If you’re as interested in the legal industry as you are in science, math and design, you might be an excellent candidate for a career in forensic engineering. By applying your knowledge of engineering to legal matters, you can help hold bad actors accountable for mistakes and negligent actions that cause serious harm. You will need a college degree in some field of engineering if you want to work in this role, as well as further education, training or certification that equips you with forensic investigative skills.
What Is Forensic Engineering?
Engineering is the career devoted to designing and developing solutions to problems by applying the principles and methods of science and mathematics. Different types of engineers use different methods of solving problems and concentrate on different kinds of problems. For example, engineering solutions might include computer hardware or software programs, bridges and built structures, chemical compounds and materials, mechanical inventions, vehicles and vehicle components and biomedical devices and interventions.
The forensic aspects of the forensic engineering field refer to applying engineering knowledge, principles and practices to legal, court or criminal matters.
The American Society of Civil Engineers characterizes the focus of work in forensic engineering as investigating “failures or other performance problems.” Often, these failures have caused someone harm or threaten to cause harm and, as such, may bring about legal consequences such as criminal charges, fines or civil lawsuits. The National Academy of Forensic Engineers (NAFE) specifically equates forensic engineering work to matters related to the “jurisprudence system” – in other words, the legal system.
What Do Forensic Engineers Do?
Work in forensic engineering typically means reverse-engineering or reconstructing the situation to determine what went wrong. Forensic engineers describe their work in terms such as “failure analysis.”
The types of failures forensic engineers may analyze vary, including matters like the following:
- Bridge collapses
- Plane crashes
- Vehicle crashes
- Building collapses
- Major electrical failures
- Machinery failures and malfunctions
- Materials defects
To investigate matters involving structural failure, mechanical failure, product liability and other failures and malfunctions, forensic engineers examine, document and test all of the evidence available. They may visit the site of the failure to collect evidence and take photographs. Laboratory examination, computer modeling and product testing are some of the methods forensic engineers use in investigating engineering failures.
Although knowing what went wrong allows engineering practitioners to hopefully prevent future failures, the purpose of forensic engineering isn’t purely to gain general knowledge of the cause of the failure. Forensic engineers determine where the fault lies for the failure, identifying who can be held responsible and in what way. The reports forensic engineers put together to express their findings can be used in legal matters. A forensic engineer may be called on to testify at civil or criminal legal proceedings, including depositions and trials, according to NAFE.
Not all forensic engineers focus on forensic engineering full-time. It’s common for an engineer to perform some work as an expert witness in legal cases while continuing to practice in their engineering discipline, according to the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). Engineering professionals who make forensic engineering their full-time job may make this shift gradually.
The Path to Becoming a Forensic Engineer
Forensic engineers are engineers first, and they must be trained as such.
1. Earn your bachelor’s degree.
If you want to become a forensic engineer, your first step should be to obtain an undergraduate engineering education by enrolling in a bachelor’s degree program in engineering that is accredited by ABET, the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology. These programs typically take four years of full-time study to complete but may take longer, especially if you gain hands-on experience through co-op programs during your studies.
2. Start preparing for your Professional Engineer license.
Licensure isn’t always required for practicing engineers, especially in industries and disciplines in which you aren’t required to sign off on design documents submitted to satisfy legal requirements or offer your services directly to the public. In general, civil and structural engineers commonly seek licensure, while software engineers do so much more rarely.
However, most forensic engineers are licensed professional engineers with a great deal of experience, according to the NAFE. An aspiring forensic engineer should plan to seek licensure unless they have a compelling reason not to. Licensure is an important credential in establishing yourself as an authority in the field of engineering, which you need to do for your professional opinions on the cause of structural failures and other failures to be taken seriously in court.
You can begin this process by taking the Fundamentals of Engineering (FE) exam. Once you have sufficient work experience in your field as an engineer intern or engineer-in-training, you can take the Principles and Practices of Engineering exam to complete the process of becoming a licensed professional engineer (PE).
