Choosing an Online Master’s: Forensic Science vs. Criminal Justice

Choosing an Online Masters Forensic Science v. Criminal Justice

The criminal justice and forensic science fields are closely related, given they both deal with various aspects of law and order.

To advance your career in either, a master’s degree is one way to remain competitive and, in some cases, it’s even a requirement. If you know you’d like to work within law enforcement or the court system in some capacity, you may find yourself choosing between two online master’s: forensic science or criminal justice. In this article, we’ll take a look at each to help you make a more informed decision.

Industry and Educational Overview

We’ve established there are some common threads between forensic science and criminal justice when it comes to careers. When looking at them as academic disciplines, it’s a little easier to see how they differ from one another.

Criminal Justice Defined

Encyclopedia Britannica describes criminal justice as an “interdisciplinary academic study of the police, criminal courts, correctional institutions, and juvenile justice agencies, as well as of the agents who operate within these institutions.”

Criminal justice as an academic area of study, according to Britannica, got its start in the 1970s when the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) expanded the rights of criminal defendants. The DOJ provided grants to educational institutions to first study what professionals in the field were doing, and then to develop degree programs. The field grew in the 80s and 90s as more and more scholars took an interest in researching the field, such as measuring the effectiveness of programs and policies.

The field of criminal justice encompasses three main components: Police, courts (which includes prosecution and defense), and corrections. There are also two main overarching systems: state and federal. So, when you think of all of the moving parts within each of these systems and at each level, it becomes clear how many professionals are needed to ensure everything runs as it should.

Forensic Science Defined

The National Institute of Justice says forensic science “is the application of sciences such as physics, chemistry, biology, computer science, and engineering to matters of the law.”

Forensic science as an academic discipline is a bit newer. However, using forensic science to solve crimes is not exactly new; in fact, Sherlock Holmes was a (fictional) forensic scientist in the 1890s! According to the American Academy of Forensic Sciences (AAFS), there are nearly a dozen sub-disciplines, including:

  • Anthropology.
  • Criminalistics.
  • Digital and multimedia.
  • Engineering/applied science.
  • Jurisprudence (legal issues).
  • Odontology (dental).
  • Pathology/biology.
  • Psychiatry and behavioral science.
  • Questioned documents (handwriting or paper analysis).
  • Toxicology.

Many forensic science online degree programs, such as the one at National University, will offer an introduction to some of these areas, while other specializations may require more education and experience. For example, a forensic anthropologist typically has a Ph.D., and those interested in jurisprudence usually have a law degree.

Career Opportunity Comparison

It’s not uncommon to start an online degree program without knowing exactly what you want to do after you graduate; part of the learning experience is discovering more about yourself. However, if you’re still deciding between a few different educational options, it is helpful to think about where you see yourself when you’re finished.

There is certainly some overlap between the career paths criminal justice and forensic science graduates can take, but there also are some specific positions that might fit one degree program better than the other.

What You Can Do and Where You Can Work With an Online Master’s, Forensic Science

A master of forensic sciences can prepare you to work in multiple aspects of the field, from collecting specimens at a crime scene to analyzing them in the lab. When you leave a program, you should have a solid understanding of forensic science theories, human anatomy, technical procedures (collecting, processing, preserving, analyzing, comparing, report-writing), investigation techniques, research methods, and other related areas. This knowledge sets you up for a variety of positions, in a variety of professional settings.

Whether you’re interested in field work, lab work, or both, you’ll find a broad range of places at which a forensic science professional could find work, including:

  • Public courts.
  • Police departments.
  • Private detention/prison facilities.
  • Medical examiner’s office.
  • Forensic labs.
  • Department of Homeland Security.
  • Postal authority.
  • Government (local, state, federal).

And, forensic science professionals with a master’s degree and additional education or experience may also find positions as a:

  • Criminologist.
  • Lead investigator.
  • Lab director.
  • FBI agent.
  • CIA agent.
  • Research specialist.

It’s also important to note that, depending on your position, forensic scientists may be called to court to testify; so not only is it important to understand the science behind processes, but also to be able to explain results to a general audience.

So, as far as choosing an online master’s, forensic science is definitely an exciting choice for someone interested in science — and solutions.

What You Can Do and Where You Can Work With an Online Master’s, Criminal Justice

What can you do with a criminal justice degree? Quite a bit. Since you’re interested in pursuing a master’s, it’s likely you already have a related bachelor’s degree or work experience in the criminal justice system. A graduate program will provide you with a deeper knowledge of law enforcement, courts, and corrections at the local, state, and federal level. This can then lead to expanded career options, such as:

  • Law enforcement officer.
  • Detective.
  • Federal agent.
  • Supervisory role with the police department (ex: sheriff).
  • Correctional officer supervisors.
  • Court officer.
  • Director of security.
  • Emergency management director.
  • Forensic psychologist.
  • Game warden.

These positions, and others can be found within a variety of organizations, including:

  • Government (local, state, federal).
  • Courts (local, state, federal).
  • Education (private, public).
  • Transit authorities.
  • Federal agencies (FBI, CIA, Border Patrol, Secret Service, etc.).
  • Private security/protection agencies.
  • Correctional facilities.
  • Social service agencies.


