The scope of forensic science is broad: it’s more than fingerprints and DNA samples. To organize the various specialties in the field, the American Academy of Forensic Sciences (AAFS) formally recognizes 11 distinct forensic science disciplines.
National University’s Master of Forensic Sciences provides both the theory behind and practical training in forensics and crime scene investigation techniques. When you start your career as a forensic scientist, you might not have a defined specialty yet. As you gain experience and continue learning on the job or through additional classes courses, you might develop expertise in one of these types of forensic science.
Anthropology: Reconstructing a Life
The American Board of Forensic Anthropology (ABFA) defines its field as the application of the science of physical or biological anthropology to the legal process.
Forensic anthropology is made up of several sub-disciplines: cultural anthropology, archaeology, linguistics, and physical (biological) anthropology. Together, all of these areas of expertise can, as the AAFS says in its career guide, “attempt to reconstruct as much as possible about a person’s life and death.” To do this, forensic anthropologists examine skeletal remains to find characteristics, cause of death, injuries or diseases, how much time has passed since death, and other findings that could lead to solving a crime, identifying an unknown victim, or even helping with excavated remains on an archaeology dig.
Forensic anthropologists generally have a Ph.D., and they typically do not work in forensics full-time. Rather, they might work for a university, a museum, a branch of the armed forces, or a medical organization and provide their services to local crime labs when needed. While an advanced degree is needed to don this title, technicians may also work alongside forensic anthropology professionals, such as in collecting, preparing, analyzing, and documenting specimens as part of a forensic investigation.
Criminalistics: Understanding the Evidence
When people think about what a forensic scientist does each day, they likely picture tasks associated with criminalistics, such as forensic ballistics. Many items are collected from a crime scene, but not all are relevant. That’s where criminalists come in.
Most often housed in a forensic lab, these professionals have two main goals: to identify evidence and to link individuals, objects, and place through that evidence. Criminalists sometimes specialize in specific areas of physical evidence, some of which require additional training, including:
- Firearms (forensic ballistics).
- Fire and explosion debris.
- Controlled substances.
- Trace evidence.
Criminalistics experts can work for a variety of organizations, including state and federal crime labs, police departments, federal agencies (like the FBI, DEA, or ATF), medical examiners’ offices, and even the U.S. Postal Service.
The Master of Forensic Sciences at National University offers a specialization in criminalistics, which includes courses in trace evidence, advanced forensic toxicology, advanced forensic serology, and forensic anthropology.
Digital and Multimedia Sciences: Thumb Drives to Massive Networks
Today, law enforcement and labs are dealing with crimes (and, thus, evidence) that didn’t exist decades ago. This means the field of forensics will continue to evolve as technology changes, and the area of digital and multimedia sciences is one of those ever-changing areas.
According to AAFS, forensic professionals in this discipline examine hardware tools, software applications, and digital files (audio, text, image, video, etc.) to find and analyze evidence. A key word here is “find” because, often, there are terabytes of data, hours of footage (say from security or traffic cameras) to sort through before finding anything meaningful or relevant.
Here are just a few examples of a digital forensic scientist’s duties:
- Determining if a digital image has been altered.
- Analyzing acoustics of a recording.
- Finding out what devices connected to a system.
- Determining if files have been deleted from a drive or device.
- Locating a remote system or user.
- Finding a victim or suspect based on data.
A good forensic science program will provide training in this area. For example, National University’s Digital Evidence course covers a range of digital investigation procedures and techniques related to crimes like fraud, stalking, and identity theft.
Like other types of forensic science, there is a professional organization for digital specialists: The International Association of Computer Investigative Specialists.
Engineering and Applied Sciences: Natural and Manmade Disasters
The AAFS says this discipline is home to the most varied group of forensic professionals: problem-solvers with a background in one of the many sub-disciplines of engineering, chemistry, or physics. These experts are called upon in both criminal or civil cases to investigate things such as:
- Automobile collisions.
- Building collapses.
- Train derailments.
- Product failures.
- Environmental contamination.
This area is ideal for someone with a solid background in science — and an interest in crime scene investigation. In fact, many people enter a master’s of forensics online degree program after earning a bachelor’s in chemistry, biochemistry, or engineering. An understanding of math, biology, and geology is also helpful.
General: A Variety of Forensic Science Expertise
The AAFS uses the general category to hold specialties in forensic lab investigation, field investigation, clinical work, and education and research that do not fit into other larger disciplines. These include a range of focus, including:
- Veterinary services.
- Art and sculpting.
- Management and administration.
This category also houses emerging areas, such as forensic veterinary science and forensic nursing. Sometimes a specialty area grows enough to become a stand-alone discipline, such as digital and multimedia sciences; other times, more niche specialties will remain listed under general.
(Because opportunities in forensic science are so broad, this post “What are the Different Types of Crime Scene Investigation Degrees?” might be helpful to you.)
Jurisprudence: Practicing Forensics
“Jurisprudence” isn’t a word you hear often in everyday conversation. In short, it’s considered the philosophy of law. Members practicing this discipline of forensic science must also be licensed to practice law.
