The field of forensic engineering can best be described as failure investigation. While engineering is primarily tasked with designing and constructing structures that will be sound and designs that will operate safely, failures can still occur. Even with extensive structural and product testing, the most meticulous designs can still falter during and after construction or in the manufacturing stages.
Suppose a building collapses or a car part does not function as it is supposed to. In that case, a forensic engineer is responsible for determining the causes of failure and providing expert testimony on fixing an existing structural problem.
The duties of forensic engineers can be divided into two parts: investigation and engineering. Investigatory skills are needed soon after a structure, or a manufactured part fails. In the cases of catastrophic structural collapse causing death, injury, and destruction or failed experiments, forensic engineers work with law enforcement or design teams to look for evidence to explain the causes of failure. Examples of these events could be the collapse of a partially completed pedestrian bridge at an outdoor construction site or an automotive crash test in a design laboratory. In both instances, a forensic engineer collects data by observing the wreckage and collecting evidence of the damaged materials to determine the reasons for structural failure.
Using engineering principles and practices, a forensic engineer analyzes the collected evidence and makes an official assessment of the causes of structural failure. In cases of catastrophic failure, a report written by a forensic engineer can be used as litigation. Forensic engineers may also be called into legal matters to testify as to why a structure collapsed. In cases of product design failure, a forensic engineer works with design and manufacturing teams to assess the reasons the materials failed and provide guidelines to prevent structural failure from happening again.
The American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) states that the primary purpose of the forensic engineering profession is to “develop practices and procedures to reduce the number of failures” (ASCE 2021). The ASCE is a leading professional development organization for engineers and provides books, professional development courses, journal publications, and job listings for current and aspiring forensics engineers.
Read on to learn more about the challenging career of a forensic engineer.
The US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) does not report career-specific data for forensic engineers. Still, projections for the related field of civil engineering show that between 2019 and 2029, approximately 5,500 new positions will be needed (BLS 2021). These jobs will be needed to keep pace with construction and project management plans to rebuild and repair existing structures and ensure that new infrastructure is safe and sound for civilians.
Forensic and civil engineers are employed in various working locations, including indoor office work and outdoor construction sites. The top employment sectors for civil engineers are listed below (BLS 2021):
Payscale.com reports the average forensic engineer salary to be $85,525, with bonuses of up to $4,966 and profit-sharing opportunities valued at $5,500 (PayScale.com June 2021). The BLS does not list occupational statistics for forensic engineers, but data for the closely related civil engineering profession shows the average salary of civil engineers as $95,440 per year (BLS May 2020). The bottom 10th percentile of forensic engineers earn less than $56,160, while the highest 10th percentile earn more than $144,810.
Several factors affect salary calculations for forensic engineers:
It takes approximately eight years of post-secondary education and professional experience to become a licensed engineer. Read on to learn more about the educational and licensing requirements needed to become a forensic engineer.
High school students aspiring to study forensic engineering are advised to take as many courses as possible in mathematics, drafting, statistics, natural sciences, computer science, criminal justice, and communication skills and keep their grades high to gain admission to a reputable engineering college or university program.
The Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology (ABET) is an organization that accredits post-secondary education programs in engineering and related fields. ABET accredits 4,307 programs at 846 colleges and universities in 41 countries. Attending an ABET-accredited bachelor’s degree program in engineering is required in many states for professionals seeking certification and licensure in engineering.
An example of an on-campus ABET-accredited engineering program is the bachelor of science in architectural engineering offered by the College of Architecture and Environmental Design at California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo, California. Students in this four-year program take courses in design, structural engineering, construction management, and other engineering-related disciplines. Most students go on to careers as structural engineers, a discipline closely related to forensic engineering. Students in this program gain unique expertise in the strength of materials and structural seismic design applications.
The Fundamentals of Engineering (FE) exam is offered by the National Council of Examiners for Engineering and Surveying (NCEES). It is the first of two exams required to become a licensed engineer.
