Back to School
An Education on Advanced Degree Programs in Forensic Science
Interviews Written and Condensed by Carol Bingham, Promega
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If you are reading this publication you are likely already in the field of forensic science or considering this as a career choice. Congratulations- you have chosen an occupation with both stability and growth potential. In fact, a 2018 Bureau of Labor Statistics report estimates that between 2018 and 2028, there will be a 14 percent increase in open positions for forensic science technicians.
The popularity of CSI and related television programs has catapulted forensic science into the public consciousness and has enticed many young people to consider careers in this discipline. The field is well suited to those with an aptitude for science and eye for detail. There are now scores of schools offering programs for those who want to pursue a forensic science career.
The first step for most aspiring forensic scientists is obtaining a Bachelor of Science degree from a four-year university. However, to move into leadership positions at many agencies, advanced training or degrees are required. We’ve polled several institutions that offer advanced degrees in forensic science to learn about their programs. Respondents included Duquesne University, Marshall University, Penn State University and Virginia Commonwealth University. Note- these institutions represent only a portion of the schools that offer advanced degrees in forensics.
For this article we interviewed:
- Dr. Pamela Marshall, Director/Associate Professor, Forensic Science and Law Program, Duquesne University
- Dr. Catherine G. Rushton, Assistant Professor, Director, Forensic Science Graduate Program Marshall University
- Dr. Reena Roy, Associate Teaching Professor Penn State University
- Dr. Sarah Seashols-Williams, Assistant Professor & Graduate Program Director, Virginia Commonwealth University
Can you briefly describe the programs/degrees related to forensic science that are offered at your institution?
Pamela: Duquesne University offers a Master of Science in Forensic Science and Law. This five-year program of rigorous study is open to graduating high school seniors who have demonstrated an interest in the sciences and their application to the civil and criminal justice systems. The program curriculum allows students to take course work toward earning a Bachelor's degree in Biochemistry or Biology at the end of their 4th year of study and a Master’s degree at the end of their 5th year.
Catherine: The FEPAC-accredited Forensic Science Master's Program provides a broad-based graduate level curriculum in forensic science. In addition to the core curriculum, the Marshall University Forensic Science Program offers four areas of emphasis: Crime Scene Investigation, Digital Forensics, DNA Analysis, and Forensic Chemistry. While one area of emphasis is required, students may complete up to four areas of emphasis. Our program is unique in that it encourages a variety of specialties. Students are also required to complete an internship at a host forensic science laboratory. While at their internship, the student will complete an independent research project. The internship provides students with a chance to broaden their knowledge base.
Reena: Penn State offers both Bachelor and Master degrees in Professional Science (MPS)
Sarah: Virginia Commonwealth University has FEPAC-accredited programs at the B.S. and M.S. level - at the undergraduate level, students can choose to concentrate in forensic biology, forensic chemistry, or physical evidence. At the graduate level, students can concentrate in forensic biology, forensic chemistry with emphasis in drug analysis & toxicology, forensic chemistry with emphasis in trace evidence, or physical evidence. We also have several PhD students studying with the forensic science faculty through an Interdisciplinary program at VCU.
What makes your school/program a good choice for people looking to get an advanced degree in forensic science?
Pamela: The Forensic Science and Law Master Degree Program is fully accredited by the Forensic Science Education Programs Accreditation Commission, which is sponsored by the American Academy of Forensic Sciences. Duquesne University's program is one of an elite group of forensic programs nationwide to be accredited at the master's level. Duquesne’s FSL program has been accredited since 2009 and is accredited through 2024.
Catherine: Our program offers students a broad-based core curriculum and provides depth of knowledge by encouraging students to complete more than one area of emphasis. Most students complete two or three areas of emphasis within the two years. Students are required to complete an independent research project while at a host forensic science laboratory which allows the student to observe a laboratory in addition to ours. Many of our students receive job offers from the agency hosting their internship and research.
With the increasing introduction of scientific evidence into court testimony and the demand for standardized educational programs, Marshall University’s Forensic Science Program satisfies federal and state standards and guidelines to enable its graduates to enter this fascinating field well equipped to respond to future challenges.
