Over the past decade, television shows such as “CSI,” “Bones,” and “Criminal Minds” have generated a significant amount of interest in criminal investigations, particularly with regard to the forensic aspects of how crimes are solved. These shows offer a unique, albeit slightly glamorized, look at the different phases of the investigation process, from the collection of evidence to determining the cause of death. While these and similar programs focus primarily on the physical and psychological science behind crime-solving, they don’t always reflect the reality of what forensic work involves.
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Forensic Science Today
Today, forensics encompasses a wide range of disciplines within the criminal justice system. Forensics has become synonymous with forensic science and there are numerous subdivisions that fall under this broad umbrella. Criminal forensic specialists may work in a number of different settings, including scientific laboratories, hospitals, correctional facilities, state and federal law enforcement agencies, and other government organizations. You can view all forensic science degrees here, view featured forensic science programs below, or read on for some of the more popular career paths in the forensic sciences.
Featured Forensic Science Degrees
Below are some featured schools with online forensics or related programs that are currently accepting applications. Simply click the checkboxes next the programs you are most interested in and enter some simple information to get in contact with them.
Find Criminal Justice and Forensic Science Programs in Your State:
Forensic Science Specialties
Forensic psychology is essentially where the field of psychology meets the law. The most popular image associated with forensic psychologists is that of the criminal profiler, tracking down terrorists or bonding with serial killers like Clarice Starling in Silence of the Lambs. In reality, forensic psychologists work within the criminal justice system to assess the mental health of individuals who have been charged with a crime. They may be asked to determine if a suspect is competent to stand trial or make recommendations regarding an offender’s sentencing or treatment. Forensic psychologists regularly interact with attorneys and judges, and they’re frequently called on to offer expert testimony in civil and criminal proceedings.
When a death occurs, it may be up to the forensic pathologist to determine how and why the victim died. Pathologists are charged with performing autopsies and using their findings to pinpoint the cause and manner of death. Autopsies may be performed in cases where foul play is suspected or when the death is unusual or sudden. In addition to performing an autopsy, a forensic pathologist may also travel outside the lab to inspect the crime scene. Forensic pathologists typically work closely with other forensic science specialists, such as forensic odontologists, who use dental records to identify human remains, or forensic toxicologists, who analyze blood and tissue samples to detect the presence of drugs, alcohol, or other chemicals.
In cases where human remains are severely decomposed, the help of a forensic anthropologist may be necessary. Forensic anthropology primarily focuses on the study of the human skeleton to find clues regarding the individual’s identity, determine the cause of death, and/or uncover evidence of a crime. Forensic anthropologists may use tools such as facial reconstruction software as part of their investigation.
Crime scene investigation is all about documenting the scene of the crime. It is the job of the crime scene investigator to carefully comb the crime scene taking photos, looking for hairs, blood, fibers, fingerprints, bullet fragments, and other pieces of evidence that might point to a suspect or help to formulate a theory of what events took place. Crime scene investigators are generally police officers and may have little to no scientific training. Once the crime scene investigators document the scene and collect useful evidence, it is taken to the lab to be analyzed by another party.
Criminalistics refers to the scientific analysis of evidence collected from the crime scene. Criminalists analyze physical evidence in the crime lab, including hairs, fibers, gunshot residue, arson accelerants, and body fluids such as blood or saliva (for DNA testing). Criminalists have strong science backgrounds, usually in chemistry, biology, or related subjects. They must be familiar with a broad array of instrumentation and scientific techniques, and be able to present and explain complicated scientific evidence to a jury.
Forensic nursing is an emerging field in forensic sciences that acts as a bridge between the medical profession and the criminal justice system. Forensic nurses are frequently called on to assist in investigations involving the victims or perpetrators of sexual abuse, domestic assault, child abuse, or other types of trauma. They’re responsible for collecting blood and hair samples, DNA, and other evidence. They may also be asked to provide testimony at a criminal trial or consult with law enforcement to assist in an investigation.
Conclusion on Forensics
Forensic science is more than just what you see on television. There may be dozens of people who are involved in a criminal investigation and there’s a significant need for individuals with specialized skills and training. With so many sub-disciplines to choose from, the field of forensic science offers a virtually limitless number of career paths to students who are interested in the mechanics of crime-solving.
American Academy of Forensic Sciences: Choosing a Career
American Board of Forensic Anthropology: What is Forensic Anthropology?
National Institute of Justice: Forensic Pathology
National Institute of Justice: Forensic Sciences
Forensic Science Online Degrees
U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics: Forensic Science Technicians
American Psychological Association: Specialty Guidelines for Forensic Psychology
International Association of Forensic Nurses: What is Forensic Nursing?
Investigation Discovery: History of Forensics