• Graduate Students

Ph.D. in Forensic Science

The Ph.D. in Forensic Science program is only the second such program in the United States and has a much wider scope than that of the M.S. program. The major emphasis of the program is the development and completion of a research problem that involves advanced techniques and concepts, culminating in an oral defense of the Ph.D. dissertation. Ph.D. students take a common core of advanced forensic science courses and additional courses as deemed necessary by their dissertation committees.

The objective of the Ph.D. program in Forensic Science is to prepare students to work as professionals in academia, government laboratories, or private industry as laboratory specialists. Through a core of advanced course work and a requisite independently executed research project, the program is designed to provide students with the skills needed to critically assess the current state of knowledge within the field, and to solve complex problems at the frontier of the discipline.

Because of the lack of doctoral programs nationally in forensic science, the offering of a Ph.D. program in Forensic Science at WVU establishes the department’s position as a leader in this critically important area of study. The program is strongly science-based and prepares students to work across the foundations of criminalistics: students learn the underpinnings of the discipline, research design, quantitative methods, statistical analysis, and communication skills such as scientific writing and presenting. Since students may enter the program with a wide array of backgrounds, Ph.D. candidates typically enroll in a common core of advanced forensic science courses, followed by additional courses as deemed necessary by their dissertation committees.

The program for the Ph.D. degree reflects a combination of prescriptive coursework as well as a flexible, research-oriented approach geared to develop the interests, capability, and potential of the student. In addition to the curriculum for the M.S. degree, doctoral students are required to take three additional core courses and two colloquium courses. These courses present the essentials of a given discipline on an advanced level and expose the student to the frontiers in a specific area of research. The course offerings are designed to provide guidelines from which students can launch their independent research projects. Ph.D. students are required to enroll and participate in the departmental seminar program for at least four semesters. By doing so, it is anticipated that they will serve as role models for the graduate students in the M.S. program.

Requirements for Application

  • Personal statement
  • GRE taken within the last seven years with a score of 300 or better
  • Academic transcripts
  • Research writing example of a peer-reviewed publication or thesis 
  • If you wish to submit an alternative document for review, please contact the Graduate Studies Coordinator, Tina Moroose , to determine suitability.
  • Three letters of recommendation 
  • All references must be familiar with, and able to comment on, the applicant’s academic and/or research skill set

Application Deadline

Although early review of applications will begin December 15, the application deadline for the Ph.D. program is January 15. Late admissions will be evaluated on a case-by-case basis.

Application to WVU

For additional information, please contact the Graduate Studies Coordinator at: [email protected] or 304-293-5346

How to Become a Forensic Scientist

Forensic science is a field that focuses on using scientific methods to address legal disputes.

Group of people at the crime scene, detective, forensics and special forces next to a dead body.

Getty Images

Many forensic scientists work for government-run crime laboratories, and some work for law enforcement agencies such as the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

When a serious crime such as a murder occurs, the identity of the perpetrator may not be obvious. In whodunit scenarios, where it is unclear who is responsible for wrongdoing, forensic science often provides the key to solving the mystery.

How Long It Takes to Get a Ph.D. Degree

Ilana Kowarski Aug. 12, 2019

how long is a phd in forensic science

What Is Forensic Science? A Definition

Forensic science is a practical academic discipline that involves solving puzzles. Forensic scientists use their knowledge of basic science fields like biology, chemistry and physics to investigate questions with legal implications, such as inquiries about who is at fault for a particular incident or what caused an injury.

For example, forensic science could clarify whether and when someone was poisoned, and it could indicate whether a particular gun had been used in a homicide.

"It's all about traceable, detailed investigations to solve a problem or solve a crime," says Catherine Jordan, who has a Ph.D. degree in organic chemistry and spent nine years working as a forensic scientist. Jordan previously worked for Minton, Treharne & Davies, an international scientific testing and inspection service provider.

Jennifer Shen – former director of the police department crime lab in San Diego, California – emphasizes that forensic science is "first and foremost, a science" and notes that a person needs some kind of scientific education in order to work as a forensic scientist.

Qualities Needed to Become a Forensic Scientist

A science degree is necessary, but not sufficient, for a career as a forensic scientist. The ability to pass a background check is critical, warns Daniele Podini, chair of the department of forensic sciences at George Washington University , where he is also an associate professor.

Podini also suggests that because forensic scientists often encounter disturbing imagery and hear troubling stories, they need to be able to emotionally detach themselves and keep a level head.

According to Jordan, analytical skills are necessary for success in forensic science. In addition, because forensic scientists often serve as expert witnesses in criminal and civil court cases and frequently testify before judges and juries, they must be eloquent enough to "present their findings well enough to stand up in court," Jordan says.

Though associate and bachelor's degrees are sufficient for certain basic forensic science jobs, high-level jobs in the field usually require a master's degree , and some roles cannot be obtained without a doctorate, experts say.

Because the profession is one that many workers consider glamorous, competition for jobs tends to be fierce, Shen says. Anyone who hopes to gain employment in this sector ought to present themselves to employers in a polished way in order to maximize their chances of getting hired, she adds.

Anita Zannin, a forensic scientist who owns AZ Forensic Associates LLC, a forensic consulting firm in New York, notes that objectivity is essential within the forensic science field.

"Individuals should not get into this field to 'put bad guys away' – it should be just as rewarding to assist in exonerating someone who has been wrongfully accused," Zannin, who earned a master's degree in forensic science from Syracuse University , wrote in an email. "While we are all human, and may have opinions about an individual’s guilt or innocence, that opinion CANNOT play into a scientist’s evaluation of the evidence."

What an Aspiring Forensic Scientist Should Study

Though it is possible for someone to become a forensic scientist if he or she has a degree in a related academic discipline, having a forensic science degree is helpful when competing for jobs in that field, according to experts. Graduate-level credentials can increase someone's odds of advancement within the profession, since technical lead positions often require a master's and some lab director jobs cannot be acquired without a Ph.D. degree, experts suggest.

Forensic science students can expect to take a combination of science classes, including courses in genetics, biochemistry and microscopy, and should anticipate spending a lot of time in the laboratory. They also typically learn how to follow lab protocols and write forensic reports. Graduate students in forensic science programs usually specialize within a particular area of forensic science, such as forensic biology or forensic chemistry.

Forensic Science Careers

Forensic scientists are often employed by federal, state, city or local governments. Many work for government-run crime laboratories, and some work for law enforcement agencies such as the Federal Bureau of Investigation .

They sometimes work at private-sector labs and occasionally work independently, says Zannin, who also earned bachelor's degrees in forensic chemistry and criminal justice. While forensic scientists typically focus on criminal matters, she explains, they can be involved with civil litigation, serving as expert witnesses in courtroom disputes over product liability and personal injuries.

The median annual salary among U.S. forensic science technicians was $59,150 as of May 2019, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Technician positions typically require a bachelor's degree, the bureau states.

Someone who advances from a technician position to a management role may earn significantly more money. According to the bureau, the median salary among natural sciences managers – people who supervise lab scientists – was $129,100 in May 2019.

