Do you have what it takes to become a forensic scientist?

forensic student dusting evidence in sand

Lecturer and real life forensic scientist Brendan Chapman reveals what it's really like to study forensic science at uni, what careers it could lead you to, and what you need to do to get there.

What will I learn studying forensic science?

Studying forensic science will introduce you to the processes involved in crime scene examinations, including the various specialist areas supporting major investigations.

These include fingerprint analysis, forensic chemistry and DNA, bloodstain pattern analysis, cause of death, archaeology of grave sites, and the legal and judicial processes that are required to ensure a successful trial.

As part of your degree you'll have the opportunity to participate in a number of practical placements designed by lecturers like Brendan, who have real world expertise as practitioners in both Australia and abroad.

"Our students spend half of their contact time actually practicing the processes used by Australian and international law enforcement. They even get put on the witness stand to defend their work, just like they can expect in a real job.

"We bring in experts from police forces and forensic laboratories to give the students first hand contact with those going to the scenes.

“The best part of our degree is that everything the students learn, from the equipment they use to the procedures they perform, are exactly like what they can expect in a real job.”

How accurate is TV forensics?

While parts of crime TV shows can be well researched and accurate, other aspects often fall a long way off the mark.

Most shows will put some degree of effort in consulting forensic analyser companies to ensure that the lab scenes use realistic forensic equipment. However, the uncanny ability to solve most homicides within a one-hour timeslot is, as Brendan points out, unrealistic.

"Meticulous notetaking and methodical processing of a crime scene is what ensures that evidence integrity is upheld, but isn’t exactly the sexy stuff that forensics is seen to be.

"Unfortunately, no one wants to watch a TV episode where the stars wait 50 minutes for the coroner to collect a dead body!"

What does a forensic scientist do?

Studying a degree in forensic science can open a world of opportunities. While the obvious choice is a crime scene investigator, whereby you’ll process a crime scene or victim for any tiny traces of evidence that may point to the offender, other pathways including working in a forensic laboratory, analysing forensic exhibits for DNA, drugs or trace evidence.

For Brendan, his education at Murdoch set him up to work on thousands of serious crimes throughout WA, including the management of numerous high-profile homicide and serious assault investigations.

"In my career, I’ve been fortunate enough to spend time in both a white coat as a lab scientist and the blue coveralls as a crime scene investigator.

"The opportunities really are limitless because most forensic sciences are underpinned by more traditional sciences like chemistry, biology and physics.

"For example, a bloodstain pattern analyst uses the understanding of fluid dynamics and trigonometry to recreate how a bloodshed event may have occurred, while a digital forensic analyst might comb through the metadata of deleted or modified files on a drug dealer's mobile.

"In the future, I wouldn't be surprised if robotics, automation or even space travel may be in the job description. Wherever crime may occur, forensics will be needed."

What skills do I need to succeed in forensics?

Above all, Brendan recommends an attention to detail.

"Solving a case can be the difference between noticing if a light switch was turned on or off in a scene. It can be hard to restrain yourself from rushing head first into a crime scene.

"You must take the time to observe the details, form hypotheses as to what may have happened and work systematically to recover evidence."

With the scene sometimes the only witness to a crime, a patient mind is required to work through it.

“A strong stomach is also an advantage as some students don’t realise that we'll be studying cadavers (dead bodies) and, ultimately and unfortunately, a large part of your future career will be based around homicide and murder cases.

"In saying that, the pathway you choose will determine the likelihood of you needing to work with dead people. Even in lab jobs where the body is well isolated, you may be required to examine clothing from a decomposing, deceased person. Those lacking a sense of smell are definitely advantaged!"

Will forensic science make a good career?

Due to the success of his own career and those of past students, Brendan is confident in graduates succeeding after university.

"We have graduates now working for police forces around the country and a large number in both WA forensic laboratories as well as interstate and overseas.

"It's no secret that forensics is a competitive field because it’s a cool job, but I’m confident our graduates are the most qualified in the country."

You could also pursue postgraduate studies to give yourself a competitive edge in the job market. We offer study options ranging from a single semester Graduate Certificate and a year-long Graduate Diploma to a Master of Forensic Science (professional practice or professional practice with research) if you want to continue studies and deepen your forensic knowledge and skills. 

Find out more about our Forensic Biology and Toxicology course. Or learn about our study options for international students