Back to School: An Education on Advanced Degree Programs in Forensic Science

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.


Interviews Written and Condensed by Carol Bingham, Promega



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 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 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.



Read more about support options offered to non-traditional students, resources where you can learn more about the mentioned programs, pre-requisites required, and more in the full interview in November’s issue of The ISHI Report.


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