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Forensic specialists work on the front line of a criminal investigation, collecting and analyzing crime scene evidence. They apply scientific and technical knowledge to reconstruct crime scenes, identify victims and perpetrators, and assist in criminal prosecutions. Forensic investigators can examine physical evidence, biological evidence, or digital evidence.

Crime Scene Investigation

Build a career in this technical criminal justice specialty with a graduate forensics degree. You can earn a master's degree online or on campus in about two years. The online master's allows you to continue working while you pursue your degree.

WorldWideLearn.com's guide to graduate crime scene & forensics programs prepares you to make the most of your education. Focus your goals, find the right program, and move forward in your forensics career.

Guide to Master's Degrees in Crime Scene & Forensics

Crime scene & forensics degrees bring together the disciplines of science and criminal justice. The field draws on chemistry, biology, physics, and even computer science to analyze traces of criminal activity. In fact, many graduate forensics programs are offered under the auspices of a science field such as analytical chemistry. Specialized forensics programs can incorporate knowledge of ballistics or explosives, toxicology, DNA profiling, digital forensics, and other techniques and phenomena.

Professional and Academic Master's Degrees

Master's degrees are generally intensive, one or two-year programs culminating in a research project or written master's thesis. Because the master's degree is a common career advancement tool, programs incorporate career-friendly features such as the option to earn a master's degree online.

Master's degrees in law & criminal justice with a specialization in crime scene & forensics come in several varieties:

Master of Science (MS)

The MS in crime scene & forensics is the most common graduate qualification. Modeled on social science and science graduate degrees, the MS offers a broad curriculum designed for recent graduates and students new to the profession. The MS degree culminates in a research project, making it an ideal stepping stone to the academic PhD in forensic science.

Master of Arts (MA)

Some schools offer an MA in forensics, indicating a curricular emphasis on the qualitative aspects of crime scene investigation--criminal justice procedure, forensic psychology, and anthropology. The capstone research project is more likely to incorporate social science methods rather than lab testing.

Master of Forensic Sciences (MFS)

A newer professional version of the MS degree, the MFS features a specialized curriculum designed for mid-career forensics practitioners. This graduate degree offers students the opportunity to deepen their formal training in a specific area and focus their research on an applied, real-world problem in crime scene investigation or forensics.

Specializations

A graduate crime scene & forensics program offers the opportunity to focus your studies in a particular area of forensic investigation. The available specializations typically depend on the departmental affiliation--analytical chemistry, applied biology, computer science, or criminal justice.

Criminal Justice

  • Forensic psychology
  • Crime scene investigation (fingerprint analysis, evidence collection)
  • Video analysis

Applied Biology

These specializations interpret biological evidence at the crime scene, including bodily fluids, hair, and genetic material.

  • Serology (the study of blood)
  • Genome amplifications
  • Profiling via DNA analysis, messenger RNA, or Y-chromosome analysis
  • Toxicology
  • Pathology
  • Odontology (the use of teeth to identify remains)

Physical Evidence

These fields focus on non-biological evidence such as:

  • Textiles and fibers
  • Polymers
  • Glass and paint
  • Explosives and accelerants
  • Ballistics
  • Fire debris

Digital Forensics

This specialty focuses on retrieving and analyzing digital data from a computer or hard drive, using:

  • Intrusion detection software
  • Network forensics tools
  • Digital evidence markup language

In addition, computational forensics focuses on the use of digital tools to analyze biological and physical evidence.

Scientific Specializations

Forensics fields in the applied sciences include:

  • Forensic Anthropology
  • Forensic Meteorology
  • Forensic Entomology
  • Forensics Geology

Given the breadth of specializations and the lab technology each requires, it's important to have a sense of your interests and look for a program that supports them. If you carve out a specialty analyzing explosives, for example, you may seek out an applied physics lab with access to technology such as liquid and gas chromatography-mass spectrometry.

Career Track

A master's degree in crime scene investigation or forensics serves as a stepping stone to careers in criminal justice, lab science, and education. Employers include federal and local law enforcement agencies, the U.S. military, private crime laboratories, hospitals, law firms, and private consulting firms. Colleges and universities hire graduates with a PhD or advanced industry experience.

