The 10 best forensic science graduate programs in the United States

The Rankings

Picking a school is tough, especially with everybody jumping on the CSI bandwagon and the variety of accreditations out there. Who's to say which ones are the best? Well, us, actually. After much deliberation, we present to you the Top 10 Forensic Science Schools in America.

One thing to be aware of: this list is the highest ranked forensic science graduate schools in America -- that is, programs that grant post-graduate masters in forensic science. The masters is the so-called terminal degree in the field, meaning there is no doctorate, professional or otherwise, in forensic science. Forensic practitioners with Ph.D.s hold these degrees typically in related fields, such as biology, pharmacology or chemistry.

If you're interested in reading more about undergraduate programs, we've also compiled our rankings of the 10 best forensic science undergraduate college programs in America, as well as the 10 best forensic psychology programs in America. We're also wading through the immense volume of online forensics degree and certificate programs in forensic science, separating the wheat from the chaff. You can find our ranking of the top 10 online forensic science degree programs here as well.

Reading through each forensic school will give you a sense of the differences you might find among the schools, the different types of curricula, the forensic lab resources available, and the various strengths and weaknesses of each program. There are wide variances in everything from tuition to enrollment size to geographic access to forensic internships. Only when you see the different options out there can you make an informed choice about where you'll spend a good two years of your life earning your forensics degree. It's time well spent.

And so, dear reader, we present to you America's top 10 forensic science graduate degree programs.

First up, number 10...

#10 Oklahoma State University

Tulsa, Oklahoma

A tendency these days among colleges and graduate schools is to move instruction online -- lectures, quizes, discussion groups and tests. One graduate forensics program to do this more than most is Oklahoma State University in Tulsa, our number 10 pick for the top forensics graduate programs in America. Whether or not you see this as a benefit or a drawback really depends on your views on online education, your predilection for sleeping in, and your geographical location. After all, if the choice is between an online-heavy degree and no degree at all, we think most would log on to class any day.

While most of Oklahoma's 29 hours of core courses are completely internet-based, you will, sometime after the second semester, be required to come to the Tulsa campus for two or three semesters. You'll spend that time taking the ten hours of electives that round out the 39 hours required for graduation. Not only that, but you've got to be present to actually do the research that's the basis of your research project. Oklahoma requires both a research project and a comprehensive exam to graduate.

One thing we really like about Oklahoma's program is that they offer both a traditional MS master of science in forensics with a focus on research, but also options in forensic science administration and forensic document examination. So if you're inclined to be a lab manager, or specialize in the examination of questioned documents, Oklahoma will let you refine your studies toward these pursuits. All in all, Oklahoma offers a fine, accredited forensics graduate program with enough oomph in the right fields to get you going in pretty much any lab in the United States.

And the 9th forensic science graduate program in the United States is...

#9 Penn State

University Park, Pennsylvania

Our number 9 pick of the best forensics graduate programs in America is The Pennsylvania State University's Professional Science Masters. Unique among its peers, Penn State grants a Master of Professional Studies (MPS) in Forensic Science, a slightly different take on the traditional M.S. degrees you see offered at other schools.

One thing you'll notice that jumps out about Penn's program is the admissions requirements: no GRE score is required. That's right -- no nail-biting, Saturday-ruining exam. Instead, your admissions chances will rise or fall on the strengths of your college GPA (which must be at least a 3.0) and a couple of essays. There's the standard "personal statement," but also an off-the-wall one-page statement on your understanding of the word "ethics." Seriously. Toss in a couple recommendations for good measure, and possibly a faculty interview, and you have the sum total of your application package.

One thing we liked about Penn's program is the variety of elective courses, the likes of which you won't find at many other programs. For example, you can take interest courses in skeletal and molecular forensic anthropology, forensic entomology, and even forensic nursing. However, you will have to have a bachelor's degree in biology, chemistry, or a closely related field to enroll. This is, after all, a science masters. If your background is more in the liberal arts, you might be better off looking toward other programs with more of a criminal justice bend.

Coming in at number 8 is...

#8 Sam Houston State University

Huntsville, Texas

One of the newest accredited forensic science grad programs in the country is number 8 on our list, Sam Houston State University in Huntsville, Texas.

Like most things in Texas, Sam Houston's forensics program does things big. How big? Let's say 44 whopping semester hours of work big, packed into a two-year program alongside a 10-week summer internship. That's 14 hours more than some other programs require for the same degree. But it makes sense when you consider that the program is located smack-dab in the middle of the school's new Chemistry and Forensic Science Building, an $18 million doosey of a facility that offers pretty much everything you could ever want in a lab. So really, you'd be crazy to leave Sam Houston with anything less than 44 hours of the kind of courses that are available to you.