The FE exam is designed for recent graduates who have already completed or will soon complete an engineering degree from an EAC/ABET-accredited bachelor’s degree program.
There are seven specific types of exams tailored to different types of engineering:
To become eligible to take the second and final engineering licensing exam offered by NCEES, most states require candidates to provide proof of four years of post-college work experience in the engineering industry.
The Principles and Practice of Engineering (PE) exam is offered by NCEES to candidates with an ABET-accredited bachelor’s degree in engineering and four years of professional engineering experience. Upon earning a passing score determined by individual state licensing boards, candidates will earn official licensure credentials as a Professional Licensed Engineer (PE) and be eligible to legally practice as a licensed engineer.
There are several specialized exams for different types of engineering disciplines:
While NCEES does not offer an examination for forensic engineering, the cross-disciplinary nature of this field allows for engineers in certain areas of specialization to serve as professional experts for specific situations. For example, in the case of a bridge collapse, an architectural engineer could provide the investigatory, structural, and legal skills needed to manage problems related to structural failure.
While an advanced degree in engineering is typically not required for licensure, there are several advantages to earning a master’s or doctoral degree in engineering. Advanced degrees allow engineering professionals to show their dedication to the discipline, specialize and advance their knowledge base in engineering, and earn higher salaries. Engineers with advanced degrees may have more opportunities to gain leadership positions or serve in professional development capacities.
The Department of Technology Systems at East Carolina University offers two fully online master’s programs —all of which are accredited by ABET. ECU also offers an in-person doctoral degree in technology management and occupational safety in partnership with five other universities. Students in these programs learn advanced problem-solving skills and technological decision-making methods applicable to applied engineering research. Graduates from these programs are prepared to enter upper-level leadership positions in occupational and technical engineering fields closely related to forensic engineering.
Due to the high liability of failure investigation, forensic engineers must be technically proficient in their specialty areas and clear and concise communicators. The tasks of a forensic engineer include figuring out the cause of failure to make improvements or determine the objective facts of an accident for legal proceedings. Attention to detail and keen knowledge of the scientific method are necessary to be an effective forensic engineer.
Tasks and responsibilities of a typical forensic engineering job description can include:
The multidisciplinary field of forensic engineering is unique in that structural failure can happen in various locations. While a forensic engineer can be experienced in a variety of areas, having board certification in a specific area can help a candidate gain more professional notoriety and opportunities. The following board certifications offered by the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) require a minimum of a PE license or foreign equivalent, a master’s degree, and eight years of post-licensure experience in engineering:
As previously mentioned, the first steps toward earning an engineering license include earning an ABET-accredited bachelor’s degree in engineering, passing the FE exam, gaining four years of documented engineering experience, and passing the PE exam. The NCEES offers the FE and PE exams. It is worth noting that every state has unique requirements for engineers to become licensed, and engineers aspiring to pursue licensure are advised to know the licensure requirements for the states in which they would like to practice as an engineer.
The American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) has resources to help engineers earn professional certification credentials in a specialty area, prepare for exams through specialized courses, and learn about professional development and networking opportunities.
Also, the American Council of Engineering Companies (ACEC) offers three unique designations to engineering professionals with PE licensure and seven to 20 years of experience in management:
Finally, the International Board of Forensic Engineering Sciences (IBFES) offers a path to certification to those who hold at least a qualifying bachelor’s degree; three references; and proof of experience working in the litigations process (including depositions and testimonies) in the three years prior to seeking the certification. The number of years of experience varies by the education level of the application, with bachelor’s degree holders requiring at least eight years and those with graduate degrees or PE licensure requiring at least six years. The applicant is required to pass exams in ethics and an oral examination. Certifications are valid for five years.
Rachel Drummond is a freelance writer, educator, and yogini from Oregon. She’s taught English to international university students in the United States and Japan for more than a decade and has a master’s degree in education from the University of Oregon. Rachel writes about meditation, yoga, coaching, and more on her blog (Instagram: @racheldrummondyoga).