Forensic engineers are the specialists who investigate when a building or structure fails. A forensic engineer can be the one that determines what materials or missteps caused a bridge to collapse or a building to crumble. With this information, legal action may be taken against the owner or construction company behind the building, meaning, like other forensic occupations, forensic engineers have a job that intersects with the legal system.
Forensic engineers may also simply need to aid an attorney in an engineering matter or incident that needs legal resolution. These engineers often make use of trace evidence from the scene of an incident and then use their analysis, investigative skills, and engineering expertise to determine what actually happened and where the fault lies. This aspect of engineering can lead to the type of interesting career that some engineering students may be looking for.
People who may succeed the most in forensic engineering will generally be thrilled by the science and investigative aspect of their careers. While the legal aspects are important, many in the field have a burning need to know why a produced item failed to do what it was supposed to do. The National Academy of Forensic Engineers can offer credentials and more information about the field. Typically, forensic engineers will need a minimum of a master of science degree with a concentration in forensic engineering, for which a few programs are available.
There are no available associate degree programs that focus on forensic engineering. However, students interested in pursuing the career and unable to commit to a bachelor’s degree right away may consider an associate degree in a related field such as general engineering or civil engineering.
Saddleback College offers an associate of science degree in general engineering, providing transfer students the opportunity to achieve an associate degree and transfer into programs in mechanical engineering, civil engineering, electrical engineering, and many others at California State Universities. While a bachelor’s degree is often recommended for candidates considering professional engineering-related careers, earning this associate degree would help them demonstrate achievement and may also support their employment as technicians in engineering-related fields.
This 60-credit program includes courses in general physics; statics; engineering technology; engineering graphics; automotive engineering fundamentals; ecological restoration techniques; and many more electives related to engineering.
As with associate degree programs, bachelor’s degree programs do not specialize in forensic engineering, although a bachelor’s degree is an important stepping stone to the career. Students should look for programs in civil engineering, structural engineering, or other degrees that build a strong educational foundation for the intricacies of buildings, bridges, and other structures.
The University of California at San Diego’s Department of Structural Engineering offers an ABET-accredited bachelor of science degree in structural engineering that requires a minimum of 145 units, plus college requirements in social sciences and humanities.
The curriculum includes courses such as an introduction to structures; engineering graphic design; statics; dynamics; solid mechanics; structural materials; vibrations; fluid mechanics; finite element analysis; structural analysis; and linear algebra, among others.
Graduates will be prepared with an adaptable degree for pursuing the nation’s top engineering fields such as forensic engineering, aerospace engineering, architectural engineering, civil engineering, energy structures, and structural engineering, to name a few.
At the master’s degree level, students can find specialized forensic engineering programs. However, those that earn a master’s degree in a more general engineering field such as structural or civil engineering may still be eligible for future training in forensic engineering.
Columbia University’s Department of Civil Engineering and Engineering Mechanics offers a master of science program in civil engineering and engineering mechanics. This 30-credit program allows students to choose from several concentration options. One such concentration is in forensic (structural) engineering. In order to prepare graduates for the eventual practice of forensic structural engineering, this concentration acquaints graduates with various forensic engineering aspects providing them with the basics for the investigation of failures and helping them in understanding some of the pertinent legal aspects.
The curriculum includes courses such as prevention and resolution of construction disputes; construction industry law; forensic structural engineering; structural failures: cases, causes, and lessons learned; principles of construction techniques; managing civil infrastructure systems; and geotechnical engineering fundamentals.
Those who complete a master’s degree in forensic engineering or a broader engineering topic may choose to go on to pursue a PhD, which will allow them to work in academia and could help to further other professional opportunities.
In addition to the master of science program, Columbia University also offers two doctoral degree programs in civil engineering and engineering mechanics. The doctor of engineering science (EngScD) program is administered by The Fu Foundation School of Engineering and Applied Science, and the doctor of philosophy (PhD) program is administered by the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences.
Both have identical academic requirements with regard to thesis, examinations, and courses, but have different residency requirements. These doctoral degrees also offer a concentration in forensic (structural) engineering.
Applicants to the program must obtain a master’s degree before enrolling as candidates for either the PhD or EngScD degree. Notably, PhD degree candidates must complete six residential units.
Students interested in the forensic engineering must have an engineering degree first. These engineering degree fields could include (but are not limited to) civil, chemical, electrical, mechanical, and petroleum. As students start a bachelor’s degree, they will take more general education courses and then continue on to more engineering-focused coursework such as introduction to engineering systems, advanced math, and coursework designed specifically for the many engineering fields that are available.
