It is fascinating to watch forensic psychologists and FBI agents solve vicious crimes and track down killers in popular movies such as Silence of the Lambs, Kiss the Girls, and Mr. Brooks. While investigating murders is a component of the profession, it is only one of the many areas where a forensic psychologist’s talents are utilized.
Forensic psychology is the intersection of psychology and the law. The American Board of Forensic Psychology define forensic psychology as:
“…the application of the science and profession of psychology to questions and issues relating to law and the legal system."
The following are some of the functions typically performed by forensic psychologists:
• Sentencing recommendations
• Evaluating an inmate’s risk of reoffending
• Providing expert witness testimony
• Conducting child custody evaluations
• Investigating reports of child abuse
• Evaluating suspected criminals for mental competency and their ability to stand trial
• Appraising convicted criminals to aid in the creation of rehabilitation plans
• Assessing potential jurors and consulting with prosecuting and defense attorneys with regard to selecting juries
• Evaluating witnesses such as children to verify truthfulness and/or ability to recall key facts
• Consulting with law enforcement and corrections agencies to provide training and curriculum development
• Teaching in undergraduate and graduate programs as well as at law schools
• Providing psychotherapy to crime victims and perpetrators
To become a forensic psychologist, one must have a doctoral degree in psychology, usually clinical or counseling psychology. Doctoral programs in psychology are highly competitive and, typically, take five to seven years to complete. While one can pursue a doctoral program that specializes in this branch of psychology, the title of forensic psychologist is given to any psychologist who, by virtue of training or experience, has developed expertise in this area.
Expertise can be attained by working in criminal law-related areas. For example, a clinical psychologist may work in a jail and provide assessments and therapy to inmates and/or be asked to conduct inmate evaluations to determine their competency to stand trial. A clinical, counseling, or school psychologist may evaluate children in suspected abuse cases or give expert testimony in child custody disputes. Psychologists pursuing forensic expertise can attend seminars, consult with senior colleagues on difficult cases, and take continuing education courses. After working or practicing in forensic-related areas and attaining appropriate education, some forensic psychologists go on to become ‘Board Certified’ in forensic psychology, but this is not required.
Due to overly dramatized and glamorous portrayals in the media, the forensic psychologist has become a popular career choice. However, one must be aware of the challenges. A forensic psychologist typically works on disturbing subject matter and with people who may have severe character disorders and psychopathology. In addition, many of the cases a forensic psychologist would assess are frequently court ordered. As such, client resistance and difficulty establishing a rapport will be the norm.
That said, a forensic psychologist must possess considerable talents. He or she must be familiar with the legal issues surrounding his or her cases, have extensive experience dealing with severe psychopathology and criminal behavior, and possess exceedingly sharp clinical and diagnostic skills. The knowledge, awareness, and focus needed to work in this environment can create extreme physical and mental stress. But when a person has a passion for how the mind works and is able to master the skills needed to work within this field, a career in forensic psychology can be immensely rewarding.