Shen says one advantage of forensic science jobs, compared with other science positions, is that scientists in these roles often see immediate results from their labor – something that is rare in other branches of science such as biology . There is also something fulfilling about performing a public service by revealing the truth about what happened in a particular case, she adds.

Podini notes that forensic science jobs often involve significant pressure, since sometimes a backlog of evidence needs to be processed and accuracy is paramount.

"You don't want to make mistakes, because these mistakes can then have an effect on people's lives," he says.

A significant benefit of being a forensic scientist, Podini says, is that "what you do benefits society and is very important for society."

He adds that DNA analysis can lead to wonderful results. "A family can find closure, or a victim can find closure, or an innocent suspect is exonerated, or a person that might hurt others is apprehended and taken off the street."

Searching for a grad school? Access our complete rankings of Best Graduate Schools.

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PhD in Forensic Science

The mission of the PhD in Forensic Science is to provide students with the critical thinking ability; problem-solving skills; and advanced, discipline-specific knowledge to allow them to advance into leadership positions.

This is accomplished by demonstrating the ability to perform independent, original research; the successful completion of multidisciplinary academic coursework; hands-on experience in the laboratory; and collaboration with accredited forensic laboratories, institutes, and partners.

Educational Objectives

  • Provide students the knowledge, skills, and abilities to prepare them for successful careers in forensic science.
  • Develop students’ critical thinking ability, problem-solving skills, and advanced discipline-specific knowledge.
  • Produce high quality graduates capable of advancement into leadership positions.
  • Engage in collaborative research that demonstrates industrial relevance and wider scientific awareness.

The PhD in Forensic Science requires the completion of 86 credit hours beyond the bachelor's degree. Students complete:

Dissertation research hours may be substituted for electives (15 SCH maximum) with approval of the Department Chair. 

The curriculum is designed to deliver an essential core curriculum in forensic science, together with specialized electives and intensive research in the area of interest. Students are expected to fulfill the requirements during approximately five years of full-time study.

Students with an MS in Forensic Science from a FEPAC-accredited institution may be eligible to transfer credit towards the eighty-six credit hour requirement. 

Program Breakdown

Additional information : Reference the Program Landing Page for additional information, such as cost, delivery format, contact information, or to schedule a visit.

Review of applications and offers of admission will begin Jan. 15 and proceed until enrollment openings are filled. A holistic review of each student’s application will be completed on a competitive basis.  All applicants are automatically considered for graduate assistantships in the Department of Forensic Science. 

Please submit all documents to the Office of Graduate Admissions. Admission considerations include:

  • Graduate Application
  • Application fee
  • A bachelor's degree from an accredited institution in chemistry, biology, forensic or natural science
  • Completion of eight credit hours (two semesters or equivalent) of organic chemistry with laboratories 
  • Official transcripts from all colleges/universities attended
  • GPA of 3.5 or higher
  • Official GRE scores 
  • Three letters of recommendation with Admission Recommendation Checklists. At least two must be from academic sources
  • A  Program Application
  • A personal statement of 500 - 750 words
  • An application writing prompt of 500 - 750 words
  • A current resume or vita
  • TOEFL/IELTS scores and third-party transcript evaluation for international students (if applicable)
  • A personal interview may be requested

The Program Application, Application Checklist, and instructions are available at  Application Resources .

Note: To be eligible for employment at forensic laboratories, students may need to complete additional foundational courses beyond the standard PhD degree requirements. For instance, prospective employees in Forensic Biology must have completed a minimum of nine credit hours in upper-level biology courses, including biochemistry, genetics, and molecular biology. Additionally, prospective employees in Forensic Toxicology must have completed at least two courses, each carrying a minimum of three credit hours, in quantitative analysis and biochemistry, or similarly named courses. 

The program requires the completion of a minimum of eighty-six hours of graduate credit, as prescribed in the curriculum.

Students must register full-time and maintain a 3.0 grade point average in all courses. In order to advance to candidacy students must have successfully completed (or be currently enrolled in) forty-four graduate credit hours of coursework and research.  Students must submit a portfolio for review, write a formal research proposal, orally defend the proposal, and pass the qualifying examination (typically by the close of the second spring semester). Once the committee determines that the portfolio, proposal, oral defense, and examination performance are satisfactory, the student may enroll in dissertation research.

A minimum of fifteen hours of dissertation credits are required and students must maintain continuous enrollment until they graduate. Students must complete and defend a doctoral dissertation, which is the product of original scholarly research and is of sufficient publishable quality to represent a meaningful contribution to knowledge in the field of forensic science.

During the first year of study, students are exposed to the major forensic disciplines in addition to the forensic internship. After successfully completing core coursework during the first year, students identify their discipline of study and commence research under the direction of their faculty advisor. 

Students with an MS in Forensic Science from a FEPAC-accredited institution may be eligible to transfer credit towards the eighty-six credit hour requirement.  

FORS 6014 must be taken for a total of six credit hours.

Once the minimum number of dissertation research hours have been met, dissertation hours may be substituted for electives (15 SCH maximum) with approval of the department chair. 

Once enrolled in FORS 8099 , students must enroll in this course every semester until graduation.

The Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board (THECB) marketable skills initiative is part of the state’s 60x30TX plan and was designed to help students articulate their skills to employers.  Marketable skills are those skills valued by employers and/or graduate programs that can be applied in a variety of work or education settings and may include interpersonal, cognitive, and applied skill areas.

The PhD in Forensic Science is designed to provide graduates with the following marketable skills:

  • Advanced discipline-specific knowledge.
  • Hands-on laboratory skills.
  • Familiarity with legal, ethical, and quality assurance issues.
  • Critical thinking skills.
  • Impartiality and scientific objectivity.
  • Application of statistical concepts to forensic science.
  • Familiarity with consensus-based scientific standards in forensic science.
  • Advanced instrumental understanding and technical troubleshooting skills.
  • Ability to conduct original research.
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Forensic science program.

The Forensic Science program offers an exciting, innovative, and hands-on curriculum that uses state-of-the-art crime laboratory and crime scene training facilities to teach students the practices of modern forensics through a holistic, crime-scene-to-courtroom approach.

Undergraduate Students

Our students receive a strong criminalistics education rooted in science. We offer a unique, hands-on experience that prepares students for forensic careers working in crime laboratories or at crime scenes.

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Graduate Students

The Master's program provides a foundation in criminalistics while allowing students to individualize their educational experience with research and advanced hands-on training in crime laboratory and crime scene techniques.

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About Penn State Forensics

We are a nationally recognized program. Our world class faculty, hands-on approach, and strong foundation in science prepare students to become leaders in the forensic community. Find out if Penn State Forensic Science is the right fit for you.

New students and college staff talking about programs at the 2019 Welcome Day.

Work with respected researchers who are experts in their field. Engage in hands-on research in laboratory settings that can influence your education and career.

Learn about the diverse research interests of our researchers and discover why our program is the right choice for your graduate student education.