3. Gain work experience in your engineering discipline.
Becoming a forensic engineer is a long-term career goal, not an entry-level job option. Before you are considered to have the engineering expertise to serve as an authority on proper engineering procedures, you need to spend time in the field gaining experience.
An aspiring forensic engineer should work toward improving their technical and non-technical skills in every project they undertake and look for ways to take on more interesting and complex job duties. Looking for work opportunities that are closely related to the kind of technical matters they would like to investigate as a forensic engineer can help them build the expertise they need.
4. Pursue training or other education in forensic engineering.
Once you are well-established in your engineering career, it’s time to cultivate some knowledge of how to apply engineering principles and methods to forensic investigations. There are many paths you could pursue to learn the forensic science skills needed for forensic engineering.
Many professional organizations and associations in both forensics and engineering offer continuing education opportunities, such as online courses and webinars, that are of interest to a current or prospective forensic engineer.
Some organizations through which you may be able to seek training in forensic engineering include:
- The National Academy of Forensic Engineers
- The Society of Forensic Engineers and Scientists (SFES)
- The American Academy of Forensic Sciences (AAFS)
- The American College of Forensic Examiners Institute (ACFEI)
- The American Society for Engineering Education (ASEE)
- The American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE)
- The American Institute of Chemical Engineers (AIChE)
- The Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE)
- The American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME) International
- The Institute of Transportation Engineers (ITE)
- The American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA)
- The National Society of Professional Engineers (NSPE)
If you’re interested in a more formal education in forensic science and engineering, you could consider going back to school. Forensic engineering schools offer graduate certificate programs and master’s degree programs in forensic engineering. A benefit of these graduate-level programs of study is that they allow students to cover more advanced concepts in the field of forensic engineering. Certificate programs and master’s degree programs may require students to complete a capstone project, although some master’s degree programs are thesis-track courses of study.
5. Look for opportunities to begin taking on forensic engineering work.
Adding training and education in forensic science to your resume can help you break into the forensic engineering occupation. So can networking, particularly when it comes to building professional contacts in forensic engineering, law and the legal industry.
Your path to acquiring professional forensic experience in engineering may take you to different work environments. You might look for employment with engineering firms that offer forensic engineering services along with other engineering services or with firms that exclusively focus on forensic investigations. Alternatively, you might apply to roles in law enforcement agencies, crime labs, insurance companies and corporations.
Many forensic engineers are hired on a consulting basis to serve as expert witnesses for a particular case or legal matter. Attorneys, government prosecutors and corporations suing or being sued are among the types of clients most likely to hire forensic engineers. As such, forensic engineers often work in consulting firms and may even go on to establish their own private consulting practices.
If you have completed training or formal education in forensic engineering but you are still having trouble getting a foot in the door, make an effort to connect with established forensic engineers and the types of companies that hire them. Ask for advice or mentorship assistance, and be willing to learn. Take advantage of any resources available to you through professional organizations and associations or career advisement services offered by forensic engineering schools.
6. Pursue Board Certification from the International Board of Forensic Engineering Sciences.
Certification from the International Board of Forensic Engineering Sciences (IBFES) demonstrates a forensic engineer’s technical and ethical competency. Only once you have already started working in the field of forensic engineering can you qualify for IBFES board certification. To apply for certification, you must submit for peer review a report that highlights your forensic engineering work history along with references from clients for whom you have provided forensic engineering services and reports prepared for past forensic engineering jobs.
To become board-certified, you need to pass the three-part IBFES examinations. Exam content includes questions pertaining to physics, chemistry, math, the scientific method, the legal system, forensic disciplines, quality assurance and control, computer modeling and computer-aided design software and evidence handling procedures and process hazards review in laboratories and field sites. The exams also include sections dedicated to evaluating the test taker’s organizational, communication and critical-thinking competencies, as well as their understanding of ethics issues in forensic engineering.
Forensic Engineering Degree Options
Forensic engineers work in just about all engineering disciplines. Any engineering major could potentially prepare you for a role as a forensic engineer, but you should choose a major that relates to the types of failures you would like to investigate. Some of the best degree options for forensic engineers are civil engineering, mechanical engineering, electrical engineering and aerospace engineering programs.
