Being a Student

I’m interested in studying this subject. What can you tell me?

This highly specialized field uses scientific methods and procedures to investigate crimes and inform decisions in legal cases. Professionals in this field try to figure out what happened and who was involved by examining physical and electronic clues. An education in this field will give you knowledge about analytical methods and the scientific principles behind them. Studying it can prepare you for a career in a crime laboratory or for a related career that involves criminal justice and law. For example, a police officer or private investigator might benefit from studying this specialized field. If you want to join this field, a degree on this subject is one way to get started. Another way to qualify for many related jobs is to earn a bachelors degree in a natural science like chemistry, biochemistry or biology. Many scientists begin with bachelors degrees in the natural sciences and go on to get masters degree, or more specialized degrees.

Let's hear some other perspectives

An Interview with Corey Scott

Corey Scott

Student, BS in Biology/Science Forensics,University of New Haven

“I chose to study this program because I have always wanted to get involved with the court system. I want to help people who have been affected by tragedy to move on by finding resolutions to their issues. This highly specialized program has allowed me to continue my education while keeping up with recent technology and helping people make peace through justice.”Read the Full Interview

An Interview with Don Oehlecker

Don Oehlecker

Student, Master of Forensic Nursing,University of Florida

“My advice for students who are interested in studying forensic science online is to speak with students who are currently enrolled and research all of your options.”Read the Full Interview

An Interview with Marilyn Miller

Marilyn Miller

Associate Professor of Forensic Science,Virginia Commonwealth University

“Studying this subject is not the dramatic process shown on TV programs like CSI. It actually requires a very firm foundation of scientific knowledge and practice.”Read the Full Interview


What exactly is this profession?

These professionals analyze and explain evidence to help resolve legal issues. Most investigate crimes by analyzing physical evidence, such as fingerprints, firearms and hair. Some work in the civil justice system, like handwriting experts who determine if the signature on a legal document is valid. They work mainly indoors, in laboratories where they analyze evidence, and in offices where they write reports. Some travel to crime scenes to collect evidence. They may also testify in a court of law to explain their findings.

Let's hear some other perspectives

An Interview with Victor Weedn

Victor Weedn

Assistant Medical Examiner,Office of the Chief Medical Examiner, Baltimore, MD

“Those who want to learn about this highly specialized field need to earn science degrees, not criminal justice degrees. Professionals need to be able to understand how to operate analytical instruments in a laboratory, not the principles of social science. A lot of forensic programs that are nested in criminal justice departments are not very high quality.”Read the Full Interview

An Interview with Tatiana Scott

Tatiana Scott

Forensic Scientist, Specialization in Toxicology,Based in New York

“I have always loved investigation, so what I enjoy most is the feeling of personal satisfaction that I get out of providing my expertise in a case. During the time that I worked in a lab, I also gained satisfaction from giving back something useful to the community.”Read the Full Interview

Making the Right Choice

Is there anything else I should consider in deciding if this is the right choice for me?

If you are interested in working in in this field, you will need a degree, but it does not have to be in forensic science. For many positions, you can become qualified by getting a bachelors or masters degree in the natural sciences, like chemistry or biology, with additional coursework or certifications. The requirements vary depending on what type of specialization you are interested in. Additional requirements may include becoming a sworn officer of the law or passing a background check.

Advanced Degrees and Specialized Degrees

Many get bachelors degrees in a related field such as chemistry, biochemistry or biology, and then go on to get masters degrees. In addition, some may require a specialized degree. For example, forensic pathology requires a medical degree, forensic odontology requires a dentistry degree and forensic engineering requires an engineering degree.

Officers of the Law

In some law-enforcement agencies, crime scene investigators (CSIs) and criminalists are sworn officers of the law. They may be police officers who have received additional training in evidence handling. In other agencies, CSIs and criminalists are civilians. If you are interested in working for a particular law-enforcement agency, contact that agency to find out its requirements for job applicants.