Graduate-level CSI and forensics job titles include:

  • Medical examiner
  • Crime laboratory analyst
  • Crime scene examiner
  • Psychological profiler
  • Computer analyst
  • Digital and video analyst
  • DNA profiler
  • Toxicologist

With additional education, you can also access jobs such as forensics engineer, nurse examiner, and university professor. Engineers and nurses need specialty degrees in their respective fields. Academic teaching jobs require a PhD in analytical chemistry or forensic science.

Plan for a Master's Degree in Crime Scene & Forensics

With some perspective on your goals and the available academic resources, the journey toward a graduate forensics credential becomes straightforward. Follow these three steps to establish a foundation for your success as a CSI graduate student.

Step One: Find the Right Graduate Forensics Program

You can find dozens of forensics programs in the U.S. alone, each with its own take on CSI and forensics education. Identify the programs best aligned with your unique interests and ambitions by taking into account:

1. Accreditation

The baseline criterion for any school search is accreditation, which indicates that the school meets basic quality standards set by an independent agency. In addition to attesting the quality of the education and the value of your degree, accreditation factors into your eligibility for financial aid. For a list of approved regional and national accreditation agencies, see the U.S. Department of Education website.

Resources

WorldWideLearn.com. Kick off your research at WorldWideLearn.com, where you can find online criminal justice degrees in forensic science via its Degrees by Subject search tool.

The American Academy of Forensic Sciences (AAFS)features a comprehensive, searchable list of all accredited graduate programs in the U.S. and worldwide. The site also includes a list of degree programs accredited by the AAFS' own Forensic Science Education Programs Accreditation Commission.

2. Program Format: Campus or Online Master's Degree?

Program format plays a major role in most program decisions. Options today include traditional campus, online, and hybrid programs.

Campus programs are a good choice for students just starting out in the field who don't have access to research facilities through an employer. The campus format features access to campus resources such as lab equipment, faculty experts, networking events, library collections, and professional clinics. Aspiring academics still opt for campus over online programs, taking advantage of the local access to build an academic community as well as undergraduate teaching experience.

Online education is the preferred option for working professionals, who typically have access to research facilities at work and generally don't have the luxury of putting their careers on hold for two years. You can earn a master's degree online while working full time, particularly if you develop a thesis project related to your work.

Hybrid degrees feature the best of both worlds--distance graduate education combined with temporary residencies for research and networking.

Your circumstances, career goals, and learning style determine which program format works best for you.

Resources

Find programs with your preferred delivery format in WorldWideLearn.com's Online Degree Programs and Campus Education sections. To find campus degrees near you, search Degrees by Location.

3. Academic Program

In an interdisciplinary field such as forensic science, no two programs are alike. Use your interests and career objectives to navigate the vast landscape of graduate program options. Look for distinct program features such as:

  • Departmental affiliation. The most obvious signpost of a graduate forensics program's disciplinary emphasis is its department association. The analytical chemistry department may feature a different program than the criminal justice or computer science forensics programs.
  • Curriculum. What are the core courses, electives, and specialization options?
  • Degree format and requirements. Degree requirements and activities give you a sense of where the program falls on the academic-professional continuum. Original research and publication requirements indicates an academic emphasis; work clinics, internships, and campus recruiting suggest a pre-professional approach.
  • Faculty. Does the program have faculty experts in your field of interest who could serve as academic mentors? Also check faculty background, including academic and industry credentials.
  • Industry relationships. A professional master's degree should maintain strong connections with law enforcement agencies and other local forensics employers.
  • Career support services. If you're aiming for a professional career, look into the program's placement services. Resume and interviewing assistance, job search counseling, job boards, and corporate recruiting events are signs of strong career support.
  • Learning environment. Ideally, your program fosters a rigorous yet supportive environment.

Resources

WorldWideLearn.com. In addition to searching for schools by program, you can specify your academic criteria and let the site's search feature identify graduate forensics programs that match your requirements. You can also arrange for school representatives to contact you in order to answer your questions about the program. This automated system saves you time, which allows you to cover more ground in your program research.

School Web sites. It takes a little more legwork, but you can also access detailed information about a school's graduate crime scene & forensics program by heading straight to the department's website. Here you're likely to find links to degree handbooks, course descriptions, faculty CVs and publications, and campus research facilities.

Informational interviews give you a frank look at the academic experience and the value of the degree upon graduation. Plan to catch up with alumni and current graduate students, as well as key faculty members in your field. A campus visit offers the best opportunity for informational interviews--and allows you to tour campus facilities while you're there.

