Forensic psychology is one of the fastest growing areas of psychology as suggested both by an increase in the practice of clinical psychology within our legal system and the increasing interest expressed by undergraduate and graduate students. However, students often become interested in the field because of sensationalistic media portrayals that may not be accurate nor offer realistic employment opportunities. Students may become disheartened to learn that certain media depictions are less than realistic but should be excited to learn about the real possibilities forensic psychology has to offer. This article will attempt to describe the field of forensic psychology, identify possible careers, and suggest relevant training opportunities.
It's difficult to turn on a television, go to the movies, or walk
through a bookstore without running across a fictional portrayal of a
crazed but brilliant serial or mass murderer being tracked by a
psychologically sophisticated and deductively sound hero. Popular movies
such as Silence of the Lambs
and Hannibal and television
shows like Profiler often
depict the intersection of law enforcement and psychology in
sensationalistic and dramatic fashion. If you watch the news or read a
newspaper you can hear about the psychological "sketch" offered
by a forensic psychologist in the latest Jeffrey Dahmer, Ted Kaczynski, or
Michael McDermott trial. Our society has become increasingly fascinated
with individuals who seemingly are able to perpetrate the most heinous
crimes imaginable. Now is this stuff interesting?
So What is Forensic Psychology?
If someone told you he or she was a
forensic psychologist, what would you think they do? Do they have something
to do with the high school speech and debate team? Do they perform
autopsies on homicide victims? If you are like most people, these thoughts probably
immediately came to mind. However, the origin of the word forensic comes from the Latin word
forum. Forums were the public
gathering places in the Roman city-states where much of the judicial
process took place in the form of debates. As a result, forensic psychology
deals with the intersection of psychology and the legal process.
Such a definition focuses the field on the mental health aspects of
psychology and the law and away from the more experimental areas of jury
selection and eyewitness identification. When I speak of forensic
psychology, I will be focusing on the intersection of mental health, or the
clinical practice of psychology, and the law. Moreover, when I speak of the
law, I do not simply mean law enforcement but the legal process itself.
Working with law enforcement is just one activity a forensic psychologist
may undertake in a routine day.
Careers in Forensic Psychology
So what can a forensic psychologist do
besides track down the bad guys and hang out with "crazy" people
who eat their relatives? Forensic psychologists can be employed in a
variety of settings including jails, prisons, state hospitals, federal and
local law enforcement agencies, community mental health centers, juvenile
detention facilities, private practice, or colleges and universities.
Forensic psychologists are likely to perform a myriad of roles in these
settings that are only limited by time and imagination.
Training in Forensic Psychology
There are almost as many ways to be
trained in forensic psychology as there are possible tasks for forensic
psychologists to perform. However, the first thing that should be noted is
that in order to be a forensic psychologist you have to be a good clinical psychologist. Also, by
saying clinical psychologist I mean someone who practices psychology in
some sort of mental health setting, not simply someone who has received a
graduate degree in clinical psychology (see Norcross, 2000, for the distinction
between clinical and counseling psychology). What I mean is that in order
to become a good clinical or practicing psychologist you need a basic
understanding of psychopathology, clinical assessment, and psychotherapy.
You need to be able to tell the difference between a criminal and a
noncriminal. The best training programs allow you to gain experience with
both. Students who are only interested in learning about forensic clients
and are not interested in more traditional clinical psychology areas could
have some difficulty succeeding in quality clinical or counseling
psychology programs. However, there are certainly programs available that
will allow you to focus on forensic populations while limiting your
experience with nonforensic clients.
Simply put, forensic psychology is an awesome field! While you are probably not going to become like Special Agent Clarice Starling in Silence of the Lambs, there are a number of opportunities available for forensic psychologists. It's hard for me to believe that my original interest has ultimately paid off, and I get to continually learn and teach about the things that I find so interesting and challenging. Furthermore, forensic psychology has not even approached its potential. The next generation of students has a very bright future ahead of them.
American Board of Forensic Psychology, & American Psychology-Law Society. (1995). Petition for the recognition of a specialty in professional psychology [Online]. Available: http://www.unl.edu/ap-ls/petition.PDF [WEBMASTER'S NOTE: Link no longer works]
Bersoff, D. N., Goodman-Delahunty, J., Grisso, J. T., Hans, V. P., Poythress, N. G., Jr., & Roesch, R. G. (1997). Training in law and psychology: Models from the Villanova Conference. American Psychologist, 52, 1301-1310.
Melton, G. B., Huss, M. T., & Tomkins, A. J. (1999). Training in forensic psychology and the law. In A. K. Hess & I. B. Weiner (Eds.), Handbook of forensic psychology (2nd ed., pp. 700-720). New York: Wiley.
