I am often asked questions about forensic psychology in general and about my own experiences. While I enjoy answering these questions, I can longer take the time to deal with the 100 or more requests I receive every year. I decided to create a page that addresses many of the common questions.
The information below is not meant to be a definitive guide to Forensic Psychology. It is also not meant to reflect the experience of all Forensic Psychologists.
I want to be a Profiler like on TV. Where do I go to school for that training?
Very few forensic psychologists do this kind of work. Traditionally profilers have been experienced officers in Law Enforcement Agencies. There are a handful of PHDs in the Secret Service and the FBI that work in this area, but it is rare. What they have on TV is just not realistic.
What made you decide to become a forensic psychologist?
Psychology was an easy choice. I liked to help people and I liked to figure people out. I was a clinical psychologist for several years before I stepped into a position as a Forensic Psychologist. I decided I liked the idea of forensic psychology after I figured out that while I enjoyed providing treatment, I had more fun evaluating people and trying to figure them out. When an opportunity came to start forensic psychology it was a logical step.
What is Forensic Psychology?
What exactly does a Forensic Psychologist do?
Depends on what you mean by a Forensic Psychologist. If it’s based on Hollywood portrayals, well those jobs do not exist, or at least not in any quantity.
Basically forensic psychology is working within the intersection between the legal world and psychology. It can be treatment, working prisons or in jails performing treatment. It can involve treatment with families in divorce who are trying to figure out custody.
For many Forensic Psychologists, though, it is assessment (Evaluations). Evaluating or assessing people involved in the legal system, and then explaining how their psychological make up impacts the legal questions. These evaluations can occur in criminal cases, evaluating the defendant who is charged with a crime. These evaluations can occur with people who are suing someone due to a psychological injury. These assessments can also occur in divorce proceedings when the divorcing couple cannot decide on a custody arrangement.
I do psychological evaluations for the courts, primarily evaluations of criminal defendants. I spend time reading police reports, medical and psychiatric records, interviewing defendant’s and interviewing collateral sources (family members, law enforcement officers, attorneys, etc). I also do psychological testing with defendants and then I write a report for the court and the attorneys. I sometimes testify about cases. I testify about 10% of the time. Sometimes I testify in hearings (a hearing is where the judge needs information to make a decision) or trials (a trial is where the jury or the judge needs information)
What does a typical day consist of?
Writing and Reading. I spend about 4-6 hours per week completing interviews and testing. I spend another 10 hours reading records and another 15 hours writing reports. The rest is administrative work and supervision. I testify about 15 times per year. If you want to do this work you have to like writing.
Education and Professional Training:
The below suggestions are what I think will be of most help for someone wanting to work completing evaluations of defendants.
To work in the area I do, you have to get a doctorate in Clinical or Counseling Psychology. That means a Bachelors in Psychology, and a Masters (most people get a Masters while working on their doctorate) then a doctorate. You would expect to take some classes in forensic psychology (FP) at the graduate level, but you do not need a program that focuses on FP. You will need to have plenty of courses on assessment. It is advisable to focus on both personality assessment and neuropsychological assessment. A doctorate usually takes 4 years for class work after finishing your bachelors, then a year of clinical training.
In graduate school you will get an opportunity to perform clinical work, treatment and assessment. You should try to work in settings that consist of patients or patients with serious mental illness (SMI). Make certain you work in psychiatric hospitals, state hospitals, and state forensic hospitals. Jail or prisons are fine, but make certain that the experience is with the very Ill.
At the end of graduate school, you will take on a clinical position (internship) which is full time for a year. It might be helpful to do this in s forensic hospital or in a court based program, the idea is to treat as many SMI people as possible. You should also obtain experience performing assessments of these individuals.
I cannot stress the need for experience enough. By the time I got into Forensics I had done brief admission interviews of over 3000 patients and worked more in depth (therapy) with at least 1500. I had completed over 300 evaluations with psychological testing. These were patients who were all seriously mentally ill, usually in crisis, and their symptoms were quite clear. All of those interviews and therapy sessions were very helpful.
