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.
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