Researchers from Forensic Science analyzing bullet holes in a car at a mock crime scene.

Learn how our dedicated faculty, staff, and students make the forensic science program the right choice for you.

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PhD in Forensic Science

The Doctor of Philosophy is a 3 year full time (6 year part time) research program open to candidates with a Bachelor of Science (Honours) or Master of Science (Research), or have demonstrated professional qualifications and experience, and are interested in high-level independent research training. Doctoral candidates work with their supervisors to develop a research project designed to add a distinct and significant contribution to knowledge in their chosen field of forensic science. PhD projects may vary from investigating novel analysis techniques to collaborating with industry partners to develop fundamental discipline knowledge or tackle emerging issues. Project supervision is available a number of disciplines, including:

  • Criminalistics
  • Forensic toxicology & illicit drugs
  • Fingerprints
  • Forensic taphonomy
  • Forensic biology
  • Forensic intelligence
  • Forensic analytical chemistry  

A list of academics and research areas in the Centre for Forensic Science can be found in  Our Research  and staff bios . 

Your learning facilities

Inside the uts: science super lab.

The UTS: Science Super Lab is the first of its kind in Australia. Featuring modern equipment and technology it can accommodate up to 220 students from 12 different classes, with experiments from different disciplines running at once.

how long is a phd in forensic science

The UTS: Science Super Lab is the first of its kind in Australia. Featuring modern equipment and technology it can accommodate up to 220 students from 12 different classes, with experiments from different disciplines running at once. This short video provides a detailed look into a day in the life of the Super Lab.

[Instrumental music]

A unique facility [Opening shot panning across students using computers at work benches]

52 metres long 26 workbenches 12 demonstrator stations [Close up shot of Super Lab computers panning out to view entire lab]

Break out sections Lots of natural light [Shot of four tables in a break out section with students sitting at tables watching smart board, a demonstrator in a blue lab coat talks students through content on smart board]

[High shot overlooking Super Lab full of students all wearing white lab coasts working at benches with computers]

12 different classes 220 students Learning simultaneously [close up of three students in white lab coats with headphones on looking at computers and writing]

[Demonstrator wearing blue lab coat puts headphones on]

Two-way wireless headset and microphone communication] [close up of student plugging headset cord into receiver; and then putting headphone set on head]

Sophisticated and easy to use [Demonstrator wearing blue lab coat touches computer monitor; students at work benches follow on their own computers]

Video streaming to students’ PCs [close up of student wearing headphones looking at computer]

12 LCD screens [Diagrams are projected on to large LCD screen as students watch] Document and PC Projection [Demonstrator in blue lab coast talks and students look at LCD screen] [Physics student in white lab coat and clear safety glasses opens drawer at workstation pulls out keyboard talks to two other students while looking at PC]

Surface Pro tablet and wireless camera [Student touches computer monitor to enlarge graph] [Students look at computer and notebook discussing problem] [a button is pressed which changes a blue light at their workstation to orange] Orange lights alert demonstrators to students [Light turns orange and a demonstrator in a blue lab coat and clear safety glasses comes to students to assist] Students are well supported [Demonstrator continues to talk to group of students who nod their heads]

[Close up of students in white lab coats picking up test tube with red chemical out of fume cupboard]

[Demonstrator in blue lab coat points to test tube and talks to student in white lab coat]

Inside the Crime Scene Simulation Lab

Forensic students at UTS Science have access to a unique Crime Scene Simulation Lab. Set up like a city apartment, the lab provides students with practical experience in crime scene investigations.

how long is a phd in forensic science

[Close up of someone in lab coat scanning pass and opening door, then close up of sign that says Crime Scene Simulation Lab.] [Forensic student in mock dining room dusts for fingerprints; student in mock lounge room takes a photo of evidence.]

Custom designed virtual city apartment [Three forensic students sit at bench with three computers examining photos of evidence and discussing findings.]

Training aspiring forensic scientists and crime scene investigators [Close up of students discussing photos.]

Simulating real-life crimes [A forensics student measures the length of a suspect’s shoe; close up of a suspect’s shoe with a tape measure next to it] Break and enter [The forensic student takes a photo suspect’s shoe in mock break enter crime scene.]

Suspicious circumstance [Two forensic students in a mock bedroom remove covers from bed where a dummy body lays.]

Everyday settings where crimes typically occur [Two forensic students in mock crime scene in dining room dust a glass for finger prints and use a blue light to examine evidence.]

Teaching fingerprint detection [Close up of student dusting dining room table for finger prints.]

[Student rolls out yellow crime scene tape over mock bathroom crime scene while another student uses a blue light to look for evidence.]

Detecting blood hidden in crime scenes [Second student joins one in bathroom as blue light shows mock blood in crime scene.]

[Close up to student in bedroom scene collecting evidence]

[Two students in mock study crime scene with dummy body look for evidence]

Working collaboratively [Close up of waste bin where student finds gun and places into evidence bag.] [Second student uses magnifying glass and takes notes.]

Developing new detection methods [Kitchen shows mock drug lab where two students take photos and collecting evidence]

New human identification techniques [Close up of student taking a swab of substance in glass container]

World leading forensics education [Close up of student in mock bedroom looking at brochures and cards left on floor]

Centre for Forensic Science research laboratories

We have purpose-built forensic laboratories with state of the art forensic equipment, chemical technology, anatomical and taphonomic facilities, Find out more about the CFS  laboratories  you will be using during your course. 

Real careers

UTS graduates have enjoyed careers as crime scene officers, forensic document examiners, forensic scientists, medical researchers and teachers.

UTS graduates

James Finger

James Finger Crime Scene Officer "People who can act as the bridge between the complex world of science and the public have great opportunities".

See full details of the: Doctor of Philosophy Research degrees

UTS acknowledges the Gadigal people of the Eora Nation, the Boorooberongal people of the Dharug Nation, the Bidiagal people and the Gamaygal people, upon whose ancestral lands our university stands. We would also like to pay respect to the Elders both past and present, acknowledging them as the traditional custodians of knowledge for these lands.

how long is a phd in forensic science


UCL Centre for the Forensic Sciences

  • PhD programme


Join pioneering forensic science research in our PhD programme

We’re all about our research and our PhD students are the thriving community at the heart of it all. Read on if you have a research idea & want to make discoveries that advance the forensic sciences.

Our research groups

Our research is broad in its scope but uncompromising in its quality. We’re the only academic team focusing on the interpretation of forensic science. We’re getting better and better at finding greater amounts and ever smaller trace evidence, but what does it mean when we find it in a particular place at a particular time? It’s this idea of interpretation that underlies all our research.

Trace Evidence Dynamics looks at how different trace evidence behaves within different environments over space and time, while Interpretation of Evidence focuses on understanding how forensic evidence can be most useful in real life investigations and casework.

Find out more about our research in Trace Evidence Dynamics and Interpretation of evidence . 

To keep our research community thriving and dynamic we’re looking for people who have a great research idea that can be developed, are ready to rub shoulders with a diverse and interdisciplinary research community, and are enthused by the idea of always learning, innovating and changing. If that’s you, please begin your application below, having already discussed your proposal with a potential supervisor.

