Education in Forensic Science

Education in Forensic Science

Written by David R. Foran, PhD and Lisa Hebda
David R. ForanDr. David Foran is the director of the graduate Forensic Science Program at Michigan State University. In addition to being widely published in the forensic science literature and having worked on famous historical criminal cases, Dr. Foran is on the editorial board of the Journal of Forensic Sciences (JFS), and is an American Academy of Forensic Sciences fellow. His co-author for this article, Lisa Hebda, is a graduate student in the Forensic Science Masters program at Michigan State University, concentrating in forensic biology. She received her BS in Neuroscience from the University of Michigan."

Forensic science refers to the application of scientific principles to establish facts for legal matters, both criminal and civil. Like all aspects of criminal justice, becoming a forensic scientist requires the appropriate education and training, however, because the term forensic scientist can be applied to such a diverse group of professionals, a wide variety of educational requirements exist. Therefore it may be helpful to divide forensic scientists into categories when considering their educational requirements. One division is between individuals who practice forensic science full time (e.g., crime laboratory personnel, forensic pathologists) and those for whom forensics is an offshoot or specialization of their profession and expertise (many of whom work in academia, such as forensic anthropologists or forensic entomologists). A second division is between civilian forensic scientists and those who are “sworn” individuals such as police officers. As can be imagined, the educational requirements for these groups often differ substantially.

At the heart of forensic science are the crime laboratories, which exist at the city, county, regional, state, and federal levels, along with some private facilities. These range from being very basic and housing a single unit (e.g., fingerprints) all the way to ‘full service’ laboratories that have scientists in many areas, including biology, chemistry, toxicology, firearms, controlled substances, latent prints, trace evidence, questioned documents, digital evidence, polygraphs, and more. All of these individuals examine and test evidence that comes into the crime laboratory, which is usually submitted by police agencies. It is these same agencies that have crime scene investigators (CSIs) who regularly process crime scenes and collect evidence, therefore if an individual is interested in being a CSI, becoming a police officer is the usual route, although a few jurisdictions use civilians for this purpose. This is not to say that forensic scientists never process crime scenes or collect evidence, however, most of their time is spent in the laboratory analyzing evidence, and they may go their whole career without ever visiting a crime scene, or only do so in high profile cases where their specific expertise is required.

Beyond the crime laboratory lays an immense group of professions that can be associated with forensic science. In the medical field, forensic pathologists (which may include medical examiners or coroners) have a medical degree, with subsequent specialization in pathology and forensic pathology. Forensic nurses (or sexual assault nurse examiners) deal with the living, and have the unique training required to identify and treat victims of crime, as well as collect physical and verbal evidence from them. Forensic psychiatrists (a medical degree) and psychologists often examine suspects and witnesses to ascertain if they understand their circumstances and are competent to testify. They are commonly in private practice and consult with the legal system. Note that this is different than criminal ‘profiling’, which is usually carried out by individuals in police agencies who work directly with detectives, and themselves are typically sworn.

The world of academia contains a large number of forensic experts, who use their education and knowledge to assist the legal system, although this is often not their primary responsibility. For instance, almost all certified forensic entomologists have a doctorate in classic entomology or a closely related field, and teach classes and conduct research that often have nothing to do with forensics. Likewise, many forensic anthropologists received their doctorate through years of study of human skeletal remains, which might be modern but are frequently historic in nature and have no relationship to criminal activity. Forensic casework often represents a small (though very interesting) portion of their work. Academics studying animals (zoologists or veterinarians), plants (botanists), manmade structures (engineers), the earth (geologists), electronics (computer scientists) and just about any other field can one day find themselves in court explaining details of a piece of evidence to a judge and jury. The same can be said for experts in other professions, where specialized knowledge is a tremendous asset for the criminal justice system. In other words, any individual who is a respected expert in their craft may at some point become court qualified as a forensic expert.

However, most people considering a career in forensic science probably desire a full time position, which generally places them in the crime laboratory. While jurisdictions vary widely, it is not uncommon for certain specializations in the laboratory to be occupied by officers and others by civilians. (It is rare today that everyone in the laboratory must be sworn, although this was the case in some states a few years ago.) Therefore, policing is one option for a career in a crime laboratory, although a bachelor’s degree is still required. Units in the laboratory most likely to be staffed by sworn personnel are those where the knowledge and skills are learned via observation and interpretation, as opposed to analytical methodologies. Examples include firearms or fingerprints analyses, which are largely learned through an apprenticeship system. Some college level science classes, like chemistry and physics, are useful and may be required, however a full degree in the hard sciences usually is not.

In contrast, the analytical sections of the crime laboratory, including chemistry, toxicology, and the relative newcomer biology, do require a degree in natural science. Analytical chemists were historically the mainstays of the laboratory, and even today they perform the broadest array of analyses for drugs and ‘trace’ evidence such as gunshot residue, arson accelerants, hairs and fibers, soil, glass, etc. Likewise, toxicologists, who test for drugs and other substances inside the body, generally have a chemistry background, although usually with more education in the physiology of how the body metabolizes such substances. Forensic chemists are also used to conduct tests on body fluids such as blood, semen, and saliva. This ‘serology’ testing was based on body fluids’ reaction with specific antibodies, helping to include or exclude a suspect based on characteristics exemplified by ABO blood groups. However, when DNA analysis grew in importance, it became clear that most chemists did not have the educational background needed for its testing, and for the first time forensic scientists agreed upon a minimal educational background required for a specific forensic specialty, which for DNA analysis includes a bachelor’s degree in the natural sciences along with specific coursework in genetics, molecular biology, biochemistry, population genetics, and statistics.