Any forensic scientist, from DNA analysts to anthropologists, could be asked to provide testimony in criminal and civil cases; however, what if there were lawyers who also had expertise in forensic science fundamentals and investigation? There are. Sometimes casually referred to as “forensic attorneys,” these legal professionals are also trained in crime scene investigation. They work, either independently or alongside other lawyers, to support court cases. This could include collecting and studying evidence in order to draw conclusions, advise clients, and form litigation strategies.
Lawyers with forensic science expertise can work for law firms, court systems, federal agencies, nonprofit organizations, and even serve as private consultants. As an example, Brooklyn Defender Services in 2019 posted a job for a “special forensic science counsel: homicide/major felony unit.”
Odontology: Finding Answers Tooth by Tooth
Odontology, better known as forensic dentistry, can play an important part in crime scene investigation and natural disaster response and recovery. Like forensic anthropologists, these professionals aid in identifying human remains. And, like the jurisprudence discipline, the odontologist must have a professional degree: in this case, a doctor of dental medicine, a doctor of dental surgery, or an equivalent degree.
A dental expert can contribute to a forensic investigation in many ways, such as:
- Comparing dental remains with dental records.
- Comparing dental records.
- Evaluating bite marks.
- Aging of an individual.
- Evaluation of dental or other oral injuries.
The American Society of Forensic Odontology offers a wealth of information about this dental specialty.
Pathology/Biology: Forensics Down to a Science
The AAFS combines forensic biology and forensic pathology into one discipline, but each area has its own focus. Pathology is the study of disease, and a forensic pathologist would use these skills and expertise to assist in legal matters. Sometimes, this involves performing an autopsy, which allows the pathologist to examine organs, tissue, and fluids to find a cause or circumstances of death. Other times, the forensic pathologist might work in a lab, studying smaller specimens.
Pathologists are typically medical doctors, however, forensic science technicians can assist in gathering and analyzing this medical evidence. National University’s Master of Forensic Sciences provides a foundation for this with its Forensic Pathology I and II courses.
Forensic biology experts study organisms or cells of organisms that might be relevant to a crime. This area spans the life sciences: entomology (insects), botany (plants), ecology, genetics, and microbiology. Examples of how these specialties can aid in a death investigation, according to AAFS, could include:
- A plant scientist identifying stomach contents or finding hidden graves.
- A veterinarian assisting in animal welfare cases.
- An entomologist helping to determine a timeline (for example, when insects might take over human remains).
- A geneticist helping to confirm the identity of an organism.
AAFS says most forensic biologists have a master’s or Ph.D. in the biological science field and typically work for museums or universities.
Psychiatry and Behavioral Science: Understanding Human Nature
Psychiatrists, psychologists, and other behavioral science experts can contribute to the field of forensics through assessing individuals or providing testimony in criminal or civil cases.
Psychiatrists are medical doctors who likely received extra training in how their field relates to the law. In fact, some choose medical residency programs specific to this type of training. They might help determine if someone is fit to stand trial or evaluate mental illness as it relates to a crime. Forensic psychiatrists may also aid in cases involving domestic violence, child abuse, adoption, foster care, and custody.
When you think of forensic psychology, criminal profiling might come to mind. This is definitely one area in which psychologists can assist law enforcement professionals; however, they can use their specialized training for so much more.
Questioned Documents: Not Just Paper Pushers
This branch of forensic science focuses on examining physical documents, and it involves a lot more than analyzing handwriting. This expertise, according to the AAFS, might be used to:
- Look for alterations in a document.
- Decipher erased entries.
- Restore burned or damaged documents.
- Classify and identify computer printers and typewriters.
- Discover authorship of a signature or other writing.
Questioned documents experts typically have a forensic science degree and then participate in a structured two-year on-the-job training program.
Toxicology: Substances and the Law
Toxicology refers to the study of adverse effects of chemicals (ex: drugs, alcohol) on the human body. So forensic toxicology is looking at these effects in the context of the law. They analyze various specimens — including blood, urine, tissues, hair, and fluids (such as from the eye, liver, or brain) — and then interpret the results. Our blog post “What is Forensic Serology” provides more details on working with biological specimens.
Forensic toxicologists focus on one of three main areas:
- Post-mortem toxicology: helping to identify the cause or manner of death.
- Human performance toxicology: to determine impairment during a crime.
- Forensic drug testing: used in the workplace, athletics, and probation/parole.
Forensic toxicologists typically enter the field with a bachelor’s degree in chemistry or the life sciences. Bachelor and master’s forensic science programs often provide an introduction to toxicology. It’s also common for a forensic lab to offer additional on-the-job training in this area as well.
Find out More About the Types of Forensic Science
These are the 11 forensic science disciplines as defined by AAFS for its professional members. In actual practice, you’ll find the organizational structure — departments, divisions, job titles, responsibilities, and policies and procedures — vary from place to place. In fact, when you consider the many types of forensic science, it’s easy to see how collaboration becomes important and how roles sometimes overlap.
With a mix of science, human behavior, law, and justice, forensics is certainly a varied field. National University’s Master of Forensic Sciences, one of our many convenient online degrees, is a robust program that will prepare you well for various opportunities in this exciting field. Visit our program page to learn more or request information.