Norcross, J. C. (2000, Fall). Clinical versus counseling psychology: What's the diff? Eye on Psi Chi, 5, 20-22.
Wrightsman, L. S. (2001). Forensic psychology. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.
For more information, visit the American Psychology-Law Society website: www.ap-ls.org
Spring 2001 issue of Eye on Psi Chi (Vol. 5, No. 3, pp. 25-27), published by Psi Chi, The National Honor Society in Psychology (Chattanooga, TN). Copyright, 2001, Psi Chi, The National Honor Society in Psychology. All rights reserved.
Careers in Forensic Psychology (Details):
FORENSIC PSYCHOLOGY is the application of psychology to the criminal justice system. Many people confuse Forensic Psychology with forensic science. Although the two are closely related, there are many differences. The primary difference is that forensic psychologists delve into the vast psychological perspectives and apply them to criminal justice system. On the other hand, forensic psychologists frequently deal with legal issues, such as public policies, new laws, competency, and also whether a defendant was insane at the time a crime occurred. All of these issues weave together psychology and law topics and are essential to the discipline of Forensic Psychology. Forensic Psychology knowledge is used in various forms, such as in treating mentally ill offenders, consulting with attorneys (e.g., on picking a jury), analyzing a criminal's mind and intent, and practicing within the civil arena.
Individuals interested in pursuing a Forensic Psychology career would have take psychology and criminal justice courses at the core of their academic studies. There is a very limited number of academic institutions that specifically offer a Forensic Psychology degree. Clinical, social, cognitive, criminal investigative, and developmental psychology also help to prepare one for this speciality.
A forensic psychologist may chose to solely focus his/her career on research, ranging anywhere from examination of eyewitness testimony to learning how to improve interrogation methods. Another form of Forensic Psychology work is public policy, in which researchers can help in the design of correctional facilities and prisons. More generally, Forensic Psychology covers territory between the traditional options of criminal justice (i.e., academic training, law enforcement, and corrections).
Forensic Psychology dates back to at least the turn of the twentieth century. William Stern studied memory in 1901 by asking students to examine a picture for forty-five seconds and then try to recall what was happening in it. He would see how much the person could recall at various intervals after seeing the picture. These experiments came before more contemporary research about the reliability of eyewitnesses testimony in court. Stern concluded from his research that recall memories are generally inaccurate; the more time between seeing the picture and being asked to recall it, the more errors were made. People especially recalled false information when the experimenter gave them a lead-in question such as, "Did you see the man with the knife?" The person would answer, "yes," even if there was no knife present. Lead-in questions are often used in police interrogations and in questioning witnesses.
Hugo Munsterberg is often called the first forensic psychologist. He wrote a book called On the Witness Stand. It was published in 1908, after the work of William Stern. Other psychologists before this, such as Alfred Binet and Sigmund Freud, had also constructed tests that could be used in judicial proceeding. They both did studies suggesting that the time it takes for a person to answer a question could be a factor in determining guilt or innocence.
In 1916, Lewis Terman, a Stanford psychologist, began to apply psychology to law enforcement. He revised Alfred Binet's intelligence tests and formed the Stanford-Binet intelligence test. These tests were used to assess the intelligence of thirty applicants for the police and firefighting jobs in San Jose, CA. A few years later, L. L. Thurstone used the same type of test in Detroit. Now, this type of testing is used in most police departments in the country.
The application of psychology in law and law enforcement continued throughout the 1920's and 1930's. To this day, there is still a special interest in extending psychology to police work. The demand for psychologists in the legal system has grown considerably over the past several decades. Currently, almost 2,000 psychologists belong to the American Psychology-Law Society.
The following are terms that are important to be familar with when learning about Forensic Psychology:
There are many things you can do in the field of Forensic Psychology. Here are some examples of interesting areas:
The typical day of a forensic psychologist can vary. In general, it is oriented toward research activities. However, a psychologist may do other things as well, such as helping with jury selection. In this case, the psychologist would wake up fairly early and gather information on studies done on juries especially relevant to a pending case. They would then go to a courthouse or to an attorney's office to sift through papers or conduct interviews of possible jurors. The psychologist might also help attorneys narrow down the joror pool by eliminating people whose views may affect the outcome of the trial in an undesirable way. This process can sometimes last several weeks or even longer.
There are both potentially rewarding and frustrating aspects to working in Forensic Psychology that need to be carefully considered before pursuing a career in this field. Listed below are some potential pros and cons.
