This is a question that I am frequently asked by students or people who want a career change. The first thing to say is that it’s not the same as CSI or Bones. Don’t get me wrong: it’s certainly full of variety, intrigue and laboratories, but it’s also full of paperwork, frustration and being on-call. Secondly, forensic science is extremely competitive – in NZ there are only a few jobs a year at ESR compared with the number of appropriately qualified graduates. In the UK over the past five or ten years there has been a massive increase in the number of forensic science courses (mostly at undergraduate level) but not an increase in the number of jobs. Consequently, it has become more or less a requirement to complete postgraduate study before you will even be considered for a role at a forensic laboratory. There has also been rationalisation (read: proposed redundancies) at several labs – but that’s a different story altogether.
In my experience, New Zealand has some of the best university training courses because the system requires that students undertake at least an honours degree before continuing on to do forensic science at postgraduate level (i.e. the courses that are taken after the first degree is completed). There are also two universities in the UK that run excellent forensic science training courses at Masters level: Kings College London and the University of Strathclyde in Scotland.
If you are person who like sciences, I would suggest you get yourself a broad-based science education so that if you find that forensic science is not for you, or if you decide that you want to move into another area, you can. Basically, don’t put all your eggs in one basket; leave yourself some room to do other things. On your journey through learning you might discover something else you like even more, so try keep your options open. For example, I started my academic career doing a degree that covered maths, physics, chemistry, biology, geology and geography – all of these feature in my work as an independent forensic scientist. It was only after I completed my doctorate (I’d spent 8 years at university by that point) that I changed my career direction towards forensic science – not necessarily the quickest route to my current career but it was interesting and I enjoyed it.
Before deciding on a career in forensic science remember that to some degree or other it will involve: working in a laboratory, writing reports, handling exhibits, dealing with crimes against the person (which can be traumatic, especially at the start of your career), seeing the worst side of people (it WILL change your perception of life), being on-call, attending court, giving evidence and being cross-examined. You might want to look at the websites of some of the large organisations: ESR Forensic – http://www.esr.cri.nz; Forensic Science Service UK – http://www.forensic.gov.uk; LGC Forensics – http://www.lgc.co.uk