Consultants might be forensic psychologists or forensic scientists. They could have a highly specific specialization, like being an expert in handwriting analysis or fingerprinting. Forensic consultants might have a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice or they might have a medical degree or law degree.
The point is that consultants in this field come from many different walks of life, so your pathway to becoming one is wide open. For the purposes of this guide, we’ll focus on very broad advice regarding how to become a forensic consultant.
What is a Forensic Consultant?
In very general terms, a forensic consultant is a highly trained and skilled professional who provides consultation services related to forensic science. A forensic consultant might be hired by a defense attorney to examine evidence against their client. Alternatively, a forensic consultant might offer expert testimony on behalf of the prosecution in a criminal case.
The types of consultancy don’t end there, though. Since forensic consulting is based on multiple branches of science – chemistry, biology, physics, and psychology, to name a few – the duties of this job reach far and wide. For example, as a forensic consultant, you might be asked to:
- Perform chemical analyses of evidence
- Interpret data from computers and other devices
- Prepare witnesses to provide courtroom testimony
- Reconstruct crime scenes
- Oversee testing
Ultimately, the goal of forensic consulting is to identify the perpetrator of a crime, draw connections between a crime and specific individuals, prove that a crime occurred, or conversely, use scientific techniques to exonerate a person accused of a crime.
A forensic consultant provides their services in a completely unbiased manner. Their charge is not to “dig up dirt” that furthers the case of the person or organization that hired them. Instead, forensic consultants must provide objective and truthful information based entirely on scientific fact, not opinion.
Get a Bachelor’s Degree
The minimum academic qualification for any forensic job is a bachelor’s degree from an accredited institution. Many employers prefer candidates who have a bachelor’s degree in forensic science when hiring. That’s because a forensic science degree combines the principles of biology, physics, and chemistry at a minimum, and usually includes studies in physical anthropology, psychology, and criminal justice as well.
The purpose of a bachelor’s degree is to introduce you to seminal topics in forensic science. Think of it as the foundation upon which you build all future knowledge in your career area.
Since a bachelor’s degree is a basic education in forensics, you’ll likely take a variety of introductory courses, including:
- Physical science
- Forensic psychology
- Instrumental analysis
- Criminal evidence and procedure
Some forensic consultants pursue a bachelor’s degree in a different field. For example, you might major in a closely related field like biology, chemistry, psychology, or criminal justice.
While it might seem like a bachelor’s degree in forensic science might be the best option, this isn’t always the case. While a degree in forensic science will give you the broadest base of knowledge and skills related to forensics, if you wish to specialize in a certain field, like forensic psychology, majoring in psychology for your undergraduate degree is a great option.
Of course, you might also consider double-majoring or pursuing a minor, depending on the career path you wish to take. For example, if you want to become a forensic pathologist, you might major in biology and minor in criminal justice.
It’s important to note that while there are jobs available as a forensic consultant with just a bachelor’s degree, extending your education to a master’s, or better yet, a doctorate, will open up many more doors for working as a consultant.
Enroll in an Internship Program
An internship enables you to network with professional forensic experts and observe the forensic process firsthand. In most cases, you’ll be able to take an active role in doing forensic work under the close guidance of an expert forensic consultant.
Some undergraduate programs in this and related fields have an internship requirement. This means that you take an internship course for credit and the experience is coordinated between your school and the organization at which you’ll intern. But in some cases, you might have to pursue an internship independently of your school. Internships may be done at:
- county coroner’s office
- federal agency like the FBI
- with a local police department
- an attorney’s office
The key to getting an internship is to be persistent, seek out opportunities far and wide, and throw yourself into the process of learning from an experienced expert in forensics. A good internship experience will not only allow you to get real-world experience, it could also help you make connections with people for future job opportunities.
Further Your Education
A master’s or doctorate degree can give you an upper hand over your competitors in the job market. The education and training you get at the master’s level and doctoral levels are much more specific and focused than your studies at the bachelor’s degree level.
For example, in your undergraduate program, you might take a forensic science class during which there is an introductory unit of study on DNA analysis. This is meant as a very basic summary of DNA analysis – nothing in-depth.
But, in a master’s program, you might take a complete semester-length course on DNA analysis or even multiple DNA analysis-related courses. Master’s students might be required to conduct research, too, which you could do on a DNA topic. Likewise, an internship is typically required for master’s degrees, so, again, you have an opportunity to get some real-world experience in working with DNA.
A doctorate takes it a step further. Not only can you look forward to multiple courses on DNA topics, but you could also focus your doctoral research on DNA analysis. This could mean that you spend years studying this topic, as opposed to a few days in your introductory undergraduate course.
