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Forensic science degrees are growing program areas within criminal justice. All degree levels are available and there are specialties within forensic science, particularly within computer forensics or digital forensics.
In the simplest terms, forensic science involves the application of scientific principles to identify evidence and analyze it for the purposes of solving a crime. Forensic science draws on a wide range of the physical sciences, including chemistry, biology, and physics, as well as some of the social sciences, such as psychology and anthropology.
What Exactly Is Forensics?
By its simplest definition, forensics refers to the application of scientific techniques and principles to the law. The term “forensic” is derived from the Latin word forensis, which means public or pertaining to a forum. While forensics has only recently become a high-profile field, the practice of forensic principles actually dates back to ancient times. For instance, it’s believed that the first recorded autopsy was performed sometime around 44 BC, following the death of Julius Caesar.
Thanks to the popularity of television shows such as CSI and Bones, more people than ever are becoming interested in pursuing a career in forensic science. While these and other shows offer an inside look at criminal investigation, they don’t provide a complete definition of what forensic science really is.
Types of Forensic Science Degree Specialties
Forensic scientists use their knowledge and skills to work in a variety of specialty areas. Forensic pathologists, for example, are responsible for examining human remains to establish an individual’s identity, find the cause of death, and determine whether or not the death was the result of a criminal act. In cases where identifying the body is difficult because of the condition of the remains, a forensic anthropologist or odontologist may be called in to offer their expertise. Forensic toxicologists examine blood and tissue samples to detect the presence of drugs or other chemicals while forensic technicians may scour a crime scene to collect blood, hair, DNA, fibers, fingerprints, and other evidence. Forensic scientists work in crime labs, medical examiner’s offices, morgues, colleges, universities, and hospitals.
Computer Forensics Degree
Anybody working in computer forensics has a similar job to other forensic specialist but the main difference is that they focus on digital evidence instead of physical evidence. Working in computer forensics will require you to use investigative tactics with different digital devices to find pieces of evidence that will be used in actual court. So you will need to know the investigative tactics to find that evidence and also know how to put it into the correct format for court presentation.
Computer Forensics Education Requirements
You will need to know the procedures involved around computer forensics. For example, a common practice is to download the piece of digital evidence into a copy and then investigate that evidence within the copy.
As with many government jobs, you could be subject to a background check and could be denied employment if you have an arrest record. From an education perspective, the expectations will vary on the hiring agency/company on the level of degree that might be required.
Outside of information technology based four year degrees, there are also different certification programs available too. You will just need to make sure that those certification programs will suffice the requirements of the agency you hare applying to. There are also other agencies that will accept a private investigator license combined with a solid work experience background.
What Does a Computer Forensics Specialist Do?
As a computer forensics specialist, you can also expect to present your findings in a courtroom setting. So you will not only need the digital and technology expertise but solid communication skills to convey those findings to the concerning parties.
As technology continues to change, so will your educational background. You might want to pursue different certifications with digital forensic toolkits which can help increase your knowledge around computer forensics while helping build your expertise portfolio. These tools can perform what are standard forensic activities (and things you will need to understand) like:
- Imaging a Drive: This is the practice of taking all of the contents of a drive and putting them into a single file on another drive.
- Cell Phone Data Extraction: The practice of being able to extract any applicable information from a cell phone.
- Deleted File Recovery: The tool should be able to recover any of the desired and applicable deleted files .
Not every tool operates the same way which is why before you purchase, train, or become certified with that tool you understand it has capabilities. The National Institute of Standards and Technology have put together a handbook that actually have tested several different tools and how they perform some of those core functions we just mentioned. It could be a requirement that you understand how to use these tools both in the beginning or later on in your computer forensics career.
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.
Sometimes the human body can tell investigators more about a crime than the people involved. Forensic toxicology is an interesting branch of forensics that involves chemistry, biology, and laboratory analysis as a means for finding answers.
Drug testing, search for poisonous materials, and sample analysis are just a few of the many factors that can be present within everyday work in this field. Upcoming professionals that have an investigative mindset and wish to mesh careers in science and the justice system may find this career field to be exactly what they are looking for.
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.
During investigations, any information that is pertinent to identifying a suspect or victim can be valuable. Forensic Odontology deals directly with using dental knowledge to gain information that is relevant to an investigation.
Most professionals in this field are licensed dentists that wish to further their knowledge into the field of forensics, but there are sub-fields that do not require any previous dental experience.
Those interested in this field may have the opportunity to learn more about how dental science can be an effective way of identifying a person’s identity when all other options are unavailable.
Similar to computer forensics, digital forensics is a branch of forensic science that uses investigative techniques to gather stored data from digital devices. This branch can include cell phones, digital storage devices, computers, and other technological items used by individuals.
In the event that a crime has been committed, digital forensic specialists step in to review items on storage devices, analyze computer search history, emails, and even money transfers to gather information needed to prosecute or defend people involved. If you have an interest in computer technology and want to use your knowledge and skills to help provide justice, this is a area of expertise to become involved.
Computer Forensics Career Outlook
As we do with all of our other career profiles, we like to make sure that our users understand both the current condition with computer forensics and also the future one as well. We pulled ONET statistics for Information Security Analysts which could slightly vary from computer forensics but is likely the most related from the available selections within ONET.
The estimated growth is high but we always encourage people to find what their state breakdown is as that can vary greatly by location.
Forensics Tech Daily Activities
The daily activities could vary greatly depending on what is needed that day and also the type of employment you have. Some digital forensic specialists operate as independent business owners which can make their daily activities vary greatly. Some general daily activities can include (but are not limited to):
- Working on the desktop computer and extracting data
- Moving whatever forensic findings into a presentable fashion for court
- Providing an expert analysis to a courtroom of the digital findings
- Data storage and backing up or copying files
This is only a micro of what could be required of you. If you are working for the FBI, you could be doing any one of these things multiple times throughout the day if you have multiple cases. The pace will be fast and likely require you to multi-task between those different cases.
Becoming a Forensic Scientist
The type of education you’ll need to begin a career as a forensic scientist generally depends on which specialty area you’re interested in. According to the American Academy of Forensic Sciences, it’s best to begin with at least a four-year degree in one of the social or physical sciences. More advanced positions will require additional education. For example, a career in forensic anthropology may mean earning a master’s or doctoral degree. Forensic pathologists will need to earn a Doctor of Medicine (MD) degree while forensic odontologists need to complete their DDS or Doctor of Dental Science. Depending on which career path you choose, it could take anywhere from four to twelve years to complete your education and training.