The new educational requirements for forensic biologists put pressure on the rest of the forensic specialties regarding the academic background of their scientists. This, along with the popularity of forensic programming on television, led to a sharp increase in the number of forensic science educational programs in the U.S. Today, hundreds of colleges and universities offer some sort of forensic science education (see http://www.aafs.org/programs-within-united-states), including certificate programs, specializations, undergraduate minor, undergraduate major, and graduate degrees. The rash of new forensic science programs, some of which are undoubtedly designed merely to attract students (and their tuition dollars) to a school or department, resulted in the formation of the Forensic Science Education Programs Accreditation Commission (FEPAC) through the American Academy of Forensic Sciences. FEPAC inspects and evaluates both undergraduate and graduate forensic science programs, and their accreditation ensures that a program meets minimum standards regarding resources for students, qualifications of professors and instructors, laboratory facilities, etc. This then allows prospective students to be ‘smart shoppers’ when it comes to considering a forensic science educational program.

It should be noted that it is not required that an individual holds a forensic science degree in order to be employed in the analytical sections of a crime laboratory, and in fact, prior to the last decade or two, the majority of new employees instead held a more standard science degree such as chemistry, biochemistry, or molecular biology. However, given the number of forensic science programs and their graduates that now exist, an otherwise equivalent applicant with a more specific forensic education may be at an advantage when it comes to applying for a crime laboratory position. On the other hand, employers also consider the quality of the education obtained, and an applicant from a prestigious research university or liberal arts college may be given preference over a graduate of a forensic science program from an obscure or poorly regarded institution. Further, a strong (non-forensic) science degree from a quality educational institution opens many doors (including in the criminal justice system), while a forensic education, in spite of the science classes required, can be limiting if forensic science jobs are hard to come by or are in high demand, (today a single job opening often results in hundreds of applications), and may be seen as a less desirable specialization if a student changes his or her mind regarding a career.

Among forensic science undergraduate programs, the mode of education can vary broadly. Some take a more generalist route, wherein students have some biology, some chemistry, some toxicology, etc., while others have one or more specializations (many examples of curricula can be found at http://aafs.org/programs-within-united-states). If a student has a good idea of which part of the crime laboratory they would like to work in, a specialization can make sense, in that it is more likely that all required courses will be covered. Certainly students should make sure any program they choose includes a rigorous science curriculum that meets the requirements of the laboratories. Beyond that, students will receive specialized forensic subject matter such as crime scene processing and evidence collection, ethics, quality assurance, law and testimony, and other topics. Because a crime laboratory is just that—a laboratory—students should also look for programs that result in as much hands-on laboratory experience as possible (which makes on-line education for a forensic science career basically impossible). Internships and laboratory research opportunities (which need not be specifically in forensics) represent highly worthwhile methods for students to obtain hands-on experience, and to see if they truly enjoy a laboratory setting. Schools with limited laboratory space and equipment, and curricula that do not include extensive experience with analytical instrumentation, should be avoided.

A bachelor’s degree in forensic science can be adequate for obtaining a job in a crime laboratory, however the laboratories are increasingly looking for a graduate degree (almost always a Master’s), and a job applicant with such a degree is certainly at an advantage during the hiring process. Owing to this, undergraduates, even those with a degree in forensic science, often seek out graduate education. Naturally, an appropriate undergraduate degree is required for admittance to a graduate forensic program, however, one in forensic science is not, and in some cases a graduate program’s admissions may prefer applicants from a perceived ‘higher quality’ college or university with a hard science degree over a forensic undergraduate major, which is sometimes looked upon as a slightly ‘watered down’ science degree. Graduate programs in forensic science vary widely, both in quality (FEPAC accreditation should be considered) and in the way they approach education. As noted for undergraduate programs, some graduate programs are general in nature while others have specific tracks or specializations. At the Master’s level it is almost impossible to take all the coursework required to satisfy crime laboratory requirements for forensic chemistry, forensic toxicology, and forensic biology, so again, applicants should review programs’ curricula carefully. Further, graduate school can and should provide substantial hands-on experience in forensic testing and research, although not all programs stress these. Undertaking an internship at a local crime laboratory can be beneficial as well, however the amount of time spent in the laboratory varies based on the internship program, and interns may not be able to handle actual evidence or equipment, limiting the experience to clerical work.

In summary, the primary consideration when investigating education aimed towards a career in forensic science is the area of expertise, as that will have a profound influence on educational requirements, be it medical school to be a pathologist, nursing school to be a forensic nurse, a PhD program to be a forensic anthropologist or entomologist, computer studies for digital forensics, or myriad other avenues. If work in a crime laboratory is desired, law enforcement is one pathway, while natural science education is another. Attending a forensic science program is not an absolute requirement for working in a crime laboratory, although it does help provide familiarity with many of the issues that are specific to forensic science that would not be encountered in a more traditional science education. As is always the case, attending the best school possible, based on both reputation and resources, is highly desirable. An undergraduate degree with a forensic focus may be enough to land a job, although crime laboratories are increasingly employing individuals with graduate degrees. In this regard, obtaining the best undergraduate science education possible leaves many doors open and acts as a solid foundation for admittance into a graduate forensic program and subsequently a career in a crime laboratory.