Background Checks

Even in positions where professionals are not sworn officers of the law, job applicants may be required to pass background checks similar to those required for law enforcement officers. A background check is a review of both confidential and public information to investigate a job applicant’s history. The employer may review:

• Drug tests
• History of drug use
• Criminal history
• Personal associations
• Polygraph examination (lie-detector test)
• Driving record
• Past work performance
• Credit history
• Medical or physical examination


What professions can I choose from?

A majority of students who pursue the degrees eventually continue their education in other related fields. Below is a listing not only of the professions you can pursue, but also of the ones you can pursue after obtaining supplemental education.

Education Required:

Bachelors (4 years)

Average Salary:


Work Environment:

Law-enforcement agencies, crime scenes, morgues, criminal courts

Job Description:

A crime scene investigator (CSI) documents, identifies and collects physical evidence at a crime scene. This includes taking photographs and notes and following protocols for packaging, securing and transporting evidence that is collected. A CSI may also assist a pathologist with collecting physical evidence from a body.

Education Required:

Bachelors (4 years)

Average Salary:


Work Environment:

Law-enforcement agencies, crime laboratories, criminal courts

Job Description:

Criminalists work in crime laboratories with the evidence that CSIs collect. They identify and analyze the evidence, write reports describing their findings and may testify in courts of law. Criminalists should not be confused with criminologists, who study the causes of crime. Criminalists may also be known as crime lab analysts and forensic science technicians.

Education Required:

Bachelors (4 years)

Average Salary:


Work Environment:

Law-enforcement agencies, crime laboratories, criminal courts

Job Description:

A crime lab analyst or examiner is a criminalist who specializes in a particular type of evidence or analysis. Some example job titles are firearms examiner, document examiner, latent print examiner, DNA specialist and forensic serologist. A forensic serologist identifies, analyzes and interprets samples of blood and other body fluids. They determine whether samples are from animals or humans, what the blood type is and what segment of the population the sample came from.

Education Required:

Bachelors in computer science or computer forensics (4 years)

Average Salary:


Work Environment:

Government agencies, crime laboratories, private consulting, city or state agencies, civil courts, criminal courts

Job Description:

Forensic computer examiners, also known as digital forensics examiners, evaluate computer evidence. They may determine what files have been deleted from a digital device, what Internet sites were visited by a computer or whether an audio or video recording is authentic.

Education Required:

Associates (2 years)

Average Salary:


Work Environment:

Law-enforcement agencies

Job Description:

Evidence technicians perform different tasks depending on the law-enforcement agency that they work for. Many are responsible for receiving, cataloging and storing evidence in a local facility. Evidence technicians package and ship evidence that must be sent to off-site laboratories.

Education Required:

Bachelors (4 years)

Average Salary:


Work Environment:

Corporate businesses, private consulting, home offices, law firms, surveillance locations

Job Description:

Private investigators find and connect clues to uncover information. They work for individuals, law firms or insurance companies. Some work is done by searching computer databases and making phone calls. Other work involves visiting the home or workplace of the subject of the investigation. They may protect celebrities and political figures, verify employment, perform surveillance and investigate computer crimes.

Education Required:

Doctorate in medicine (4 years of medical school, plus a 3 – 4 year residency and a 1 – 2 year fellowship)

Average Salary:


Work Environment:

Coroners’ offices, morgues, criminal courts

Job Description:

Forensic pathologists investigate how people died. This includes violent deaths, sudden deaths of apparently healthy people, deaths occurring in police custody, deaths that may be due to medical malpractice and suspicious or unusual deaths. Forensic pathologists examine bodies externally and perform autopsies to examine the internal organs. They write their findings in reports and testify in courts of law.

Education Required:

Doctorate in entomology (4 – 7 years of graduate school)

Average Salary:


Work Environment:

Government agencies, research laboratories, private consulting, city or state agencies, civil courts, criminal courts

Job Description:

Forensic entomologists apply the study of insects to criminal and legal issues. By examining insects found at crime scenes, forensic entomologists can figure out when an incident occurred or if poison and drugs were involved in a crime. A forensic entomologist can also estimate how long ago a person died and determine whether the body was moved after death.

