What Degree Do You Need for a Forensic Science Career?

There's a lot of interest in forensic science careers, and rightly so. With so many potential ​specialties within forensics, there's plenty of opportunities to find stimulating, well-paying work no matter what your interest. Majoring in forensic science in college probably won't be enough to land a job, though. In fact, many current forensic scientists and academics recommend staying away from the generic forensic science degree altogether, at least for your undergraduate studies. Instead, you need to learn exactly what degrees you need to work in forensic science.

Before you explore these degrees, let's be clear about forensics majors. They serve a purpose, but their benefit is far greater at the graduate level, as a double major or even a minor. In forensic science, the science comes first and the forensics second. 

Whatever degree you get, you need to focus on the natural or social sciences. The specific program of study you'll want to pursue will depend on the type of career you hope to work in. As a practical benefit, a more specific degree will allow you to find a job in your field of study in other venues if the forensics job market dries up or you decide it's not for you.

Chemistry

Scientist pipetting samples into eppendorf tubes
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A degree in chemistry will prepare you for a job as a forensic laboratory analyst or toxicologist. By understanding chemicals and how they combine and break down, you'll be able to help police and investigators identify drugs and alcohol in blood samples, analyze drug evidence and find foreign or mysterious substances from samples provided. You'll also be called to find trace blood evidence and other body fluids. Chemistry studies can also prepare you for a career as an arson investigator.

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

Biology

Ensuring her findings are as accurate as possible
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 A lot of cases that end up in a forensics lab are related to person crimes. 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 won't limit you to forensics, either, so your job prospects will be greatly expanded over a simple degree in forensic science. You'll also 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

Ultra-high speed photo of bullet fired out of a S&W revolver photographed with an air-gap flash
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Learning about the laws of physics and how they affect objects in the world is the vital component of careers like that of a forensic ballistics expert. A degree in physics will provide 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.

Engineering

This nylon broken fuel pipe caused a serious accident when diesel fuel poured out from a van onto the road. A following car skidded and the driver was seriously injured when she collided with an oncoming lorry.
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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 will determine the type of forensics work you may perform. 

For example, studying civil engineering will prepare you to investigate structural failures. Electrical engineering will allow you to reconstruct failures such as electrical fires and other related hazards, and traffic engineering and mechanical engineering can set you up for work as a traffic crash reconstructionist. Outside of forensics, engineers are among the highest paying careers right out of college, so you could definitely do worse than an engineering degree.

Psychology

Man talking with therapist in therapy
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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, though: you need a degree in psychology. 

In most cases, forensic psychology careers will require an advanced degree, and you should definitely take courses in criminal justice for a background. Typically, you'll work as a clinical or research psychologist first, and perform forensics work on the side or on a contractual basis, so don't expect to find a job listing specifically for "forensic psychologist."

Anthropology

Forensic Anthropology Lab at the National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Institute, Washington D.C.
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Studying physical anthropology will allow you to find work in the field of forensic anthropology. Forensic anthropologists are called 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, and can help identify how long a person has been dead and how they may have died. 

The volume of forensics 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.

Entomology

Male scientist examining insects in test tube at laboratory
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Entomology is the study of insects. Like anthropology, the volume of forensics work is slight. However, entomologists have special expertise that can provide valuable help to detectives and investigators when trying to determine crucial information about murder cases. By studying the type of insects in an area, forensic entomologists can discover whether or not a body had been disposed of or stored in a particular location, or how long a corpse has been dead. 

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. Like anthropology and psychology, you will most likely need to earn an advanced degree, preferably a doctorate.

Medicine

Crime scene
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It's a lot of work, but then nothing in life is free. Medical examiners and pathologists are among the highest paid careers in criminology and criminal justice with good reason. They provide vital information about complex criminal cases such as deaths, diseases, and poisoning and may 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 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.

Dentistry or Odontology

Cmdr. Kevin Torske, U.S. Navy, a senior forensic odontologist, catalogs the dental remains of a possible service member at the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command headquarters at Hickam Air Force Base, Hawaii, on Sept. 21, 2006.
Cpl. James P. Johnson, U.S. Army/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

Forensic odontologists can help investigators identify victims of crime who are otherwise unrecognizable by comparing dental records. The job requires a full dentistry degree, and like forensic anthropologists and psychologists, they typically work as private practice dentists or dental surgeons, performing forensic work on an as-needed basis.  Though 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.

Preparing for Work in Forensics

Regardless of the degree you choose, it will be important for you to take some courses in criminology, criminal justice and, if offered, forensics in order to get you acquainted with the criminal justice system and processes. By focusing your studies in one or two specific areas, you'll be a better candidate for jobs that are more in tune with your specific areas of interest and expertise. Plus, you'll have valuable knowledge and skills that will extend your employability beyond forensics and criminology, which will broaden your career prospects and choices.