September 18, 2009

Should forensic psychologists have minimal training?

Would you trust a "master's level dentist" to pull your tooth? Or a "bachelor's degree attorney" to defend you in court?

Not hardly.

Terminal master's degree programs in forensic psychology represent just this type of degradation in quality, says Carl Clements, a psychology professor at the University of Alabama, who argues that forensic psychology training should remain at the traditional doctoral or postdoctoral level.

But critics like Clements are spitting in the wind. Paralleling forensic psychology's breakneck growth and immense popularity, degree programs -- including many online, distance-learning options -- are sprouting up like mushrooms after a heavy rain. And just like mushrooms, they will be impossible to eliminate.

The field's perceived glamour, including the allure of the mythical profiler, has produced a bumper crop of impressionable young people willing to shell out cash for a forensic degree. Massive prison growth, along with prisoner's rights cases mandating mental health evaluation and treatment, have produced abundant jobs for psychologists.

Educational institutions have responded with alacrity. New training programs take a variety of forms, according to a survey in the current issue of Training and Education in Professional Psychology:
  • PhD in clinical psychology with specialty track in forensic psychology (about 10 programs)
  • PsyD in clinical psychology with forensic specialty track (about 10 programs)
  • PhD in nonclinical (e.g., social or experimental) psychology with forensic or legal emphasis (about 10)
  • Joint psychology-law degree programs (6)
  • Master's degree in forensic psychology (12)
  • Bachelor's degree in forensic psychology (John Jay College of Criminal Justice)
  • Undergraduate psychology-law courses (increasingly common and popular)
In addition to all of these different degree options, more and more predoctoral internships offer forensic rotations. About 17% of APA-accredited internships now offer a major forensic rotation, with another 47% offering a minor rotation, according to the Association of Psychology Postdoctoral and Internship Centers (APPIC).

Yet with all of this rapid growth, there is no consensus as to what training models and curricula are adequate in order to prepare students for real-world forensic practice. With that in mind, David DeMatteo of Drexel University and colleagues are proposing a set of core competencies for doctoral-level forensic psychology training curricula. At minimum, they say, students should get training and experience in the traditional areas of substantive psychology and research methodology, along with specialized advanced training in:
  • Legal knowledge
  • Integrative law-psychology knowledge
  • Ethics and professional issues in forensic psychology
  • Clinical forensic psychology
Aren't all of these areas already integrated into current forensic psychology degree programs?

Again, not hardly.

Reviewing the curricula for the roughly 35 [as of his review] doctoral or joint-degree programs with training in forensic psychology, DeMatteo and colleagues found* only three programs that included all four components. For example, only about 40% offered courses falling under "legal knowledge." More alarmingly, only three programs reported offering courses specifically addressing ethical and professional issues in forensic psychology.

So, will all of the self-described forensic psychologists emerging from these newly minted degree programs be able to find work in the field? I predict that those who travel the traditional path of postdoctoral specialization will fare the best. Those with terminal master's (or even bachelor's) degrees will be restricted to lower-level occupations such as correctional counselor or social services case manager. While they may meet the demands of the prison industry for warm bodies with letters after their names, these practitioners certainly won't be called as experts in court.

But there is a greater danger in these bare-bones forensic training programs. Not only do they offer false promises to students, but they sacrifice the intensive clinical training, including experience working with severely mentally ill populations, that is a key foundation for forensic work. The lack of adequate training in the law and in ethics will likely cause even more disastrous outcomes when these professionals take on forensic cases.

I know, I know. I am just spitting in the wind, too. Financial exigencies always win out.

Related resources:

What's it take to become a forensic psychologist?

*SOURCE: David DeMatteo, Geoffrey Marczyk, Daniel Krauss & Jeffrey Burl (2009), Educational and training models in forensic psychology. Training and Education in Professional psychology 3 (3), pp 184-191. Request from the author HERE.