Let’s start with a basic distinction between certification and accreditation. When we talk about accreditation, we are referring to the vetting of the standards and practices of an entire laboratory system. With certification, the individual’s training, experience, and competency is what is under the microscope, so to speak. There is tremendous value in the accreditation process, but the remainder of this blog will focus on certification.
Why should you get certified? I would counter that question with another question: why not? The most common reasons for not pursuing certification that I hear are:
- My agency doesn’t pay for certification
- Even if I get certified, it doesn’t benefit me in terms of [salary/promotion]
- I don’t have time / I can’t possibly pass all of the tests
- I won’t learn anything from it
- The tests are probably not representative of what I do every day
First of all, if your agency/organization doesn’t pay for certification – it should. Organizations often argue that they can’t/won’t pay for certification because it (in their eyes) only directly benefits an individual. They are often worried about you taking the certification with you if you were to leave their organization.
Certification has benefits to your organization. For one, you will often have a much easier time in court after being certified, which benefits both you and the organization. In addition, while studying for the certification, you will often learn new things (or at least get a refresher for things you haven’t looked over in years). The studying process for many certifications are like intensive training programs – and your agency pays for training, right?
So what if you explain all that to your agency and they still won’t pay? Go for it yourself. Relatively speaking, most certification programs are not that expensive. By completing the certification yourself, you will gain the intellectual and CV benefits, and you should be able to utilize the certification in future employment negotiations (whether with your current agency or a new one). Also, some organizations have issues with paying the fees, but may let you use time to study/take the tests, so be sure to inquire about that (whether you are paying or not).
If you are concerned about having the time to adequately prepare, make sure you ask your agency about carving out some time to study for the certification (equate it to training time). Don’t let yourself be intimidated about the amount of information you have to study and retain. Most certification programs are designed so that if you meet the initial education/training/experience requirements AND you put in the effort to study, you’ll do fine. Just don’t make the mistake of assuming because you have been doing the work for X years that you don’t need to study. In the case of written tests, you usually need to know the answer as it appeared in the specific references, so crack open the books for a refresher.
I can almost promise that you will learn something from the certification process. Quality certification programs are not designed to be easy – even for individuals that have been examining evidence for many years. If everyone is certified, then the value of the entire program is diminished, so expect to be challenged and treat it as opportunity for continuing education.
Finally, in the field of digital and multimedia evidence, there are several sub-disciplines (video analysis, audio analysis, computer forensics, and image analysis). Depending on the sub-disciplines you participate in, there may be numerous certifications available, or there may not be a certification program that is specifically geared towards your specialty. Choosing the appropriate certification(s) for the type of work you do is crucial to getting value out of the program. For example, while my career started in the video/audio/image analysis fields, much of the work I do these days centers around computer forensic principles (albeit often applied in a proprietary way), so I will likely be pursuing a certification in this field to supplement my forensic video certifications (IAI Certified Forensic Video Examiner and LEVA Certified Forensic Video Technician). I’d encourage everyone to go for more than one certification if they can get value from the programs.
To answer the original question that started all of this, you should get certified because it shows you are willing to put the effort in to prove your abilities. Anyone can attend a training class once a year and collect a certificate. Getting certified means being confident enough in your abilities that you are willing to be challenged and meet the standards set forth by that certification program. Once you are certified, you are able to say that you are qualified under the certification program – independent of your agency/lab/organization. That will follow you wherever you go (as long as you keep up with continuing education and renewals). In addition, there may be legislation coming in the near future which may make it difficult or impossible to present evidence in court without certification (if one is available).
In the interest of full disclosure, it should be noted that I am a Certified Technical Assessor for American Society for Crime Laboratory Directors\Laboratory Accreditation Board (ASCLD\LAB) (one of the major forensic laboratory accreditation organizations), and I currently Chair the Forensic Video Certification Board for the International Association for Identification (IAI). My opinions in this blog shouldn’t be interpreted as the official positions of either of these organizations.