Perhaps our favorite aspect of Sam Houston, though, is the strength of the school's criminal justice program, widely regarded as one of the finest in the United States. The sheer proximity of students studying law enforcement, under the long and faithful support of the state's Texas Department of Criminal Justice, means that your science education will not lose its tether to the criminal justice system, as can happen in lesser graduate programs. At Sam Houston, you'll never really lose sight of the fact that you're studying an applied science, relevant only to the extent to which it can help convict the guilty and exonerate the innocent.

The 7th best forensic science graduate program in America is...

#7 Virginia Commonwealth University

Richmond, Virginia

When you're looking at where you'll spend at least two years of your life studying forensic science -- "the application of science to the law," as every forensics website feels obliged to point out -- it never hurts to spend those two years a quick jaunt from Washington, D.C., the center of much of the field's governing laws. Oh, and did we mention that DC is where most of of the jobs and internships are? Do not downplay the significance of this when you consider where you're going to study. An internship with Federal Agency X is probably the single best item for your resume when you're applying for a job at Federal Agency X. Trust us on this one. VCU's proximity to the nation's capital opens up possibilities for exposure to future employers and summer internships that schools in more distant areas can only dream of.

Of course, VCU's strengths are not all geographic. Here you'll find some intimate classes right inside Virginia's largest university, with the opportunity to chose a specialization in more fields than many schools offer: forensic chemistry or trace analysis; physical evidence; drug chemistry & toxicology; and forensic biology & DNA. VCU has also been ranked in the top 100 universities in North America.

Another striking aspect of VCU's forensics program is that several of the lab courses are taught right at the Virginia Department of Forensic's Science lab. Few things, we believe, are more instructive in an applied science than learning the skills in labs where working forensic scientists put them to use every day. For this, and the other reasons we mention, Virginia Commonwealth University's forensic science graduate program is our #7 pick of the best forensic science programs in the country.

Next up, the number 6 forensic science graduate program in America...

#6 University of Alabama at Birmingham

Birmingham, Alabama

There's a certain respect an academic program can demand when it's one of the first in its field. In the world of forensics, we can roughly divide the schools into two groups: pre-CSI: Miami and post-CSI: Miami. Nothing against the newer schools. It's just that the University of Alabama was doing forensics before forensics was cool.

On the academic side of the house, UAB is very demanding. Before you can even apply to the place, you'll need a combined 1100 or better on the quantitative and verbal sections of the GRE. While you may consider this easy to achieve, understand that this is the bare minimum -- and UAB's bare minimum is a full 100 points higher than that demanded by many other forensic programs. This should tell you something about the caliber of students it attracts.

On top of this, UAB is going to require that you have a B or better in a slew of undergraduate courses, including a couple where getting even a B is no cakewalk: organic chemistry (both semesters), and quantitative analysis. With these kinds of admissions requirements, you're looking at an applicant pool on par with that of many medical schools.

Last but not least, UAB is going to work you hard. If you elect to skip out on the research thesis, understand that you're going to complete 48 semester hours of courses. Let's say that again: 48 hours, in two years! While you can substitute an internship for 3 - 6 of these hours (and you'd be a fool not to), this is still a boatload of credits. But again, this is the kind of demands a school of UAB's stature can demand. If you're willing to take on the thesis, Alabama will cut you a break, with "only" 36 semester hours of coursework to go with your six hours of research.

The University of Alabama's forensic science grad program has been around a long time, and it knows a thing or two about solid forensic education. Many respected forensic folks call this place home, including the editorial offices of the revered Forensic Science Review. For these reasons, it's our #6 pick on the list of best forensic science graduate programs in the United States.

And now for the top 5. Coming in at fifth place is...

#5 SUNY Albany

Albany, New York

SUNY Albany's forensic program is a cozy little place, with 26 students enrolled in the Masters program in Forensic Biology. Roughly ten to 15 students a year join the program, so you can be sure of some close-knit interaction with your professors. Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on how you look at it) SUNY Albany grants specifically a Masters in Forensic Biology. So if you get there, decide drug chemistry is your thing, well, you're kind of out of luck.

To give you an idea of how competitive the program is, one student is admitted for every five applications that are received, and the average GPA is about 3.3. It's a fairly new program, too. About 40 students have graduated from Albany since 2001.

