Earning a Master's in Forensic Science Online

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Forensic scientists combine skills in criminology, law, and scientific research to bring offenders to justice. Online master's in forensic science programs provide students with the advanced theories and practical training needed to enter high-ranking careers. As colleges and universities focus on accessible education, enrollment numbers increase. The National Center for Education Statistics reports that the number of students pursuing master's-level education increased by nearly 27,000 from 2014-15 to 2015-2016. This guide contains information to help students find the school that best suits them. Prospective learners gain insight on degree options, pricing, career tracks, and professional development opportunities.

Student Profile: Who Earns an Online Master's Degree in Forensic Science?

Students who pursue an online master's degree in forensic science generally hold undergraduate credentials in the field or a related area, such as criminal justice, linguistics, or the physical sciences. They may also possess relevant work experience. In addition to self-motivated research opportunities, master's programs enable students to pursue specializations that align with their professional interests and goals. A master's degree also helps practitioners earn and maintain certification and licensure.

Why Get a Master's Degree in Forensic Science?

Pursuing Specialization

Building on the core knowledge and skills found in undergraduate programs, online master's degrees in forensic science offer advanced coursework and specializations. Students can concentrate their studies in an aspect of forensic science, like criminalistics, crime scene investigation, or toxicology. Additionally, students can pursue general science specializations, including biology, chemistry, and physics. Finally, degree candidates may train in a specific criminal field, like environmental crime, economic crime, or cyber attacks.

Career Advancement Opportunities

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, graduate degree holders earn approximately $12,000 more in annual salary than professionals with a bachelor's degree. They also benefit from a substantially lower unemployment rate. On top of better pay and job security, master's credentials allow access to leadership positions. With a graduate degree, forensic technicians can become forensic scientists. Professional development serves as a cornerstone of graduate education. Students engage in laboratory research and field training, presenting findings and collaborating with colleagues at conferences.

Online Learning Technology

From learning platforms like Blackboard and Canvas to video streaming and collaborative software, online students master digital communication skills they can apply in their careers. Distance learners are exceptional communicators who can cogently present information and persuade audiences. Additionally, forensic science students develop technological skills like data retrieval, analysis, and visualization. They also learn to use digital imaging software to reconstruct crime scenes and human anatomy.

Prerequisites for Online Forensic Science Programs

Admission requirements vary per program. In general, graduate students should expect criteria to include academic performance (including GPA and prerequisite coursework), professional experience, and standardized test scores.

    • Work Experience: Accelerated online master's degree in forensic science programs and completionist tracks require between two and three years of paid work experience in the field. Candidates display their professional achievements through their CV/resume and recommendations. Even if a school does not require work as part of admission, students can turn work experience into transfer credits through prior learning assessment.
    • Exams and Test Scores: Although higher education institutions increasingly eschew standardized testing (preferring a holistic examination of student potential), many programs still require GRE scores. Students can find minimum requirements on their school's website. According to the Princeton Review, the average GRE scores for U.S. students pursuing a physical science degree reach 150 for verbal reasoning, 158 for quantitative reasoning, and 3.4 for analytical writing. Test scores last for five years.
    • Coursework: Graduate programs routinely ask candidates to complete prerequisite coursework as part of their undergraduate education. For forensic science students, classes include quantitative analysis, instrumental methods, and general and organic chemistry. Certain institutions provide transition programs for students who do not possess the necessary prerequisites. GPA minimums differ by school. Most ask for a 2.0. Competitive universities require a 3.0 minimum.
    • Recommendations: Graduate applicants need to submit two or three recommendation letters. These documents should come from employers, professors, and mentors who can attest to the student's achievements, capabilities, and personal qualities. Students should plan this part of admission carefully, allowing their recommenders enough time to prepare their testimonies. Some schools do not ask for letters, preferring to contact recommenders directly.
    • Essays: Also known as a personal statement, this one-page or two-page document enables students to detail academic and career achievements. Essays also let candidates reveal how their interests, goals, and worldview align with the school's. Some programs provide a general prompt, while others require students to answer specific essay questions.
    • Interviews: Like personal essays, remote and in-person interviews ask prospective students to elaborate on credentials and aspirations. An interview also provides schools with the opportunity to discern how well a student meshes with others in the program. Interviews serve an important function in the application process.
    • International Students: Applicants from outside the U.S. must go through an immigration process, which includes obtaining the F-1 Student Visa. International students also take extra steps when applying for financial support, as they usually cannot access funding from the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). Non-native English speakers need to demonstrate language proficiency by submitting TOEFL or IELTS scores.