Engineering programs in all disciplines should include a foundation of science and math coursework and studies in the general principles and practices of engineering design, as well as methods and applications specific to your intended major.
Failures involving civil engineering and structural engineering are probably the most widely publicized types of engineering failures, so it isn’t surprising if you have heard that aspiring forensic engineers should major in civil engineering. Forensic civil engineers are the ones with the skills to investigate failures of constructed facilities, including concrete and steel structures like bridges and buildings. Students seeking bachelor’s degrees in civil engineering take courses in structural analysis and design, construction materials, structural material behavior, soil mechanics, system balances and design, statics, dynamics, hydraulics, hydrology and geologic principles for infrastructure and environmental engineering.
Many engineers come to the field of forensic engineering from a background in mechanical engineering, which is widely considered the broadest engineering discipline. Mechanical engineers are concerned with any system, device or process with moving parts, from large manufacturing machines to nanotechnology and even the human body. Students seeking mechanical engineering degrees take classes in the fundamentals of mechanical engineering design, machine theory and design, mechanical design and fabrication, materials, fluid mechanics, mechanical vibrations, heat and mass transfer and thermodynamics.
To earn a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering, students at a four-year college or university take classes in circuits and electronics, engineering computation, digital circuit design, signals and systems, processor systems and electromagnetic fields and waves.
Aerospace engineers design, develop and test aircraft and spacecraft and their components. To earn an aerospace engineering degree, students take classes in aerodynamics, aircraft and spacecraft flight dynamics, fluid and solid mechanics, aerospace vehicle performance, control system analysis and design, jet and rocket propulsion, technical communications systems and aircraft and space system design.
Double-Major Options: Forensic Science or Criminal Justice
Although you would have a tough time finding specialized forensic engineering programs at the undergraduate level, an ambitious student could choose to double-major in a field like forensic science or criminal justice to develop some knowledge of investigative procedures. Colleges that may not offer forensic engineering programs often do offer majors in both the broad engineering disciplines and criminal justice. If you decide to double-major, be aware that you are taking on a heavy workload.
Coursework in Forensic Engineering Programs
Degree programs in forensic engineering are rare, even at advanced levels of study. However, some colleges do offer formal education in this area. Most commonly, programs in forensic engineering are offered as graduate certificates or concentration areas within a master’s degree in engineering.
Generally, forensic engineering degree and certificate programs cover the theoretical principles of how engineering intersects with product safety and the law, as well as the practical skills for conducting a forensic engineering investigation and preparing forensic reports.
Texas Tech University, for example, offers a graduate certificate in forensic engineering (CFE) program. Graduate students in this program complete six courses, including required core courses that cover theoretical studies in forensic engineering, fracture and failure analysis and advanced topics in mechanical engineering and the legal aspects of forensic science and engineering. Through their elective courses, Texas Tech University students in this program can build expertise in areas like safety engineering, risk modeling and assessment, advanced foundation engineering and advanced design of bridge structure.
The Columbia University Master’s program in the Department of Civil Engineering and Engineering Mechanics offers a concentration in forensic structural engineering. Students in Columbia’s forensic structural engineering programs complete courses in structural assessment and failure, forensic structural engineering processes and standards and construction industry law. Students pursuing this program of study may choose to take courses in the design of large-scale bridges and building structures, advanced design of concrete and steel structures, experimental soil mechanics, quantitative infrastructure risk assessment, infrastructure risk management and earthquake and wind engineering.
Forensic engineers may also choose to earn master’s degrees in other related areas of study. For example, you could pursue a master’s degree in your chosen engineering discipline more generally but look for opportunities to take courses in forensic engineering. Although students may be tempted to pursue master’s degrees in forensic science more generally, these programs aren’t always suitable for this purpose. For example, although the University of Central Florida offers a Master of Science degree in Forensic Science, it urges aspiring forensic engineers to choose an engineering degree instead.