Learn more about appying for a PhD .

Our students

Our PhD students come from a diverse range of backgrounds, culturally and academically. They mostly have some robust traditional science, and all have at least an upper second-class undergraduate degree and probably more. The research currently being done by the current cohorts is cutting edge, interdisciplinary and incredibly varied.

Some are investigating how DNA transfers and persists on different things and people over time. Others are investigating how new technologies like 3D imaging and printing can be applied in forensic contexts or how microscopic algae, present in all water bodies, can help to determine provenance.

While others are looking at cognitive issues all along the forensic science process from crime scene to the courtroom. Or how we can build frameworks that help to break down a highly complex set of factors and human decision making into a simple story a jury can understand.

So don’t worry if you’re not an analytical chemist, forensic science is much bigger and better when we draw on disciplines from across the sciences, social sciences and humanities

Find out more about our research

Apply to our PhD

Learn more about the recruitment process and routes of study on offer .

how long is a phd in forensic science

How to Become a Forensic Scientist | Salary & Requirements 2024

Whether working alongside law enforcement at crime scenes or analyzing evidence in laboratories, forensic scientists play a critical role in criminal investigations. Forensic scientists utilize a toolbox of science-based skills and specialized knowledge that they obtain through various undergraduate, graduate, and certificate programs. Often a fulfilling career, these professionals can expect this field to grow by  as much as 16%  over the next decade.

On the following page, we explore what forensic scientists do, their career prospects, and the steps you’ll take to begin your career. Keep reading to learn more about this exciting and growing career.

What Do Forensic Scientists Do?

Forensic scientists work alongside law enforcement and assist in criminal investigations. These professionals help collect and analyze evidence and, depending on their specialization, work with crime scenes or in a laboratory setting. Forensic science generalists—also known as criminalists—perform a broad range of duties while utilizing their own set of specialized skills. 

Forensic science professionals who primarily work in laboratory settings often have job titles such as forensic chemist or forensic biologist. We’ve highlighted some standard job requirements below.

  • Analyze crime scenes and collect evidence
  • Diligently record information and observations at crime scenes
  • Document and photograph crime scenes and evidence
  • Use databases to catalog evidence
  • Perform various biological and chemical tests on evidence
  • Collaborate with professionals in other fields such as odontologists and toxicologists

Forensic Scientist Salary and Career Outlook

According to the  Bureau of Labor Statistics  (BLS), forensic science technicians earn a median annual salary of nearly $62,000. And while projections don’t guarantee job growth, students preparing for a career in forensic science can anticipate a career field that’s projected to grow by 16% between 2020 and 2030. 

But that median income only tells part of the story—a forensic scientist’s location, experience, and specific role can significantly impact how much they earn. Top earning forensic science technicians earn more than $100,000 per year.

Forensic science technicians work for various governmental employers at the state and local levels. These professionals also find themselves working in various testing, medical, and diagnostic laboratories. 

Alongside earning a bachelor’s degree, forensic science professionals can expand career opportunities and earning potential through various certificate programs, professional certifications, and graduate degrees.

How to Know if You Would Enjoy a Job as a Forensic Scientist Field

Before embarking on your forensic science career, it’s worth considering whether or not this career is a solid choice. Forensic science students typically have a knack for STEM-based coursework with an interest in working in a collaborative, lab-based environment. Prospective forensic scientists should also feel comfortable working alongside law enforcement.

Some common skills for forensic scientists include critical thinking, decision-making, interpersonal skills, and attention to detail. As with many careers, computer proficiency, time management, and communications skills are also essential. Future forensic scientists should also recognize that they will likely encounter violent crime scenes and human loss.

Steps to Becoming a Forensic Scientist

While there’s not a single path toward becoming a forensic scientist, you’ll need to secure at least a bachelor’s degree, preferably a  forensic science degree  or  biology degree . Additionally, some students pursue graduate degrees or professional certificates to enhance their career options. In the following section, we outline the step you need to take when pursuing a career in forensic science.

How Long Does it Take to Become a Forensic Scientist?

Forensic scientists traditionally hold at least a bachelor’s degree in forensic science. Students can complete these 120-credit programs in about four years and tackle core classes that include topics such as criminal procedure, criminalistics, and digital forensics. 

Those holding a bachelor’s degree who want to enhance their credentials or start a new career can enroll in a master’s program in forensic science. These programs typically take two years to complete, but online programs often allow distance learners to earn their degrees more quickly. Standard master’s coursework covers topics like forensic biology, forensic accounting, and organizational information systems.

Forensic science graduates also have access to a sizeable list of graduate certificate programs. These certificate programs cover topics such as death investigation, toxicology, drug chemistry, and DNA and serology. 

What is the Difference Between Forensic Scientists and Criminalists?

Discerning the difference between forensic scientists and criminalists can be tricky. This is further muddied because  the BLS  lumps forensic scientists, crime scene investigators, and criminalists together. In short, criminalists are a professional subset that falls under the umbrella of forensic science. Other specializations include forensic computer examiners, digital forensic analysts, forensic biologists, and forensic chemists.

  • Forensic scientists assist in criminal investigations and utilize specialized training to analyze crime scenes, collect evidence, and catalog their findings. Additionally, some of these professionals work in a laboratory setting and perform various chemical and biological examinations.
  • Individuals interested in a forensic science career traditionally hold a four-year bachelor’s degree in forensic science or a related field. Some students also pursue graduate-level degrees to enhance career options and expand earning potential.
  • The amount forensic scientists can earn depends on various factors, including education, experience, professional certifications, and location. That said, the median income for forensic science technicians is nearly  $62,000 per year .
  • Pursuing a forensic science career is a solid choice for individuals with a knack for STEM coursework and a desire to work alongside law enforcement. According to the BLS, forensic science technician jobs are projected to grow by 16% between 2020 and 2030.

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Colleges with Forensic Science Degree Programs

Pursuing a degree in forensic science can open up an abundance of career opportunities for people interested in the intersection between the legal and medical fields. In fact, US News & World Report (2023) shows forensic science majors go on to pursue various careers, including crime scene investigator, forensic DNA analyst, forensic interviewer, and forensic science technician. With forensic science degree, including extensive training in a laboratory environment, more specific job opportunities for graduates include becoming a medical examiner; crime lab analyst; toxicologist; forensic biologist; forensic chemist; forensic engineer; forensic odontologist; and criminal profiler.

According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS 2023), forensic science technicians—one of many possible careers open to professionals in this field—make an average annual salary of $63,740. Openings for this group are projected to grow 13 percent between 2022 and 2032—much faster than the national average for all occupations. The forensic science degree is versatile and can provide access to growth opportunities in a diversity of science-based criminal justice.

