What’s an aspiring forensic scientist to do?
The upswing in the popularity of shows like CSI, NCIS and our personal favourite, Dexter, has helped forensic science programmes make increasingly frequent appearances in University course prospectuses — but which programmes, if any, will provide you with the firm foundation in forensics to establish a career?
We’ve spoken to professionals working within the criminal justice system to get knowledge from the front-line; and we’ve answered some of the most pressing questions we know you’ll have in selecting your future course.
It’s not in the dictionary: defining your career goals.
Let’s start — somewhat confusingly – at the end: unless you’re set on developing groundbreaking new techniques as a forensic science researcher (with some coffee breaks in the laboratory office thrown in for good measure), you should have a well-defined career goal in mind.
Dreaming about being in the lab, comparing footwear marks, fingerprints, and quantities of drugs against criminal databases? If so, research a career as a Forensic Submissions Officer. Have an urge to be crossing the police tape, venturing into the crime scene, taking swabs and photographing nasties? Then you’re probably a Scenes of Crime Officer (SoCO) in the making.
Making the decision early will help you narrow down what options you want to focus on.
Spoiled for choice, but not for jobs.
An insider tip? Specialise early. In the somewhat-dismal era of austerity we now live in, forensic roles are being trimmed to keep officer numbers high. Specialists in areas like DNA analysis are certainly considered a cut above the rest when applying for jobs.
The best degree-level programmes.
What follows is our comprehensive list of competitive degree-level programmes to consider.
1. Chemistry Degree (BSc).
Yes, chemistry is hard. It’s been said that it’s applied maths, or physics without the fun. Either way, it’s hard-earned, it’s elite, and because of that: it’s going to put you ahead. You’ll also learn how to be methodical (invaluable) and how to properly package things (a little joke — but also essential, and potentially lifesaving).
2. Biology Degree (BSc).
As above, biology is difficult, and certainly involves chemistry (there’s no escaping it, apparently). Still, with a degree like biology, you’re going to understand the chemical world as it applies to organic material and — trust us, it’ll prove essential in your future career.
3. Law or Criminology With Law (and supplementary forensic science modules).
A law degree not only looks good on paper, but will give you an unparalleled foundation in the legal system you need to talk the talk. We recommend that anyone looking to get into forensics professionally take a basic foundation in criminal law at the very least.
It’ll assist you in putting the legal system in context: giving perspective to the courtroom as the holy grail of forensics. You’ll also learn invaluable lessons in exhibits, cross examination, and the system of precedent which assists judges in applying UK law. Think about doing bonus forensic modules here as you’ll need to show a foundation in forensics when applying for jobs.
4. Forensic Science.
Somewhat strangely, it’s at number 4 on our list. Why? As an article in The Guardian is quick to point out, a 2005 a select committee report found “extensive evidence that a large proportion of forensic science courses on offer provide poor preparation for a career in forensic science.”
We suspect this is because a large amount of universities offering such courses have only limited experience in applied forensics. The message here is fully research the course and the tutors (be sure of their forensic background, and ask all relevant questions before applying).
5. Digital Forensics (or forensic computer science).
Blood, bodily fluids and gore isn’t your thing (we can’t image why)? You ought to consider a career in digital forensics. This industry is booming: with the proliferation of mobile phones, laptops and the ubiquitous Facebook, the forensic examination of computers is only going to become more critical to the criminal investigation.
If the prospect of steady employment is most important to you, a forensic computing degree would be our star pick in terms of landing you a well-paid job, as it’s faster than any other forensic pathway.
6. Forensics with Criminology, Psychology or Law.
This is truly the best of both worlds: it’s the forensics degree with the legal underpinnings you need to take it just a bit further. Don’t rule out a law degree with forensic modules, however, as we feel this would be a better bet for your employment prospects.
Teeside University offers a three year course which should certainly put you ahead of the curve if your specific desire is employment within a police service.
So there you have it: seven pertinent recommendations for degree-level courses for those of you wanting to pursue forensics. We also have a comprehensive list of all UK degree-level courses in forensic science here.
Your Turn: Have something to add to this list? Think we’ve overlooked an important course? Let us know in the comments. We’d love to hear from you.