As you might expect, the Albany Masters in Forensic Microbiology requires a boatload of biology: 29 credits of the 40 needed to graduate. And the extra courses that are offered don't veer far from the path. The five required supporting courses all focus on biotechnology, genetics, and lab safety, with the odd Advanced Microsoft Excel and Visual Basic thrown in for good measure. The electives (of which two are required) deal with -- surprise -- cell biology. A few electives in evolution, neurobiology, bioinformatics and light microscopy might ease the biological overload. There's also the dreaded written examination, but at Arcadia it follows the first year on all the required courses instead of at the end of your two years, as you see in many programs.

Like most programs, Albany requires a lab internship and project. What's nice is that the New York State Police Forensic Investigation Center is plopped next door, doing all kinds of cool work that you're studying and maintaining a close working relationship with the school. But just a word to the wise: be sure that forensic microbiology is really, really what you want to do before you enroll. But if you're sure, then SUNY Albany is a great place to study.

The number 4 graduate program in forensic science is...

#4 Arcadia University

Glenside, Pennsylvania

Arcadia's Master of Science in Forensic Science (MSFS) program is very heavy on chemistry and biology, and they are known for an excellent program in getting you up to speed in one of these fields if you spent your college days working in the other. They do this with a "cohort" system, where undergrads who majored in chemistry take two upper-level courses in molecular biology and biochemistry their first year of the program, and undergrads who majored in biology take two courses in instrumental methods and one in polymers. This is done, of course, alongside the normal classes in general forensics. As far as these go, they're pretty standard: forensic law, crime scene investigation, pharmacology and toxicology, with general areas of forensics covered by a survey course in forensic science and forensic medicine. In the end, you can expect a two year general Master of Science in Forensic Science.

One of the coolest aspects of Arcadia is that they guarantee you an internship at the Rieders Foundation labs, about 10 minutes from central campus in Willow Grove, PA. Believe us -- if you've never had to spend your days sending letters and emails fighting for limited internship spots throughout the country, you're lucky. The Rieders lab guarantee is a big plus in our books. And it's a no-joke internship, too -- 14 weeks of intensive work in forensic biology, forensic toxicology or forensic chemistry. When you combine that with the fact that nearby NMS Labs also grants internships and part-time employment, you can see how Arcadia helps you get your foot in the door in a big way with real-world employment. We can't overstate the significance of this. At the very minimum, it's reassuring to know that you won't have to spend all your free time fighting over internship spots, not knowing where you'll spend the summer nailing down your internship credits.

For prospective college students, Arcadia also offer a smart, forward-looking 5 year program for interested undergraduates, where you can get your bachelors and your masters after just five years. Considering most college students these days don't even get their undergraduate degree in this amount of time, it's a smart, compact way to enter the field of forensics at a higher level, with higher pay -- provided, of course, you know that this is what you want to do after high school!

So now we've reached the Top 3. Coming in third in our ranking of the top 10 forensic science graduate programs in America is...

#3 Florida International University

Miami, Florida

FIU is perhaps the most flexible forensics graduate program out there. On the one hand, they offer one of the most unrestricted course schedules you will see in graduate-level forensic science. Instead of laying out two years of mostly required courses, as a lot of programs do, FIU requires only three classes: forensic chemistry, forensic biology and forensic analysis. After you knock these down, you only need a couple workshops and laboratories, and your choice of 29 credit hours in a broad array of options: criminal justice, legal psychology, medical lab science, geology, and of course chemistry and biology.

FIU will also let students pursue their degrees online, but with a few catches. The first is that you must be employed in a lab somewhere. This reason is because when it comes down to your research project, it has to be performed in your company's lab space. Secondly, your supervisor has to be on-board with it, and agree to supervise you while you complete the work. Even if you can arrange all of this, you have to be on campus at least a little bit, usually one week at the end of each semester. But FIU will cut you a break when it comes to presenting your final research project. You can present to a committee of faculty members, but it doesn't have to be as formal as the on-site presentations conducted by in-class students.

Here's another thing to consider. Within the Miami area, there are more police agencies and forensics labs than you can shake a stick at. Students from graduate programs throughout the U.S. find themselves going to Florida for internships, simply because that's where the labs and agencies are: Miami-Dade Police, Broward and Dade Counties Medical Examiners, and the Broward County Sheriff's Office. The DEA, one of the biggest employers of forensic drug chemists, also has a major presence in the state. This is certainly something to think about when you consider how many weeks you will spend doing your internship.

In the number 2 spot for the top 10 forensic science graduate programs in America is...

