Forensic science a popular degree program thanks to prime time

Crime scene dramas like “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation” and “Criminal Minds” have exploded in popularity over the past decade, creating what many in the legal field describe as “The CSI Effect.”

“The CSI Effect” refers to the way the often exaggerated scenarios in these shows have influenced the public’s perception of the forensic science field. Many viewers don’t realize that it can take weeks to get laboratory test results, that evidence must be handled in a very careful manner, and that some of the technology used on these shows simply hasn’t been invented yet.

“Probably about 5 or 10 percent of what is on ‘CSI’ is realistic,” says Melissa Beddow, a DNA analysis expert and forensic science professor at Grand Canyon University in Phoenix. “A lot of the technology is non-existent, and a lot of the evidence handling (in those shows) is wrong and would be thrown out of court in a trial.”

But the TV shows have also had a more positive effect on society – spurring the interest of college-bound students who are finding the field to be an attractive career option. Until recently, students interested in the forensic science field majored in biology or chemistry. But students are now turning to forensic science programs, which give them an opportunity to log significant laboratory hours working with industry-standard instrumentation. That experience means they’ll require less on-the-job training after graduation and will be more desirable job candidates than someone with lesser training.

Suddenly, undergraduate and graduate degree programs are sprouting up across the country. In the past several years, graduate programs in forensic science at University of California, Davis, Florida International University and George Washington University have all seen major jumps in enrollment.

Beddow is overseeing Grand Canyon University’s forensic science bachelor’s degree program, which began this fall. Students in the program take general foundation classes similar to that of a pre-med program, as well as more specific forensic courses, such as toxicology, forensic chemistry, and DNA analysis, where students will analyze mock DNA samples to extract and process for identification.

“There was a big need for this program in Arizona,” says Beddow. “We have a lot of associate degree programs in this state, but those don’t adequately prepare a student to enter a laboratory environment right after graduation.”

Students who graduate with a degree in forensic science have a number of post-graduation options open to them. They will be qualified to work in virtually any analytical laboratory or they can go on to medical school or another graduate program.

This flexibility is what attracted GCU freshman Charlie Willett to the program. Growing up, Willett always dreamed of being an FBI agent and planned to major in biology and possibly attend medical school.

“But Professor Beddow has talked to me about all the different things you can do in a lab,” says Willet. “And a lot of that sounds interesting to me, too.”

Willett enrolled in the forensic science program when he realized it was a path that would keep all those doors open to him.