In defence of the forensic science degree

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I have read some negative comments in the press about forensic science degrees, whilst experiencing a large amount of positive feedback from students. So, why should you study forensic science and what are the pros and cons of it as a degree subject?

 

 

As I said in my first blog, I was inspired by reading the book ‘Science and Criminal Detection’ by John Broad and went on to study forensic science at MSc level.  Since those days there has been a massive increase in undergraduate degree programmes being offered.  I wasn’t aware of any in the early 1990s, there are now around 280.

I was asked to write a post for what will hopefully be a very helpful website ‘Which Forensic University’. During research for this I was struck by a perception in some media that a degree in forensic science has little worth.  Many comments have been made about whether the degrees offered are leading to jobs.  In particular people think that these jobs should be in the forensics science field.  In effect people are saying that forensic science is a vocational degree, much like medicine or nursing.  How many degree programmes are truly vocational? How many engineering students go on to become bona fide engineers?

 

A typical example of this is a key quote in an article from The Guardian:

For higher level jobs, degrees in traditional sciences such as chemistry are usually required. To wear a paper suit and photograph footprints, a forensic science degree is probably unnecessary.

 

Whilst the truth or accuracy of this statement can be debated it is an interesting standpoint.

On the first point the higher level jobs may be held by people with ‘traditional science degrees’, but is that not because the first few forensic science undergraduates only completed their degrees in the mid ’90s or so?  With 10-15 years experience post graduation, the first wave of students should now be in their mid 30s and will start filtering into the higher management positions.  Forensic science is also not a traditional hierarchical structure in many labs, so progression may be different in different places.  If this statement above is true in 10 years or so then I will revise my opinion!

 

On the second point – crime scene examiners may not have traditionally had degrees, often they were recruited through the police (I work with a retired SOCO/CSI who was a police constable before retraining). Many forces still recruit based on A level grades, some entry positions may only require GCSE’s. I would hope that those who really want to work as a scenes officer will check with their local force and see what requirements are.  A degree in forensic science may not be a requirement, a degree in crime scene investigation may be appropriate and could aid in rising up through the structure more quickly.

In the Daily Mail they display a still photo of the cast of CSI with the caption

Programmes like CSI have driven more young people to take degrees in forensic science despite the lack of positions available within the industry

 

Another article in the same august publication commences:

 Forensic science is being dubbed the ‘new media studies’ following a boom in lightweight degree courses.

 

I am not sure our first years grappling with the Henderson–Hasselbalch equation equation whilst learning about chromatography, biochemistry and fingerprinting in the same week would take kindly to suggestions that their course is ‘lightweight’ and the ‘new media studies’.   It is a science degree – which means 18-20 contact hours per week including a full day in the lab almost every week.  The sessions will encompass hard science, taught by chemists, biologists and so on.  There is little time to be talking about TV (during these sessions anyway!).  We use the forensic cases as examples of how science can be applied.  Then we teach the science.  It hooks students in then gives them some hard science to grapple with.

 

Many University programmes offer their students a ‘sandwich year’ in which to gain a full year experience (usually) within a laboratory setting.  At SHU we currently have around one third of our students take this opportunity.  This year is not only great for the students learning, their CV but also gives them a link to a future employer   This year I know four students who went to one placement provider all got offered jobs on graduation   Three of them have taken this up (with a small retaining bursary for their final year) whilst one decided that they didn’t wish to go into that area any more.  These placements may not all be with the traditional forensic science providors, but with analytical laboratories, research facilities and other areas where the skills gained may be of use.

 

So what about employability? Where do the graduates go?

From my experience we have students go in lots of directions.  This year I know of several who have gone into further study in forensic fields (PhD students, MSc study).  Others go into laboratories of some sort – analytical, research, pharmaceutical.  Many go on to science teaching.  Some do go into forensic science – this year has been particularly difficult in the forensic science area.  I haven’t been given the full breakdown of the 2012 graduates yet, but currently I am not aware of any of them going to the big few providers but they have done in previous years.

