Forensic Science Degree

Police Identification Unit analysing evidence

Broadly speaking, forensic science involves the use of the science to examine evidence and facts surrounding legal issues and crimes. A forensic science degree will prepare you to use science and technology to examine evidence collected at the scene of a crime. The use of forensics is an indispensable factor in the investigation of a variety of crimes. The word forensics comes from the latin word forensis, which means “of or before the forum” and has been a concept pertaining to evidence within the legal system since Roman times. In modern times, the word forensics has become closely related to the forensic science.

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The application of forensics has many subdivisions and special applications. Trace evidence analysis is often one of the first that comes to mind where substances such as fibers, hair, paint, or other minute traces are examined which can provide important clues about the facts surrounding the crime.

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Forensic science degree programs will teach you how to apply the study of blood groups, accounting, fingerprints, video analysis, toxicology, psychology, biological evidence, ballistics, and more. As a forensics professional, you will spend time examining evidence, writing reports, communicating with attorneys, and testifying in court. The role of forensic scientists is of great importance in helping a jury make a decision beyond a shadow of a doubt.


Criminalists specialize in one or more of several areas of expertise involving the examination and analysis of evidence at a crime scene or lab. Criminalists specialize in handling fingerprints, ballistics, trace evidence, tread mark and shoe print analysis, and more. Below, you can read about the roles that criminalists play depending upon their education, experience, and skill. Becoming a criminalist usually starts with an associates or bachelors degree in criminal justice combined with courses or majors in lab sciences such as biology or chemistry. Those who want to become a criminalist usually become apprentices during or just after completion of their criminalistics degree or forensic science degree to obtain actual experience out in the field.

DNA Profiling

In the last few decades, forensic scientists have been able to use DNA to prove the guilt or innocence of those on trial. DNA testing can identify an individual to an accuracy of one in several hundred trillion, which makes the accuracy incontestable in many cases. Every person has a unique encryption that can be used to make a positive identification. DNA traces can be found in almost every cell of the body including blood, saliva, semen, skin, and hair follicles. Crime scene investigators must handle traces that may contain DNA carefully so that it can be properly dried and stored in a protective container. DNA samples can be obtained from a toothbrush, a hair follicle left on the seat of a vehicle, or saliva from a bite wound, for example.

The Innocence Project

In 1992, The Innocence Project was created to help prisoners who may have been proven innocent if DNA testing had been employed during their original trials. According to their website, 254 people have been exonerated and of these, 17 were on death row. Furthermore, most of these individuals served 13 years on average in a corrections facility before being released. Because of the almost uncontested accuracy of DNA testing, potentially wrongful convictions are being resurrected by attorneys and lab students working for the Innocence Project. If you are interested in learning more, we recommend you check out their website:

Fingerprint Examiner

Fingerprint Examiner Job Description

Every crime lab must have someone trained to examine fingerprint evidence. A fingerprint specialist uses the evidence from crime scenes and scans it into a computer database where it is compared to other fingerprints from potential suspects already in the database. Fingerprint examiners also work at the crime scene performing the “lifting” of prints, photographing, and exposing them. Knowing the dynamics and procedures involved working with fingerprints requires a specialized knowledge of how the light and chemicals work when attempting to expose prints. You must also learn the procedures of protection of the prints and the best way to collect them depending on the surface they are found on.

Fingerprint Examiner Education Requirements – A Good Choice for Entry Level Work in Forensics

You may be wondering if there are jobs in forensics that have shorter education and training paths. Becoming a fingerprint examiner is one job in which many jurisdictions do not require a forensic science degree at the bachelor’s level. In fact, in some cases all that is required is an associates degree. It is recommended that you get your associates degree in criminal justice or law enforcement or tailor your course work to encompass criminal justice courses along with chemistry, biology, and some mathematics. Having this mix of education will make you a more competitive job candidate for a fingerprint examiner position.

Ballistics Expert – Forensic Firearms Examiner

Ballistics experts are specially trained to analyze bullets and weapons used at the scene of a crime. Ballistics experts can be instrumental in determining whether a situation was accidental, homicidal, or was a suicidal act. They are trained to determine the following:

  • Distance between the weapon and the victim
  • Angle of trajectory of bullet fire and entry
  • Bullet & shell casing analysis – determine type of weapon and specific model used
  • Matching bullets and shell casing from different crime scenes to determine if related
  • Gun Powder, gas (if applicable) and bullet fragment analysis
  • Use etching processes to restore serial numbers on weapons

Degree & Education Requirements to become a Ballistcs Expert

Forensic Science

Most ballistics experts are those who come from a law enforcement background and transition into becoming a ballistics expert. Getting a bachelors degree in criminal justice, or a forensic science degree with a concentration in forensic science, or criminology will provide the necessary educational framework for this job. Some come from an education in metallurgy or mechanical engineering and make the transition. You will need to understand the fundamentals of crime scene work, handling evidence, gun powders and residues, firearm assembly and disassembly, firearm identification, and be a general expert on firearms. Courses in geometry or physics can also be helpful when analyzing distances, impact, and angles.