Reena: Our school offers amazing state of the art instruments with research opportunities for both graduate and undergraduate students. We have hands-on laboratory modules and a great faculty. Penn State is a major university with many opportunities for collaborations and two major crime scene houses. We have a holistic program providing great student advisers and mentoring by each instructor along with dedicated faculty and staff.
Sarah: All of our degree programs are science-focused, with extensive hands-on experience on the same techniques and instrumentation used currently in crime laboratories. We place a strong focus on experiential learning and research opportunities. Our undergraduate students regularly go on to work in the forensic field, or on to graduate and/or professional school. Our graduate students have a 96% placement rate within 6 months of graduation. Some MS alumni have also gone on to PhD work, with recent alumni matriculating at UVA, Johns Hopkins University, and elsewhere.
“Decide where you see yourself in the future – an MS will get you in a lab, a PhD will be critical for work as a research scientist, management or director positions.”
What attributes distinguish your program from other schools offering degrees in forensic science?
Pamela: Duquesne's Master of Science in Forensic Science and Law is the nation's only entry-level program combining science and law answering a critical need for skilled professionals in the exciting, yet challenging field of forensics. The program's faculty includes professors from both the Bayer School of Natural and Environmental Sciences and Duquesne University's prestigious Law School, making it the only one of its kind in the nation.
Catherine: In addition to our curriculum allowing students to complete multiple areas of emphasis, the Forensic Science Center provides students with the opportunity to participate in the inner workings of an ISO 17025 accredited Forensic Science laboratory that includes DNA casework, CODIS data basing, parentage testing, and digital forensics.
Reena: I don’t know what other programs offer, but I do know that the students who go on to jobs after graduating from our program are very well prepared. Students who go on to MD, JD or Ph.D. or industry positions get great reviews from their mentors.
Sarah: While we have one of the larger programs at both the graduate and undergraduate level, we still retain high placement rates for our graduating students. This is primarily because we invest in state-of-the-art equipment and faculty with both research and casework experience, the combination of which can produce critical thinkers and highly qualified employees for the crime laboratory.
What prerequisites are recommended for incoming students?
Pamela: Admittance to the program is based on students having an SAT score of 1100 or higher on the combined Math and Reading Sections, with at least a 550 score on the Math Portion.
For the ACT examination a score of 25 is desired for admittance into the Program. Any SAT or ACT score falling below is individually reviewed for acceptance on an individual basis by the Director and Academic Advisor of the Forensic Science and Law Program along with the Admissions Representative
Catherine: Applicants are required to have one academic year of biology, chemistry, organic chemistry, and physics, both lecture and laboratory.It is recommended applicants complete an undergraduate course in biochemistry, but it is not required for admission into the program.
Reena: Interested students should review our website. It is elaborate and of course requirements are different for each degree and type of degree
Sarah: We recommend a strong math and science base in high school for the entering undergraduate, and a degree in the sciences for the entering Master's student, including Organic and Biochemistry, Biology, and other courses specific to their chosen concentration.
What does a typical student look like? For example: are they returning students, students taking the next step after earning a BS?
Pamela: Admittance to DU’s Master of Forensic Science and Law is for students who have just graduated high school or who transfer with a small number of credits.
Catherine: A typical student in Marshall University’s Forensic Science Graduate Program has a Bachelor’s degree in a natural science such as biology or chemistry.They achieved an overall undergraduate grade point average of 3.0 or better.
Reena: We have high school degree students enrolling in the B.S program and BS degree holders coming for the Masters Professional Science degree.
Sarah: Most of our students are new to the forensic field at both the undergraduate and graduate level, though we do have some BS and MS students returning to school to specialize further in their field.
What do students do after graduating from your program?
Pamela: Graduates of the Master's program in Forensic Science and Law have found exciting careers with the FBI, the ATF, the Treasury Department, the Armed Forces, as well as employment with federal, state, and local governments and forensic and toxicology laboratories. Approximately 15% of our graduates go on to law and medical school as well as PhD programs
Catherine: Most of our students find employment at federal and state forensic science laboratories across the United States.Some of our students pursue additional graduate degrees such as Ph.D., M.D., or J.D.
Reena: Many of our graduates work in crime labs, some work in private and professional labs, others pursue higher degrees, go into doctorate, medicine and law and other professional degrees. Some go into industry, some do public service and then go back to school or onto jobs.
