One of the most frequently asked questions I am asked by fans is, "How do I get into forensics? What courses should I take? What should I get a degree in?"
The first thing that’s helpful to understand is the term “forensics” itself. Forensics is the process of applying a specific science to law. There are more sciences involved in forensics than you’d think... and they are usually under two large categories: Biological and Integrated. You could also add another category: Information Technology (IT). Most of the fields require a certain amount of training in science so if you want to get into forensics, start thinking scientifically, first!
Forensics has been well publicized over the last fifteen years or so and the portrayals on TV often give the impression that science holds the answer to all investigations. The scientific method is primarily used in forensic investigation, of course, along with meticulous detection, documentation and collection which is the major role of police and crime scene investigators. We are often required to testify as an expert witness, and must be qualified in a specific field of science in order to do so.
I’m a medical legal death investigator. That means I must have a knowledge of both the scientific method and the biological sciences. The data I need to tell the story of how and why a person died comes from an understanding the human body- both its anatomy and physiology. I must also understand odontology, entomology, radiography, taphonomy, toxicology, blood pattern analysis and DNA. In any of the integrated sciences there are a broad number of scientific studies in which the investigator needs to understand the data received from various experts. The data forms a web, with each aspect connected to another. The interpretive skill comes from making the connections.
A good scientist also understands the process of falsifiability. This means you form a hypothesis and then challenge it by testing and realigning your thinking to the data from your experiments. All of this requires learning the language of each particular science. If you want to go into police work, then a major in college like “Criminal Justice” is good, but may limit your options. (You may not get the job with a police agency. Security jobs pay almost minimum wage which is not very appealing considering student debt payments.) What is most needed in today’s society is the ability to think using deductive and inductive critical reasoning.
I can’t place enough emphasis on the importance of having a STEM background. STEM stands for a curriculum with emphasis on science, technology, engineering and math. With this broad base, you can pursue a forensic minor, and learn how to apply scientific knowledge to law.
Even if you can’t immediately enter a forensic position you can work in a scientific field in any number of positions in industry, research, medicine and government.
Dr. Robert Furey and I designed a forensics program at Harrisburg University School of Science and Technology. Our primary aim was to provide a major in the field of science and technology that was interesting for students and really engages them.
It’s a work in progress and a labor of love.