How Much Can I Make with a Master's Degree in Forensic Science?

According to Payscale, professionals with a master of science in forensic science earn, on average, $8,000 more in annual salary than those who only hold a bachelor's. However, pay potential varies greatly based on employer, industry, geographic area, and individual credentials and experience. Graduate education helps students develop the hard skills (such as scientific research, crime investigation, and software application) and leadership qualities employers value in professionals. By earning a master's degree, students obtain the qualifications needed to occupy management positions.

Traditional Careers for Forensic Science Master's Graduates

Career Stats Description

Forensic Scientist

Entry-Level Salary: $48,000

Late-Career Salary: $69,000

Working in both laboratories and the field, forensic scientists gather, examine, document, and present evidence for criminal investigations and court proceedings. In addition to research and data analysis skills, these scientists must keep up with government laws and regulations, since they often act as witnesses during trial.

Ideal for: Professionals with extensive training and experience in scientific research and investigation.

Crime Scene Investigator

Entry-Level Salary: $40,000

Late-Career Salary: $53,000

These professionals secure, recover, and analyze evidence left at crime scenes. They lift fingerprints, collect trace DNA materials, and examine firearms and other weapons. Crime scene investigators determine the time and cause of death, conducting interviews with police, family members, and other medical personnel to aggregate information.

Ideal for: Precise and meticulous individuals who can work odd hours on an on-call basis.

Criminalist

Entry-Level Salary: $50,068

Late-Career Salary: $80,833

A subgroup of forensic scientists, criminalists oversee the retrieval and analysis of physical crime scene evidence. This includes firearms, toolmarks, blood splatter, and trace materials. Criminalists examine evidence in laboratories, using such techniques as laser fluorescence illumination and selective wavelength filtration.

Ideal for: Detailed professionals with specialized technical training and certification.

Forensic DNA Analyst

Entry-Level Salary: $45,725

Late-Career Salary: $74,497

As laboratory scientists, forensic DNA analysts conduct chemical and genetic testing on samples provided by criminal investigators. They use the results to create a genetic profile of the individual and may need to provide testimonies during judicial proceedings. Forensic DNA analysts generally start as laboratory assistants in order to gain the skills needed to work as full-fledged practitioners.

Ideal for: Professionals with training in biology, chemistry, or another relevant scientific field.

Non-Traditional Careers for Forensic Science Master's Graduates

Career Stats Description

Technical Writer

Entry-Level Salary: $50,884

Late-Career Salary: $73,523

These communicators prepare manuals, how-to-guides, and journal articles for a specific industry or field. Technical writers also ensure information reaches relevant audiences throughout an organization's channels. With a forensic science degree, technical writers can work for medical facilities, law firms, and government agencies.

Ideal for: Professionals with specialized content or technical writing training.

Lab Manager

Entry-Level Salary: $51,000

Late-Career Salary: $74,000

Lab managers oversee the daily operations of their facilities, developing and maintaining organizational standards to ensure quality performance. They also maintain budgets and coordinate employee hire and training. Lab managers can work in the manufacturing industry, leading research and development initiatives for new products and services.

Ideal for: Scientists with leadership training and extensive work experience in the field.

Postsecondary Teacher

Entry-Level Salary: $60,000

Late-Career Salary: $99,000

On top of classroom instruction and laboratory training, college educators assist students with career guidance and independent projects. Postsecondary teachers also pursue their own field-specific work, conducting research, publishing scholarly articles, and presenting at conferences. Within the university structure, they assist with departmental functions and modify curricula as needed.

Ideal for: Professionals with a master's or, preferably, doctoral degree.

Sources: Bureau of Labor Statistics, PayScale, 2017-2018

Paying for an Online Master's in Forensic Science

Earning an online master's degree in forensic science requires a substantial financial investment. Luckily, colleges and universities incentivize distance learners by offering scholarships and grants, including awards specifically for forensic science majors. Online students can reduce cost and hasten graduation by enrolling in accelerated pathways or degree-completion tracks. These intensive programs require candidates to possess relevant work experience and completed prerequisites. Degree candidates may also save on tuition by applying for transfer credits.

Tuition Timelines

Colleges and universities offer online master's degrees in forensic science to all kinds of students, from recent undergraduates to seasoned professionals. This section details different study plans and how each path affects tuition, course structure, and graduation.

Part-Time Path

The preferred degree plan for working professionals, the part-time path allows students to earn their master's while maintaining career and family obligations. Depending on the school, part-time students may not enjoy access to financial aid.

