Solving the Mystery of a Forensic Science Career
By Dana Austin, Ph.D., Diplomate, American Board of Forensic Anthropology; Forensic Anthropologist for the Tarrant County Medical Examiner’s Office & UTA Adjunct Assistant Professor in Anthropology
We are bombarded with television and news stories daily about Forensic Sciences and their role in the criminal justice and medico-legal arenas. While fictional shows like CSI, NCIS, Bones, & Cold Case provide us with dynamic characters to root for, the portrayal of the forensic sciences is a far cry from reality. The true to life shows reveal true law enforcement officials, district attorneys, grieving families, laboratory scientists and medical examiners; however, the cases that are chosen and the snippets of interviews that are included leave the general public with only partial education on the reality of Careers in Forensic Sciences. One of the most common statements I hear from students is that they are unsure which Forensic Science they would like to pursue or perhaps are unaware that each discipline has a separate study and training path and differentiation should occur as early in one’s career as possible. Unlike “CSI” one person does not specialize in multiple fields at the same time. A crime scene technician will go to a scene, photograph and collect forensic evidence, and rarely analyze that evidence with the exception of fingerprint evidence. A lab analyst stays in the lab all day, opening packaged evidence collected by scene investigators, and deciding which methods are best for obtaining the results that are requested. Interaction with suspects and families may be reserved for law enforcement. Interviewing persons of interest and presenting a case to the District Attorney for prosecution is solely in the realm of the law enforcement investigator.
The one thing all disciplines have in common is that each individual is subject to being called into court to swear in and tell the truth about their actions and decisions during the course of their job. Therefore, anyone interested in pursuing a career in one of the forensic fields must be a person with personal honesty and integrity. Personal background checks can include drug testing, history of drug use, criminal history, personal associations, polygraph exam, driving record, past work history and credit history. Begin to keep a detailed listing of every residence you have occupied and every job you have held. You are likely to be asked to list those on a job application.
Each individual will have strengths that they are identifying while in college. Perhaps a childhood dream is no longer a reality because the field actually involves aspects that do not appeal to the adult version of us. It is critical to self-evaluate AND collect as much accurate information as you can about a field that you plan to pursue.
Law enforcement careers include crime scene analysis and detective work. These individuals will pursue a degree in the Criminal Justice Program and should review local police hiring websites (e.g., http://www.arlingtonpd.org) to obtain an idea of what is required and what entry level salary range can be expected. The International Association for Identification has information of crime scene and fingerprint disciplines.
The forensic sciences are a collective group of individual sciences. First and foremost an individual should be good at science and enjoy it. It is what you will be doing all day long. Most forensic science careers require an undergraduate degree in chemistry, biology, or biochemistry as a base, however, once you identify your specific path you will need to follow the recommended educational requirements. Medical Examiners are medical doctors that specialize in pathology and forensic pathology. Undergraduate training should be geared toward medical school requirements.
The educational recommendations and the expected career path are listed in a comprehensive document created by a technical working group for the education and training in forensic science sponsored by the National Institute of Justice. The information on education and training in the forensic sciences found on the following site is a must-read resource for anyone considering a career in the forensic sciences: http://www.ojp.usdoj.gov/nij/pubs-sum/203099.htm.
The American Academy of Forensic Sciences outlines and lists the scope of work for each of its disciplines. The education and training required and career opportunities are discussed in a realistic fashion. Their webpage is full of useful resources and links including the Young Forensic Scientists Forum for encouraging emerging young scientists. The AAFS website also includes job postings which give an idea who is hiring, how much salaries can range, and the required education.
Remember, there are no shortcuts. The path to a future in forensic science is laid out clearly in the resources mentioned. If this is your dream, it is your responsibility to pay close attention and follow the advice of those that train and hire new positions in your chosen discipline.
A Look at Forensic Art
From Suzanne Baldon, Forensic Artist and UT Arlington Lecturer in Anthropology
Training in forensic art can enhance a career in law enforcement and is an area of expertise recognized by the International Association for Identification. You can learn about careers using identification techniques, including forensic art, fingerprint examination, photography and digital evidence examination at IAI website: http://www.THEIAI.org/.
There are many talented and capable artists in this group who work in fields of law enforcement, archaeology and historical applications using sculpture, computerized reconstruction, and a combination of other technologies. I tell my students that hands-on practices will enable them to perceive concepts that they study. In Animals in Translation, Temple Grandin writes that her engineering students practice drafting by hand in order to comprehend the forms with which they work on the computer.
Robert Powers, a detective with the Maricopa County Sheriff's Office in Phoenix, is a forensic artist and an officer in the IAI. Here is his contact info: Detective Robert Powers, CFA, Forensic Artist/Homicide Investigator, Maricopa County Sheriff's Office, 102 W. Madison St., Phoenix, Arizona 85003, (602) 876-4820, email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Here is my website where you'll find several examples of my forensic and fine art: http://www.baldonart.com.
Karen T. Taylor and Betty Pat. Gatliff are my respected teachers and mentors for forensic art. I use Taylor's book, Forensic Art and Illustration, as the textbook for the forensic art class I teach each spring semester at UT Arlington. This book is a comprehensive guide to methods of forensic art and contains a chapter by Gatliff on clay reconstruction techniques. Gatliff is a retired medical illustrator with the Federal Aviation Administration, and Taylor has an academic and applied background in fine art. For many years she was the forensic artist for the Department of Public Safety in Austin, but is now in private practice. Both she and Gatliff teach forensic art workshops on a regular basis and have updated schedules posted on this website: http://www.karenttaylor.com/.
Lois Gibson is an artist who was cited in the 2005 Guiness Book of World Records for the number of identifications resulting from her forensic artwork. She works for the Houston, Texas Police Department and her website is http://www.loisgibson.com.
Wesley Neville is yet another talented forensic artist (website http://www.forensicartist.com/). Perhaps these examples will get you started.
Department of Sociology and Anthropology
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