4. Evaluate Program Quality

Finally, rank the remaining programs on your list according to quality and selectivity.

Assess programs by taking into account:

  • Reputation
  • Selectivity
  • Job placement and salary statistics
  • Student background, including years of industry experience

Assess your own admissions prospects by evaluating your:

  • Academic GPA
  • Test scores, if available
  • Letters of recommendation

There's a bit of guesswork involved, but the goal is to find the best programs likely to admit applicants with your academic background.

Resources

Admissions Department Data. Consult each school's admissions department to secure key graduate student metrics. Admissions counselors have access to information such as the average admitted student GPA and test scores, average placement success and starting salary information, and graduate student demographics.

Rankings give you a general sense of the program's reputation. There are no major rankings that focus specifically on forensic science, but U.S. News & World Report ranks the best graduate schools in Criminology and Analytical Chemistry.

Step Two: Apply to Graduate Crime Scene & Forensics Programs

With a shortlist of campus or online master's degree programs in hand, you're ready to put the application process in motion. Applications typically include the following components:

1. Prerequisites

Graduate forensics programs generally abide by the following eligibility requirements:

  • A bachelor's degree in crime scene & forensics or a related field, such as chemistry, computer science, applied science, or criminal justice.
  • Depending on your undergraduate background, you may have to supplement your training with some undergraduate prerequisite courses.
  • Standardized tests such as the GRE and (for non-native speakers of English), the TOEFL.
  • Work or research experience (preferred by some master's programs).

Check with admissions counselors to get an idea of what you need to accomplish before applying to graduate school.

2. Application Form

The main event of the application process is an exercise in staying organized. Complete and submit the following documents:

  • Personal information form, usually available online
  • Academic transcripts
  • Letters of recommendation
  • Test scores
  • Personal essay or statement of research interests
  • Resume or CV

Because several of these supporting documents arrive from different sources, it's important to follow up with the admissions departments to make sure they received all the pieces of your master's degree application.

3. Financial Aid

It's not too early to apply for financial aid. In addition to filling out the universities' own financial aid forms, take the following measures to secure funding for school.

  • Meet with financial aid advisors to discuss your financial aid options.
  • Fill out a Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). This application spans all federal financial aid programs, including Stafford Loans.
  • If applicable, ask your employer about educational incentives at your company. Many employers offer scholarships, tuition grants, or loan forgiveness programs.
  • Apply for private scholarships and low-interest student loans.
  • Browse WorldWideLearn.com to learn more about your graduate education funding options.

Keep in mind that you can also contain the cost of your education by keeping your job while you earn a master's degree online.

Step Three: Build Your Academic Network

Finally, take advantage of your status as a prospective graduate student to start building relationships with future peers and mentors. Pursue the following networking resources:

  • Professional Associations. The American Academy of Forensic Sciences is the major professional association. Join this group, but also investigate niche organizations that represent your specialty. The AAFS presents a comprehensive list of forensics organizations in the U.S.
  • Academic and Professional Journals. Journals offer an inside look into exciting advances and trends in forensic science. The AAFS also presents a list of links to major publications in crime scene & forensics.
  • Attending Networking Events and Conferences. There's no substitute for a handshake and eye contact. Meet your academic peers at networking events and conferences. Universities and associations host lectures, parties, meetings, and conferences.

Crime scene investigation and forensics can be solitary work, but networking is an important strategy for advancing your formal training and your career in the field.

Conclusion

As technological advances expand the scope of forensic science, CSIs and forensic analysts are taking a more active role in law enforcement and criminal justice. Your master's degree in crime scene & forensics empowers you to use advanced technology to solve cases and serve justice. Online degree programs make the graduate credential more accessible than ever, allowing you to earn a master's degree online alongside your full-time job. Together, these programs give you the resources you need to take your crime scene & forensics career further.

Sources

  • Database of Accredited Postsecondary Institutions and Programs, U.S. Department of Education.
  • Master of Science in Forensic Science, University of Alabama at Birmingham.
  • Colleges and Universities with Forensic Science Programs, American Association of Forensic Science.
  • National Center for Forensic Science (NCFS).
  • Nute, Dale. "Advice about a Career in Forensic Science," Florida State University.
  • "Science Technicians," Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2010-2011 Edition, Bureau of Labor Statistics.
  • Top Criminology Graduate Programs, U.S. News & World Report (2009).

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