Friday, May 17, 2013

Ever Get The Feeling You’ve Been Cheated?

The famous John Lydon quote strikes me as an appropriate title for a blog post on the state of digital forensics academic programs in the United States. I have been a hiring manager for high tech investigations teams since about 2007 and was involved in assessing candidates for the teams that I was before I became a leader. During the early years, it was rare to see applicants who had degrees in digital forensics, but I’m finding it increasingly common in recent years. One of the things that I have been struck by is how poorly most of these programs are doing in preparing students to enter the digital forensics fields.

It’s not just undergraduate programs that are failing to produce good candidates. I have encountered legions of people with masters degrees in digital forensics who are “unfit for purpose” for entry level positions much less for positions that require a senior skill level. The problem almost always isn’t with the students. They tend to be bright and eager people who just aren’t being served all that well. One of the core issues that I see with the programs that aren’t turning out prepared students are the people who are teaching them. It’s almost universal that programs who have professors who do not have a digital forensics background are turning out students who don’t understand digital forensics. This seems like an obvious and intuitive statement, but given how many digital forensics programs there are who are being lead and taught by unqualified people, it apparently isn’t obvious enough.

If you want to learn to be a good digital forensics examiner, you have to be taught be people who are good digital forensics examiners. If you are interested in learning digital forensics from an academic program, it is your responsibility to look beyond the promotional material and be an informed and educated consumer of your education. The last thing you want is a massive student loan and a degree that looks good on a resume, but then falls apart during a technical interview for that great entry level job that you had your heart set on. One of the best ways to make sure you don’t get burned is to carefully study the backgrounds of the professors who will actually be teaching your classes. We’re a bit too early in the development of the digital forensics field to see a host of full tenured professors with PhD’s in Digital Forensics, but that doesn’t mean you can’t screen out professors who have no earthly clue what they are teaching. Pay very close attention to the curriculum vitae of the people who are going to be teaching your classes. Does the CV show any actual interest in the field of digital forensics? I have seen many CV’s for people teaching digital forensics who don’t show any research or training in the digital forensics field. What it looks like is that we have quite a few institutions that have decided that the digital forensics field is hot right now and to capitalize on it, they press unqualified professors into teaching digital forensics classes just so they can lure paying students (and their tuition money) into their programs. Avoid these programs. Your future depends on it.

We are in a time where there are many fine academic programs available to aspiring digital forensics people who wish to learn digital forensics and launch successful careers. Unfortunately, there are more bad programs than good ones. It’s vital if you are going to spend the time and money getting an education that you don’t get cheated. It’s your life and your responsibility to look beyond the glossy promotional material and make sure you are trusting the right people to get you where you want to go.