Very few colleges offer specialized degrees in forensic toxicology at the bachelor's or master's levels. Training is available primarily through internship programs, usually with law enforcement agencies. These programs vary, but all include hands-on training in detecting chemicals in the human body as well as instruction on presenting the results of testing in a report or as court testimony. Programs typically take two to four years to complete or more depending on the program level.
At the least, a high school diploma is a prerequisite for these programs. Additional requirements for admission vary according to the school. Also, some schools also require students to take state-sponsored proficiency exams in chemistry, biology and mathematics before registering for classes.
Bachelor of Science in Forensic Toxicology
At the bachelor's level, a student won't have as many choices when looking for a forensic toxicology program. However, several degrees are available in forensic chemistry, which offers a good foundation for further education. Most of these programs include at least a one-semester internship with a local forensic lab as part of the curriculum. Chemistry and math form the core of this program, along with studies of both chain-of-evidence and courtroom legal procedures. Communication classes are also highlighted because many forensic toxicologists are called upon to testify or give reports as expert witnesses.
Schools recommend that students interested in forensic toxicology or forensic chemistry bachelor's programs have a strong high school background in chemistry, biology and mathematics. Students who have taken advanced placement classes may be able to waive some of the lower-level math and science courses in college.
Forensic toxicology students study not only traditionally known toxins such as arsenic, but also how local environmental substances can affect and metabolize within the human body. Some of the courses cover subjects such as:
- Industrial and environmental agent toxicology
- Methods of toxicology analysis
- Reaction dynamics in physical chemistry
- Rules of evidence studies
- Molecular and cellular biology
Master's Degree in Forensic Toxicology
Most master's programs confer professional degrees and place more focus on post-mortem analysis than bachelor programs do. Many master's degree programs emphasize preparing students to work more closely with a medical examiner's office. Degree programs are available online and on-campus. Both thesis and non-thesis programs are offered for the master's program.
Most master's programs require students to have completed baccalaureate programs in chemistry, forensic science or forensic toxicology prior to admission. Many programs also recommend students take classes in physiology, biochemistry and instrumental analysis before enrolling in master's level coursework.
Because many students enter the program with a chemistry background, courses are available which cover beginning toxicology and courtroom procedure. Some of the more advanced classes include:
- Effects of drugs on human and non-human species
- Evidentiary data handling and interpretation
- Laboratory role in determining time, date and effects of toxins
- Preparation and presentation of evidence testimony
- Chemical event processes on biological entities
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Training in Forensic Toxicology
The majority of training in this field is done on-the-job. Most forensic toxicologists begin working with more experienced professionals in local, state and federal crime labs and advance their career through years of hands-on experience.
Another training option is to take part in an internship program. Many levels are available, ranging from high school introductory programs through graduate school-level work. Local and state law enforcement agencies offer more of these programs than private consulting firms do. Few internship programs include actual coursework. Some of the subject matter emphasized in training includes:
- Lab procedure and practice overviews
- Ante-mortem and post-mortem toxicology screenings
- Controlled substance analysis
- Blood and tissue sample processing and analysis
- Examining new testing methods
Unlike many other areas of study, those with a master's degree may find employment teaching at a postsecondary level. Other options include:
- Quality assurance coordinator
- Controlled substance forensic scientist
- Evidence processing and control specialist
- Drug chemist
Employment Outlook and Salary Info
Those with a bachelor's degree in forensic toxicology may find entry-level employment as technicians in law enforcement agencies and private consulting labs. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, forensic science technicians were predicted to see a 27% increase in employment opportunities between 2014 and 2024 (www.bls.gov). The BLS reported that the mean salary for this position was $60,090 annually in May 2015. The BLS reported a mean annual salary for chemists of $77,860 in 2015.
The American Board of Forensic Toxicology (ABFT) offers certification for forensic toxicology specialists. An applicant may only need a bachelor's degree before applying for the examination, but he or she must have a minimum of three years of professional experience. This certification must be renewed every five years.
Ph.D. programs for forensic toxicology are rare; however, a variety of continuing education opportunities are available. The Society of Forensic Toxicologists (SOFT) offers courses and seminars on the latest techniques and scientific discoveries in the field. These programs can be attended either in person or via webcasts.
Although it is tough to find forensic toxicology training, it is possible to learn about the subject through internship programs, as well as specialized bachelor's and master's degree programs. Through these programs, aspiring forensic toxicologist gain an understanding of how thousands of chemicals alter the human body, as well as relevant legal procedures.