So what kind of skills can one expect to learn in a forensic science program? According to the American Academy of Forensic Scientists (AAFS), some of the competencies achieved in these programs include how to:

  • Analyze evidence from crime scenes (e.g., blood, body fluids, hair and fiber samples, fingerprints, firearms, toolmarks, documents, chemical traces, and other substances) using chemical, biological, and physical testing methods
  • Documenting testing procedures and communicating findings to medical and legal personnel
  • Testifying in court cases as expert witnesses

Forensic scientists work in a range of environments—some of which students may be exposed to during university internships, real-world research projects, and other projects organized through forensic science schools—such as hospitals, morgues, labs, courts, police departments, government agencies, universities, research centers, and private companies. Employment opportunities for forensic scientists are also propelled by technological advances. New scientific methods and instrumentation are continually emerging (e.g., DNA analyses) for collecting and examining criminal evidence, creating backlogs in forensic laboratories.

Although forensic scientists and technicians typically need at least a bachelor’s degree in biology, chemistry, or forensic science, there are exceptions. Read on below to discover what to expect from a forensic science school, as well as information on degree levels, curricula, professional certification, and program accreditation.

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Forensic science degree and certificate programs.

Although there are various forensic science programs and degrees—including associate’s, bachelor’s, master’s, doctoral, and certificate options—this section focuses on programs accredited by the Forensic Science Education Programs Commission (FEPAC). For more information on program accreditation’s benefits, please reference this article’s last section. Please note that some of these programs are offered through other academic departments (e.g., chemistry, biology, etc) and offer forensic science as an emphasis or concentration.

Here are four featured FEPAC-accredited forensic science programs:

Buffalo State of New York (SUNY) provides a rigorous bachelor of science (BS) in forensic chemistry combining a solid, comprehensive foundation in forensics fundamentals with empirical research in real-world laboratories. Established in 1971, Buffalo’s program imparts the hands-on applications of biology, chemistry, and physics to give its graduates sensitivity to the intricacies of scientific research and inquiry.

With classes such as chemistry & criminalistics, scientific criminal evidence analysis, and optimal microscopy, Buffalo prepares its students to scientifically examine and test evidence in an ethical and evidence-based manner. Finally, students are allowed to seamlessly integrate the lessons from the classroom into internships at local forensic labs around Erie County.

  • Location: Buffalo, NY
  • Duration: Four years
  • Accreditation: Forensic Science Education Programs Commission (FEPAC)
  • Tuition: $3,535 per semester (full-time; in-state); $8,490 per semester (full-time; out-of-state)

Arcadia University in Pennsylvania offers an interdisciplinary master of science (MS) in forensic science program boasting small class sizes and excellent student performance on the American Board of Criminalistics (ABC) Forensic Science Assessment Test (FSAT, discussed below).

This program offers structured preparation for careers in a variety of scientific subfields. In addition to courses such as criminal law & ethics; genetics; and general principles of pharmacology, Arcadia students are guaranteed an internship at the Center for Forensic Science Research & Education Preparation.

  • Location: Glenside, PA
  • Duration: Two years
  • Tuition: $33,120 per year

The University of California, Davis (UCD) provides a master of science (MS) in forensic science, which gives students training in criminalistics and DNA identification analysis, as well as the collection, examination, analysis, documentation, and reporting of evidence.

This 54-credit program—established in 2002—has produced some amazing forensic professionals, including 59 students (and staff) published in peer-reviewed scientific journals and 47 students who have given presentations to renowned forensics organizations. The curriculum has two distinct tracks—DNA and criminalistics—offering instruction in molecular techniques, genetics & bioinformatics, and forensic DNA analyses in the former, and advanced spectroscopy, analysis of toxicants, and microanalytical microscopy methods in the latter.

  • Location: Davis, CA
  • Duration: 2-3 years
  • Tuition: $880 per credit unit

Cedar Crest College of Allentown, Pennsylvania is one of the few schools in the nation to have multiple FEPAC-accredited programs: the bachelor of science (BS) in forensic science, the BS in genetic engineering with a forensic science concentration, and the master of science (MS) in forensic science.

Cedar Crest has nationally recognized professors who regularly publish in peer-reviewed journals, as well as a one-of-a-kind curriculum, extensive research and presentation opportunities for students, and impressive facilities with state-of-the-art tools (e.g., mass spectrometry [tandem] technology). The master’s program offers instruction in analytical spectroscopy, forensic science administration, and separation chemistry. Finally, since 2007, 95 percent of master’s program graduates have secured employment in forensic science, crime scene investigation, and closely related fields.

  • Location: Allentown, PA
  • Duration: Four years (bachelors); two years (masters)
  • Tuition: $44,334 per year

Forensic Science: Common Courses & Requirements

Here is a breakdown of what to expect from forensic science programs of all levels in terms of application requirements and curricula, as well as examples at each level:

Associate Degree in Forensic Science

Prerequisites (i.e., application requirements): Official transcripts from all secondary (and/or postsecondary) coursework with a competitive GPA, personal statement, Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL) scores for non-native speakers of English, application fee

Common courses: General chemistry, biology, physiology, introduction to forensic science, criminal law, forensic aspects of death investigation, fire & arson investigation

Example: Prince George’s Community College

Bachelor’s Degree in Forensic Science

Prerequisites: Official transcripts from all secondary (and/or postsecondary) coursework with a competitive GPA (e.g., >3.0), completion of specific coursework (e.g., high school level chemistry, biology, physics, and/or calculus), personal statement, Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) or American College Test (ACT) scores, TOEFL scores for non-native speakers of English, application fee

Common courses: Organic chemistry, criminalistics, forensic biology, forensic chemistry, ethics in criminal justice, microbiology, biochemistry, general education courses, scientific criminal evidence analysis,

Example: Eastern Kentucky University (EKU)

Master’s Degree in Forensic Science

Prerequisites: Official transcripts from a bachelor’s program (e.g., biology, chemistry, forensic science, or related discipline) with a competitive GPA (e.g., >3.0), completion of specific coursework (e.g., two semesters of general chemistry, two semesters of organic chemistry, two semesters of biology, molecular biology, statistics, genetics), personal statement, interview (in-person or web-based), letter(s) of recommendation, Graduate Record Examination (GRE) or Medical College Admission Test (MCAT) scores, TOEFL scores for non-native speakers of English, application fee Common courses: Forensic toxicology, forensic serology, DNA analysis, human molecular biology, forensic trace evidence analysis, quality management in forensic science, advanced forensic chemistry, forensic science communications Example: University of Alabama (UAB)

Doctoral Degree in Forensic Science

Prerequisites: Official transcripts from all university degrees with a competitive GPA (e.g., >3.5), resume or CV, completion of specific coursework, personal statement, interview (in-person or web-based), letter(s) of recommendation, experience working in forensics, Graduate Record Examination (GRE), TOEFL scores for non-native speakers of English, application fee Common courses: Law & forensic sciences, forensic toxicology, pattern & physical evidence concepts, advanced forensic chemistry, trace evidence & microscopic analysis, DNA typing, advanced biochemistry, dissertation or thesis project Example: Sam Houston State University

Forensic Science Hybrid & Online Options

In addition to the vast array of online forensics programs in forensic science, crime scene investigation (CSI), forensic accounting, and other subfields, here are two additional online forensic science programs to consider:

University of Massachusetts (UMass) Global in Irvine, California offers an online bachelor of arts (BA) in criminal justice with a concentration in forensics. Preparing its students for careers in forensic science, Brandman boasts demanding coursework in applied criminology, forensic studies, and forensic documentation. Additionally, the nationally renowned faculty imparts to students a grasp of forensic science fundamentals such as the management & documentation of evidence, exercising high ethical principles, and complex problem-solving.

