Computer forensics degree programs (Types, requirements & career paths)
As technology continues to evolve, so too do the means and methods of committing cybercrime. Cyber security professionals that specialize in computer forensics are essential to solving cybercrime, recovering any lost or stolen data and preventing future attacks.
Earning a degree in computer forensics is a great way to gain foundational knowledge of cyber security with an emphasis on computer or digital forensics, and it could set you up for an important career as a computer forensic investigator or similar occupation.
What is computer forensics?
Computer forensics, also known as digital or cyber forensics, is the process of collecting and analyzing digital evidence of cybercrime. Much like forensic scientists who gather physical evidence such as hair samples, bullet casings, fingerprints and the like for a criminal investigation, computer forensic investigators find and investigate digital crime.
They detect and evaluate evidence from computer hacks, damage to computer systems, overrides to networks and much more. Breached and destroyed networks need their help to break down how it happened, recover lost or stolen data and help law enforcement personnel solve the crime—as well as prevent it from happening again.
Computer forensics degree requirements
Computer forensics degrees are offered at the bachelor's, master's and doctoral levels, though it's even more common for schools to offer digital forensics as a concentration within another degree such as computer science or cyber security, or as a minor.
In general, a bachelor's degree in digital forensics, cyber security, computer science or a related subject is considered the minimum degree needed to enter the field. A master's degree could give you that extra boost of knowledge to make you a more competitive candidate, but the education you need to have is going to depend on individual employers. Explore these degree options below to determine which is best for you.
Degree level: Bachelor's in Computer Forensics
Time to complete: Four years
Bachelor's degrees in digital forensics provide a holistic introduction to cyber security and computer forensic investigations. Most bachelor's degree programs also require students to take courses in other subject areas for a well-rounded education. This degree is often considered the minimum education needed to work in digital forensics and is necessary if you wish to move on to a graduate level degree.
Sample courses you may take: Programming, network administration and security, introduction to digital forensics, introduction to criminal justice
Degree level: Master's in Digital Forensics
Time to complete: Two to three years
A master's degree in digital forensics could expand your job prospects with the specialized knowledge you'll gain in a graduate-level program. You may need a bachelor's degree in cyber security, computer science or a related field to be admitted. These programs teach the latest techniques for analyzing computers and other digital media, and typically require students to complete an internship, thesis presentation or other culminating project to synthesize their learning. Master's programs may also prepare you for various digital forensics certifications. A master's degree may be necessary for more senior-level roles in the industry.
Sample courses you may take: Incident response technologies, wireless security and forensics, behavioral aspects of cyber security
Degree level: Doctoral in Computer Forensics
Time to complete: Four to eight years
A doctoral degree is the highest degree you can earn in the field. This ambitious degree program may be most appropriate for cyber security professionals who wish to conduct research or teach at the postsecondary level. In most programs, students are expected to present their research in the form of a thesis or dissertation. Some doctoral programs do not require that you have a master's degree to be admitted—a bachelor's degree is usually sufficient.
Sample courses you may take: Advanced research topics in cyber security forensics, cyber security forensics of malware
Work experience needed to be a computer forensic examiner
As important as education is, it can only get you so far. Experience can be just as important to your success as a cyber security professional, and some skills must simply be acquired on the job. When starting as a junior or entry-level computer forensic analyst, some employers may only require one to two years of experience, but usually an average of three years is the norm. So how do you get that experience in the first place? It's true that you can't usually jump straight into digital forensic investigations after getting a degree, so you may need to gain experience as a cyber security analyst, incident responder, security auditor or a related position for a few years first.
Experience can be just as important to your success as a cyber security professional as education.
Senior or management roles typically require at least five years on the job to be considered for advancement. Internships and employers that offer in-house training are excellent ways to build up your work experience.
Skills needed for working in digital forensics
Successful computer forensic investigators possess a variety of technical and analytic skills. Many of these hard skills can be learned in a computer forensic degree program or a related degree, while soft skills tend to be based more on an individual's aptitudes and personality.
|"Hard" Skills||"Soft" Skills|
|Cyber security fundamentals||Communication|
|Fluency in various programming languages||Creative problem-solving|
|Legal and ethical issues concerning data||Ethical integrity|
|Criminal investigation protocol and procedures||Analytical thinking|
|Knowledge of computer systems, digital storage devices, malware and other relevant technological concepts||Attention to detail|
Cyber security and forensic-related certifications
Obtaining a professional certification in cyber security and/or digital forensics can be a fantastic way to demonstrate a level of expertise to future employers and open up the number of jobs available to you, since some may require that you hold a certain certification. Having these credentials on your resume may even lead to higher-paying jobs. Some relevant certifications that you might want to pursue include:
- Certified Forensic Computer Examiner (CFCE) from the International Association of Computer Investigative Specialists (IACIS)
- Certified Advanced Windows Forensic Examiner (CAWFE) from the IACIS
- Certified Computer Examiner (CCE) from the International Society of Forensic Computer Examiners (ISFCE)
- Certified Ethical Hacker (CEH) from EC-Council
- Certified Penetration Testing Professional (CPENT) from EC-Council
- GIAC Certified Forensic Examiner (GCFE)
- GIAC Certified Forensic Analyst (GCFA)
- GIAC Network Forensic Analyst (GNFA)
- GIAC Reverse Engineering Malware Certification (GREM)
Some employers may help you pay for the education to earn a certification, so it's worth asking about employer reimbursement for education if you are currently working.