Education Required:

Doctorate in anthropology (4 – 7 years of graduate school)

Average Salary:


Work Environment:

Government agencies, research laboratories, private consulting, city or state agencies, civil courts, criminal courts

Job Description:

Forensic anthropologists assist coroners’ offices and medical examiners’ offices in identifying bodies by examining the bones. They are often called in to help when someone has found a skeleton or a body that is badly burned or decomposed. Forensic anthropologists can tell whether skeletal remains are human, how old they are and other characteristics like race, sex, age and health status. Some forensic anthropologists can also model what the face of a person looked like, based only on a skull.

Education Required:

Doctorate in dental surgery or doctorate in dental medicine (4 years of dental school, plus continuing education which may include a 2-year fellowship)

Average Salary:


Work Environment:

Private consulting, city or state agencies, civil courts, criminal courts

Job Description:

Forensic odontologists use their expertise as dentists to identify human remains. Dental identification is particularly important after catastrophic events such as airplane crashes, fires, floods, earthquakes or terrorist attacks. Forensic odontologists also analyze bite marks on victims of violent crimes and analyze dental injury in cases of abuse or neglect.

Education Required:

Doctorate in medicinal chemistry, pharmacology or toxicology (4 – 7 years of graduate school, plus 1 additional year of training)

Average Salary:


Work Environment:

Crime laboratories, research laboratories

Job Description:

Forensic toxicologists identify and analyze evidence of drugs, alcohol and poisons. They may work with forensic pathologists to determine whether drugs or other chemicals caused or contributed to a person’s death. Forensic toxicologists may work with law-enforcement agencies to determine whether a suspect was legally intoxicated during a crime. Forensic toxicologists also work with laboratories to perform workplace drug testing.

Job Outlook

What is the job outlook?

As of 2008, there were 12,800 jobs in this field in the United States. Job growth is expected to be much faster than average for technicians in this field: the Bureau of Labor Statistics forecasts that jobs will increase by 20% by 2018. Approximately 30% of the jobs are with local and state governments. An additional 16% are with medical and diagnostic laboratories.
Profession Employment Projected Average Growth

Average Salary Growth 2006 - 2011

Profession 2006 2007 2008 2009 2010 2011

Salary By Percentile

Profession 10th 25th 50th 75th 90th

Education Requirements

How long would it take me to graduate?

Most positions within the field require a bachelors degree in life science or physical science. Bachelors degree programs take 4 years to complete.

If you are interested in more specialized positions, like becoming a forensic pathologist, forensic odontologist or forensic anthropologist, you will need to earn a PhD or MD. Doctorate programs take between 4 to 7 years of graduate school and sometimes include additional practical or clinical requirements. If your doctorate program requires students to hold a masters degree before they enter, expect to spend 8 to 10 years pursuing higher education before you begin your career.

Medical degrees usually take students 4 years to complete before they fulfill 3 to 8 years of internships, residencies and fellowships. If you are required to earn an MD in order to pursue your career, you will likely spend between 8 and 13 years in school.

In addition to degrees, you may also need to earn professional certification for some areas. For example, to work in a crime laboratory as a criminalist, you may need a Diplomate Certificate of Professional Competency in Criminalistics from the American Board of Criminalistics. The length of time to obtain a professional certification varies. For more information, contact the individual accredited board that offers certifications in each area.

Areas of Study

What can I expect to learn while pursuing this degree?

You will gain a strong background in natural sciences. Additional classes will build on basic science knowledge as you learn how to apply scientific principles to the collection and analysis of physical evidence.


Forensic Chemistry

Forensic chemistry is the study of using chemical tests to identify and analyze evidence. You will learn how to examine evidence left by arson and explosives and how to analyze fibers such as fragments of cloth left at a crime scene. You will also learn how to test people for intoxication by examining blood alcohol levels.

Forensic Biology

Forensic biology is the study of biological evidence such as body fluids collected from a crime scene, tissue samples collected from a body or hair samples collected from suspects. You will learn methods to analyze and confirm if a sample of blood matches other samples from a particular person. Classes will also include laboratory work to learn the procedures used to extract and analyze DNA.

