Forensic scientists help to keep the wheels of justice turning by using their scientific mind and qualifications to solve crime. If this appeals to you learn more about the forensic science degrees on offer
Contributing to police investigations by collecting, preserving and analysing scientific evidence, the work of forensic scientists is essential as the reliability of other crime-solving methods such as eyewitness testimony and confession evidence is often dependent on the use of forensics.
With cyber and financial crime on the rise, forensic science will become even more important to the UK justice system.
'The definition of forensic science is 'the application of science to law'. Within the Criminal Justice setting, this requires detailed analysis, interpretation and evaluation of the evidence, presented to the court impartially for the prosecution and defence,' explains Leisa Nichols-Drew, associate professor in Forensic Science at De Montfort University (DMU).
'Forensic science is a fascinating subject covering many topics giving you the opportunity to develop a range of different skills,' say Dr Chris Rogers and Dr Michael Whitehead, at the University of Wolverhampton.
'You will hone your critical thinking and problem-solving ability as well as develop a wealth of techniques to allow you to analyse different forms of evidence from fingerprints to blood spatter, chemicals and drug traces, gunshot wounds and ballistics to the evidence left behind on bones or body parts.
Being a forensic scientist can be challenging and you will come to expect the unexpected and may experience humanity at some of its darkest points, but no two days are the same and you will enjoy immense job satisfaction being rewarded with the knowledge that you have played some part in piecing together the details of a crime.'
Forensic science degrees
To become a forensic scientist you'll need a minimum of an undergraduate degree. This could be in a science-related subject such as chemistry or biological sciences, or more specifically a degree in forensic science.
An increasing number of universities across the UK provide forensic science degrees but you'll need to do your research when choosing a programme - as not all equip you with the skills and knowledge needed to work as a forensic scientist. The best advice is to opt for a course that is accredited by the Chartered Society of Forensic Sciences (CSFS).
The topics tackled vary according to the institution's strengths. Forensic science is commonly studied alongside other closely-related subjects, such as chemistry, computer science, criminology, medical science and psychology.
Accredited institutions include:
- Anglia Ruskin University
- De Montfort University
- Liverpool John Moores University
- London Southbank University
- Northumbria University
- Nottingham Trent University
- Robert Gordon University
- Staffordshire University
- Teesside University
- The University of the West of England
- University of Central Lancashire
- University of Derby
- University of Lincoln
- University of Kent
- University of South Wales
- University of Wolverhampton.
This is not an exhaustive list. To see if your institution of interest is accredited see the CSFS.
To gain a place on the BSc Forensic Science course at De Montfort University you'll need to achieve 112 points from at least two A-levels, with a science subject at grade C or above. The degree takes three years to complete but you can opt for a four-year sandwich option, which includes a placement. Core modules include 'Forensic Chemistry', 'Forensic Imaging and Photography', 'Bodies, Tissues and Fluids', 'Issues in Criminal Justice', 'Fire, Arson and Explosions' and 'DNA Profiling'. Tuition fees for UK students in 2021 currently stand at £9,250.
'Our campus facilities ensure we take our students from the crime scene (we have our own residential property as well as an industrial setting, and access to vehicles), to world-class, industry-standard laboratories (where we analyse biological, chemical, physical, criminalistics evidence) to two court locations, where we are proud to enable access to the former Leicester Magistrates and Crown Court,' explains Leisa. 'We also embrace technology to create virtual crime scene resources. Our team of academics have extensive practitioner and/or research backgrounds in a range of subject expertise. Together, we have first-hand experience of UK and international cases, which we use to bring the subject to life for our students.'
The BSc Forensic Science at Liverpool John Moores University also takes three years to complete, four with an optional placement year. Units include 'Forensic Field Skills', 'Trace Evidence Analysis' and 'Advanced Forensic Methods'. You'll need 112 points at A-level with either chemistry and/or biology at grade C or above for entry.
While postgraduate study isn't essential, it could increase your employability. It also provides a good grounding in the subject if your first degree is in an unrelated area.
'Most jobs in forensic science do not specify the need to have a postgraduate qualification. However, having an additional qualification allows the students to stand out when applying for jobs,' says Dr Goodwin, reader in forensic genetics at the University of Central Lancashire (UCLan).
Dr Rogers and Dr Whitehead agree. 'Postgraduate training could make you more competitive in the job market and it allows you to start specialising in a particular area. Also, if you have a non-forensic science degree an MSc can teach you the forensic skills needed to work as a forensic scientist.'
There are different routes through the one-year Forensic Science MSc at UCLan, with students all doing the core subjects of 'Research Methods', 'The Expert Witness in the Legal Process', 'Crime Scene Strategy' and 'Research Project'. You'll need an upper second class degree in a related subject for entry.
'The course structure is typical of an MSc, with six taught modules followed by a research project. Within the course different options allow students to gain specialised knowledge,' says Dr Goodwin. 'In addition to preparing students in a specialist area, the degree also trains students in broader areas such as law and quality assurance and statistics, all of which are critical in a large number of careers.'
To get onto the one-year (two part time) MSc Forensic Science programme at the University of Wolverhampton you'll need a second class honours degree in a related subject.
Core modules of the course include 'Professional Skills in Forensic Science', 'Masters Research Project' and 'Research Methods'. Optional units include 'Investigating Drug Crime: From Scene to Court', 'Human Identification from Physical Characteristics' and 'Forensic Genetics'. For UK students in 2021/22 the course costs £10,900.
'In addition to the core units, optional modules allow you to specialise in areas that spark your interest,' say Dr Rogers and Dr Whitehead. 'You can study forensic entomology and taphonomy where you'll learn about the invertebrate life that can be of help in criminal and civil cases and also learn about things such as post-mortem decomposition, mummification, mycology, scavenging, and the impact of fire on remains.
DNA analysis is a fundamental skill in forensic science and you can cover this along with other aspects of forensic biology including anthropology and learn how to identify humans from physical characteristics.'
Forensic science jobs
The sector is incredibly competitive and qualifications alone are rarely enough.
Work experience gives you the opportunity to step out of the classroom and into the real world. Look for institutions that give you the option to undertake a placement year, working for an organisation related to your area of interest.
Outside of your course specific forensic science work experience can be hard to find owing to the sensitive and legally important nature of casework. That said general scientific experience within the wider pharmaceutical, analytical chemistry and science communities will be useful.
'There are quite a few specialisms under the umbrella of forensic science including, genetics, crime scene investigation and fire investigation,' adds Dr Goodwin. 'The job market varies in different areas of forensic science so if students have the ambition to be a forensic scientist, understanding the potential employers and the skills they are looking for is recommended.'
While most graduates progress into mainstream forensic science positions, your options are far from restricted. As well as the science and pharmaceuticals sector you could also find employment in law enforcement and security and teacher training and education. Remaining in academia to pursue a PhD is also an option.
Leisa explains highlights the transferable skills you gain on a forensic science course:
- attention to detail
- problem solving
- communication (verbal and written)
- time management
- methodical thinking
- the ability to follow guidelines and procedures
- working within a team
She outlines further opportunities. 'Graduates could explore opportunities within law enforcement (Criminal Justice agencies, police force support work, crime scene investigation, forensic laboratory analysis,) general science analytical laboratories, pharmaceutical companies, the toxicology and analytical chemistry sector and the insurance industry.'