Career paths for computer forensics degree holders
Computer forensics professionals have a lot of options when it comes to the career paths they can take. There are two primary routes: working in government (public sector) or for corporations and other private companies (private sector).
Government: Computer forensics investigators can find a lot of jobs working for the government, from local law enforcement departments to federal agencies like the National Security Agency (NSA), the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) or the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA). With cybercrime on the rise, demand for competent cybercrime investigators like computer forensics professionals has seldom been greater. The federal government even created various programs to encourage people to learn about and work in cyber security, such as the CyberCorps: Scholarship for Service (SFS) Program. This program provides scholarships to cyber security students in exchange for working for a period of time for the U.S. government after they graduate.
Private sector: Cyber forensics professionals also have the option to work in the private sector for various businesses and corporations. These could include major technology and e-commerce companies, healthcare systems, banks, consulting firms, law firms and so much more. Working for an individual company means that the computer forensics investigator is focused on investigating and preventing cyber attacks on that particular entity.
No matter which route you choose to pursue, a digital forensics degree can be incredibly helpful in landing a job and gaining the skills necessary to excel in either of these sectors.
Typical job titles for digital forensics degree holders
As with most computer science and cyber security positions, there are several different specific job titles that may have the same—or extremely similar—responsibilities to each other. When you begin to job hunt, carefully read the responsibilities and requirements in the job description to determine if you qualify.
Computer forensics degree holders may find jobs that go by any of these titles:
- Computer forensics specialist
- Computer forensics engineer
- Computer forensics examiner
- Computer forensics technician
- Computer forensics investigator
- Information security crime investigator
- Digital/computer crime specialist
Additional career paths with a computer forensics degree
A computer forensics degree is versatile and may be applied to numerous other cyber security roles besides just computer or digital forensics. These are just some of the potential other career paths available to people with a computer forensics degree:
- Cyber security analyst:
- This catch-all role typically does a little of everything in cyber security. Cyber security analysts monitor their organization for security breaches, respond to attacks when they occur, prevent attacks before they begin, develop policies and procedures and more. A digital forensics degree provides students with foundational knowledge in cyber security to excel in a generalist role such as a cyber security analyst.
- Cyber security consultant:
- Cyber consultants lend their expertise to various businesses to help with general or specific cyber security concerns. With a computer forensics degree, your unique comprehension of how to find digital evidence in the event of a security breach may allow you to specialize in consulting on cyber security investigations.
- Chief information security officer (CISO):
- A degree in computer forensics can be a great first step on the way to becoming a CISO, a senior role that is in charge of overseeing all security policies and procedures for a company or organization. By knowing how to find and evaluate digital evidence, a CISO with a computer forensics degree may be better prepared to prevent such attacks.
- Incident responder:
- These professionals respond to cyber security attacks within an organization. Computer forensics degree holders are great for this role because they have a thorough understanding of how attacks occur and how to find and analyze any relevant evidence.
Ethical considerations in computer forensics
The information gathered by computer forensics professionals is often used in legal proceedings. As people who collect and analyze digital evidence of cybercrime, terrorism or other threats, computer forensics investigators may also have to testify in court. This means that there are unique ethical considerations that computer forensics professionals must be aware of. Honesty and integrity, therefore, are especially important in this field.
Although there are no universal ethical standards in the field of digital forensics, several professional organizations have curated their own ethical standards and/or codes of conduct to act as necessary guidelines for digital forensics professionals. People who hold certifications from these organizations must abide by their standards.
One example is the Code of Ethics and Professional Responsibility from the International Society of Forensic Computer Examiners (ISFCE). They list the following as some of the ethical responsibilities of a Certified Computer Examiner (CCE):
- Maintain objectivity in all examinations and report findings accurately
- Never withhold relevant evidence
- Testify truthfully in court or any other proceeding
- Comply with all legal orders of the courts
- Never express bias or opinions in legal proceedings
- Never reveal confidential information without a court order or permission from a client
Taking the first step toward a computer forensics degree
Obtaining either a bachelor's or master's degree in computer forensics may be well worth the investment so that you can gain the knowledge and skills necessary to conduct digital forensics investigations. Whether you have your sights set on working with local law enforcement, a government security agency or a private company, earning your computer forensics degree may be the first step toward making that goal become a reality.
Updated: June 2, 2023