Forensic science is at a crossroads. The National Academy of Sciences (NAS) Report “Strengthening Forensic Science in the United States; A Path Forward” has caused the profession in the United States to question its direction. The debate, started in 2009, has yet to be resolved. The demise of the Forensic Science Service in the UK and the development of other providers has prompted heated debate in the UK and elsewhere concerning whether forensic science should be publicly and/or privately funded as a service to the criminal justice system. The growth of the European Network of Forensic Sciences in Europe highlights the differences between those well-established laboratories and those fledgling institutions setting out on the journey in support of the legal process. What should be clear to all is that scientific excellence is the cornerstone of support for any justice system, and that academic and training provision is required from pre-university, through degree and on to doctoral level and onward as continuing education.
In order that research be carried out in forensic science, it is essential that there is research degree provision for the profession. However, for those who wish to develop within their practice, particularly up to and including doctoral level, there is currently little or no provision. This needs to change and one instrument to implement the change is the Professional Doctorate (D.Prof.).
Why is the D.Prof. the solution? In many systems the opportunity for curiosity-driven and practice-based traditional Ph.D. research in operational laboratories has been lost or is absent. In the UK the traditional Ph.D. offered by universities has been criticized for not delivering a rounded graduate. It may not be possible to access or return to laboratory facilities to undertake laboratory-based research in busy operational laboratories. The reasons for this are many and include lack of time and instrumental resources and the need to maintain accreditation standards on instruments used operationally with the consequence that they cannot be used for research purposes. Many of the criticisms levelled at Ph.D. programs in the UK will be equally applicable in the U.S.
The solution to these difficulties may lie with the Professional Doctorate. A Professional Doctorate “is a program of advanced study which, whilst satisfying the criteria for the award of a doctorate, is designed to meet the specific needs of a professional group external to the university” (UKCGE, 2002: 62). It is a part-time route to a doctorate specifically designed for busy senior practitioners who have already accrued considerable professional experience during their working lives. The focus of the professional doctorate is on the needs of the candidates, their host organization, and the wider professional community.
However, a problem at work may not always be a research-worthy one. A doctoral research-worth problem will need a “yes” answer to one of the following questions:
- Will a known gap in the body of knowledge be filled?
- Will previous research be replicated and expanded by looking at a different category of participants, environment, and/or constructs/variables?
- Will previous research be expanded by more thoroughly examining some identifiable aspect?
- Are there specific, identifiable, and documented problems with the currently available solutions?
The subject of study usually relates to an area of professional practice—for example resource allocation, laboratory design, or policy implementation rather than a detailed scientific problem. For the D.Prof. candidate, it can take considerable time to develop a problem-based research focus before embarking on the research in detail. It is for this reason that the doctorate at Anglia Ruskin University is divided into two parts—Stages 1 and 2. Stage 1 involves the development of the research proposal through 7,000 word essays. The first of these is a reflective document identifying the professional issues that will be addressed in the course of the research. The second paper addresses the “state of the art” and comprises a comprehensive literature survey around the issue to be addressed. The final paper describes the research methodology that will be adopted and applied and discusses how the data will be treated to arrive at appropriate conclusions.
Candidates prepare a research proposal after they have passed the three formal research papers in Stage 1. This delay in the development of the research proposal is deliberate and recognizes the characteristics of doctoral candidates. One of the main purposes of the formal papers in Stage 1 is to give them this time to understand the nature of doctoral level research and (re)formulate their ideas. Stage 1 also gives them the time to develop the required research skills they will need and to develop written material which can be used as a resource in Stage 2.
During the second stage candidates complete their research at work. Mid-way through the second stage, candidates undertake the “confirmation of candidature” exactly as a traditional candidate would. This enables the candidate, their team, and the university to determine that progress is satisfactory and that the candidate is moving toward doctoral qualifications. Once this component is satisfied, the candidate continues with his or her research and submits a thesis once the research is complete and written up. A viva voce examination is then organized. The outcomes of the examination are the same as those of a traditional Ph.D. viva voce examination.
Will such degrees work for the forensic science community? Only time will tell. Certainly they provide the opportunity to engage in practice- based research that will benefit the organization in which the candidate is working and the wider forensic science community. The model described is one possibility for a professional doctorate. Another model is the taught model, a third is mixed delivery. However, the Anglia model is entirely research based and mirrors most closely the traditional research degree process. What is required is that individual laboratories and laboratory systems have the courage to engage in such practice-based research as well as traditional research degrees.
Professor Mike Cole has been Professor of Forensic Science at Anglia Ruskin University in Cambridge, England, since 2001. Mike led the reshaping of the B.Sc. (Hons.) program, the development of a number of taught Masters programs, and is now leading on the development of research degrees in Forensic Science at Anglia Ruskin.