Interview with Program Director Max Houck

What is your current job role and what does this position involve?

My current role is Visiting Assistant Professor and Director of the Forensic Studies & Justice Program at University of South Florida St. Petersburg. The Program teaches forensic investigative techniques and scientific applications in criminal cases, using structured analytic techniques borrowed from the intelligence community to mitigate and reduce bias, and how to improve the criminal justice system and avoid wrongful convictions. I created the Program, teach in it, and conduct research in these areas.

How did you come to work in the field of forensic science?

I became interested in forensic science through taking anthropology courses for my undergraduate minor; I was originally in International Relations and was going to be a translator (Russian and Japanese). Ultimately, bones made more sense than conjugating irregular Russian verbs and I changed majors. In my Masters work, I was a student of Jay Siegel, who set me on my path to a forensic science career.

What would you say has been the highlight of your career to date?

Being Director of the Washington, D.C. Department of Forensic Sciences. I structured the new agency, created many of its new policies for independent science, and worked with people who remain my heroes for what they do.

During your years working in forensic science, how do you feel the field has changed?

I worry that the field has become a bit of a cargo-cult science–we’ve “drunk our own Kool-aid”, as the saying goes. We believe if we SAY something is “scientific”, then it IS scientific. We’ve also come up with some fairly suspect ways of justifying bad or marginal science and these have been accepted by an all-too-willing court system. That is beginning to change, a little, with some good basic research into the fundamentals of our science but we’re still hampered by trying to be the servant of justice instead of a partner in the process.

In recent years, concerns over the reliability of some forensic techniques have been raised in the media. What steps do you think we need to be taking to ensure that only scientifically reliable techniques are utilised in legal investigations?

First and foremost, forensic agencies need to be independent of law enforcement; that won’t solve everything but it’s a good start to ensure we’re not marginalized. Second, we need to stop worrying about new methods and shore up the ones we’re already using–do they work and, if so, how well? Finally, we have to be better communicators about what we can and cannot say and why. Being pressured by money, time, or politics only gets you shoddy results–just look at any of the latest “forensic failures”.

Finally, do you have any words of wisdom for those pursuing a career in forensic science?

Be a scientist first; the application to criminal cases can come later. Don’t job hop; keep your first job at least two years and then move up or out. And last, don’t worry about ethics, worry about integrity. Ethics is knowing right from wrong and prisons are full of people who know the difference, they just lacked the integrity to make the right choice.

 

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Careers in Forensic Science – Hints & Tips

Careers in Forensic Science – Hints & Tips

Aspiring forensic scientists are constantly asking questions about the ideal subjects to study at school, the best degree courses out there, how to find work experience and who will give them a job at the end of it all. The field of forensic science has become a popular and competitive one for an assortment of reasons, but there’s surprisingly little advice for students looking to get their foot in the door and seize their dream job. This post is going to offer a few hints and tips that might just be useful for the budding forensic scientist.

What to Study? So Many Choices!

So you want to work in forensic science. But what qualifications do you need in the first place? Prior to undergraduate study, your choice of subjects can be fairly flexible, though it is advisable that you plan ahead and research the subjects required to gain access to your ideal university. Different universities have different requirements, but most forensic science degrees (and of course chemistry, biology, and any other science subject) will require you to have prior qualifications in chemistry and/or biology and perhaps maths. Even if a particular course doesn’t insist that you have a qualification in maths, any job in science is most likely going to require you to crack out your mathematics skills every now and then, so it’s certainly a subject worth studying.

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The ideal degree programme is very dependent on the type of job you are looking for and, let’s be honest, there is a certain amount of ambiguity when a person states that they want to work in ‘forensic science’. I find a lot of people who make enquiries are actually envisioning a very ‘CSI-style’ job involving scene of crime management and investigation. If this is what you have in mind, this is a whole other career path that I’m not going to talk about here.

If, however, you’re envisioning a more laboratory-based role, you have a lot of options with what to study. There are many specific forensic science degrees available, the content of which can vary wildly. Some are extremely chemistry or biology-focussed, with the odd module in law and other sciences included. This type of forensic science degree will perhaps be most appealing to students fantasising about a career in forensics, and that’s fine. But there are a few things to keep in mind.

If you’re opting to take the forensic science degree route, be very wary that some courses are a lot more crime scene investigation based rather than science-focussed, so be sure to closely examine the modules available to you and choose a course that best suits the career you are imagining. No chemistry-based forensics lab will hire you if you haven’t taken a single chemistry module at university. A forensic scientist will typically specialise in a certain area of work, such as DNA analysis or toxicology, so you can choose a degree programme that is tailored to the specific field of work you are interested in. As for deciding which university hosts the “best degree course”, the Chartered Society of Forensic Sciences (CSoFS) offers a list of universities and degree courses that are accredited, based on certain standards outlined by the society.