Criminal Evidence

The study of criminal evidence covers how physical evidence is used in the criminal justice system. You will learn about legal considerations involving search and seizure, different kinds of evidence and rules governing what evidence can be used in a court of law. An important rule is chain of custody, a legal term meaning a record of the individuals who have had physical possession of a piece of evidence. The chain of custody must be maintained all through the process of collection, transportation, analysis and storage of evidence.

Crime Scene Investigation

Crime scene investigation is the study of recognizing, documenting and collecting physical evidence in a location where a crime has occurred. You will learn how to recognize and enhance physical evidence. It will be important to document your investigation in a case folder of notes, sketches and photographs, and to communicate your results with formal reports.

Courtroom Proceedings

The study of courtroom proceedings will introduce you to the environments where expert testimony can be given. In addition to a trial, they may also have to testify in a deposition or a grand jury proceeding. A deposition is an appearance under oath to answer questions from an attorney. In a grand jury proceeding, a jury decides whether a person accused of a crime will be formally charged with the crime. You will learn procedures and courtroom expectations that will prepare you for providing expert testimony.



As you progress through your courses, you will learn to document your work with notes, photographs and sketches. You will also have to write many reports explaining your technical work in a way that will be understandable to a non-scientist.

Public Speaking

Your classes in courtroom proceedings will prepare you for public speaking, since the work of a scientist in forensics includes giving expert testimony. You will need to explain what evidence was collected, how it was analyzed and stored and what the findings are. This must be done in a way that is clear to the judge or jury. It is important that they use impartial language to avoid even the appearance of bias in favor of 1 side in a legal case.

Laboratory Technique

Many of your classes  will include laboratory work. While working in the lab, you will learn basic protocols like sterile field technique, which is how scientists and technicians keep their labs and samples free from contamination. You will also learn how to use common equipment like fume hoods, microscopes and measuring devices.

Critical Thinking

Your classes  will build your skills in critical thinking. You will develop your understanding and use of logic to solve problems and suggest possible answers for scenarios and simulated crimes. You may have to resolve contradicting evidence and consider situations that might cause a test to give a false result.


Your study will involve group projects, mock crime scene investigations and mock trials. You will need to coordinate with other students to complete projects, just as a professional must coordinate with fellow scientists, law-enforcement officers, attorneys and staff of the coroner’s office.

Academic Degrees

What academic levels are available?

You can pursue associates, bachelors, masters and doctoral degrees. By itself, an associates degree is not enough to qualify you for most positions. An additional undergraduate or graduate certificate will be of some value, while a bachelors or masters degree will qualify you for most positions. Doctoral degrees will allow you to pursue researching positions or qualify you for more specialized positions.

Select the degree level you are interested in:

  • Certificate
  • Bachelor’s
  • Master’s
  • Doctorate


A certificate can be helpful for someone trying to get started, particularly if it supplements a basic education in science. Certificate programs are also useful to people already employed in forensics or a related field such as law enforcement, healthcare and public administration. Certificates are offered at both the undergraduate and graduate levels.

Several schools offer certificates, or in specific areas, like forensic accounting. Some types of certificate programs are listed below:

  • Forensic science certificates provide a general introduction to this field
  • Forensic chemistry certificates are designed for students getting a bachelors in chemistry, biochemistry or biology
  • Crime scene investigation certificates prepare students for crime scene investigator (CSI) positions
  • Crime scene technology certificates prepare students for crime scene technician positions
  • Crime and accident scene photography certificates prepare students for entry-level forensic photographer positions
  • Fingerprint classification and identification certificates teach skills for handling fingerprint evidence
  • Computer forensics certificates are designed for information technology professionals
  • Internet-based crime and identity theft certificates focus on crimes like child pornography and fraud
  • Forensic social services certificates are designed for social services professionals whose clients are in the corrections system

For a comprehensive  list of undergraduate and graduate programs, which includes undergraduate and graduate certificates.

Please note that undergraduate and graduate certificates offered by schools are different from professional certifications, which are offered by forensic specialty boards to professionals who are already practicing in the field.

What are the different types of certificates that I can earn?

Undergraduate Certificate 
Many undergraduate certificates are intended for students who are getting an associates degree or a bachelors degree at the same time, as a supplement to the main degree program. Some undergraduate certificates are open to anyone with an interest.

