Forensic Science

What is Forensics?

Forensics is the application of science to legal matters. A forensic scientist evaluates physical evidence to help in a variety of legal issues, especially relating to crime. So, what you see forensic scientists doing on shows like Bones, NCIS, and CSI, are exaggerated but is what forensic scientists do. Many of these shows actually have forensic scientists assist the show with accuracy in the portrayal of the crimes they are “solving.” Forensic scientists draw from many areas of science, including biology, chemistry, and physics. Forensic science also involves anthropology, math, technology, and many other things.

Forensics goes beyond legal matters and into many other fields, including archeology and geology. Other fields include: forensic pathology, forensic meteorology, forensic engineering, forensic linguistics, forensic psychology, wildlife forensics, digital forensics, and many other areas.

While there are many career options relating to forensic science a few of the most common, and commonly known, careers include: medical examiner, crime laboratory analyst, crime scene examiner and forensic engineer. While all of these careers have similarities, they do require different skills, levels of training, require different kinds of work, and provide different levels of pay.

Majors for Forensics

            While some schools do offer direct forensic science bachelor’s degrees, it is not very common. These programs are more common as graduate programs in many schools. However, there are other major one can take if interested in a career in forensics. Some schools have criminal justice programs which can be combined with science, and under many anthropology programs is a separate major or emphasis in physical or forensic anthropology, which is a good pathway into a career in forensics. Many schools also offer related minors to enhance one’s education. For instance, Sacramento State has a major in Criminal Justice, with a forensic investigation minor.

Because many schools have graduate programs in forensics, students under applicable majors, such as anthropology, have opportunities to work in research labs with graduate students and professors, which can provide excellent hands-on experience and opportunities for working and learning. Other schools even provide opportunities to work with police departments and other criminal departments, which could also be a great gateway to future employment or connections to help further one’s career.

Many UC and CSUs offer programs relating to forensics. Criminal justice programs are offered at San Jose State, CSU Chico, CSU Fullerton, CSU Long Beach, San Diego State University, San Francisco State University, UC Irvine, CSU Los Angeles, among other schools. Many offer an emphasis in forensics, or other scientific fields.

Anthropology is offered at the majority of schools; however the content of the programs and availability of programs relating to forensics differs from school to school. Some schools offer forensic anthropology, like CSU Chico. UC Santa Barbara offers an anthropology degree with an emphasis in biology, which is related. However, even if schools don’t offer physical or forensic anthropology degrees, they may still have good programs for those interested in forensics. For instance, UC Santa Cruz has an excellent lab and is well known for its forensics research.

San Jose State Forensics Program


            San Jose State University offers a Forensics Science major with a concentration in Biology. Because it is a bachelor’s of science degree, there are multiple prerequisites relating to math and science. For this major, the prerequisites are:

  • Chemistry: 7 Courses including Chemistry, Organic Chemistry, Quantitative Analysis, and Biochemistry
  • Math: 1 Course in Calculus and 1 in Statistics
  • Physics: 2 courses
  • Biology: 4 course
  • Required Core Forensic Courses:
    1. Crime Scene Investigation
    2. Forensic Science Applications
    3. Forensic Molecular Biology
    4. Writing Workshop
  • Elective Forensic Courses: 4 courses required. Topics of courses include philosophy, anthropology, forensics, justice studies, philosophy, and biology
  • Senior Seminar: 1 course

The forensic classes encompass a variety of interesting topics, and hands-on learning enhances the classroom experience. The electives include topics such as: Fingerprint Science, Crime Scene and Evidence Photography, Forensic Biometrics, and Fluorescent Applications in Molecular Biology and Forensic Science. As the San Jose Forensics program is connected to the Justice Studies program, students can also take Justice Studies classes for electives, which include: Forensic Entomology, Criminal Evidence and Procedure, Human Rights and Justice, among other classes.

UC Santa Barbara Anthropology

As many schools offer programs related to, but not explicitly named forensics or criminal justice, it is valuable to look at anthropology programs. The program at UC Santa Barbara offers an emphasis in Biology, perfect for a student interested in forensics. While there are other recommended courses, the requirements are:

  • 5 lower division anthropology courses
  • 10 upper-division courses- there are various requirements within this, that relate to the biology emphasis

Anthropology is much more related to social sciences, and the program is a bachelor’s of arts degree. However when doing the biological emphasis, course topics include ecology, environmental issues, psychology, and other topics. Courses include: Population Genetics, Recombinant DNA Methods, Human Physiology, Evolution and Cognition, among many other classes.

After Graduation

           As stated above, there are a variety of career options relating to forensics, and the amount of training and education depends on the job. For example, a medical examiner requires a medical degree, which will take much more work and many more years of school. The job may be more competitive and difficult as well, although it will pay much more than other careers, and a medical examiner will hold more authority than other positions, and many have staff, people to assist them in their work. There are also a variety of jobs within this, including a forensic odontologist, which focuses on dentistry.
There are many other jobs relating to forensics, with a variety of responsibilities and levels of pay and education requirements. Some of the activities of a forensic anthropologist may include:

  • Going to crime scenes and properly collecting relevant evidence, being sure to not damage or tamper it
  • Interpreting evidence from fingerprints, ballistics, handwriting, medical records, tissue samples, and other forms of evidence
  • Testifying in court as an expert witness
  • Cataloging evidence, and keeping track of the process of research and testing to ensure validity in court
  • Evaluating what may have happened at a crime scene by reconstructing the scene with evidence and what is known
  • Testing and analyzing evidence from tissue samples, chemical substances, physical materials, among other forms

More Information

            There are many sources to look into for more information on careers and major programs relating to forensics and related topics. You can directly look at school websites, and read into the different majors they have, as multiple majors can lead to a career on forensics. College Board also provides valuable information on these careers and majors, and has pages on forensics, criminal justice, and anthropology.