In October 2016, Stevenson University’s School of Graduate and Professional Studies held their annual Forensic Symposium. The event focused on diversity and inclusion; attendees learned of the importance and significance of promoting diversity in forensics and law enforcement. Due to the success of the event, follow up questions were sent to our guest speakers requesting their advice on entering the forensics field.
Our guest speakers included Richard Rosa of the Hispanic American Police Command Officers Association; Cathy Sanz of Women in Federal Law Enforcement; Nelson Santos of the Office of Forensic Studies, Drug Enforcement Administration; and Steven O’Dell of the Forensic Science and Evidence Management Division, Baltimore City Police Department.
What are your recommendation for forensics internship opportunities in your area?
Steven O’Dell: Interns are one of the most underutilized resources in forensics. Many forensic labs choose not to participate in internship or apprenticeship programs because they cannot work on casework. However, there are validations, data mining projects, and support functions that interns are very capable of handling and permitted to work on. At the Baltimore City Crime Lab, we regularly have at least two or three interns in our laboratory at any given time. Additionally, we have recently expanded our partnership with a regional university to accept semester long work-experience apprenticeships and it has been a huge success. Our interns and apprentices receive a rich experience and report that their time with us has been instrumental in helping them to get jobs in the field. For our program, an applicant must be pursuing a science degree and receive college credit in order to be accepted. We evaluate the skill set of the individual and assign them projects throughout the lab. If anyone reading this meets these baseline criteria they should apply by contacting our Intern coordinator, Richard Remy at email@example.com.
Richard Rosa: While we do not have a forensics department, I highly suggest to look at the local area law enforcement agencies in the federal, state, and local levels which have offer internship opportunities. The FBI, ATF, Secret Service, Maryland State Police, Montgomery and Prince George’s County, and Baltimore City Police have a forensics department.
Nelson Santos: For DEA Laboratory internships contact the local laboratory director or myself.
Cathy Sanz: Most of the federal agencies do have internship programs. Be forewarned that you will need to complete a background investigation, therefore you should start the process much earlier than the semester you hope to do an internship.
For those interested, you might look into the prospect of becoming a reserve police officer. It may be a way to serve and help in areas such as forensics. For those hoping for a full-time law enforcement position it could also help you make connections that will provide you an avenue to a full-time position.
Some departments have cadet programs; if you qualify do not be afraid to offer your skill-sets. Most programs are limited only by the skill levels of their cadets. Your skills could help them expand the scope of what they do. Just remember, if you develop the position, its success rest solely with you. If you fail or are not a good employee it affects the future candidates.
The following agencies have forensics type positions and laboratories: FBI, DEA, ICE, CBP, U.S. Secret Service, NCIS, Army CID, AFOSI, Postal Inspection, and ATF.
How did you begin to connect to jobs within your profession and/or what do you recommend to get started?
Steven O’Dell: I ended up in a unique competitive work program at my first job that was a pipeline into employment, and from there it has been through conference attendance and active LinkedIn and social media engagement.
Richard Rosa: Join law enforcement organizations such as HAPCOA, WIFLE, NOBLE, NAPOA, etc. which offer networking and employment opportunities. These are well-respected associations looking to promote professional development while improving diversity and inclusion in the workplace.
Nelson Santos: Attend as many professional meetings as possible to network and learn about the field.
Cathy Sanz: I started out as a co-op student at Northeastern University. The agency I co-opted with converted us when we completed our degree requirements. From there everything is based on developing relationships with people that you work with and meeting people from other agencies.
Your reputation as a worker and your personal reputation matter a great deal. Willingness to help other, go above and beyond, and of all things no whining, all matter. When you do that people will look for you and they will offer you jobs. And if the day comes when you need to move to another agency you have people who will vouch for you. The qualified lists tend to be lengthy and you have to have people in your corner that will advocate for you.
Lastly, join professional organizations. It is one of the easiest ways to create a network. These are critical especially if you are a minority member. One of the issues with low diversity is that the people who are the only one or two of a group become isolated. Isolation makes the probable becomes the impossible. Organization memberships help alleviate this and help you keep perspective.
What is the best advice you would offer to forensics professionals new to the field?
Steven O’Dell: In terms of forensic “studies” as it relates to forensic science I would recommend building a solid “hard” science foundation. We recently posted to hire in our Crime Scene units and received over 300 applications – the competition is stiff out there. The vast majority of these applicants held master’s degrees with emphasis in the hard sciences or forensic science.
This field is advancing quickly and those who enter school thinking forensics is a “light” science will be left behind. If you build your science foundation the next step I would say is to attend as many professional training seminars and conferences as possible. These provide great opportunities for networking and for learning about advancements in the field. I practice what I preach and still find these meetings to be educational and helpful in my career. I would also recommend identifying a mentor in the field to help expose you to the profession and guide you toward the right kinds of opportunities.
Richard Rosa: First, you must be committed to this field and invest in yourself. Immediately inquire about internships and a forensics science student organizations. Join the American Academy of Forensic Science. Attend forensic symposiums and network. Ascertain if there is a mentor/mentee program available. Second, your first mentor/mentee relationship may not be the best but this should not dissuade your from pursuing your dreams. Do not give up on yourself or get discouraged. Relationships, collaboration, and cooperation are crucial in today's workplace. That said, integrity and character are paramount in forensics as in law enforcement. Never compromise your ethics. This will follow you the rest of your career.
Nelson Santos: Get involved in your local or state forensic societies.
Cathy Sanz: This is one of those professions in which you will always be a student. Do not expect your agency to send you to training to keep up on things. You need to make a decision to take this on. You will need to become very good at finding free training. Set out to specialize in a specific skill, which also includes becoming certified to teach that subject. When you move for promotion people look at whether or not you go above and beyond. Another area is to become a court certified expert in your field if possible.
Finally, monitor your social media presence. From a law enforcement security focus, you do not want people to be able to find where you or your family live or places you frequent. And definitely make sure people cannot identify your children, their schools, or your immediate family.