September 15, 2014

Forensic psychology: Is it the career for me?

I get many emails and phone calls from students interested in pursuing forensic psychology as a career. There is surprisingly little information available online to answer these students' questions. So, by popular demand, I have revised my 2007 overview in order to provide more current guidance, especially tailored toward frequently-asked student questions. You may also want to review the comments sections of my original essay, which is posted at each of my two professional blogs (HERE and HERE).

First off, what is a forensic psychologist?

Forensic psychologists are most commonly licensed psychologists who specialize in applying psychological knowledge to legal matters, both in the criminal and civil arenas. They hold graduate degrees in psychology, most often a PhD or a PsyD.

Forensic psychology is a subdiscipline of psychology. It has its own professional organizations, training programs, and research journals. Forensic psychologists are found in academia, public service, and the private sector.

Forensic psychologists assist in a wide variety of legal matters, including:
  • mental state examinations of criminal defendants (insanity, competency to stand trial, etc.) 
  • child custody/family law 
  • violence risk assessment 
  • civil law (personal injury cases) 
  • social science research (e.g., explaining a scholarly topic such as memory research to a jury) 
  • mediation/dispute resolution
  • jury selection 
  • ... and many more

What is the state of the field?

Forensic psychology is a rapidly growing discipline. The last time I checked, the American Psychology-Law Society had about 3,000 members, and it continues to grow. Its exponential growth is driven by a couple of factors. Many clinical psychologists have turned to forensic work to escape the confines of managed care. And students are attracted by our culture's obsession with all things criminal (as well as fictional depictions such as in the TV show Criminal Minds).

The growth of forensic psychology is not without controversy. Some accuse forensic psychologists of being hired guns who can be paid to parrot a certain opinion. Recent court decisions are causing increasing scientific scrutiny of psychological evidence. This in turn is leading to the development of increasingly rigorous training programs, instruments, and procedures that will allow us to withstand such adversarial scrutiny.

In the long run, well-trained forensic psychologists will likely fare well in the increasingly skeptical and demanding marketplace of the future.

What skills must a forensic psychologist have?

Forensic psychologists are psychological scientists. We compare data from multiple sources in order to test alternative hypotheses. The emphasis is on written reports and court testimony that are scientifically valid and can withstand scrutiny in the adversarial environment of the courtroom. A good forensic psychology combines a strong science background with solid investigatory skills.

Becoming a successful forensic psychologist requires, at minimum, the following:

  • solid clinical psychology training and experience 
  • firm grounding in scientific theory and empirical research (understanding of scientific validity, research design, statistics, and testing) 
  • critical thinking skills 
  • thorough knowledge of social and cultural issues 
  • legal knowledge (including mental health law, case law, and courtroom procedures) 
  • excellent writing skills 
  • strong oral presentation skills 
  • ability to maintain one's composure under stress

Can I pursue forensic psychology as an undergraduate major?

I get a lot of queries from high school students who have searched high and low for forensic psychology undergraduate programs, and come up empty. That is because forensic psychology is only rarely offered as an undergraduate major. The specialization process begins much later – in graduate school or beyond.

High school students interested in forensic psychology may choose to major in psychology in college. However, even this is not a requirement. Some professionals and educators even advocate that you major in something other than psychology, in order to get a more well-rounded education.  (I myself majored in journalism, and worked in that field before deciding to become a psychologist. I didn't take one single psychology course in college.)

Forensic psychology is a postdoctoral specialization. That means that a student first obtains a doctoral degree (PhD or PsyD) in clinical psychology, and then pursues a postdoctoral specialization in forensics. 

Must I earn a doctoral degree to become a forensic psychologist?

With the meteoric rise in popularity of forensic psychology, for-profit educational institutions are rushing to cash in. Distance-learning options have sprouted up like mushrooms after a heavy rain. So too, terminal master's programs are an increasingly popular option – requiring only one or two years of postgraduate education in lieu of the traditional four or more.

Master's level degrees may ultimately be a case of false advertising. Master's level clinicians will probably have trouble competing in a field dominated by professionals with more advanced degrees. As I wrote in a 2009 essay that was critical of this trend, "Would you trust a 'master's level dentist' to pull your tooth? Or a 'bachelor's level attorney' to defend you in court?" I predict that, at least in the near term, these clinicians will be restricted to lower-level occupations in the prison-industrial complex.