Graduate Certificate
A graduate certificate is useful for someone with a bachelors degree in a natural science who would like to start a career. Some graduate certificates are also useful to professionals already employed and who need additional skills.

How long will I have to study to earn my certificate?

Undergraduate Certificates

There is a lot of variation in undergraduate certificates. Some certificate programs are specific to undergraduates pursuing a degree at a particular school, and are meant to be completed at the same time that students study in their associates or bachelors degree programs. These certificates can be completed during a 2-year associates program or a 4-year bachelors program.

Other certificates are open to anyone with experience or interest in it and are sometimes offered by the continuing education college of a university. These certificates often take 1 year to complete.

Graduate Certificates

A typical graduate certificate program takes 1 year or 18 credit hours to complete.

What types of courses will I take while studying for my certificate?

Undergraduate Certificates

To earn your undergraduate certificate, you may need to complete some basic science courses in chemistry and biology. You will also be required to complete courses in subjects including criminalistics, basic forensic analysis and trace evidence. Additional courses may cover specific types of work, such as fingerprint analysis or crime scene photography, depending on the focus of your certificate program.

Graduate Certificates

Graduate certificate programs require that you already have a background in natural science. A general certificate will involve courses in criminalistics, basic forensic analysis and trace evidence. Additional courses may cover advanced criminalistics or forensic computing, depending on the focus of your certificate program.

What types of jobs can I hope to secure with a certificate?

Undergraduate Certificates

With an undergraduate certificate alone, you will not qualify for most jobs. You might be able to work as a junior technician in a law-enforcement or government agency that is large enough to need a specialist. However, if the certificate is part of or in addition to a bachelors degree in a field of science such as chemistry or computer science, a certificate could make you a more competitive candidate for many positions.

Graduate Certificates

A graduate certificate is a good way to gain some specialized knowledge after you have already earned a bachelors degree. Depending on the focus of the certificate and your bachelors degree, you could become a crime scene investigator, a criminalist or a forensic computer examiner.

What about getting an online certificate?

Undergraduate Certificates

As of 2012, there are no online undergraduate certificates. However, this could change. For an up-to-date catalogue of programs, see the  AAFS list of online certificates.

Graduate Certificates

Pursuing a graduate certificate online is not recommended. The main drawback to studying online is that you will not have the opportunity to conduct laboratory work, which is a major component. However, if you have gained practical experience by taking science classes during your bachelors degree or while working in the field, enrolling in an online program might be a good option if programs at brick-and-mortar schools are not offered in your area.

Bachelors Degree

Though bachelors degree programs are offered at many schools, many professionals do not hold bachelors degrees in the field. Instead, it is common to earn a bachelors degree in the natural sciences, like chemistry or biology, and gain specialized training by enrolling in a masters degree program. The advantage of earning a bachelors degree in  is that these degree programs have been developed in response to the demands of employers for qualified job applicants. Therefore, you may have an easier time finding a job in the field after earning a bachelors degree.

What are the different types of bachelors degrees that I can earn?

Bachelor of Science in Forensic Science BS

A BS degree provides a foundational education. It will prepare students for a variety positions within the field.

Bachelor of Science with a concentration in Forensic Science BS

A BS degree in chemistry, biochemistry, biology or genetic engineering with a concentration in this field is an option for students who attend a school that does not offer a bachelors program in forensic science.

Bachelor of Science in Forensic Chemistry BS

A BS degree in forensic chemistry includes specialized courses on the chemical analysis of physical evidence. This degree is a good option for students who would like to work in crime laboratories.

How long will I have to study to earn my bachelors degree?

A bachelors degree in a related field typically takes 4 years to complete, or 120 credit hours.

What types of courses will I take while studying for my bachelors degree?

To earn your bachelors degree, you will take introductory science courses in chemistry and biology in addition to advanced science courses. You will also be required to complete courses such as criminalistics, basic forensic analysis, trace evidence, criminal justice and report writing. Some programs offer tracks in physics and anthropology, which include courses in crime scene reconstruction and skeletal remains identification. Your bachelors program will also include general education courses in mathematics, English, history and social sciences.