In the Mail article the forensic science degree is called ‘mickey mouse’ and includes a quote saying ‘I don’t think there are decent employability statistics for forensic science.’

 

Was this Daily Mail aricle evidence based?  I decided to have a look on Unistats.

 

1. Go on to work or study after degree

 

Forensic science (average of Sheffield Hallam,  Derby and Northumbria) – 85 %

Media studies (Derby, Northumbria and Brighton, similar post ’92 uni to SHU) – 69.3 %

 

1-0 Forensic science

 

2. Average salary after graduation

 

Forensic science (average of Sheffield Hallam,  Derby and Northumbria) – £16,667

Media studies (Derby, Northumbria and Brighton, similar post ’92 uni to SHU) – £13,000 

 

2-0 Forensic Science

 

3. Overall satisfaction of students

 

Forensic science (average of Sheffield Hallam,  Derby and Northumbria) – 93.7 %

Media studies (Derby, Northumbria and Brighton, similar post ’92 uni to SHU) - 69.3 %

3-0 Forensic Science! 

 

So there we have it – a very short evidence based comparison of forensic science and media studies.  A quick glance suggests chemistry and forensic science have quite similar data.

*The universities were not entirely chosen at random, I wanted to include my institution SHU, plus two others with enough data to fill all of the boxes on Unistat.

 

 

A Quick summary of the pros and cons of studying forensic science:

 

Pros

To use a current university buzzword – employability.

Lab based skills.

Knowledge of systems of accreditation and validation and the necessity for them.

In demand skills such as numeracy and problem solving.  I have heard first hand and read many articles from top university professors bemoaning the numeracy skills of their undergraduate intake. We work hard to improve this area of each student, including making use of extra resources available such as the Khan Academy.

Forensic science teaches logical methods of problem solving and analysis (highly prized by all employment sectors).

Varied degree with a range of interesting subjects.  I would not expect one of our forensic science grads to have the full range of knowledge encompassed by our chemistry, biology, biochemistry and biomedical sciences students, but they will have picked up a large amount of knowledge from each area. Our best students are on a par with their peers in the ‘traditional subjects’ in some areas (for instance organic chemistry).

Topics rich in case study material make the subject enjoyable and keep the students interested.

 

© Prometeus | Stock Free Images & Dreamstime Stock Photos

Cons

Forensic science is not a vocational course.

The spread of subjects may be at the expense of depth of some areas (see above).

One big issue is of the use of the term forensic science itself. Forensic Science’ is actually a collection of science subjects rolled under one banner.  Forensic means use of the application in a legal setting.  This means that fibre analysis is grouped together with firearms, pharmacology and DNA.  These are obviously quite disparate subjects.

 

One area I have not covered is the accreditation of degrees by the Forensic Science Society.  I will address this at a later date this year.

 

In summary

Forensic science graduates should be numerate, skilled at analysing data, able to present their work in various formats and have a good rounded understanding of the science behind criminal detection techniques.  On the whole the employability data is good and the student satisfaction is excellent.  Could it be students have decided they want to study a subject that interests them as well as educates?

 

Finally, to quote the Guardian article again:

In order to ensure there are enough jobs to go round, more than half of them will have to retrain as serial killers.

So it isn’t all about the CSI effect, more important is the Dexter Effect?

 

Any thoughts on the value of a BSc in Forensic Science? Have you studied forensic science at an undergrad level?  Let us know your experiences below! Thanks for reading.

 

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Dr Tom Bassindale

About Dr Tom Bassindale

Dr Tom Bassindale is a forensic scientist, and the founder of We Are Forensic. He's managed hundreds of forensic toxicology cases, and is an experienced court witness. He has specialist expertise in forensic toxicology and drug testing in sport. Dr B is currently a senior lecturer at Sheffield Hallam University. And yes... he watches CSI.