Real-Life Example:

School Name: La Salle University
Total Credits Required: 36-39
Summary: This fully online master of science in economic crime forensics program delivers classes through the Canvas platform. Topics include information security, financial fraud, and litigation support practices and procedures. Admission requirements include a minimum 3.0 GPA, a resume, and two recommendation letters. Candidates also undergo an interview process.

Full-Time Path

Full-time students can earn their graduate degree in two years. This conventional path enables learners to access full university resources, including financial assistance, internships, fellowships, and career services.

Real-Life Example:

School Name: University of Florida
Total Credits Required: 32
Summary: The UFL online master's degree in forensic science consists of courses like applied statistics for data analysis, toxic substances, and blood distribution and splatter. The university accepts students year-round and operates fall, spring, and summer semesters. Respective deadlines are set for July 29, November 19, and April 1.

Accelerated Path

These programs provide eight-week classes (as opposed to the traditional 16-18 weeks) year-round, enabling students to earn their master's degree in one year. Learners can also accelerate program completion by taking maximum course loads every term.

Real-Life Example:

School Name: Southern New Hampshire University
Total Credits Required: 36
Summary: SNHU operates a one-year online master of science in psychology with a concentration in forensic psychology. Coursework includes cognitive processes, theories of personality, and measurement and assessment. The university operates five graduate terms each year and accepts applications on a rolling basis. Candidates do not need to submit standardized test scores.

Subject-Specific Financial Aid, Grants & Scholarships

On top of government assistance garnered through the FAFSA, students can pay for their master's degree with external scholarships and grants. This section lists five awards specifically for forensic science students.

What to Expect from a Master's Level Online Forensic Science Program

Online master's degree in forensic science programs usually take between two and three years, requiring students to earn 30 credits. Learning management platforms, like Canvas, Blackboard, and Desire2Learn, facilitate asynchronous and real-time courses. Most colleges and universities allow distance learners to individually pace their degree plan. Others require students to engage in cohort learning, taking one class at a time and advancing through the program at the same pace as their peers. The next section details common milestones for forensic science students and professionals.

Major Milestones

  1. Practicum

    Students gain practical training and cultivate professional relationships through internships, field work, and other practicum experiences. Schools may let distance learners complete this requirement with current employers, provided the position aligns with programmatic goals.

  2. Capstone Experience

    The culminating experience varies by program. Some students write research papers followed by an oral defense under the guidance of a faculty mentor. Others implement a project with the support of a institutional partner or local organization. Still others only need to take a senior seminar.

  3. Comprehensive Examination

    Online master's in forensic science programs may ask students to take a comprehensive exam to demonstrate understanding of key concepts and skills. Distance learners complete the test under the supervision of a school-approved proctor.

  4. Professional Certification/Licensure

    Some states require forensic scientists to earn licensure. Even if their career does not necessitate industry-specific credentials, professionals can gain skill mastery and work experience by pursuing optional certification. This guide details professional development opportunities below.

  5. Continuing Education

    To work as dedicated research scientists and post-secondary instructors, professionals should earn a doctoral degree. For other practitioners, post-graduate certificate programs and non-credit classes provide the means to keep abreast of new discoveries in the forensic science field.

Coursework

Online master's degree in forensic science curricula synthesize criminal law and scientific investigation. Students can expect core classes in areas like biological evidence, toxicology, and law enforcement technology. The list below contains five popular classes in this field.

Forensic Toxicology

A fundamental topic for all forensic scientists, toxicology covers chemistry and its application in drug and body fluid analysis. Topics include sample preparation, presumptive testing, immunoassays, and thin layer chromatography. The class couples classroom instruction with laboratory practice.

Crime Scene Investigation

This course provides an overview of relevant CSI techniques, including the retrieval and processing of items, DNA, and trace evidence. Students develop an understanding of accepted methodologies and related judicial expectations, such as the appropriate admittance of evidence.

Forensic Psychology

This course centers on the development and analysis of witness testimony and its relationship to current jurisdictional considerations. These include legal definitions of terms like workplace discrimination and criminal insanity. Students also examine the historical roots of clinical research and its evolution.

Occupational Fraud

An important topic for economic crime specialists, occupational fraud entails the deliberate misuse of an employer's resources and services for personal enrichment. In this class, students examine case studies to develop character profiles of likely perpetrators. They also delve into specific schemes and common conditions for fraud.