Fewer forensic psychologists take classes in criminology or law enforcement, though this is changing as more of these classes are offered at the graduate level. I do not see these types of classes as being important at the undergraduate level. It’s just not that important. A few classes would be interesting, crime scene and evidence issues, coupled with police procedures, but not much more than that. There are a subset of psychologists who work with the police. Sometimes as a therapist, sometimes performing evaluations of their fitness to perform their jobs. These psychologists would benefit from a little more course work in criminology, but it’s not that big of an issue.
Something I have noticed in the last few years are questions about which type of graduate program. My first choice would be to get into an established PHD program at a traditional university. Not an online degree. PHD programs are generally smaller and more competitive. The downside with most PHD programs is that they focus on research. So if you are interested in getting into one of these programs you should get involved in a research project in psychology by your sophomore year (or Junior year). That kind of experience and interest will help you get into a competitive program.
The other type of graduate program is a PSYD program. There are a few PSYD programs in traditional universities, but most are in what are called professional schools. They are schools that generally offer a graduate degree in psychology, often do not have a bachelors degree program and emphasize clinical work over research. Most will not require a dissertation. The dissertation is a large scale research project that the student does for their doctorate. If the program does not require a dissertation, don’t go there. Seriously, while you may not do research ever again, you need to learn how research works and have a solid grounding in research methods and statistics. The dissertation also teaches you a bit about writing. Many PSYD programs require only a research paper – often about 20 pages. That is not a dissertation. A Dissertation is 120+ pages.
What do I Like and Dislike about the work.There are few things that I actively dislike outside of some administrative tasks. Looking at crime scene photos of particularly bloody crime scenes can be difficult at first. Autopsy photos, especially of children are particularly difficult. I like figuring people out. To do forensic work you have to want to figure the person out. To use your interpersonal skills to dig into their behavior and apply what you learn to the legal issues before the court. It can sometimes be difficult, especially when the person does not want to be evaluated, or wants to portray themselves as either very ill (to avoid prison for example) or wants to hide their illness (when applying for custody of a child). You have to dig for the right info. Speak to multiple people, read lots of records, etc.
What are some benefits of being a forensic psychologist?
The pay averages slightly better than some psychologists. It’s interesting work. You have the opportunity to educate non-professionals. It’s also, for me, a little less emotionally draining than therapy.
What is one of the most memorable experiences during your career?
The most memorable experience was testifying in my first capital murder trial. While the testimony was not hard or particularly challenging, but it was very important occasion.
Do you have any bad experiences?
See above about what I dislike.
Would you recommend this career to others?
Yes and no. It depends on the person. You have to like to figure people out. You have to like talking to people. You have to be able to listen to people and take his or her perspective. You have to be analytical. You have to be very self critical. When writing a report you have to assume someone is going to have you in court and they are going to grill you about your opinion. They are going to look for things you missed and they are going to point those errors out to the jury. Being self critical does not mean doubting yourself, it means challenging your own opinions. Look at what you are arguing and decide where your weaknesses are – then try to fix them. Be comfortable when someone is trying to make you look like an idiot in front of a dozen people.The person must also be willing to go into court and explain to room full of people your opinion. If you do not like public speaking that can be rough. You also need to like to write. I write 1000+ pages per year. Over 100 reports and the reports average more than 10 pages.
What is one thing that you would like people to understand about forensic psychology before making it their career?Ignore Hollywood. We do not work like that. Very few people work directly with the police to solve crimes. We come on board months later.
Do you have any tips for future forensic psychologists?Learn to write and write well. Learn to talk to and listen to people. Learn to think logically.
What skills should a forensic psychologist posses?
You must be able to talk to people in a genuine manner that makes it easy for them to talk to you. You are asking someone, who does not know you, to talk about very private things in great detail.
You should also be comfortable with criticism (See above).
You should also develop your writing skills.