Forensic Psychologist

April 22, 2016

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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)
  • mediation/dispute resolution
  • jury selection

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
  • critical thinking skills
  • thorough knowledge of social and cultural issues
  • excellent writing skills
  • strong oral presentation skills

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 not an undergraduate degree (as far as I know). The forensic psychology 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. (I myself majored in journalism, and worked in that field for years before attending graduate school in psychology. I didn't take a 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 . 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
  • Clinical forensic psychology

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