Forensic Document Examiner

As a document examiner, you will analyze a variety of documents that are both handwritten and printed to determine their authenticity, age, and who may have signed, written, or altered them. You will examine altered checks, forged signatures, altered electronic printing, altered wills, and much more. You must have very sharp eye sight and have a knack for comparing documents or signatures that are valid with those that have been forged. Another aspect of this job is to determine the age and source of a variety of inks and paper types. Each of us develops our own writing style, grammar usage, and common phraseology when we write. Document examiners are able to pick up on these patterns and determine if similarities and differences exist. For example, you may be asked to analyze a ransom note. Do they dot their I’s and do they write in cursive or print? Do they slant, do they use profanity, logic, or emotion in their writing style?

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Degree & Education Requirements to become a Forensic Document Examiner

To become employed with most of the major law enforcement agencies you will need a bachelors degree, preferrably a bachelor’s program in criminal justice with a concentration in forensic science, in order to meet the requirements for employment. It is highly recommended that you seek out an apprenticeship, as most agencies want to hire individuals who have actual experience. Forensic document examiners are employed by many federal agencies such as the ATF, Secret Service, CIA, and the IRS, just to name a few. Local and state jurisdictions also employ document examiners. You may also want to get certified through the American Board of Forensic Document Examiners (ABFDE), which will make you a more competitive job candidate.

Forensic Accounting

Forensic accountants are financial detectives who delve into the accuracy and legitimacy of financial documents where individuals or a group of individuals inside a business operation (as in the Enron scandal) may be falsifying information. This could range from embezzlement, money laundering, concealing assets or debts, or any number of fraudulent maneuvers for self gain. If the idea of fighting white collar crime entices you and you have a knack for numbers, a career as a forensic accountant could be a great option. With new regulations surrounding due dilligence and internal auditing of financial statements, the demand for forensic accountants has spiked.

Degree & Education Requirements to become a Forensic Accountant

To become a forensic accountant you will need to complete a bachelors degree, preferably in accounting. You may complete a bachelors degree in criminal justice with a focus in forensic science or general criminal justice; however, you will need at least 24 credits towards accounting coursework. You will want to become a CPA and preferabbly, also a CFE, which stands for Certified Fraud Examiner. Many schools are now offering courses in forensic accounting specifically as new legislation has spurred the need for more individuals skilled in the internal audit process. Getting a masters degree will make you a stronger candidate for jobs and will generally provide you with larger compensation.

Forensic Anthropologist

As a forensic anthropologist, you will be working with the medical examiner and coroner to help make identification when human remains are found. Your goal is to estimate the sex, age, height, and race. The job is not for the faint at heart as it involves assistance in recovering human remains ane examining abnormalities in the skeleton or tissues for clues to the cause of death.

Degree & Education Requirements to become a forensic anthropologist

For those who are interested in biology and criminal justice, forensic anthropology could be a good career option. Forensic Anthropologists must obtain education at the graduate level and most have a PhD. For those who have received their bachelors degree in biology, chemistry, or anthropology and have been working in forensics, a next step in their career could be to obtain further education and work towards becoming a forensic anthropologist over time. Another option would be to work as an assistant to a forensic anthropologist and gain valuable experience while continuing your education. Expect to take courses in anthropology, history, biology, archeology, and forensics. You will want to get board certified which will require at least 3 years of experience in the field and a PhD.

Forensic Toxicologist

As a forensic toxicologist, you will work with the postmortem evaluations in search of the cause of death and whether the use of drugs or other substances were related to the cause of death. Toxicologists also are used to examine seized substances suspected to be illegal drugs to determine their actual chemical make up. When dealing with the deceased, they often perform either a presumptive or a confirmatory test. If an initial presumptive test comes up positive, that may indicate that further, more conclusive confirmatory tests should be completed. If friends and relatives indicated to investigators that the deceased had a drug problem, some more presumptive testing can be done. If a murder-rape victim had no signs of struggle, tests may be done to determine if a date rape drug was utilized.

What kinds of tests do toxicologists perform?

Color Testing

Color testing is when a chemical is added to blood, urine, or a substance being tested. If a specific color forms from the reaction, it confirms that a suspected chemical is in fact present.

Thin Layer Chromatogrphy (TLC)

This is a test that helps to identify a large number of potential chemicals present by measuring how far the substances travel through a gel-like material and then changes color. The length of the movement follows certain pre-determined standards which point to specific chemicals.

Gas Chromatography (GC)

This is a method used to separate substances into their known shapes, sizes and properties and can help point in the direction of a specific class of chemicals, but doesn’t go as far as pinpointing the exact make up of the compound.