A growing number of graduate schools are also bucking the postdoctoral tradition by adding forensic tracks, so that students can begin their forensic specialization during graduate school.

A few programs also offer dual, or joint, graduate degrees in psychology and law. Finally, some law schools offer a scaled-down, one-year Master of Legal Studies degree. Having a dual degree may make one more competitive, but for most practitioners it is not realistic or cost-effective.

Despite the field's rapid growth, there is still no universal 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 have proposed 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

Alas, in reviewing the curricula for the roughly 35 doctoral or joint-degree programs with training in forensic psychology, DeMatteo and his 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.

After my graduate degree, what's next?

Once an aspiring forensic psychologist obtains his or her graduate degree, it is time for the real training to begin. You must obtain a minimum number of hours of postdoctoral training before you can apply for a license to practice independently. (The exact training requirements vary by state.)

There are still only a handful of formal postdoctoral fellowship programs in the United States. These rigorous programs are aimed at training future leaders in the field. They are quite small and selective, typically accepting only one to two candidates per year.

The American Psychology-Law Society's resource directory of these postdoctoral fellowship programs is HERE

What tips do you have for trainees?

Becoming successful in this field is not easy. However, for those with the energy, stamina and critical thinking skills, it can be a rewarding occupation. A few tips:

  • Apply for forensic-related internships, such as at forensic hospitals, correctional facilities, and community mental health settings. 
  • Tailor your doctoral dissertation to a psychology-law topic in your area of professional interests. 
  • Become a student member of the American Psychology-Law Society, an interdisciplinary organization devoted to scholarship, practice, and public service in psychology and law. 
  • Stay current by regularly browsing the leading journals in the field, among them Law and Human Behavior, Behavioral Sciences and the Law, and Psychology, Public Policy, and Law
  • Last but not least, take time to experience life. Study abroad, volunteer in your local community, do anything to broaden the life experiences that you will bring to the field.

What about criminal profiling?

One of students’ biggest misconceptions about forensic psychology is that we do criminal profiling. This mythology comes directly from movies and TV shows such as Silence of the Lambs (among my least favorite movies ever!), Criminal Minds, and The Profiler.

In reality, most law enforcement agencies do not regularly use criminal profiling methods. When they do, they typically employ profilers with extensive backgrounds in law enforcement rather than in psychology. Perhaps more importantly, many scholars dispute that profiling even qualifies as a valid scientific method meriting inclusion in the behavioral sciences.

So, if your primary interest is in criminal profiling, the field of forensic psychology may not be for you.

Can I have an interview?

Some teachers – at the high school, college and even graduate levels – assign their students to conduct interviews with practitioners. I can't tell you how annoying it is to be constantly interrupted by students calling and emailing to request one-on-one interviews. If I granted all of these requests, I wouldn't have time to do anything else!

Instead, I hope this essay serves as my contribution. For more on me, feel free to browse my professional website -- which has additional resources -- or read my professional profile in Cengage Learning's 2012 Forensic Science textbook.

Further resources

The original version of this essay, "What's it take to become a forensic psychologist," was posted on my In the News blog on Sept. 19, 2007, and on my Psychology Today blog, Witness, on Oct. 27, 2010. Click on those links to browse additional Q&A in their Comments sections.

Information from the American Psychology-Law Society, including a guide to graduate training programs in forensic psychology and legal psychology, is HERE.

Should forensic psychologists have minimal training? (my 2009 essay on master's level training programs)

"Educational and training models in forensic psychology," by David DeMatteo, Geoffrey Marczyk, Daniel Krauss and Jeffrey Burl, Training and Education in Professional Psychology, Vol 3(3), Aug 2009, 184-191. doi: 10.1037/a0014582

"Raising the bar: The case for doctoral training in forensic psychology," by Carl B. Clements and Emily E. Wakeman, Journal of Forensic Psychology Practice, Vol. 7 Number 2, 2007

"The time is now: The emerging need for master's-level training in forensic psychology," by Matt Zaitchik, Garrett Berman, Don Whitworth and Judith Platania, Journal of Forensic Psychology Practice, Vol. 7 Number 2, 2007

The Minority Affairs Committee of AP-LS has created a dedicated YouTube channel with about a dozen innovative videos on various aspects of psychology-law and education in the field

(c) Copyright Karen Franklin 2014 - All rights reserved

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