I’m about to enrol on a forensics degree at university, can you give me any hints/tips on how to be successful in forensic IT?

The above question was sent to Digital Forensics Magazine and we thought it warranted a thoughtful answer so we asked Dr. Richard Howley who is the MSc Forensic Computing and MSc Computer Security Course Leader De Montfort University his views.

The suggestions below focus on the early part of your career, i.e., your degree and entry into the profession. Others may contribute suggestions regarding being successful as you join the profession.

1.    Get your degree from an established, respected and well connected institution. Ask your university who they work with, what visiting lectures did they have last year, what national and international initiatives are they involved in? Research into who these people are, what their organisations do and what the initiatives are. Building up your knowledge of the UK and USA forensic IT landscape is important.

2.    Get qualified. The importance of training and qualifications in this business is well known and documented. Academic awards are highly prized as is evidenced by the popularity of MScs amongst members of the profession.

3.    Get connected. Register with as many forensic IT professional bodies, forums and blogs as you can manage and monitor their work.

4.    Ask your university to provide you with some suggested preparatory materials and or activities. At De Montfort University we hope that you are already hungry for knowledge and motivated enough to seek it out; we expect you to be pushing us to provide you with work you can be doing before joining us. A list of technical skills that new entrants to our courses can develop prior to starting is provided at: http://www.cse.dmu.ac.uk/~rgh/MSc_FC_MSc_CS_FAQs.htm#q16

5.    If your university doesn’t provide pre-course guidance then  consider the following:

  • There are many very good text books on this subject and many come with an extensive set of investigative exercises. They take you through the process of ‘static’ PC based forensics very well. All the software, cases and evidence files you need are usually included on a DVD –a great resource. For recommendations email me.
  • Seek to understand ‘live’ forensics including malware analysis, reversing, live network forensics, memory forensics and virtualisation. Many good online and text based resources exist to support your study of these topics.
  • Other emerging concerns that you should seek information about include small scale mobile devices, e-discovery and massive data sets, the ‘cloud’, etc.
  • Mobile phone forensics is very popular and worth looking into – partly because some of the major software companies provide free trial versions of their software with online tutorials.

6.    Linking academic and professional practise include issues such as continued professional development, research design and implementation and report writing.

  • Your degree is the first step in a process of life-long learning; forensic IT never stands still and as such the learning you undertake prior to starting and during your degree will provide you with independent study skills that will serve you well throughout your entire career.
  • Whilst your course and profession may appear predominantly technical never underestimate the importance of the social, ethical and legal context of your work. You will cover this at university and your knowledge and consideration of it should be updated and applied throughout your career.
  • When you start work in the field you will quickly discover that the text books don’t have all the answers. You will need to identify and research new solutions to novel situations. This will involve designing experiments and implementing them to explore and inform your evidential hypothesis – this classic academic/research process has huge relevance to your later professional practise, so don’t underestimate it and take every opportunity to practice and develop these skills whilst at university and after.
  • Writing essays or reports and giving presentations at university are not just academic exercises. It is direct training in skills that the forensic IT professional needs. You must be able to write concisely, persuasively, accurately, with precision and in an evidenced based manner. The same is true of public speaking and presentation, i.e., giving evidence. The more frightening you find the prospect of public speaking – the more you must do it! Start in a gentle way; asking questions in class or contributing to discussions is a first step in public speaking, so do try and take part. Take every opportunity to develop and practice these skills – we can all improve no matter how experienced we are.

7.    Finally, in the profession you will be expected to know multiple operating systems (Windows and Linux extensively), file systems, hardware, connection protocols, cables, devices, etc. So get an old machine or two, a screwdriver, a bunch of operating systems and play (carefully!) – and learn!

It’s a great profession – good luck on your degree course and in the profession that follows.

Dr. Richard Howley
MSc Forensic Computing and MSc Computer Security Course Leader
De Montfort University