This is a test that looks for antigen (chemical they’re looking for) and antibody (a chemical that reacts to specific types of chemicals they are looking for). Usually, an antibody is added to the substance being examined based on presumptive information in order to positively identify the substance in question

Ultraviolet Testing

This kind of testing uses predetermined characteristics of how light reflects off of compounds at different wavelenghts. Some compounds will absorb the light much more than others. This kind of testing can help to determine the amount of concentration found in the body.

Degree & Education Requirements to become a forensic toxicologist

You will need a bachelors degree in one of the major lab sciences such as chemistry, toxicology, and pharmacology. Some labs prefer those who have a graduate level education such as a masters or PhD. The good news is that you can often gain entry into the job with lower levels of education and then gain promotion and higher compensation with further education. Many labs have a three tiered system for categorizing toxicologists with those holding a bachelors degree in the lower end and those with graduate level education in the higher levels.

Forensic Pathology

If there is a position that could be said to be the highest level in forensics, a forensic pathologist probably fits that description. First, it should be very clear that the work of a forensic pathologist is only for those who can handle dealing with corpses and analyzing sometimes very disturbing situations; however, for those who can handle this line of work, it is highly rewarding and interesting work. In a nutshell, a forensic pathologists can serve as a coroner or medical examiner and is the one who declares the official cause and manner of death. Forensic pathologists perform autopsies, examine crime scenes, and supervise crime labs. They must be able work closely with law enforcement and direct a team of crime lab experts.

Degree & Education Requirements to become a forensic pathologist

The education path for a forensic pathologist is a long one, but can be completed over time while working in a coroner or medical examiners office gaining valuable experience. You must complete a bachelors degree, medical school, one year of residency, and then a pathology residency that can last up to four years. Many positions also require board certification in forensic or anatomic pathology.

Forensic Pathology Technician – for those who don’t want medical school

For those who are interested in this line of work, but don’t want to spend years in highly specialized education and residency, becoming a forensic pathology technician is a great option. As a technician, you will work with pathologists, assisting with autopsies, extracting tissues for further testing, and many other tasks such as photographing the body or areas of interest, removing bullets or foreign objects, and working with law enforcement.

Degree & Education Requirements to become a forensic pathology technician

For forensic pathology positions, an associates degree is recommended with a focus on any of the major laboratory sciences such as chemistry or biology. You will also need to look for opportunities to gain hands on experience in a medical laboratory environment through an internship or entry level positions.

Forensics Courses & Curriculum

The following list of courses is only meant to provide you with a general idea in terms of what to expect in a forensic science degree. You can learn more about an edcation in other forensics areas such as computer forensics, crime scence investigation, and forensic psychology on those pages within this resource It is important to remember that for those who are pursuing a more highly tailored niche in the forensics field, many more courses may be taken within that particular genre. For example, a DNA profiler would want to opt for many more courses in biology.

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The core courses are taken in order to provide the context that the science will be used in and in the service of. In general, a forensic science degree combines a small portion of criminal justice courses and a large portion of science related courses.

Criminology, Criminal Justice & Core Courses

  • Human Behavior & Abnormal Psychology
  • Criminal Behavior, Deviance, & Delinquency
  • The Court System
  • Principles of Law Enforcement
  • Research Methods in Criminology
  • Female Crime Patterns & Delinquency
  • Crime & Minority Groups
  • Statistics & Statistical Procedures
  • Philosophy – Logic & Critical Thinking

Chemistry & Biology Courses

*Courses taken chosen based on area of focus in forensics

  • Biochemistry for DNA
  • Trace Evidence Science (Physiology & Zoology
  • Genetics & Immunology
  • Botany & Microbiology
  • Textile Evaluation
  • Soil Science & Evaluation Methods


  • Anthropology Overview
  • Archaeology Fundamentals & Fieldwork
  • Underwater Archaeology

What if the science courses seem too challenging to me?

For many science and math courses seem intimidating. The rule of thumb here is to ask yourself if you would dread taking science courses or simply don’t find that aspect of forensics interesting. If this is the case, it is highly recommended that you look at another avenue within forensics or criminal justice that better matches your personality type and your interests. Forensic scientists thrive on analyzing evidence and data using highly developed methods of scientific analysis. If this doesn’t sound like your cup of tea, there are many other areas of study and avenues to take in criminal justice and forensics. For more information, check out our article on whether or not to pursue a forensics degree.

What other options are there that are similar, but with less of a science emphasis?

Are you good with technology? Perhaps a computer forensics degree would better suited for you. Are you more interested in the criminal mind and the psychological aspects of crime? An educational path leading towards a career in forensic psychology might be a better fit? Some would rather be in the thick of the crime scene rather than in a laboratory or clinical setting in which, a job as a crime scene investigator could be a better fit. Use this resource to explore the many options and find a career path and a degree that fits into your unique skills and interests.