  • Location: Irvine, CA
  • Accreditation: Western Association of Schools and Colleges (WASC)
  • Tuition: $500 per credit

The University of Florida (UF) provides several online forensics programs, including a master of science (MS) in forensic science through its College of Pharmacy. This program won the Award of Excellence in Distance Education. Designed for working professionals in crime labs and other relevant settings, UF’s two-year master’s program has units in forensic anthropology, entomology, biological evidence, blood spatter, and forensic medicine.

Please note that UF has three additional master’s program concentrations: forensic DNA & serology, forensic drug chemistry, and forensic toxicology. Finally, UF also has several 15-credit, online graduate certificates in the following concentrations: forensic drug chemistry, forensic death investigation, forensic DNA & serology, and forensic toxicology.

  • Location: Gainesville, FL
  • Accreditation: Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges (SACSCOC)
  • Tuition: $12,744 per year

Forensic Science Professional Certification

Although having a national certification may not be necessary to work in the field of forensic science, some professionals choose to pursue one of the many certifications available through certification organizations accredited by the Forensic Specialties Accreditation Board (FSAB).

For example, the American Board of Criminalistics (ABC) offers several five-year professional certifications in eight unique areas:

  • Biological evidence screening
  • Comprehensive criminalistics
  • Drug analysis
  • Fire debris analysis
  • Forensic DNA
  • Hair and fiber
  • Molecular biology
  • Paint and polymer

Prerequisites for these certification exams include having a bachelor’s degree in the natural sciences and at least two years of experience working in criminalistics.

Additionally, ABC provides the 220-question Forensic Science Assessment Test (FSAT), which gauges undergraduate students’ knowledge in areas such as questioned documents, firearms & toolmarks, ethics & the law, and other relevant subjects. Results from this exam can illustrate a student’s abilities to prospective employers.

Other FASB-accredited professional certification agencies relevant to forensic scientists are listed here:

  • American Board of Medicolegal Death Investigators (ABMDI)
  • American Board of Forensic Toxicology (ABFT)
  • Bloodstain Pattern Examiner Certification Board, International Association for Identification (IAI)
  • Crime Scene Certification Board, International Association for Identification (IAI)

Accreditation for Forensic Science Programs

Those interested in forensic science colleges and universities are encouraged to check their school’s accreditation status before enrolling. This process can serve as an indicator of programmatic or institutional excellence for prospective students.

Programmatic Accreditation

As mentioned above, the Forensic Science Education Programs Accreditation Commission (FEPAC) is the preeminent programmatic accrediting agency for forensic science programs. This organization considers factors such as faculty support, student services, a program’s mission statement, and school finances to award this distinction.

Institutional Accreditation

Several institutional accrediting agencies examine universities as a whole. There are six common, regional accrediting organizations that are recognized by the U.S. Department of Education:

  • Higher Learning Commission (HLC)
  • Middle States Commission on Higher Education (MSCHE)
  • New England Commission of Higher Education (NECHE)
  • Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities (NWCCU)
  • Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges (SACSCOC)
  • Western Association of Schools and Colleges (WASC)


Jocelyn Blore

Jocelyn Blore is the chief content officer of Sechel Ventures and the co-author of the Women Breaking Barriers series. She graduated summa cum laude from UC Berkeley and traveled the world for five years. She also worked as an addiction specialist for two years in San Francisco. She’s interested in how culture shapes individuals and systems within societies—one of the many themes she writes about in her blog, Blore’s Razor (Instagram: @bloresrazor). She has served as managing editor for several healthcare websites since 2015.

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Get Your Ph.D. in Forensic Psychology – Everything You Need to Know in 2024

What’s in this guide, at a glance, why get a phd in forensic psychology, entry requirements for a forensic psychology phd program, what’s covered in a forensic psychology phd program, how much does a phd in forensic psychology cost, job placement and alumni network, cost and financial aid, location and career opportunities, faculty expertise, cultural and diversity considerations, what jobs can you do with a phd in forensic psychology, how much can you earn with a phd in forensic psychology, best forensic psychology phd programs.

By PsychologyJobs.com Staff Writer

A PhD in forensic psychology represents the highest level of academic achievement in the field, blending the principles of psychology with the workings of the criminal justice system. This advanced degree prepares individuals to understand and assess human behavior within the context of the legal system typically as a forensic psychologist but this degree opens up a wealth of lucrative career opportunities.

A  forensic psychologist  is a professional who applies the principles of psychology to the legal system. They work in a variety of settings, including courtrooms, correctional facilities, and law enforcement agencies.

The PhD program typically takes around 4-6 years to complete and requires extensive coursework in both psychology and law. In addition to coursework, students will be required to complete research projects and often  clinical practicums .

Areas of study; forensic assessment and evaluation, criminal behavior and victimology, ethics and psychopathology.

There are a multitude of reasons why students pursue a PhD in forensic psychology, here are a few key reasons to consider it:

Higher earning potential

Individuals with a PhD in forensic psychology are typically able to earn higher salaries than those with only a  master’s degree  or  bachelor’s degree . The American Psychological Association (APA)’s  Graduate Study in Psychology  found individuals with a doctoral degree in psychology earn a median annual salary of a little under $100,000 vs master’s degree in psychology holders earn a median annual salary of $70,000.

Additionally, specializing in forensic psychology will likely result in higher career lifetime earnings than other psychology subfields. According to the APA, the median annual salary for forensic psychologists is $97,200 in 2019, which is 18% higher than the median salary for psychologists overall.

how long is a phd in forensic science

Solid job prospects (and career flexibility)

A PhD in forensic psychology can prepare individuals for a variety of careers in both the public and private sectors, including academia, research, government agencies, and private practice.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics projects that employment of psychologists overall will grow by 3% from 2019 to 2029. However, employment in specialized areas such as forensic psychology may grow at a faster rate due to an increased demand for forensic services in the criminal justice system.

how long is a phd in forensic science

Advance your knowledge and your network

A PhD in forensic psychology provides individuals with an advanced understanding of both psychology and the legal system. This can lead to a deeper understanding of criminal behavior and the ability to conduct complex forensic evaluations and assessments.

PhD programs in general offer excellent networking opportunities with peers, faculty and partnerships with the industry that can set your network up for your entire career.

how long is a phd in forensic science

  • Bachelor’s or Master’s Degree:  A  master’s degree in psychology , criminology, or a related field.
  • Minimum GPA of 3.0
  • Letters of Recommendation
  • Personal Statement
  • Research Experience:  PhD programs may require applicants to have prior research experience, such as working as a research assistant, conducting independent research projects, or presenting research findings at conferences.
  • Interview:  Some PhD programs may require applicants to participate in an interview with faculty members to assess their fit for the program.

