What Degree Do You Need for a Forensic Science Career?

A degree in an associated field can be helpful

There's a lot of interest in forensic science careers and rightly so. With so many potential specialties to choose from, opportunities to find stimulating, well-paying work abound, no matter what your interest. And these careers are not likely to evaporate anytime soon. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) anticipates that employment in this sector will grow 17 percent from 2016 through 2026.

But majoring in forensic science in college might not be enough to land you a job. In fact, many current forensic scientists and academics recommend staying away from the generic forensic science degree—at least for your undergraduate studies. This won't preclude you from working in the field, but it can give you additional options. 

Forensic Science Degrees—An Overview

Majoring in forensics can serve a purpose but this can be far more beneficial at the graduate level or as a double major. These majors typically include a broad range of courses that focus on the sciences. And don't overlook the value of elective courses that are associated with your area of interest. Some writing courses might also be beneficial because written communications skills can be important. 

Most forensic science positions require at least a bachelor's degree, but the degree can be in virtually any one of the sciences. Focus on the natural or social sciences. The specific program of study you'll pursue will depend on the type of career you aspire to.

You might also begin a career in crime scene investigation with a two-year associate degree and at least get your foot in the door. The value of on-the-job experience can't be overrated, although promotion to some lead or supervisory positions might require as much as a master's degree in forensic science. 

Forensic science technicians with at least a bachelor's degree earned a median salary of $57,850 in 2017, according to the BLS. And remember, this is the median. Half of all licensed technicians earn more than this. 

Some careers require a master's degree or doctorate in a field such as psychology, and some states require additional certifications for many forensic science positions. These certifications can vary by field and specialization. 

Chemistry Degrees

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A more specific degree than forensic science will allow you to find a job in your field of study if the forensics job market does dry up for some reason or if you decide it's not for you after all. 

A bachelor's degree in chemistry will prepare you for a job as a forensic laboratory analyst or a toxicologist. You'll be able to help police and investigators identify drugs and alcohol in blood samples, analyze drug evidence, and find trace blood evidence. But first you must understand chemicals and how they combine and break down.

Some colleges and universities offer courses specifically in evidence analysis and forensic chemistry. You might consider taking these as electives. 

Chemistry studies can also prepare you for a career as an arson investigator earning a mean annual wage of $59,260 as of 2017 with a range of about $34,000 to $95,000, according to the BLS. 

If you have difficulty finding a job in forensics or want to look elsewhere for a career, plenty of private corporations and labs need chemists to support research and conduct testing. You can maximize your employment potential by taking courses in biology as well.

Biology Degrees

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A lot of cases that end up in a forensics lab are related to crimes against persons. A biology degree can prepare you for careers such as a DNA analyst or a fingerprint examiner. Understating biology will give you the foundation you'll need to help detectives and investigators find answers in a number of crimes. 

A biology degree doesn't limit you to forensics, so your job prospects can be greatly expanded by a double major in forensic science. You'll still be able to find work in a medical-related field or at a research institution. Combined with studies in chemistry, you'll be a very well-rounded candidate for nearly any job requiring laboratory analysis.

Physics Degrees

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Learning about the laws of physics and how those laws affect objects is a vital component of a career such as a forensic ballistics expert.

A degree in physics provides the foundation necessary to identify the trajectory of bullets and other projectiles. Combined with a minor in biology, it will also prepare you for work as a bloodstain pattern analyst. Physics is also a crucial component of forensic engineering careers.

The mean annual salary for a physicist with a doctorate was $117,220 in 2017, according to the BLS, and the anticipated job outlook is greater than average.  

Engineering Degrees

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Forensic engineers specialize in a range of areas, including traffic crash reconstruction, electrical system failures, and structural and mechanical failures, such as bridge collapses. The specific type of engineering degree you pursue will determine the type of forensic work you can perform. 

Studying civil engineering will prepare you to investigate structural failures. Electrical engineering knowledge will allow you to reconstruct failures such as electrical fires and other related hazards. Traffic engineering and mechanical engineering can set you up for work as a traffic crash reconstructionist.

Outside of forensics, engineers have among the highest paying careers right out of college, so you could do worse than an engineering degree.

Psychology Degrees

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Forensic psychology covers a wide range of careers, from jury consultant to prison psychologist. All of them have one thing in common: You'll need an advanced degree in psychology. Forensic psychology careers typically require internships and residencies as well.

Take courses in criminal justice for a background. You'll generally work as a clinical or research psychologist first and perform forensics work on the side or on a contract basis. Don't expect to find a job listing specifically for "forensic psychologist."

Should you decide to practice in a field other than forensics, you can expect median pay of about $77,000 a year, according to the BLS. 

Anthropology Degrees

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Studying physical anthropology allows you to find work in forensic anthropology. Forensic anthropologists are called upon to study human remains both in the field and in the lab. They can often identify the sex, height, weight, and age of decomposed corpses. They can identify how long a person has been dead and how he might have died. 

The volume of forensic work is relatively low, so chances are you won't work full time in forensics. Instead, expect to earn an advanced degree to work in a university or research institution and perform some side work in forensics.

Median pay in anthropology is $62,280 annually. The job outlook for this type of degree is somewhat lower than average, according to the BLS.

Entomology Degrees

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Entomology is the study of insects. As with anthropology, the volume of forensics work is slight, but entomologists have special expertise that can provide valuable help to detectives and investigators when they're trying to determine crucial information about murder cases.

By studying the type of insects in an area, forensic entomologists can discover whether a body had been disposed of or stored in a particular location, or how long it's been since the victim died. 

A degree in entomology will allow you to obtain a research or teaching position, and you can hone your expertise to provide consulting work in forensics on the side. As with anthropology and psychology, you'll most likely need an advanced degree, such as a doctorate.

Medical Degrees

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It requires a lot of work, but the best things in life often do. Medical examiners and pathologists are among the highest paid careers in criminology and criminal justice and with good reason.

These individuals provide vital information about complex criminal cases such as deaths, diseases, and poisoning. They can be called upon to aid in the investigation of potential chemical or biological terrorist attacks. 

A medical degree specializing in pathology will take a lot of time and effort, but it will well prepare you for a fascinating job in an important forensic field. The training will require knowledge of both biology and chemistry during your undergraduate studies, as well as completion of medical school. Osteopaths generally do not qualify without additional schooling and licensing. 

Salaries vary widely by specialty but average about $205,000 annually. 

Dentistry or Odontology Degrees

A military odontologist examining broken jaw pieces
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Forensic odontologists can help investigators identify victims of crimes by comparing dental records when victims are otherwise unrecognizable. The job requires a full dentistry degree.

Like forensic anthropologists and psychologists, these professionals typically work as private-practice dentists or dental surgeons. They perform forensic work on an as-needed basis. Although the volume of forensic work is low, the salary is worth the extra work and expense of the education, and employment is all but guaranteed.

Dentists earn a median pay of more than $158,000 across all specialties as of 2017. 

Preparing for Work in Forensics

Regardless of the degree you choose, it's important that you take some courses in criminology, criminal justice, and if offered, in forensics. This education will get you acquainted with the criminal justice system and its processes.

But you'll be a better candidate for jobs that are more in tune with your specific areas of interest and your expertise if you focus your studies in one or two specific areas. You'll have valuable knowledge and skills that will extend your potential for employment beyond forensics and criminology, which will broaden your career prospects and choices.