Witness

A blog about forensic psychology

What's it take to become a forensic psychologist?

Forensic psychologists apply psychological principles to legal matters.

I get many emails and phone calls from students interested in pursuing forensic psychology as a career. So, by popular demand, here is a brief overview.

First, what is a forensic psychologist?

Forensic psychologists are licensed clinical psychologists who specialize in applying psychological knowledge to legal matters, both in the criminal and civil arenas. Forensic psychology is a subdiscipline of psychology, with its own professional organizations, training programs, and research journals. Forensic psychologists are found in academia, public service, and the private sector.

Forensic psychologists are called upon to assist in a wide variety of legal matters, including the mental state of criminal defendants (insanity, competency, etc.), jury selection, child custody/family law, violence risk prediction, mediation/dispute resolution, discrimination, civil damages, social science research (e.g., recovered memory), and civil commitment.

What is the state of the field?

Forensic psychology is a rapidly growing discipline. Currently, the American Psychology-Law Society has about 3,000 members, and the number continues to grow. Many experienced psychologists are seeking to respecialize into this field in order to escape the confines of managed care. Students are attracted to the field by our culture's growing absorption with all matters criminal, as well as fictional depictions such as TV's The Profiler and Criminal Minds.

The growth of forensic psychology is not without controversy. Some have accused forensic psychologists of being hired guns or even - less politely - "whores." Recent federal 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 marketplace of the future.

What skills must a forensic psychologist have?

Forensic psychologists are psychological scientists. The investigatory component requires strong detective skills. We must 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.

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
  • 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 (and ability to maintain composure in stressful circumstances)

So, how can I sign on?

At the present time, there is no single acceptable training model for forensic psychologists.

The dominant model continues to be one in which a student obtains a doctoral degree in clinical psychology, and subsequently pursues a postdoctoral specialization in forensics. However, more and more graduate schools are beginning to adopt forensic tracks. An online list of institutions offering various types of Ph.D./Psy.D. programs in forensic psychology is available here.

Some newer programs also offer terminal master's degrees in forensic psychology, although it is unclear how master's level clinicians will fare in a field dominated by professionals with more advanced degrees.

Only a handful of formal postdoctoral specialization programs exist nationwide, and these programs are quite small and selective, typically accepting only one to two candidates per year. These rigorous programs are aimed at training future leaders in the field.

Some people also pursue dual degrees in psychology and law. There are a few such joint degree programs, and 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.

A more thorough discussion of the pros and cons of different types of educational programs is available in the brand-new edition of Psychological Evaluations for the Courts.

The Journal of Forensic Psychology Practice has just (Vol. 7 #2, 2007) published a point-counterpoint pair of articles on whether forensic psychology should necessarily require a doctoral degree:

"Raising the bar: The case for doctoral training in forensic psychology," by Carl B. Clements, Ph.D., ABPP, and Emily E. Wakeman, MA

"The time is now: The emerging need for master's-level training in forensic psychology," by Matt Zaitchik, Ph.D., Garrett Berman, Ph.D., Don Whitworth, Ph.D., & Judith Platania, Ph.D.

What tips do you have for trainees?

  • 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 reading the leading journals in the field, among them Law and Human Behavior and Psychology, Public Policy, and Law.

Becoming successful in this field is an arduous endeavor. However, for those with the energy and stamina, it can be a rewarding occupation.

But what about criminal profiling?

Oh, yes. That question.

Unfortunately, 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, 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 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.

Karen Franklin, Ph.D., is a forensic psychologist in Northern California.

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