A forensic science degree is by no means your only option. Many people will opt for pure science degrees such as chemistry or biology (in fact some might argue that this route of study is superior to a forensics-based degree), potentially followed by postgraduate study in forensic science. This route can widen your job prospects, particularly beneficial if you decide during your undergraduate studies that you would actually like to pursue a career in another field of science, which many forensic science students actually end up doing. If you’re interested in computer forensics, then obviously this will involve an entirely different route of study. Again, I won’t cover this here because we’ll be here all day.

How do You Get This Pesky Lab Experience?

A commonly-encountered problem in the job-hunting field, and this stands true across all fields of science and beyond, is the requirement of work experience. A lot of postings for job vacancies list prior laboratory experience as desirable if not essential for the role. Though you may have a certain amount of lab experience from your university studies, how do you expand on this and gain further experience that will set you apart from the other applicants?

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There are plenty of options available here. Essentially you want to be contacting potential employers who would be willing to take you on as a short-term work experience candidate (unfortunately typically unpaid work) or, if you can, find paid part-time or temporary work. You can get in touch with your local police force or private forensic service providers, but realise most will be unwilling to offer placements simply due to the nature of the work. And this is something I am sure you can understand – no one wants untrained, unqualified members of the public hanging around at a crime scene or near vital pieces of forensic evidence. But good news for you, this work experience does not have to have anything to do with forensic science – any laboratory work can provide you with beneficial experience, whether it be in a university, the pharmaceutical industry or even in a hospital lab. Regardless of whether the work placement is directly related to your future ideal career, there is a lot to be said for simply understanding how labs are managed, gaining vital health and safety knowledge such as following COSHH (Control of Substances Hazardous to Health) regulations and how to write a risk assessment, not to mention learning about general lab etiquette. And that’s not even mentioning the actual skills and procedural knowledge you can pick up. So don’t be mistaken in thinking work experience is useless unless it is based around forensic science, because that is certainly not true. So get contacting labs in your area and see what they have available.

Now that isn’t to say all employers will insist that you have previous experience – some positions are specifically tailored to new graduates for instance and will include on-the-job training. But even if you are applying for entry-based graduate jobs, any experience you can get will only help set you apart from other applicants, especially when you know there will be quite a lot of competition.

All the Benefits of Professional Memberships

fsstudyYou may or may not be aware of the many professional organisations worldwide that offer membership schemes, the most obvious in this case being the Chartered Society of Forensic Sciences (UK) and the American Academy of Forensic Sciences (US). The potential benefits of becoming a member of one of these professional bodies forms a long list. Holding membership with such an organisation provides you with great links for networking and meeting potential employers, as they often host events and conferences to which members are invited. They can be great for finding out about job opportunities, for instance the aforementioned CSoFS now only permits members to view job listings. Furthermore, they help you keep up to date on the latest research, as many provide their members with publications.

Are you hoping to become involve in a more specific field of work within forensics? Chances are, there is probably a professional body relating to that field of work too, such as the British Association of Forensic Anthropologists and the United Kingdom and Ireland Association of Forensic Toxicologists. The list is endless and offers so many benefits that it’s worth looking into. If you’re a student or not yet a forensic science professional, membership fees are typically not too high either.

Where Are All the Jobs?

So now we come to the million dollar question. How do you find a job in forensic science? Forensic science services will differ between different countries, but in short you will be looking at either private forensic service providers or individual police force labs. Many of these will advertise vacancies only on their company websites, some will use recruitment agencies (though from what I have seen, forensics jobs don’t appear on your average job-hunting site too often), or via professional membership bodies as previously mentioned. More recently, more and more jobs are being advertised on LinkedIn which, even if you don’t plan on using it for job-hunting, is a great website to be a part of simply for the sake of networking and showing off those skills and qualifications you’ve gained. Some employers have confessed to checking out an applicant’s LinkedIn profile during the shortlisting process.

But ultimately, finding and securing a job in forensic science, as in any field of work, requires a lot of persistence and patience. Keep an eye out for job vacancies on a daily basis, network as much as you can, and keep applying. Try to not become too disheartened in applying for job opportunities. Remember that every vacancy attracts dozens if not hundreds of applications, so there’s some fairly heavy competition, particularly in forensic science.

Good luck, future forensic scientists!