Income Potential and Demand Comparison

Salaries and wages will always depend on many factors including education, experience, level of responsibility, types of company or organization, and geographic location. However, your earning potential is likely part of your decision-making process. Let’s take a look at a few average salaries of professionals, as well as the demand for positions related to these career paths, all according to the U.S. Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics:

Police officer or detective

  • National average salary: $63,380.
  • California average salary: $107,120.
  • National expected growth through 2026: 7%, about as fast as the average occupation.
  • Largest employment sector: local governments.

Forensic science technician

  • National average salary: $58,230.
  • California average salary: $85,280.
  • National expected growth through 2026: 17%, much faster than the average occupation.
  • Largest employment sector: local governments.

Emergency management director

  • National average salary: $102,240.
  • California average salary: $118,320.
  • National expected growth through 2026: 8%, about as fast as the average occupation.
  • Largest employment sector: local governments.

Private investigator

  • National average salary: $50,090.
  • California average salary: $67,970.
  • National expected growth through 2026: 11%, faster than the average occupation.
  • Largest employer type: investigation, guard, or armored car services.

Qualities & Characteristics Comparison

Just as some career options overlap, the traits, qualities, and characteristics of people interested in a law-enforcement-related career — no matter what their area of study — also have common ground. Some of these traits may be inherent, and others you may develop and hone during a program.

Online Master’s, Forensic Science

Some common traits and qualities of forensic science technicians, according to the BLS, are:

  • Excellent communicators.
  • Critical-thinkers.
  • Detail-oriented.
  • Proficient in math and science.
  • Problem-solvers.

The AAFS also notes objectivity, intellectual curiosity, and personal integrity as necessary traits to work in forensic science.

Online Master’s, Criminal Justice

There’s perhaps a more broad range of positions and employers available to criminal justice professionals. For the sake of comparison, we’ll look at a few common positions as examples.

An emergency management director typically has to make decisions quickly and under a lot of pressure. It makes sense that the BLS highlights the following types of skills needed for this career:

  • Communication.
  • Critical-thinking.
  • Decision-making.
  • Interpersonal.
  • Leadership.

Police officers and detectives not only need to be good communicators, but they also should have:

  • Empathy.
  • Good judgment.
  • Leadership skills.
  • Perceptiveness.
  • Physical stamina.
  • Physical strength.

Probation officers and correctional treatment specialists should also have good communication, decision-making, and critical-thinking skills, but they also need to possess:

  • Emotional stability.
  • Organizational skills.

When you look at all of these examples, it’s easy to see why both of these online degrees are attractive to those with military experience; at National University, these two programs are popular choices among our Veteran students.

What You’ll Learn: An Online Degree Comparison

In your bachelor’s program, you were required to take general education courses in addition to those related to your major or minor.  As its name implies, a master’s degree, allows you to focus in a certain academic area. You’ll take a set of required core courses related to your area of study, as well as have the option to take electives. Many programs at the master’s level require a research project or thesis as a culmination of everything you’ve learned. Let’s look at some of the possible courses each of these programs offer:

Online Master’s, Forensic Science

In most forensic science master’s programs, you’ll take a mix of core and elective classes. Core courses may cover topics such as:

  • Forensic pathology.
  • Forensic anthropology.
  • Forensic photography.
  • Crime scene investigation.
  • Digital evidence.

At National University, some program electives also allow you to add a specialization in either investigation or criminalistics. Options include:

  • Trace evidence.
  • Advanced forensic DNA evidence.
  • Law and criminal procedure.
  • Forensic psychology.

Online Master’s, Criminal Justice Administration

In most criminal justice master’s programs, you’ll also take a mix of core and elective classes. Core classes will likely cover:

  • Criminal justice theory, practice, and policy.
  • Professional ethics.
  • Legal issues.
  • Advance criminological theory.

Electives allow you to choose a few topics you might have a special interest in. For example, National University offers:

  • Security management and planning.
  • Drugs, alcohol, and public policy.
  • Violence and victimization.
  • Forensic psychology.

Even though you’ll be taking classes online, you’ll have the opportunity to gain real-world experience. For example, while Crystal Sanchez was at National University, she did her internship at the Los Angeles District Attorney’s office. She says, in a previous article about earning her master’s degree, her online experience “was a surprisingly interactive and intense experience.”

Next Steps: Career Advancement and Expansion

Whether you’re looking to start a new career or to move up in your present organization, earning your master’s degree in forensic science or criminal justice can open up more career opportunities for you. As you make your long-term plans, also consider how you could expand or move up even further in your desired field.

As noted earlier, some specialties within forensic science prefer or require a doctorate. The same could be said for criminal justice. If you love research, continuing on to a Ph.D. in a related area could lead to scholarly work that helps advance your field. (A doctorate also gives you an opportunity to teach at the college level.)

An existing background or interest can also lead you to a specific area. For example, fire inspectors use forensic techniques to determine the cause or origin of a fire. If you have a first-responder background, whether professional or volunteer, this could be a unique way to merge your interests.  Fire inspectors are also in demand; the occupation is expected to grow by 10% between now and 2026. If you have a knack for technology (or an undergraduate degree in computer science), expanding into cybersecurity could be fitting for both forensic science or criminal justice graduates.

This article provided you a lot of information about what to expect in two online master’s: forensic science or criminal justice. After reading through the nature of the work, earning potential, career demand, possible positions and places you could work, you should have a better idea of which of these online degrees might be the best fit for your interests, personality, and professional goals.

National University offers dozens of degree programs geared toward adult learners, including an online master’s, forensic science. To learn more, visit our Master of Forensic Sciences program page where you can also request additional information and download our pdf, Careers in Forensics.

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