NEEDED SKILLS, ABILITIES, and KNOWLEDGE: Those with a desire to work in Forensic Psychology must be patient, adaptable, comfortable working with others, and enjoy doing research. Often, one must be a good speaker because many people who do work in this field work as expert witnesses at some point during their career. An expertise in abnormal, motivational, clinical, and social psychology is also key to being successful in this field. Additionally, working in this field requires continuing education throughout one's career, even after 5-7 years of graduate school.
OPTIONS AND PAY RANGES WITH A BACHELOR'S DEGREE: There are not many opportunities for someone with only a bachelor's degree in this specialty. One cannot be a licensed psychologist without receiving a doctoral degree. To move toward a career in Forensic Psychology, it would be wise to to take a few important classes in the undergraduate years of schooling. Some key classes to consider taking are in criminology, criminal law, statistics, research methods, social psychology, and abnormal psychology. One of the most beneficial classes to take at this time would be motivational psychology. It would be a good idea to understand why people do the things they do and make the choices they do early on in one's education.If possible enroll in a bachelor of the sciences rather than a bachelor of the arts program.
To begin getting some experience and work before graduate school, one could begin working as a residential youth counselor, a case worker, or a probation/parole officer (see Entry Level Jobs). These positions are entry level positions with a bachelors degree and involve both psychology and the law. The jobs listed tend to be low paying, ranging from $19,000 to 20,600 annually to start (based on a 1995 survey; see APA), but they give one the opportunity to see what kinds of people they will be working with in the future and the types of problems they have.
OPTIONS AND PAY RANGES WITH A MASTER'S DEGREE: The pay for a psychologist with a master's degree in this field is between $20,000 and 25,000 annually to start (see Pay Ranges). People with M.A. degrees focused on clinical psychology usually work in institutions, where a Ph.D. will supervise them. Correctional facilities are a primary place for employing master's level forensic psychologists rather than doctoral level psychologists because they can be paid a lower income. Those with M.A. degrees who have attended a college with an emphasis on developmental, social, and cognitive psychology have more opportunities than those graduating with a clinical degree because they will not be assessing patients. They can work in research settings, for the government, and/or for non-profit organizations; in these capacities, they can also become involved in policy making.
OPTIONS AND PAY RANGES WITH A DOCTORAL DEGREE: The doctoral degree offers many opportunities for forensic psychologists. The salary usually starts out at between $35,000 and $40,000 annually (see Salary Data). with a doctorate, one can go into independent practice. Private practice areas might include counseling offenders, being an expert witness for hire, conducting assessment, conducting psychotherapy, and consulting on civil and criminal issues. Ph.D.'s can also work in colleges and universities. Along with this, they can now supervise those who only have their master's degree.
The best ways to learn about jobs in Forensic Psychology is to talk to someone in the field. Searching the Internet is a great way to find out about employment possibilities. Here are some employment-related resources to consider:
If you would like to learn more about this field, try reading the daily newspaper as a start. Every day there are stories in the paper about what is happening in the mental health field and also in criminal justice settings. Half of the stories we read about concern court cases and what has gone on in some neighborhood. The forensic psychologist is usually not mentioned, often because he/she operates behind the scenes. Here are some good general resources to consider if you want to learn more about Forensic Psychology:
Forensic psychology has experienced steady growth in the past two decades. It is predicted that research work, consultation, and clinical practice in psychology and the law will continue to grow over the next ten years. The highest demand is predicted to be working with the courts, attorneys, and lawmakers. Jobs will also continue to grow in colleges and universities where most of the research is conducted. Laws are constantly changing, which can be good news for a forensic psychologist. Exploring different ways of dealing with juvenile offenders is also becoming a popular subject; decisions related to dealing with these offenders often require the expert advise of a forensic psychologist. Those who hold doctorate degrees will have many more career opportunities than those with only a master's degree. It is almost impossible to specialize in this field with only a bachelors degree.
There will always be a need for forensic psychologists in our society. To be involved in Forensic Psychology you must be passionate about what you do. The money you make does not usually compensate for the hours of hard work invested. The true personal payment comes in knowing that you can make a difference in a person's life and maybe even make society a little bit better. There are many different fields of specialization to get into in this field; this can be quite exciting at times.
Working in prisons or with juveniles can change from day to day and be very rewarding. However, the burnout rate is high because a psychologist may often try to change someone or something that cannot be changed easily. Testifying in court can also be stressful. If you contemplate a career in Forensic Psychology, it would be goot to keep in mind that to really get ahead requires extensive education.
This page was created by Lorraine Diviny and Kelly Hemple as a project for a Senior Seminar in Psychology (PSY400) class taught by Dr. Arvid J. Bloom at West Chester University in Spring 2000.
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