A PhD in forensic psychology provides students with an in-depth understanding of psychology and the legal system, as well as the research and clinical skills necessary to conduct high-quality research and provide effective clinical services.

Here is an overview of the topics frequently covered:

  • Psychology and the Legal System:  the role of psychology in the legal system, and ethical considerations for forensic psychologists.
  • Forensic Assessment:  the assessment of individuals involved in the legal system, including competency to stand trial, criminal responsibility, and risk assessment.
  • Criminal Behavior:  theories and research on criminal behavior, including the psychological factors that contribute to criminal behavior.
  • Research Methods:  research design, data analysis, and statistics.
  • Clinical Training:  clinical training in forensic assessment, interviewing techniques, and report writing.
  • Elective Courses:  choose from a variety of elective courses that align with your research interests, such as victimology, forensic neuropsychology, or the psychology of terrorism.

Here is a sample curriculum for a forensic psychology PhD program:

  • Psychology and the Legal System
  • Research Methods and Statistics
  • Cognitive and Affective Bases of Behavior
  • Social Psychology
  • Ethics and Professional Issues in Forensic Psychology

Second Year

  • Forensic Assessment and Evaluation
  • Psychopathology and Personality Assessment
  • Criminal Behavior and Victimization
  • Advanced Research Methods
  • Elective Course 1
  • Advanced Forensic Assessment and Evaluation
  • Advanced Topics in Criminal Behavior
  • Legal and Professional Issues in Forensic Psychology
  • Elective Course 2
  • Practicum in Forensic Assessment and Evaluation

Fourth Year

  • Advanced Research Seminar
  • Advanced Topics in Forensic Psychology
  • Elective Course 3
  • Dissertation Proposal Development
  • Dissertation Research and Writing
  • Clinical Supervision
  • Advanced Elective Course
  • Advanced Practicum in Forensic Assessment and Evaluation

According to the APA’s Graduate Study in Psychology report, the average tuition and fees for a PhD program in psychology for the 2020-2021 academic year were $11,248 for in-state students at public institutions and $38,686 for out-of-state students at public institutions. Private institutions had an average tuition and fees of $37,124.

It’s important to note that these figures are for all types of psychology PhD programs, not just forensic psychology.

Many PhD programs provide financial support to students in the form of  scholarships , assistantships, and  fellowships . These opportunities can help offset the cost of tuition and living expenses, although the availability and amount of financial support may vary by institution and program.

What to look for in a PhD program

It can be overwhelming with so many PhD programs out there and so many factors to consider. Choosing a program in forensic psychology is a significant decision that will impact the trajectory of your career. Here are a few key ways to compare programs/institutions:

Research the program’s job placement rates for graduates and the types of positions they obtain. A strong alumni network can provide support and job opportunities post-graduation.

The cost of tuition and fees for a PhD program in forensic psychology can vary widely depending on the institution and location. Consider the overall cost of the program, as cost of living varies considerably around the country. Consider also the availability of financial aid such as  scholarships , grants,  fellowships , and assistantships.

The location of the institution can impact the availability of career opportunities and resources. Proximity to courts, correctional facilities, or other related institutions might provide practical experience opportunities. Additionally, consider the quality of research facilities, labs, libraries, and other resources.

Consider also the future potential career opportunities in the area, as well as the quality of life (and as discussed, the cost of living) in the location.

The expertise and research interests of the faculty members in the program can impact the quality of education and training that students receive. Review faculty members and their areas of expertise ahead of committing to a program.

Check if the program fosters diversity and inclusivity. This can shape your educational experience and better prepare you for working with diverse populations. A study published in “ Training and Education in Professional Psychology ” emphasized the importance of multicultural competency in psychology training.

A PhD in forensic psychology can open up a wide range of career opportunities for individuals interested in the intersection of psychology and the legal system:

  • Forensic Psychologist :  assess offenders, provide expert testimony in court, and advise on issues like parole.
  • Correctional Psychologist: work in correctional facilities, providing counseling and treatment to inmates and conducting assessments to determine appropriate levels of security and supervision.  Explore available correctional psychology positions .
  • Professor :  academic faculty member who teaches courses in psychology and  conducts research in the field .
  • Researcher:  conduct research in areas such as criminal behavior, lie detection, witness credibility, or the reliability of eyewitness testimony. This could be in academic settings, government agencies, or private research firms.
  • Expert Witness:  provide expert testimony in court cases on matters such as criminal responsibility, risk assessment, and mental health.
  • Forensic Evaluator:  evaluate individuals involved in the legal system, such as defendants, witnesses, or victims, to assess their mental health and other factors.
  • Forensic Consultant:  consult with law enforcement agencies on matters such as criminal investigations, hostage negotiations, and crisis management.
  • Law enforcement:  there are a variety of positions in law enforcement which either require or encourage an education in forensic psychology e.g. border patrol agent however many of these do not require education to a PhD level.
  • Consultant for Legal Firms: offer insights on jury selection, witness preparation, or how psychological principles might impact a case.
  • Policy Advisor:  Work with government agencies to develop or refine policies related to criminal justice, corrections, or mental health based on psychological principles and research.
  • Private Practice:  Provide therapy and counseling services, often specializing in areas related to trauma, crime, or the aftermath of legal issues.
  • Director of Forensic Services:  Oversee forensic services in mental health institutions or correctional facilities, ensuring that practices align with current standards and research.

Specializing in forensic psychology will likely result in higher career lifetime earnings than other psychology subfields. According to the APA, the median annual salary for forensic psychologists is $97,200 in 2019, which is 18% higher than the median salary for psychologists overall.

  • Forensic Psychologist :  $101,000 annual salary
  • Professor :  $85,050 annual salary
  • Research Psychologist :  $79,000
  • Correctional Psychologist: $65,000 – $95,000
  • Expert Witness: Salaries can vary greatly due to the nature of the work, but experienced psychologists can charge $200 – $600 per hour or more when testifying.
  • Forensic Evaluator: $70,000 – $95,000
  • Criminal Profiler: $50,000 – $100,000, with those in federal roles (like the FBI) potentially earning more.
  • Police Consultant: $60,000 – $95,000
  • Consultant for Legal Firms: $70,000 – $150,000+, depending on experience and the scope of consultation.
  • Policy Advisor: $55,000 – $120,000
  • Private Practice: Earnings can vary widely based on client fees, specialization, and location but $200,000+ is not uncommon.
  • Director of Forensic Services: $90,000 – $150,000+

Kudos to Kinscherff: Long-time Professor and Forensics Expert Contributes to Landmark Decision by State Supreme Judicial Court

  • By Hannah Van Sickle
  • Apr 26, 2024

professor talking at table

Distilling the myriad career interests of Robert Kinscherff, Phd, JD , down to a single, salient takeaway begs an abundance of creativity. The self-described clinical and forensic psychologist turned attorney enjoys spending time at the intersection of neuroscience and related behavioral sciences, including psychology, with aspects of policy and law ranging from child protection and development to criminal sentencing. Kinscherff’s more than three decades of experience in this arena mean his words carry weight. In mid January, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court delivered a landmark decision (Commonwealth v. Mattis) extending the state’s bar on imposing Life Without Possibility of Parole (LWOP) for any crimes committed under age 18 to include persons ages 18 through 20 at the time they committed a crime— including homicide. (In 2013, the Supreme Judicial Court relied on US Supreme Court precedent and developmental brain and behavior science in banning LWOP sentences for persons who committed murder under the age of 18.) Without Kinscherff’s live testimony, science might have missed its day in court. 

