Online Degrees in Crime Scene Forensics

Forensic scientists who work crime scenes are trained experts. They compile and examine evidence to help law enforcement agencies determine the perpetrator of a crime. Crime scene forensic scientists and technicians usually fall into two main categories: those who collect, identify and analyze evidence used in criminal investigations, and those who work as expert witnesses in legal hearings.

Many specialize in one area, such as DNA gathering and analysis or analyzing discharges from firearms, reports the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Others perform tests on hair, soil, tissue and bodily fluids to help establish relevance to a particular crime scene.

Crime scene technicians combine forensic science and criminal justice training to collect and analyze evidence from a crime scene, and must work with precision and care in the potentially stressful and chaotic context of a crime scene. An online criminal justice degree in the field trains students in the latest methods and technology used to conduct a crime scene investigation. Courses typically include evidence collection, crime scene response, research methodology, CSI technology, and more. Associate degree programs also offer a broad background in biology, chemistry, and criminal justice.

Most jobs in crime scene forensics require a minimum of a bachelor's degree in forensic science or its equivalent, the BLS reports. Coursework in crime scene forensics often includes many of the following topics:

  • Crime scene overview
  • Crime scene photography
  • Evidence collection
  • Fingerprinting
  • Blood-stain pattern recognition
  • Processing the crime scene

Many forensic scientists who provide expert testimony have earned at least a master's degree or Ph.D., the BLS reports. Some employers may require certification from specialty organizations, such as the International Association for Identification; the Association of Firearms and Toolmark Examiners; or the National Association of Forensic Engineers. These certifications can lead to work in forensics with specialties in engineering, nursing, chemistry, economics or other related fields.

Some colleges are taking innovative approaches to teaching crime scene forensics. Professor Ann Burgess of Boston College developed a virtual game designed to teach students applied forensic science. The game recreates crime scenes and conditions to help students develop the skills necessary to work in the field. During play, students photograph crime scenes, collect evidence, examine virtual blood spatters and weapons, as well as analyze emergency calls, psychological examinations and police interrogations.

Many programs that focus on online degrees in crime scene forensics use a combination of online lectures, chat rooms, podcasts and virtual active-learning environments, reports academic publisher IGI Global of Hershey, Penn. These virtual models of crime scenes provide distance-learning students with a laboratory where they can shape the tools necessary for real-life forensic investigation.

In 2010, there were 12,390 crime scene technicians employed in the U.S. with a median annual salary of $51,570, the BLS reports. The top 10 percent of forensic scientists earned more than $82,990 per year. Ninety percent of all crime scene technicians worked for local and state governments.

People working in crime scene forensics should be extremely analytical and detail-oriented, as their findings and proper documentation often carry great significance in the courtroom. They must also be self-possessed under oath and able to provide relevant written and oral testimony, regarding their findings.

Crime scene forensics at a glance:

  • Salary: Median annual wage of $51,570 in 2010
  • Educational tools: Virtual crime scene laboratories mimic real-life crime scenes
  • Career options: DNA, handwriting and document analysis; firearms specialties; and more
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