If you pursue a bachelors degree in a natural science with a concentration, expect to take many of the same courses that you would in a bachelors program. Coursework will vary between these 2 options only in the number of courses that you will be able to take if you earn a degree in a natural science. And if you pursue a bachelors degree in forensic chemistry, you will take classes such as criminal justice, biology, pharmacology and multiple advanced chemistry classes as well as general education classes.

What types of jobs can I hope to secure with a bachelors degree?

A bachelors degree in will qualify you for many jobs, including crime scene investigator, criminalist, crime lab examiner and private investigator. A degree focusing in chemistry is particularly good preparation for jobs that require you to analyze trace evidence such as fibers and fragments of glass. A degree in biology, biochemistry or genetic engineering will qualify you to work as a DNA analyst or forensic serologist. If you have professional experience or additional education in information technology, a bachelors degree will also qualify you for a job as a forensic computing examiner.

What should I consider when deciding on a school to earn my bachelors degree?

If you are thinking about earning a bachelors degree , you should look for a school with a program accredited by the FEPAC. As of 2012, there are 17 accredited bachelors degree programs in the U.S. If the only programs near you are not accredited, FEPAC’s list of Frequently Asked Questions suggests that you compare the curriculum with the course requirements of a FEPAC accredited program. According to FEPAC, many good programs have not yet applied for accreditation, so unaccredited programs may still be a good option.

What about getting an online bachelors degree?

As of 2012, there are no online bachelors degree programs. Because the curricula contain many hours of laboratory work, it would not be possible to complete a bachelors degree online. However, online bachelors degrees are offered in related subjects, such as criminal justice.

It might be possible in the future for a school to offer a hybrid online bachelors degree program. A hybrid program would allow students to complete lecture-based classes online and take laboratory-based classes in a brick-and-mortar facility. To check current offerings of online bachelors degrees and related online degree programs, see the AAFS list of online undergraduate degree programs.

Masters Degree

Masters degrees are useful to people who have a basic science education and are seeking entry into a career. Professionals who are seeking continuing education or advancement also pursue masters degrees in the field. Some programs are specific to a type of job, while others are broader and may appeal to people in related professions, such as law enforcement.

What are the different types of masters degrees that I can earn?

Master of Science in Forensic Science MS

The MS degree provides a general graduate-level education.

Master of Science in Criminalistics MS

The MS degree in criminalistics prepares students to analyze and evaluate physical evidence. The curriculum is laboratory-based.

Master of Science in Forensic Biology MS

The MS degree in forensic biology may also be known as an MS in forensic genetics. This degree prepares students for jobs as DNA analysts in crime laboratories.

Master of Science in Biomedical Forensic Sciences MS

The MS degree prepares students for jobs as DNA analysts, chemists, death investigators and crime scene investigators.

How long will I have to study to earn my masters degree?

Masters degree programs require 35 to 48 credit hours to complete. They can be completed in 2 years by students who are enrolled full time.

What types of courses will I take while studying for my masters degree?

As a masters student, criminalistics, forensic biology or biomedical, you will most likely choose an area of interest, and choose electives and a research project or thesis related to this area of interest. Some common courses offered in masters degree programs are crime scene reconstruction, trace evidence analysis, forensic serology and DNA analysis, forensic microscopy, forensic toxicology and courtroom and legal issues.

Most masters degrees i require a thesis. Others offer a non-thesis option, particularly for part-time students who are taking classes in the evening while holding a full time job. Pursuing a thesis is recommended if you are interested in continuing into a PhD program or would like to hold a position in the field that involves research.

What types of jobs can I hope to secure with a masters degree?

A masters degree qualifies you for most jobs, including working as a crime scene investigator (CSI), crime scene supervisor, criminalist, crime lab analyst and crime lab supervisor. If you are applying to positions in government agencies, having a masters degree may give you an advantage over candidates with bachelors degrees.

What should I consider when deciding on a school to earn my masters degree ?

If you plan to pursue a masters degree, you should look for a program accredited by the  FEPAC. As of 2012, FEPAC has accredited 17 masters degree programs in the U.S. If you are not able to attend an accredited program, FEPAC suggests comparing the curriculum with the course requirements of a FEPAC accredited program.

