I’m back in graduate school these days which is one of the reasons why I’m long overdue on this blog post. Returning to school has provided me with perspective of a student when thinking about the issue of digital forensics degrees. The more I think about it, the less I like the idea of the digital forensics academic programs compared to some alternatives.
The last blog post resulted in plentiful public and private feedback. A common question was what I expected from the graduate of digital forensics programs. I don’t expect someone with a digital forensics degree and no experience to “hit the ground running” where they are immediately cranking out competent digital forensics exams. What I do expect from undergraduate students is that they will be able to perform basic digital forensics exams with about six months of substantial training from my team. I also expect that they will be able to talk intelligently about file system forensics in the initial job interview. If a candidate doesn’t know digital forensics beyond the tools, they were cheated and they’re yet another digital forensics degree victim. I might as well just draw a chalk outline around the chair they sat in for the interview because it’s a crime scene.
If a candidate has a graduate degree in digital forensics, I have the same six month expectation of when they can start to perform acceptable digital forensics exams. Additionally, they had better be able to keep up in an advanced NTFS discussion during the interview. I won't go into the specifics here because I don't want to give away my hiring methods and questions, but I expect a working knowledge of NTFS from the undergraduate degree holders and much more out of the people with a graduate degree. If you have that shiny new digital forensics graduate degree, you also better have something you are passionate about and skilled at when it comes to the digital forensics world.
So how do you get to the place where you can be successful in a job interview and land that first job? In general, forget about getting a digital forensics degree at an undergraduate level. You’re better off building a firm intellectual foundation for yourself by mastering the fundamentals of computer hardware and software by going through a program such as computer engineering, electrical engineering, or a similarly structured information technology program. Most digital forensics programs are just warmed over mediocre information technology programs with enough poorly taught digital forensics content so that the school can call it a digital forensics degree.
If you want to be excellent at digital forensics, you need a strong understanding of the fundamentals of the technology that you are going to be investigating. The medical profession figured this out a long time ago when it came to training doctors. Medical school is about teaching students about the fundamentals before they move onto their more specialized job roles. Specialties such radiology and pathology are specializations in the medical world that are roughly similar to what we do in the technical world. Both of those jobs require a rigorous general education in medical school before more highly specialized training through residency and fellowship educational processes.
If someone in high school were to come to me today and ask me what the best way to prepare for a digital forensics career, I would tell them to find the best value they can in a degree such as computer or electrical engineering and to supplement that education with some specialized digital forensics training. The specialized training could take the form of a strong digital forensics undergraduate minor, a graduate or undergraduate certificate program, or a full digital forensics graduate program. Some of the best programs in the digital forensics world aren’t actually full digital forensics programs. You do not have to get an degree in digital forensics to prepare for and begin a rewarding career in the field.
Value is important when it comes education which is why I caution students about taking on excessive student loans. Racking up $80,000 in loans for a mediocre digital forensics degree is senseless. I can understand higher student loans if someone is fortunate enough to get into certain top-tier schools such as Cal Tech, MIT, or Stanford, but the math just isn’t likely to work for an expensive degree in digital forensics from Burning Stump Junction University (BSJU). If you are here in the United States, you likely have very fine options that are being offered in your state schools at in-state tuition prices. You will likely be much better off getting that computer engineering degree from the University of Your State at in-state tuition prices than going into massive debt for digital forensics degree at BSJU.