#2 Michigan State University

East Lansing, Michigan

Michigan State offers a really cool balance that you don't see in many graduate programs: the opportunity to choose between the pure-science rigors of forensic analytical chemistry or microbiology, or the anthropological sciences of evolution, osteology, and gross anatomy. Forensic anthropology, of course, draws on a strong chemistry and biology background, but emphasizes archaeology and anatomy (particularly bone and skeletal remains). Because Michigan's program is closely allied with the school's criminal justice program, you can temper your lab time with broader studies in forensic law, serology and DNA profiling, keeping you well-rounded with diverse lectures and topics, and more importantly, from getting burned out doing nothing but the repetitive lab work.

At the end of the day, Michigan requires that you finish 6 credits worth of thesis research, complete your research project, present it, and defend it orally. Given that forensic anthropologists, generally speaking, find it easier to get a job if they have a Ph.D., Michigan even supports a dual Masters-Ph.D. while enrolled. If you've got the time and the dime, this really is the best of both worlds. The Masters signifies a practical, hands-on knowledge of the technical sciences, but the Ph.D. says that you know your stuff when it comes to research.

Another plus is that the Ph.D. will let you apply for tenure-track professorships at many schools. Generally speaking, those holding a masters-only degree may teach, but only as adjunct faculty or lecturers, on a per-course or per-semester basis. When the semester's up, your contract is up. A doctoral-level degree (whether Ph.D., law-school JD or education Ed.D.) is the key to full-time, tenured employments as assistant, associate, then full professor at many universities. This is certainly something to keep in mind if you see teaching in your future, even if it's the distant future following retirement from a crime lab somewhere.

Drumroll, please. The number one forensic science graduate program in these United States...

#1 Marshall University

Huntington, WV

There's only one forensics graduate program in the country that is located in the same building as a fully-functioning paternity and federal DNA laboratory, and you probably would not guess where it is: Huntington, West Virginia, in the foothills of the Appalachian mountains. A few hours beyond the outskirts of the forensics employment capital of the world, Washington, DC, Marshall's forensic science graduate program is considered by many to be the best in the United States, due largely to an atypical combination of small class size, breadth of curriculum and sheer proximity to actual forensic scientists doing real casework.

Unlike forensic graduate programs that require a commitment to a specific branch of forensics from the get-go, Marshall takes a broad approach for its 15-20 students admitted each year. The first semester presents wide-ranging survey courses, such as Crime Scene & Death Investigation, Forensic Microscopy, Comparative Science (fingerprints, firearms and questioned documents) and Fundamentals of Digital Evidence. With these courses under their belt, students have a much clearer understanding of what in the world they're getting into when they say, "hey, I want to do hair and fiber analysis for a living," than if they had to choose during their first semester.

After the first years, Marshall's program quickly refines into four tracks: DNA analysis, forensic chemistry, computer forensics and crime scene investigation. And here's the real kicker: you can do as many of these as you want, as long as you're willing to tackle the course-load. Can't decide between drug chemistry and digital evidence? Do them both, and double your employment options. Marshall's fee schedule does not penalize you for additional credits beyond "full-time" status.

In addition to the coursework, Marshall requires the typical summer internship, spent in the on-site laboratory or elsewhere (even abroad), doing a project in an area that interests you. The university also requires four-semesters of a seminar course, where all students deliver multiple conference-grade presentations designed for different levels of audience sophistication. Marshall is rare among programs in realizing that the best lab results in the world are meaningless if you cannot effectively convey them, either to peers or to a jury. Uncomfortable with public speaking? Marshall will break you of this, and fast.

Understand that your two years will be no cake-walk. To graduate, you will have to conquer one doozy of a comprehensive exam. You're looking at a full day's worth of one-hour tests covering almost every branch of forensic science known to man. But consider the payoff: in the last two years, Marshall's forensic students have been ranked number one in the nation on the American Board of Criminalistics' Forensic Science Assessment Test. If that doesn't help sell you to a prospective employer after graduation, then, well, nothing will.

Marshall's program has been around for a long time, and was one of the first programs accredited by the American Academy of Forensic Science. Over the years, it has developed what is arguably the most comprehensive array of choices for students, but it has maintained the flexibility to let you explore what you like and discover what you're good at. Combine this with intimate classes, top graduate performance and proximity to forensic jobs in Washington, D.C., and you can see why Marshall University is our pick for the best forensic graduate program in America.

Forensic science programs are still a rare find at universities. Just a few years ago, you could count on one hand the number of accredited programs in the United States. Don't be afraid to use this scarcity to your advantage: specifically, many states offer tuition reciprocity with other states that offer academic programs that they themselves do not offer. We provide a good overview of this here.