Degree programs in digital forensics offer training in detecting and preventing cyber crime. Associate's degree programs often include digital forensics courses along with courses in criminal justice and constitutional law. At the bachelor's level, computer forensics programs may be part of a criminal justice or law enforcement program. Students need a strong background in computer science, including programming, to pursue master's degree studies in computer forensics. Students engage in research and often participate in internships.
Applicants to the undergraduate programs need a high school diploma and standardized test scores. Applicants to the master's programs need a bachelor's degree and background in fundamental computing, networking, operating systems, hardware, software and network systems.
Associate of Applied Science in Digital Forensics
Students enrolled in a digital forensics associate's degree program often study non-technical topics such as legal ethics--although the primary emphasis is computer science and information technology. Due to the complexities of digital computer forensics, many graduates go on to pursue bachelor's and master's degrees in this field; credits may be transferable from a 2-year program. Undergraduate certificate programs for digital forensics are similar to the associate's degree course of study but do not contain general education classes and take less than two years to complete.
In addition to general education courses like English, history and fundamental law enforcement, classes may consist of:
- Concepts in information technology
- Intranet and Internet security
- Cisco network administration
- Linux system administration
- System design and programming logic
Bachelor of Science in Digital Forensics
Some computer or digital forensics degrees are administered jointly by statistics, mathematics or computer science departments. A traditional computer science degree equips prospective forensics specialists for graduate school programs in a related field. Graduate studies in computer science fields require a comprehensive background in programming, algorithms and data structures.
In addition to general education requirements, Bachelor of Science in Computer Forensics coursework might consist of the following:
- Finite and discrete mathematics and introduction to statistics
- Computer forensics file systems
- Data mining
- Database design
- Introduction to computer networks
- Principles of fraud examination
Master of Science in Digital Forensics
Sometimes offered as a track within a broader computer science program, digital forensics is widely available as a field of study at the master's degree level. Leading research facilities and investigative labs have attracted federal funding in furtherance of the cyber war on terrorism and the explosion of foreign and domestic online cyber crimes. Developments such as software write-blocking, automated search string propagation, human image recognition and studies in steganography (embedded hidden information) are taking digital forensics to a higher plane. Such forensics laboratories and research facilities provide valuable hands-on training and invaluable internship opportunities. The programs also may prepare candidates for careers in the development of forensics tools, their validation and their verification.
The curriculum includes intensive specialization in technical areas or more loosely related subjects such as criminal justice. Topics might include cyber crime, cyber law, investigative analysis and engineering statistics. Some classes require prior programming knowledge in C and C++, parallel programming and computer architecture. Classes also touch upon:
- Network, computer, file system and OS forensics
- Forensics analysis tools (EnCase and FTK)
- Wireless security
- Digital forensics practicum
- Malware and software vulnerability analysis
- Distributed processing of digital evidence
Employment Outlook and Salary Information
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS, www.bls.gov) reported that forensic science technicians, including computer forensics technicians, could have 14% employment growth during the 2019-2029 decade. It also reported that forensic science technicians earned a median annual wage of $60,590 as of May 2020.
Bachelor's degrees may prepare holders for higher positions than those with an associate's degree. The BLS stated in May 2020 that computer and information systems managers, including security managers, earned a median wage of $151,150 per year. In 2021, Payscale.com reported that computer forensics analysts earned an annual median wage of $74,189. The BLS reported that private detectives and investigators, including computer forensic investigators, earned an annual median wage of $53,320 in May 2020.
An alternate to the master's degree program is a digital forensics graduate certificate program, which is shorter in length and requires fewer classes. Some graduate certificate programs accept students without a computer background or programming skills. Others require not only an undergraduate degree in a related field, but proven technical prowess such as via Net+ or A+ certification.
Graduates with a master's degree may pursue a doctorate in computer science with a concentration in digital forensics. Some choose to continue on to law school in order to better defend the findings of cyber detectives and seek justice for those affected by cyber crime.
Students interested in studying digital forensics can pursue an associate's, bachelor's or master's degree program to train for careers as forensic science technicians. Employment growth in the field is expected to be faster-than-average, but graduates also have the option of further education through certificate programs and/or doctoral degrees.