Following are a few programs available to prospective forensic engineers. Although not all have a specific focus on forensic engineering, each will provide a valuable foundation on which to build the career.
The University of California at Berkeley (UC Berkeley or Cal) offers a master of science (MS) degree in structural engineering, mechanics, and materials as part of its Civil and Environmental Engineering school. This MS program deeply examines issues critical to an aspiring forensic engineer, including structural design, structural dynamics, and concrete technology. Students also have the option to pursue a joint MS in structural engineering and a master of architecture (MArch).
Courses include structural analysis theory & applications; finite element methods; civil engineering materials; structural mechanics; experimental methods in structural engineering; behavior and plastic design of steel structures; design of steel and composite structures; behavior of reinforced concrete; statistical mechanics of elasticity; and structural mechanics.
Texas Tech University (TTU) offers a graduate forensic engineering (CFE) certificate. This certificate is available to those pursuing or already hold a master’s degree in engineering. The CFE program consists of six required courses (15 credits) and should take students approximately 18 months to complete.
Courses include advanced concepts in failure analysis and forensic engineering; advanced topics in mechanical engineering: legal aspects of forensic science and engineering; Safety Engineering; Wind Engineering; Advanced Foundation Engineering; and a capstone project.
Applicants must be current master’s or PhD students in engineering; or current JD students pursuing the JD/MEng program; or students holding a graduate-level degree from an accredited institution. A minimum GPA of 3.0 is required for admission.
Northwestern University offers an MS in structural engineering and design that requires four core courses, three courses from either the design or research track and five electives. Students with bachelor’s degrees in civil engineering or similar undergraduate coursework can apply for this program. Once accepted into the program, students must select one of two tracks in civil engineering: design or research.
As part of the program, students will delve into topics such as the stability of structures; theory of plates and shells; structural design; mechanics of continua; dynamics of structures; theory of elasticity; structural steel design; reinforced concrete design; engineering project management; uncertainty analysis; and mechanics of vibrations.
In some cases, students will find it more advantageous to take some of their courses online. While they may be available in the future, as of 2023, just one forensic engineering program is available entirely online. However, some engineering colleges can offer online and hybrid options in related areas.
University of Denver’s Sturm College of Law offers a master of legal studies program in forensic engineering specifically designed for non-lawyers seeking to enhance their legal expertise. Developed in partnership with The Vertex Companies, this online program equips students with the experience, skills, and knowledge needed to serve as experts in design defects and construction matters.
This fully online 24-credit program includes courses such as construction law; forensic and scientific evidence; introduction to contracts and torts; introduction to forensics and construction dispute resolution; forensic scheduling; legal writing and research for non-lawyers; and remedies in construction law.
The University of Kansas offers an online master’s in civil engineering and several civil engineering certificates in structural forensics, structural analysis, and structural design. These programs provide students with the advanced technical expertise needed for career advancement and preparation for professional exams, including the structural engineering exam.
Applicants to the program must have an undergraduate degree in civil-related engineering with a grade-point average of 3.0 or higher. No essay or GRE is required for admission.
The graduate certificate in structural forensics comprises 12 credits and includes courses such as structural engineering materials; corrosion engineering; experimental stress analysis; introduction to fracture mechanics; and experimental structural dynamics.
After earning an education, many forensic engineers choose to pursue professional certification. Forensic engineers may apply for certification from two different bodies:
Accreditation is always important whether choosing online or campus-based engineering schools. Specific forensic engineering programs will be hard to find, and students will most likely be able to enter the field simply through experience gained on the job and additional specialized coursework. Accreditation means that a school has met or exceeded certain standards to guarantee that students will receive quality instruction and needed skills.
Programmatic accreditation is specific to an engineering program. The University of California, for example, has accreditation from the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology (ABET). Some of the other accreditation agencies for engineering schools include the Institute of Industrial Engineers (IIE); the National Society of Professional Engineers (NSPE); and the Society of Manufacturing Engineers (SME).
In addition to programmatic accreditation, schools should have institutional accreditation from a recognized accrediting body, such as the Higher Learning Commission, the Middle States Commission on Higher Education, or the Western Association of Schools and Colleges. Those taking engineering courses should make it a point to look at a school’s accreditation beforehand to ensure that their program has been accredited as one of quality.
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).