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
- thorough knowledge of social and cultural issues
- strong oral presentation skills (and ability to maintain composure in stressful circumstances)
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