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The forensic science field has experienced a surge of interested candidates in recent years. Much of the interest can be attributed to fictional and reality television shows focused on law enforcement and forensics. These shows have provided the public a glimpse of what forensic science is capable of accomplishing and into the responsibilities of forensic scientists and the impact these individuals have on solving crimes.
Forensic science offers the opportunity to contribute to society in a meaningful way while performing a fascinating and dynamic job. Forensic scientists are trained to use scientific principles to discover the truth which answers the question of whether the person responsible for the incident being investigated intended to commit a crime, knew they were committing a crime or were innocent of any wrongdoing.
There are several sub-disciplines recognized by the American Academy of forensic Scientist within the field of forensics from which a person can choose. These fields include criminalistics, engineering sciences, general forensic science, odontology, pathology/biology, physical anthropology, psychiatry and behavioral science, questioned documents and toxicology. Each of these areas requires its own specific educational training and qualifications; even the very nature of what each area of forensic science entails varies substantially. Persons interested in pursuing a career in the field of forensics have the option of selecting a field from within the discipline which suits their interests and talents.
Once you have chosen a career in forensic science, you will need to choose which area you will practice. When choosing which area you prefer, take into consideration the nature of the job and the hours you will be required to work. Do you need regular steady hours or does your lifestyle allow for flexible hours. Do you prefer routine days where you know what to expect each day or are you a person who needs a challenging position which offers diversity? A medical examiner may work irregular hours and will experience much diversity and variation in the course of the job. A crime laboratory analyst on the other hand will have much more stable routine hours and will generally adhere to a routine which could become repetitious.
Regardless of which field in forensic science in which you choose to work, there are certain courses you will need. Take as many science courses as you are allowed. Forensic scientists require an inherent understanding of chemistry, biology and physics to effectively perform their job functions. Advanced placement courses will provide a more challenging and vigorous study of the sciences; helping to prepare students for the demands of the college courses and the thoroughness required on the job. Writing and communication are also essential to the field. Forensic Scientists must be able to complete detailed reports. And mathematics tends to go hand in hand with the sciences. Science requires precision for the purposes of accuracy. This is especially true in forensic science when the outcome of an investigation is relying on the determination. Take math courses to ensure you will be adequately skilled in this area to avoid making mistakes.
Many students choose to work during their high school years. Some volunteer at local fire departments in some regard. If you have the option and opportunity to obtain a position in any respect at a laboratory, hospital, medical facility or fire station, it would be helpful to your future career in forensic science. Experience in any of these areas will provide exposure to the type of environment you will work in after completing your education. You can familiarize yourself with the routine and procedures adhered to in these places. The fact that you will have the experience of working in such an environment will evoke confidence from your future employer. Since you are already familiar with the environment, an employer won’t need to be concerned that you may decide after some exposure that this is not the setting you want to spend your day working in.
High school is generally a time of growth and exploration. Teenagers may make decisions which they could later regret. In most occupations, indiscretions of your youth do not count against you. In the criminal justice field, this doesn’t always hold true. A poor decision on your record could prevent you from obtaining a job in the criminal justice field. Drug use will also count against you, regardless of which drug you try and however harmless you consider the experimentation. Many criminal justice positions require drug testing and some even require a lie detector test. It is best to avoid any type of illegal activity if you want to pursue a future in criminal justice.
Any forensic science career path you choose will require a college degree. Over thirty one colleges offer degree programs in forensic science, but it actually isn’t always the best program to choose as an undergraduate. The forensic science field requires skilled scientists trained in whichever area the person will work. Obtaining a degree in that particular area may be more beneficial than one which combines two areas of study. A forensic program will likely include courses on procedures, ethics, criminal proceedings which are important but will detract from the studies in the area of science you intend to specialize. By concentrating solely on the science, the student will develop a more thorough understanding of the skills and knowledge needed to be proficient and capable of accurately performing the tasks which need to be completed.
The undergraduate degree program chosen should correlate with the field of forensics in which you intend to work. A forensic engineer should choose a degree in engineering. There are a number of specialties within the engineering field which include electrical engineering, mechanical engineering, traffic engineering, civil engineering and materials engineering. Crime scene examiners will need to obtain a degree in science so that they can collect and evaluate evidence with precision and without compromising the integrity of the evidence. Someone experienced and knowledgeable with the principals of scientific study will know what is required to protect the integrity of the evidence. Forensic psychologists would need to obtain a degree in psychology. A forensic archeologist or anthropologists will need to obtain degrees in their respective fields. A medical examiner should seriously consider a pre-med degree program.
