Forensic engineering is the investigation of failures that result in some form of property loss and/or injury. Forensic engineers apply both investigative and engineering principles to reconstruct the processes and mechanisms of the incident in question. This is often to help a jury assess liability or fault in criminal or civil cases. Subfields of forensic engineering include automobile, marine, locomotive, workplace, and product incidents. Cases are often categorized by their need for accident reconstruction, biomechanics, and/or human factors expertise.
This is a little-known field of engineering, but it is one in which it is possible to build a strong, interesting, and profitable career. Here is a quick breakdown of what you can look forward to in the first six months of building a career in forensic engineering.
One of the most exciting parts of forensic engineering is that no day is like the day before. New cases come in frequently, and each case presents unique avenues to investigate. Most cases do involve similar processes, however, such as physical investigations, background research, analysis, and presenting results. The first few months of working in forensic engineering involve experiencing all aspects of working a case.
Be prepared; this first stretch will include a lot of inspections. If you enjoy getting outside and in the field, working with your hands, and being quick on your feet, this is definitely a highlight. Inspections provide a great change of pace while also providing hands-on experience. Enjoy these opportunities and learn from them. Performing inspections will enhance all other aspects of the process.
While not on inspections, the rest of your time in the first six months will be spent reviewing and synthesizing legal and medical documents, literature review, simulations, modeling, and weaving together a case’s information into a scientific picture. Each day has a flavor of its own.
No matter your academic or professional background, beginning a career in forensic engineering involves a learning curve. It will be helpful, therefore, to get familiar with the learning process. In my job, I have found it often takes this form: learn, do, get feedback, reflect.
First up: learn. Shadow experienced engineers, do training courses, learn new software and procedures, attend meetings. In short, always keep your eyes open for ways to learn.
Next step: do. You will be tasked with casework. This is where you take what you have learned and put it into practice. Some people learn best by jumping right in and trying stuff out, while others prefer understanding a task before attempting it. Either way, the "do" step is where familiarity is grown, mistakes are made, and muscle memory is formed.
The third step: get feedback. This step is critical and requires humility. You do not, will not, and cannot know everything about your new career. You will find your information gaps, and you will make mistakes. Experienced engineers, supervisors, and other teammates can and should give you plenty of feedback. This is an opportunity to learn and grow, not an opportunity to take things personally. Exercise humility, and you will reap great rewards – even if you do not cherish the process.
Finally: reflect. After learning a process, trying it out, and hearing how you did, reflect on it. This affords the chance to do things differently next time. After learning how to perform an inspection, doing a few, and finding out how they went, reflection will prepare the next inspection to be better – quicker, more thorough, better quality. This applies to any new skill. Active learning and reflection is better than passive imitation and repetition.
Because each day will be different, there are countless opportunities to apply engineering knowledge and skills in this career. One of the main areas of training for these first few months will be learning a half dozen or more accident reconstruction, 3D processing, biomechanical simulation, and CAD software programs. These include MADYMO, VirtualCrash, Rhino3D, Photomodeler, CloudCompare, and more.
Beyond that, forensic engineers are constantly growing cross-discipline skills. A forensic engineer quickly gains a grasp on the basics of the civil court system and continues to deepen their knowledge and application throughout their career. In addition, no matter your starting level of automobile knowledge, you will broaden your understanding of vehicular vocabulary and function. And, of course, each day will develop your communication, organization, time management, and interpersonal skills.
Finally, as a forensic engineer, you will find that each day your work ties back to the very basics of physics. Position, velocity, and acceleration form the foundation of nearly every case. Where was an object located, how fast was it moving, was it speeding up or slowing down? Where were the cameras or observers who reported this information located, and how would this affect the data and calculations? How were the involved persons affected by this motion? These questions all tie back to the very basics of math, physics, and engineering. Forensic engineers get to apply these principles from day one through the rest of their careers.
Forensic engineers will continue to grow in confidence and experience in the years beyond their first six months. As this happens, you will have opportunities to step into leadership positions by managing projects and delegating case work. Eventually, you will take the lead on cases and report directly to testifiers. Independent research and professional development opportunities will also help advance your career. Finally, becoming a testifier and creating your own client list is the top of the profession. Each step is built upon the previous ones, making the first few months of this new career a critical foundation for future success.