So, as you can see, the value of continuing your education certainly exists. Your breadth of knowledge will be wider, but your depth of knowledge will be deeper as well. Combined with the advanced skills that you learn in graduate school and a doctoral program, you will be a well-rounded job candidate upon graduation.
With an advanced degree, you can get access to more advanced jobs and benefit from lucrative salaries, benefits packages, and bonuses. Most of the programs at the graduate level allow for specialization in physics, chemistry, or biology while others offer a comprehensive and integrated approach that mixes disciplines, like chemistry and forensic science.
It is often advisable that you pursue a master of science in forensic science, simply because such a program will expose you to highly specialized areas like toxicology, serology, microscopy, and ballistics. But, as noted earlier, getting an advanced degree in a related area like biology, criminal justice, or psychology, will also help you develop skills for a successful career as a forensic consultant.
Gain Some Work Experience
You can choose to apply for a job once you complete your undergraduate studies or wait until you are through with your master’s degree. Whichever route you choose, you will have to gain at least five years of work experience as a forensic scientist before you are considered qualified to practice as a consultant.
While this might seem like a long time to work before launching your consulting career, you need to have a good deal of work experience before you are hired as a forensic expert. This means that you might need to work in other capacities, such as with a government agency, to get some on-the-job experience and build your credibility as an expert in this field.
In some cases, you might find that employers will hire you with a bachelor’s degree and help you pay for the costs associated with getting a master’s degree. In this situation, you might have to agree to work for the company for a set period of time in exchange for things like tuition assistance. But this arrangement can be great for you because you get work experience as you get your advanced degree. By the time you’re done with your degree, you could have enough work experience to launch your own consulting firm.
If you working on your master’s or already have one, but aren’t sure what kind of work experiences are available, consider any of the following as potential work settings for you:
- Local, state, or federal government agencies
- Crime labs
- Law enforcement agencies
- Academic research institutions
To enhance your appeal as an expert forensic consultant, you might consider adding a certification to your resume.
Typically, it’s recommended that forensic consultants get at least one certification because doing so helps prove your credibility as a consultant. Here are a few popular certifications you might consider getting:
Certified Forensic Litigation Consultant (CFLC) – This certification, which is offered by the Forensic Expert Witness Association (FEWA), demonstrates that you’re a qualified expert witness. The certification requires that you complete education courses and participate in FEWA activities.
Comprehensive Criminalist (ABC-CC) – This certification from the American Board of Criminalistics is reserved for applicants that have two years of criminalistics experience and who have expertise in one or more areas of specialty. This general certification covers a wide range of criminalist topics.
Crime Scene Certification – Offered by the International Association for Identification, the crime scene certification includes specializations for a Certified Crime Scene Investigator, a Certified Crime Scene Analyst, a Certified Crime Scene Reconstructionist, or a Certified Senior Crime Scene Analyst.
Certified Forensic Toxicologist – Offered by the American Board for Forensic Toxicology, there are various levels of certification depending on your level of education. Likewise, certifications are available in different toxicology specialties, including forensic alcohol toxicology, prescription drug monitoring, and analytical toxicology.
ABFDE Board Certification – This certification is from the American Board of Forensic Document Examiners. It includes a four-phase certification process that includes a credentials phase, a written phase, a practical case assignment, and oral boards.
Certified Forensic Anthropologist – The American Board of Forensic Anthropology offers this certification, which prepares you to expertly apply physical and biological anthropological techniques to human remains as a means of determining things like age, race, or cause of death of a person.
Get Started as a Consultant
Once you have obtained the right certification for your specialty, you can start working as a consultant. Most states require consultants to have a private practice license and to pass a background check. These requirements vary, though, so be sure you’re familiar with your state’s particular rules and regulations.
As a forensic consultant, your potential clients might include government investigation agencies, criminal defense lawyers, prosecutors, and private citizens. It is one of the many benefits of the job – you can work many different kinds of cases for many different kinds of clients.
Working in the forensic field as a consultant is a rewarding opportunity that allows you to exercise your skills freely and uncover mysteries behind crimes. The road to becoming a consultant is a long one, as we’ve outlined here. Between getting a bachelor’s degree, completing an internship, getting a master’s degree or a doctorate, and getting on-the-job experience, it could easily be 10-15 years after you begin your undergraduate degree before you are able to start your own consultancy.
But all that time, effort, and dedication are certainly worth it when you can apply your knowledge and skills in a way that helps solve a case, put a criminal behind bars, or exonerate someone that’s been wrongfully accused.
Not all careers have the potential to allow you to literally alter the path of someone’s life or to bring closure to a family that has suffered trauma, but as a forensic consultant, you have the power to do so each and every day.
B.A. Social Studies Education | University of Wyoming
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B.S. Information Technology | University of Massachusetts
Updated May 2021