Some masters programs are associated with laboratories or agencies. This association can provide excellent resources to the students, such as state-of-the-art equipment and faculty who are working in the field professionally.

What are the requirements for admission to a masters degree program?

Applicants for masters degrees in must have completed bachelors degrees. The bachelors degree would have to meet this qualification, but so would a bachelors degree in chemistry, biology or biochemistry.

What about getting an online masters degree?

In deciding whether to pursue an online masters degree, consider that you will not be able to learn laboratory techniques and practices in person. In general, this means that getting your masters degree online is not be a good idea.

However law enforcement professionals who are working in remote areas might want to consider online schools. The staff of a law enforcement agency may need additional education, but may be unable to leave their jobs to attend a brick-and-mortar school. For these professionals, some education is better than none, and an online program will supplement their experience on the job.


At the doctorate level, there are 3 types of degrees available: Doctor of Philosophy (PhD), Doctor of Medicine (MD) and Doctor of Dental Surgery (DDS), which is sometimes called Doctor of Dental Medicine (DMD). These 3 degrees are very different, and which 1 you choose depends on what specialty you want to pursue.

What are the different types of doctorates that I can earn?

Doctor of Philosophy PhD

PhD programs are available in forensic chemistry, forensic biochemistry and forensic plant pathology. In addition, many PhD programs in other science areas can be completed with research and coursework. This degree program is a good choice for those who plan on conducting research or teaching. It is also ideal for those who choose to work in certain specialized areas, such as forensic anthropology or forensic entomology.

Doctor of Medicine MD

MD programs train students to work as medical doctors in a variety of capacities. Unlike the PhD which is a research degree, an MD is a professional degree. It is a good option for students who are interested in pursuing careers as pathologists or medical examiners, who help to determine causes of death.

Doctor of Dental Surgery or Doctor of Dental Medicine DDS or DMD

DDS and DMD programs are oriented to dental practice. Like the MD degree, DDS and DMDs are professional degrees. These programs are ideal for those who are interested in working as forensic odontologists.

How long will I have to study to earn my doctorate?

Doctoral programs vary in length. An MD or DDS program takes 4 years to complete, plus an addition 3 to 8 years of medical residencies and fellowships. A PhD program generally takes 4 years or more, requiring a range of 60 to 72 credit hours to complete. The amount of time required depends on the research project you choose and your educational background. Biological research projects can take multiple years due to the life cycle of organisms and the amount of time it takes to conduct experiments.

What types of courses will I take while studying for my doctorate?

A PhD is a research-oriented degree, so you can look forward to specialized courses and individualized study that involves conducting original studies and experiments. However, most programs have some courses required of all PhD students, such as criminalistics, toxicology, spectroscopy, serology and genetic marker identification.

While studying for your MD, you can expect a fixed curriculum for the first 2 years, which will include classes in anatomy, biochemistry, physiology, pharmacology, psychology, microbiology, pathology, medical ethics and laws governing medicine. The last 2 years are spent working with patients in clinical rotations, where medical students spend a few weeks working in each medical specialty.

In a DDS program, the curriculum consists of classroom and laboratory work in anatomy, microbiology, biochemistry and physiology for the first 2 years. The last 2 years are spent working with patients in dental clinics.

What types of jobs can I hope to secure with a doctorate?

With a PhD you might become a consultant in forensic entomology or forensic anthropology, or an expert on a particular type of chemical or biological analysis. You might also teach classes at a college or university.

If you earn an MD, you could become a pathologist or medical examiner, most likely working in a coroner’s office. With a DDS, you could become a forensic odontologist.

What should I consider when deciding on a school to earn my doctorate?

When you are choosing a graduate school you may want to consider what, if any, agencies are associated with the program, and how much access you will have to laboratory equipment. Some graduate programs are offered by a school in partnership with a laboratory or agency. This can mean that the curriculum has been designed by practicing professionals at laboratories and agencies, and they may even teach some classes.