Fingerprint Detection and Identification

The class provides an in-depth examination of the scientific methodologies involved in fingerprint recognition, enhancement, and identification. Students explore the conventional ACE-V technique in conjunction with relevant Bayesian statistics application for forensic evidence assessment.

Requirements to Practice

In general, forensic scientists do not need to possess certification to obtain work. However, depending on their specific career and location, these professionals may need to earn state licensure. Texas requires forensic analysts to undergo a written examination and proficiency testing starting in 2019. A host of optional certification programs cater to forensic scientists, including the (ISC)² information security certifications for economic crime and fraud prevention specialists. Work experience requirements vary. Managers and directors usually need at least five years of experience.

    • State Licensure: States increasingly require professionals to undergo a mandatory licensure process. Starting in 2019, Texas forensic analysts (excluding licensed physicians like pathologists and medical examiners) need to submit an application and pass an exam. The Texas Forensic Science Commission also plans to develop voluntary accreditation programs.
    • ABC Certification Program: The American Board of Criminalistics provides diplomate and fellow certifications. Diplomate candidates must boast at least two years of career experience and currently work in criminalistics. The exam includes topics like molecular biology, drug analysis, fire debris, and hair and fiber. Upon earning their diplomate status, professionals can sit for the fellow exam.
    • ABFT Certification Programs: The American Board of Forensic Toxicology provides certification at the diplomate and fellow levels. The diplomate program allows candidates to obtain credentials in forensic drug toxicology, forensic alcohol toxicology, and general toxicology. To take the diplomate exam, professionals need a bachelor's degree. To apply for the fellow certificate, they need a doctoral degree.
    • AFTE Certification Program: The Association of Firearm and Tool Mark Examiners operates specialized certification programs in gunshot residue, tool mark evidence, and firearm evidence. The exam currently costs $250 and requires candidates to possess two years of approved academic training and three years of paid work experience. Students can access study guides on the AFTE website.

Professional Organizations & Resources

By earning an online master's degree in forensic science, students gain access to more work opportunities and higher pay. They can further bolster employment prospects and overall career longevity by engaging with professional organizations. Members usually pay an annual fee to receive access to academic scholarships, research grants, and achievement awards. They also benefit from the support of colleagues and industry experts. For example, the American Academy of Forensic Psychology operates a mentorship program that assists professionals through the board certification process.

  • American Academy of Forensic Science: AAFS supports its 7,000 members by developing and maintaining professional practices and standards. The academy connects members through national conferences and a global educational outreach initiative. Forensic science students benefit from career resources and field training programs.
  • American Society of Crime Laboratory Directors: ASCLD advances leadership theories and innovative best practices in forensic science. Members enjoy regional workshops, national conferences, and on-demand online training seminars. They can also take advantage of a career board and resource library.
  • The Association of Firearm and Tool Mark Examiners: AFTE provides academic scholarships and project support and funding. The association also delivers eLearning opportunities, in-person seminars, and research-based journals. To apply for membership, candidates need to actively work in the forensic examination field.
  • College of American Pathologists: Founded in 1946, CAP advances the pathology and laboratory medicine fields through integrative research and education initiatives. Membership comes with benefits like individualized career guidance and an online job board. The college also operates learning programs, including self-assessment seminars and inspector training.
  • The International Association of Forensic Toxicologists: Established in 1963, TIAFT provides award programs, including academic scholarships and grants for research and conference attendance. Members connect through online networking, regional events, and a mentorship program for new professionals.
  • Academy of Criminal Justice Sciences: AJCS has been advancing criminal justice education, research, and public policy since 1963. The academy offers award programs, career guidance, and an employment bulletin. Professionals collaborate through doctoral summits and national conferences.
  • American Academy of Forensic Psychology: Established in 1978, AAFP supports board-certified forensic psychologists. The academy offers financial support and mentorship for students and professionals. It also operates in-person and online training workshops.
  • American Chemical Society: As the world's largest scientific organization, ACS supports more than 150,000 members in 141 countries. The society offers comprehensive educational resources for students, teachers, and professionals. ACS also provides internship placement and leadership training.
  • Association of Women in Forensic Science: Founded in 2010, AWIFS connects female forensic scientists through youth outreach initiatives and skill development workshops. Professionals may also take advantage of grant, fellowship, and employment listings.
  • National Institute of Justice: As a federal agency, NIJ promotes education, research, and policy advancement in forensic science and criminal justice. The institute offers financial assistance, including academic scholarships and eight fellowship programs. Professionals can develop their skills through industry-specific seminars and training programs.