Sarah: The majority go into the forensic field, but some go on to graduate or professional degrees.
What advice would you give someone considering pursuing an advanced degree in forensic science?
Pamela: The pursuit of higher education and a terminal degree in forensic science will set you up for success in your career and future goals. Decide where you see yourself in the future – an MS will get you in a lab, a PhD will be critical for work as a research scientist, management or director positions. Never stop learning – stay curious as the field of forensics is constantly evolving and you have to keep up with the technology. Embrace change. Stay passionate, and compassionate. Believe that you can make a difference.
Catherine: Take time to visit the programs your are interested in whether in-person or by phone. Talk with the professors to see if the style of curriculum and course work align with your learning style. Do you prefer flexibility within the curriculum to allow you to study topics of interest to you? Then a more structured curriculum may not be the best program for you.
Be open to opportunities you encounter. Although it may not have been the original direction you were headed; the new opportunity my open a new world to explore that will lead to an exciting career. Graduate school should be a safe space for you to explore forensics, make a mess, and learn from your “failures”. We learn as much (sometimes more) from our “failures” than we do from our successes. The struggle to try to figure things out (such a more challenging class assignment) affords us the greater learning experience.
Reena: Our program is difficult, with hard core science. It is nothing like what you may had in your previous institution.
Sarah: Choose a program that has a strong scientific background, and then builds on that base for the forensic application.
Are there resources that you could recommend to students trying to decide on the best program to fit their needs?
Pamela: I would advise students to do research and make campus visits to find the best fit for their career path. There are a number of MS programs accredited by FEPAC and those schools are listed on the FEPAC website.
Catherine: The FEPAC website lists accredited forensic science degree programs. Review those programs’ websites paying attention to what courses are required for completion of the degree. Do those required courses interest you? Contact the programs you are interested in to schedule a tour or phone interview.
AAFS is a great resource for students considering forensic science as a career.
Reena: Go to our website and see the curriculum.We are very selective and take only about 10 students for the MPS program.
Sarah: Prospective students should review the list of FEPAC accredited schools, and then visit those programs' websites to identify which programs have the concentrations and faculty that will best help move them towards their chosen career goals.
What attributes make for a successful student in your program?
Pamela: Students who perform well in our program are ethical and of high integrity, passionate about forensic science, curious, dedicated to advancing the field of forensic science knowledge, organized, have the ability to multitask, are a team-player, and pay attention to detail.
Catherine: Successful students in our program exhibit excellent time management skills. Because students are completing coursework for multiple areas of emphasis, they must be able to manage their time well in order to complete the numerous requirements and study for various exams. Additionally, students should be flexible. Just as in a casework laboratory, equipment may require unscheduled maintenance, which requires changes in course schedule or order of material. These become teaching moments on troubleshooting and problem solving.
Our program takes every opportunity inside and outside the classroom to assist our students in learning “soft skills”. Activities such as student evaluations provide the students with an opportunity to practice for the future possibility of conducting employee evaluations as a technical leader. Or participating in group projects allows students the opportunity to practice future collaboration with colleagues.
Reena: The successful student will have an ability to work hard, come with an attitude of respect and desire for learning.Attitude goes a long way.
Sarah: A successful student in our program is willing to learn, collaborative and able to ask for help and/or clarification when they don't understand concepts.
“Graduate school should be a safe space for you to explore forensics, make a mess, and learn from your “failures”. We learn as much (sometimes more) from our “failures” than we do from our successes."
What kinds of support/flexibility does your program offer for non-traditional student?
Pamela: Although students generally complete the Master of Science in Forensic Science degree in two years, it is not required.The student’s academic advisor will work with a student to plan coursework to fit their schedule.
Reena: Penn State does not take non-traditional students; only those who are majoring in forensic science. We accept only full-time students both in the BS and MPS programs. All applicants must meet the requirements for entering including GRE.
Sarah: There are several University resources dedicated to facilitating the success of veteran students, minorities, and students with disabilities or challenges.
How can prospective students find out more about your institution?
Reena: I recommend that students come for a visit and tour before you make up your mind. Sit in classes, talk to the current students. Talk to the adviser and staff.
Sarah: Prospective students can visit us on the web and email the Undergraduate or Graduate program directors if they have any questions