supports your research goals with forensics faculty, labs, and funding.

1. List Accredited PhD Programs

Begin by listing all accredited institutions that offer a doctoral degree or degree concentration in forensic science. Accreditation is an important criterion for your search--it ensures the value of your degree and factors into your eligibility for federal funding. Independent accreditation agencies define educational standards and conduct regular program reviews. The U.S. Department of Education maintains a list of approved national and regional accreditation agencies.

Resources

The American Academy of Forensic Sciences features a comprehensive list of college and universities that offer graduate forensic science programs. Search this list for campus or online doctoral programs in forensic science. The site also includes a list of programs accredited by the AAFS Forensic Science Education Programs Accreditation Commission.

WorldWideLearn.com represents a selection of accredited programs in forensics and related sciences. Search Degrees by Subject to find an online or campus PhD program in forensic science or a related field.

2. Choose Campus or Online Format

The logistics of getting a PhD can be daunting, especially for mid-career professionals who don't have the flexibility to attend a four- to six-year full-time campus program. Fortunately, many universities offer both online and campus degree formats. Format options include the traditional campus PhD, campus programs with online course options, online programs with temporary campus residencies, and all-online programs.

Campus PhD programs remain a great option for students with academic career ambitions. Students have full access to campus research facilities and develop close working relationships with faculty mentors and peers. In addition, the campus PhD offers academic apprenticeships in the form of graduate student teaching opportunities and research assistant positions.

Online PhD programs in forensic science can work well for students pursuing a professional career. Graduate students already working in the forensics field may have access to research facilities through their job. Many online programs encourage students to develop a dissertation project in the context of their professional practice.

Resources

Find doctoral programs with your chosen delivery format at WorldWideLearn.com's Online Degree Programs and Campus Education pages. The Degrees by Location search tool helps you identify campus programs near you.

3. Explore Academic Programs

This is the heart of your quest for the perfect forensic PhD: finding an academic program that fits your research and career goals.

Some of the factors to consider as you investigate individual academic programs include:

  • Forensic science degree options (full PhD, joint PhD, or PhD research concentration)
  • Faculty research areas
  • Labs equipped with forensic research tools
  • Curriculum and course requirements
  • Relationships with private- and public-sector R&D laboratories
  • Research funding
  • Forensic science publications, associations, conferences, etc.

You can streamline the research process by focusing on the presence of resident forensic science faculty. If you can find a mentor in your forensics specialty, the other resources are likely to follow.

Resources

WorldWideLearn.com can put you in touch with science PhD programs that meet your basic criteria. Fill out an online form indicating your program interests, and the system automatically links you with matching schools. A school representative or admissions counselor will contact you by phone or email to discuss forensic science program options and resources.

School Web sites can help you identify which science PhD programs support a forensic science specialty degree. You'll find links to professor CVs and publications, student dissertation titles, partnerships with crime labs or forensics associations, and other pertinent information.

Academic journals offer a means of identifying potential faculty mentors who share your research interests. You can also get a sense of which universities support research in your field. Major journals include the Journal of Forensic Sciences and Forensic Science International.

4. Evaluate Program Quality

Finally, rank your programs based on quality and reputation. Factors that indicate the potential value of your educational investment include:

  • Reputation
  • Selectivity
  • Job Placement Statistics
  • Student Body Profile
  • Student-Teacher Ratio
  • Research Funding Awards
Resources

Rankings offer a quick means of gauging a PhD program's reputation and selectivity. Since the PhD in forensic science is rare, you're unlikely to find a specific ranking for the field. Instead, look for rankings in criminal justice and relevant science disciplines. Examples include:

Departmental data sheets include statistics on selectivity (average GPA and test scores of admitted applicants), career placement, tenure, average post-graduate salary, and more. This document is usually available from the admissions department upon request.

Campus visits offer a firsthand look at a program's forensic science resources. Tour forensics labs, meet with faculty in your field, talk with graduate students, and visit a forensic science course.

Step Two: Apply to PhD Programs in Forensic Science

With your list of campus or online PhD programs in hand, you're ready to prepare your forensic science doctorate applications. Requirements for each program will be different, but in general you can expect to encounter the following:

1. Doctoral Eligibility Requirements

  • Bachelor's or master's degree in forensic science or a related field. If necessary, you can supplement your background with undergraduate courses in forensics or basic science before applying.
  • Standardized tests. Most programs require the GRE for all applicants and the TOEFL for international students.
  • Work experience. Some programs prefer work experience in forensic science or crime scene investigation.

2. Application Requirements

  • Academic transcripts
  • Test scores
  • Two or three letters of recommendation from faculty or professional colleagues
  • Personal statement of research interests
  • Financial statements, if you're applying for financial aid

3. Financial Aid Requirements

Universities typically attach a financial aid package to the admissions offer. Funding may include fellowships, teaching and research assistantships, tuition support, and federal student loans. To supplement the school's funding package, pursue additional sources of financial aid. Options to consider include:

  • Employer tuition assistance
  • Private scholarships
  • Student loans
  • Research grants
Resources

WorldWideLearn.com's Education Resources Guide offers information on test preparation, online learning, prerequisite courses, and financial aid.

Step Three: Join the Academic Community

The period between the application deadline and the first day of the program doesn't have to be an extended waiting game. Take advantage of academic networking opportunities to start building relationships with your new peers. Resources available to you now include:

1. Academic and Professional Forensic Science Associations

Join forensic science organizations to meet other scholars who share your interests. Major associations include:

  • American Academy of Forensic Sciences
  • National Center for Forensic Sciences
  • National Forensic Association
  • American College of Forensic Examiners

There are also many specialized forensics associations, such as the Scientific Working Group on Digital Evidence and the Technical Working Group on Fire and Explosives.

2. Academic Research Publications

Subscribe to and read academic and professional journals to get a sense of trends and leading researchers in your field.

3. Conferences and Networking Events

Most national associations have local chapters that sponsor networking events. Or attend a national conference for an overview of current research.

Forensic scientists are continually developing new ways of applying scientific research methods to the analysis of criminal evidence. A PhD takes you to the top of the forensic science field, where you'll advance the practice of crime scene investigation for the next generation. By planning your educational journey now, you're setting yourself up for a successful career as a forensic science leader.

 

Sources

  • American Academy of Forensic Sciences (AAFS).
  • Assessment of Research Doctorate Programs, National Research Council.
  • Chemistry PhD, Forensic Science Concentration, University of Central Florida.
  • Database of Accredited Postsecondary Institutions and Programs, U.S. Department of Education.
  • Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.) with Forensic Science Emphasis, Florida International University.
  • Forensic Science, University of Central Florida.
  • Joint PhD Opportunities in Forensic Science, Michigan State University.
  • National Center for Forensic Science (NCFS).
  • Programs in Law, The Sloan Consortium.
  • Scientific Working Group on Digital Evidence (SWGDE).
  • The Top American Research Universities, 2008 Annual Report, The Center for Measuring University Performance. 
  • Top Criminology Graduate Programs, U.S. News & World Report (2009).

Pursue your Crime Scene & Forensics major today…

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