In addition, some graduate programs that receive more funding, are more established or are associated with certain agencies may also allow students to have access to special state-of-the-art facilities. Since education involves learning the latest equipment and analytical methods, it is important to make sure that you will have access to top-notch laboratory facilities.

If you are considering applying to an MD program, you should look for a school accredited by the Liason Committee on Medical Education (LCME). In order to become licensed as a medical practitioner, all states require professionals to graduate from an accredited medical school.

For a DDS or DMD program, you should look for a school accredited by the American Dental Association’s (ADA’s) Commission on Dental Accreditation. In most states, graduation from an accredited school is a requirement to become licensed as a dentist and in some cases, as a forensic odontologist.

What are the requirements for admission to a doctorate program?

Applicants to doctorate programs must have completed bachelors degrees or masters degrees or a relevant natural science. For example, a PhD program in forensic entomology would require a bachelors degree or masters degree in a biological science, such as biology, chemistry or biochemistry.

Admission to medical school is highly competitive. Applicants must complete at least 3 years of undergraduate coursework, though most applicants have bachelors degrees. Undergraduate coursework must include premedical courses in physics, biology, mathematics, English and chemistry. Applicants must take the Medical College Admission Test (MCAT) before they can gain admission to medical school.

Admission to dental school is also competitive. Some schools require student to have earned a bachelors degree, while others require students to complete 2 to 3 years of college-level predental classes in biology, chemistry, physics, health and mathematics. All applicants are required to take the Dental Admissions Test (DAT).

What about getting an online doctorate?

There are no schools that offer online doctorates. PhD programs are research-based degrees, and you could not complete a PhD online due to the need for access to laboratories and other research facilities. Medical and dental programs require both laboratory classes and clinical experience with patients, so an online program for an MD or DDS is also not possible. If you are interested in pursuing a PhD online, and attending a brick-and-mortar school is not an option, you might be able to find an online PhD program in a related subject such as criminal justice.

Licensing Information

What else should I keep in mind when considering studying this highly specialized field?

Specialized Degrees

To hold certain jobs in the field, a particular degree may be required. The following list contains several specialties and their degree requirements.

  • Forensic pathologists have Doctor of Medicine (MD) degrees
  • Forensic odontologists have Doctor of Dental Surgery (DDS) degrees
  • Forensic engineers have Bachelor of Science or Master of Science in Engineering degrees
  • Forensic entomologists have Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) in Entomology degrees
  • Forensic anthropologists have Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) in Anthropology degrees
  • Forensic toxicologists have Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) in Toxicology degrees
  • Forensic chemists have Bachelor of Science, Master of Science or Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) in Chemistry degrees
  • Forensic computer examiners have Bachelor of Science, Master of Science or Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) in Computer Science degrees
  • Forensic DNA specialists have Bachelor of Science, Master of Science or Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) in Biology degrees

Professional Certifications

Many  who are employed by laboratories and agencies receive professional certification from a forensic specialty board. In some areas, professional certification is a requirement to advance into a supervisory role or maintain employment. Professional certifications typically require a certain number of years in professional practice, continuing education hours and an exam. If you are interested in pursuing a particular career i make sure to research the continuing education and certification requirements that you may need to earn after completing your degree program.

The Forensic Specialties Accreditation Board oversees the accrediting boards for various specialties within. They have accredited the following agencies who meet standards for certifying forensic scientists:

Licensing for Forensic Computer Examiners

Aside from jobs that involve the medical knowledge and training, the vast majority of jobs do not require professionals to earn a license in order to begin a career. However, 1 exception is forensic computer examiners. In some states, forensic computer examiners are required to become licensed as private investigators (PIs). If you are interested in becoming a forensic computer examiner, you should contact the professional licensing board in the state where you would like to work.


What are some other resources that can help me learn more about pursuing a degree or certificate?

Occupational Information Network (O*NET OnLine)

Bureau of Labor Statistics

American Academy of Forensic Sciences

American Board of Criminalistics

International Association of Computer Investigative Specialists

High Technology Crime Investigation Association

International Society of Forensic Computer Examiners

American Society of Forensic Odontology

American Board of Forensic Anthropology

American Society of Questioned Examiners

Society of Forensic Toxicology

Forensic Specialties Accreditation Board