“Some of the most important decisions that will impact an individual's life are made by courts and legislators,” says Kinscherff, underscoring a sobering fact: “While the notions [and beliefs] that shape [these] individuals’ decision making are often informed by science—often they are not informed by science,” says Kinscherff.  For example, in working on cases of adolescents and young adults charged or convicted of very serious crimes, Kinscherff  noticed an unfounded and unspoken—albeit pervasive —belief permeating sentencing practices that a young person who committed a very serious crime was likely beyond rehabilitation, particularly if the crime was an especially heinous murder. In fact, there is no science to support that assumption and most youthful offenders will desist from both minor and serious crimes as they mature, especially if provided opportunities to assume meaningful and positive adult roles. It is not even possible to reliably predict the ultimate life-course of an adolescent or emerging young adult, even those who have committed serious crimes including homicide. Indeed, recent research has established that youthful homicide offenders released from prison after their 20’s have substantially lower recidivism rates than persons imprisoned for other kinds of crime. Taken along with the evolving research on brain development among emerging adults, the presumed link between a heinous crime and limited potential for rehabilitation turns out simply to be wrong.  

“Young people are capable of remarkable change and growth over the course of their lives,” says Kinscherff, a “translational” scientist keen on taking scientific research and applying it to real-world situations where understanding that brain development continues well into an individual’s twenties needs to be common knowledge. For example, a White Paper on the Science of Late Adolescence , developed by Kinscherff and his colleagues at the Center for Law, Brain & Behavior at Massachusetts General Hospital was provided as evidence in the Mattis case along with testimony from two other national experts. The same science is taught in the forensic psychology courses that Kinscherff teaches as a Professor at William James College.

professor on panel

“The scientific record strongly supports the contention that emerging adults have the same core neurological characteristics as juveniles have,” wrote Chief Justice Kimberly S. Budd in the majority opinion. Specifically, an enormous body of evidence about neurodevelopment demonstrates that the brains of the 20-year-old and the 13-year-old are similar when it comes to acting on impulse, taking risks, seeking immediate reward and yielding to peer influence. “As such, they must be granted a meaningful opportunity to obtain release based on demonstrated maturity and rehabilitation,” she added in the long-awaited ruling in the case of Mattis vs. Massachusetts. In 2011, 18-year-old Sheldon Mattis was sentenced to LWOP for his involvement in a homicide; the individual who fired the gun, 17-year-old Nyasani Watt, was tried and sentenced as a juvenile and deemed eligible for a parole hearing after serving 15 years. As a result of this ruling Mattis, who was sentenced as an adult, will now have the same opportunity to demonstrate his growth and rehabilitation after serving at least 20 years.

In his current role, as executive director of the Center for Law, Brain & Behavior at Mass General Hospital (CLBB), Kinscherff remains committed to making the legal system more effective and fair for those affected by the law—seeds sown in 1983 when he came to Boston for what was to be a one-year internship at Boston Children’s Hospital and The Baker Center for Children and Families. Kinscherff credits Dr. Kenneth Herman, founder of the Children and Law Program at Massachusetts General Hospital (a “rare bird” and “splendid mentor” at the time, given his dual expertise in law and psychology) as whetting the young scholar’s appetite for applying scientific knowledge to legal decisions.

“I got a taste of [what I found to be] really interesting work with the potential for significant impact,” says Kinscherff of providing reliable, science-based information capable of shaping court decisions. At the close of his internship year, he took a job at the Boston Juvenile Court clinic and the rest—as Kinscherff says—is history. 

Kinscherff’s affiliation with William James College dates back to the late 1990s when he arrived on campus to co-teach the sole course in forensic psychology at the time. His early enthusiasm for developing the College’s forensic holdings and related faculty expertise led to the concentration in Forensic Psychology which Kinscherff defines as, “the use of the behavioral science of psychology in order to develop forensically defensible—meaning defensible on the method of the science—evidence to assist legislators, judges, attorneys, [and other] individuals before the court in making decisions.” Following a stint as Director of Forensic Studies, Kinscherff assumed the position of Associate Vice President for Community Engagement where he was instrumental in establishing Juvenile Court Clinics (JCC) in Suffolk and Norfolk counties operated by William James College under an agreement with the Massachusetts Department of Mental Health and the Trial Court of Massachusetts. Since joining the CLBB as Executive Director three years ago, Kinscherff retains an active teaching role on campus. He never tires of gleaning information from journals geared toward behavioral scientists and lawyers and applying it to real activities touching the lives of real people.

“That’s the part of the work I love the most,” says Kinscherff who, most days, can be found in and around the court systems, and increasingly now state legislatures across the country, delivering science-based testimony on legislation, criminal justice, and juvenile justice. For students keen on integrating psychology and the law, William James College has paved a pair of pathways—one each in the Clinical Psychology PsyD and Clinical Mental Health Counseling MA programs.

“I would encourage any person with a solid grounding in clinical psychology, looking to develop expertise in one of the areas of forensic psychology, to seriously consider William James College as a place not only to be trained but also to position themselves for an impactful career,” says Kinscherff, more confident than ever that neuroscience is poised to become inextricable from popular culture.

“What used to be an arcane enterprise is now an area of focus in increasing demand,” he says of forensic psychology courses spanning the gamut from high school to graduate level—a trend on track to become even more common in the very near future. 

“[While] the people who populate the legislatures and the courts are for the most part intelligent, earnest and honorable human beings, the system itself has well-documented flaws, some of which could be remedied if we simply followed the science,” says Kinscherff, pointing to the Mattis court ruling. Upon delivery of the long-awaited decision, 203 individuals in Massachusetts sentenced to LWOP as young adults will be eligible for parole or a resentencing hearing after serving 15 years, a factor that comes with far-reaching consequences—especially among the disproportionate number of people of color entangled in the criminal justice system as well as those facing addiction and other chronic adversity.

While the tide has turned, the work is far from finished. Last fall, Kinscherff and a colleague were invited to address over 150 judges who sit on cases in immigration and asylum hearings involving minors; the topic of their talk, rooted in child development and child trauma, touched on big-picture questions including, What does a traumatized child look like? and What is the best way to engage with a child to get reliable information about their experiences and perceptions? 

As to Kinscherff’s perspective of these professionals, tasked with making life-altering decisions for others on a daily basis? “They were extremely interested to know what the science had to say.”

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