Case Western Reserve University
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What is Forensic Science?

Forensic comes from the Latin word for public; forum comes from the same word. The forum was the central area of Roman towns where the public met to discuss the important issues of the day. In modern times, the places where issues are debated is the courthouse, therefore forensic science is science used for the purposes of the law, to resolve questions of public importance. There are several kinds of forensic scientists:

Medical Examiner/Coroner

Medical examiners or coroners are physicians holding the MD or DO degree. They have an undergraduate degree that can be in any subject, but they have to have met the requirements for admission to medical school (usually introductory and organic chemistry, introductory physics and calculus). After four years of medical school, a prospective medical examiner does a residency in anatomic and clinical pathology. Anatomic pathology relates to the study of specimens; clinical pathology is concerned with clinical laboratory work. Then, a post-graduate fellowship in forensic pathology takes a year or two. Although some work is routine, the ingenious ways people find to get into trouble provide near infinite variety. Lester Adelson, one of the giants in the field was fond of saying, "There are only two doors into the world, but there are thousands of exits."


Forensic toxicologists are pharmacologists and chemists that analyze body fluids and samples for licit and illicit drugs. Not all forensic samples come from autopsy materials, drug testing and drug monitoring are very common tasks that are given to toxicologists. Specimen handling and chain of custody issues are of critical importance in forensic toxicology, to ensure the integrity of the results.

Trace Evidence Analyst

Trace Evidence Analysts/Criminalists analyze samples provided by the police and forensic pathologists. This might involve looking for gunshot residue on a victim's clothing, looking for trace evidence on a vehicle, testing a shower curtain rod to see if it would support a victim's body, and looking at a person's gastric contents to see what they ate before they died, among other tasks. A bachelor's degree in one of the natural sciences is a bare minimum, a masters in a scientific field is recommended. Criminalists that analyze DNA need degrees in biology and experience using the equipment in a DNA laboratory. Some criminalists are handwriting experts, tool-mark experts, or fingerprint experts, using specialized techniques to analyze the traces people leave behind.

Forensic Engineer

Forensic Engineers have a bachelors or masters degree, and a PE (professional engineer) certification would not be amiss. Specialties of engineering that come in handy are civil engineering (these people analyzed the collapse of the World Trade Center), mechanical engineering, electrical engineering, and materials engineering. Most of the questions forensic engineers are trying to answer are about why a product failed and killed some one. This work tends to be in the civil arena, but occasionally criminal cases are brought to your attention.

Forensic Anthropologist

Forensic anthropologists have obtained a Ph.D. in anthropology and specialized in physical anthropology, the study of skeletons. There are not many of these people around, and they all have academic careers. Forensic questions do not come up often enough to provide full-time work; their forensic careers are adjuncts to their academic careers.

Forensic Dentist

Forensic odontologists are dentists with an interest in forensic medicine. They have obtained the DMD or DDS degrees and specialize in identifying bite marks and in analyzing the teeth of the dead to determine identitiy. In general, these individuals are academic dentists or those who practice as consultants rather than being full-time forensic scientists.

Forensic Psychiatrist

Forensic Psychiatrists and psychologists are mental health professionals with the MD, Ph.D, or Ed.D. degrees. Therefore, they have the initial educational requirements of a forensic pathologist. Then these individuals go to medical school and then do a residency in psychiatry; or they enter a graduate training program. A graduate fellowship in forensic psychiatry follows. Forensic mental health experts interview people suspected or convicted of crimes and attempt to determine their competence to stand trial, look for mitigating circumstances in their backgrounds, and try to develop profiles of unknown subjects to help law enforcement find the perpetrators.

Forensic Entomology

Forensic Entomologists examine insects for medicolegal purposes. The time of death, for example, might be approximated using insect evidence gathered from and around a corpse; insects can also be analyzed to look for drugs the decedent took. Most forensic entomologists are Ph.D. academics who consult on the side.

Educational Requirements for a career in forensic sciences:

To be a forensic scientist one needs, at a minimum, a bachelors degree in one of the natural sciences. Chemistry is very practical, as it will allow you to do forensic work or industrial work. If you are interested in DNA, medicine, or dentistry, a biology or biochemistry degree is useful. Statistics is another useful subject to be familiar with. Forensic scientists need to present their findings clearly and effectively; therefore training in theater, debate, or other public speaking venues are helpful.

The Master of Science in Anatomy may prove useful for several career paths in forensic sciences. Extensive anatomic training in anatomy is useful in pathology, and there are applications for forensic radiology and forensic odontology as well. Also, a strong natural science background is helpful for someone who is interested in a criminalist position.

Here are some references that might prove helpful:

Furton, K., Hsu, Y-H., Cole, MD. What educational background do crime laboratory director require from applicants? J Forensic Sci, 1999;44(1):128-132.

Siegal, JA. The appropriate educational background for entry level forensic scientists: a survey of practitioners. J Forensic Sci, 1988;33:1065-8.

Smith, FP, Lui RH, Lindquist CA. Research experience and future criminalists. J Forensic Sci, 1988;33:1074-80.

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