Certain forensic science positions may require expertise in more than one area. If you choose a degree program in one certain specialty area, you may have difficulty finding a job. So if one particular area of forensic science interests you, such as zoology, botany or entomology, consider a dual degree or even a minor in that area of study. You will still want to pursue a general science degree such as chemistry, physics or biology. This will allow you the opportunity to obtain a position in any field requiring a science degree in the event that you cannot find a position specifically in the forensic science field. It will also ensure that you have a solid foundation in science and scientific study. You can select courses for your electives that are suited to particular areas you are interested in learning; microbiology, genetics, biochemistry, optical mineralogy.
Certain sub-disciplines in forensic science require an advanced degree, but not all. Individuals intending to become a medical examiner will be required to attend medical school. A crime laboratory analyst, on the other hand, will not be required to attend graduate school. An advanced degree, however, will serve to make a forensic scientist more viable in the job market. The forensic science field is highly competitive with a limited number of job openings to accommodate the number of hopeful candidates. The recession has created a need for cutbacks in many job fields; certain areas are more prone to being on the receiving end of those cut backs. Forensic science seems to be one of the areas most often targeted when budget cuts are necessary. A number of colleges will offer graduate degrees with a forensic emphasis. This is the time you should be able to take the option without detracting from the foundational information you need to know.
The American Academy of Forensic Sciences is an internationally recognized organization that represents the interests of the field of forensic science. The organization provides many benefits to the forensic science community. Accreditation of forensic science college programs is one such benefit. The AAFS evaluates the accuracy and validity of the forensic science degree programs offered based on a rigorous criterion which can be viewed at www.aafs.org. Most of the accredited programs require five year terms and result in either a science degree with a certification in forensics or a Master of Science degree. The colleges which currently have received accreditation through the AAFS forensic Science education programs accreditation commission include:
- University of Alabama at Birmingham
- Albany State University
- University at Albany (SUNY at Albany)
- Arcadia University
- Cedar Crest College
- Duquesne University
- Eastern Kentucky University
- Florida International University
- Florida International University
- University of Illinois at Chicago
- John Jay College of Criminal Justice (CUNY)
- Marshall University, Huntington
- Metropolitan State College of Denver
- Michigan State University
- University of Mississippi
- University of New Haven
- University of North Texas
- OHIO University
- Oklahoma State University
- The Pennsylvania State University
- Sam Houston State University
- Virginia Commonwealth University
- West Chester University
- West Virginia University
Experience in a laboratory setting is important. In a competitive job market, applicants will need every advantage. Completing an internship or co-op program will provide valuable experience and the competitive advantage you need. Most colleges develop affiliations with certain companies or laboratories which offer internships and co-op opportunities. Check with your college advisor to find out if the college does in fact provide assistance in that regard. Experience taking and evaluating samples will help you better understand the mechanics of the tasks you are expected to perform. Forensic science is a field where the development of expertise is contingent on experience and repetitive practice.
Finding a job
Where you work as a forensic scientist will depend on many factors. Which field did you choose to pursue? Do you want to work for the government or the private sector; in the area of criminal justice or the civil arena? Do you want to work for local, state, or federal government agencies? Or do you only care that you work in the forensic science field and are willing to work in whatever venue is hiring? Regardless of which area you choose to work, you will need to go through the hiring process which will include an interview, a background check and a criminal background check. Job openings are available in just about any facet of government and in many private sector areas.
Any field based on science will experience growth and advancement. Scientists are driven by a thirst for knowledge and consistently seek revolutionary methods for obtaining information. Every day yields new knowledge and technological advancements. Forensic science professionals will need to stay current on updates in the field. Otherwise, the persons who lag behind will find themselves unable to perform their job at the level needed for accuracy and precision. The individual who fails to stay current could become obsolete and find themselves replaced by a person who is familiar with the latest updates in the field. Attend seminars. Take college courses for continuing education. Complete certificate programs in new and updated areas. As a forensic scientist, you will never be done learning.