Forensic psychologists are in hot demand for their ability to bring the science of human behavior to the judicial system.
"There are just so many different things you can do in the field of forensic psychology, and it's all so rewarding," says Zapf, a psychology professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice.
Forensic psychology—the application of psychological expertise within the judicial system—became an APA-approved specialization in 2001. These psychologists provide services for both the criminal and civil court systems, conducting mental health evaluations, helping to resolve such legal questions as whether a defendant may pose a risk of violence, providing opinions on child-custody and personal injury cases, and much more, says David DeMatteo, JD, PhD, president of APA's Div. 41 (American Psychology-Law Society).
"Our work is really about showing how psychology can be used to help courts and juries make more educated decisions about criminal offenders and civil litigants," says DeMatteo, who also directs the JD/PhD Program in Law and Psychology at Drexel University, and has a forensic psychology private practice in Philadelphia.
Some experts attribute much of the field's rapid growth to the proliferation of criminal profiling television shows such as "CSI" and "Law & Order." Not only have these shows attracted more students to the field, but they also have made attorneys aware of the contributions that psychologists can make to their cases, says Zapf.
In addition to providing diverse, interesting work, another benefit of forensic psychology is its fee-for-service nature. "This niche has really allowed me to make a living outside of the managed-care parameters and stressors," says Chriscelyn Tussey, PsyD, a forensic and clinical neuropsychologist in private practice in New York City.
What they do
Many forensic psychologists are in private practice and are hired by attorneys or by the court system to evaluate defendants and provide an expert opinion for clients. These opinions may explore, for example, whether a defendant has a mental disorder that prevents him or her from going on trial or what a defendant's mental state may have been at the time of an offense.
Regardless of who hires the forensic psychologist, the client is not the person he or she is examining—the client is the attorney or the court. "That's an important point, because the identity of the client has implications for confidentiality and other obligations that we have as psychologists," says DeMatteo.
In civil cases, forensic psychologists may also evaluate plaintiffs in workers' compensation cases, as well as children and their parents in divorce and custody cases, says Jonathan Gould, PhD, a forensic psychologist in private practice in Charlotte, North Carolina. He conducts child-custody evaluations as a court-appointed evaluator, and consults with attorneys as they prepare for trial, helping them draft direct and cross-examination questions and educating them and their clients about the latest research on child development and parenting plans, including relocation.
Meanwhile, forensic neuro-psychologists, including Tussey, are often asked to assess the validity of such claims as amnesia during an alleged offense and to evaluate whether or not a defendant can be restored to competence to stand trial, particularly when conditions such as dementia may be present. Neuropsychologists also provide personal injury and fitness-for-duty evaluations, looking at the impact, for example, of a traumatic brain injury on functioning, or assessing whether cognitive deficits might be affecting an individual's job performance.
In addition to private practice, forensic psychologists are employed in a variety of settings, including state forensic hospitals, court clinics, mental health centers, jails, prisons and juvenile treatment centers. At these sites, forensic psychologists conduct evaluations similar to those in a private forensic practice, but they also provide therapeutic services tailored to the legal proceeding, DeMatteo says. This could be, for example, helping treat a psychotic defendant who is not competent to stand trial with antipsychotic medications, and then providing "competence restoration," an educational program that teaches defendants how the criminal justice system works.
It's fulfilling work, DeMatteo says, but can often require a thick skin. "Spending time in jails and prisons and hearing in detail the sometimes very violent things that they've done can be challenging," he says.
DeMatteo has occasionally worked on cases that involve violence against children and has had to educate the court about the psychology behind such tragedies. "There's often a knee-jerk reaction to severely punish people who hurt or kill children, and certainly as a member of society and as a parent, I understand that. But my job is to cut through the emotion, hopefully, and just focus on the science."
Training is key
Only a handful of doctoral programs (PDF, 1MB) offer a forensic psychology specialty, so demand often outpaces the number of training spots available. Often, says Zapf, psychologists who want to go into this work have a clinical degree, then take continuing-education courses to build their expertise.
But like any specialty area, forensic psychology requires a great deal of specialized knowledge and experience to practice competently, DeMatteo says. "What's happened, particularly because forensic psychology can be lucrative … is that a few people with very little training and experience have started dabbling in forensic psychology as a way to supplement their incomes," he says. "I would discourage that, just as I'd discourage people from trying to dabble in neuropsychology, school psychology or any of the other recognized specialties or proficiencies."
Zapf agrees, noting that forensic psychology requires expertise in jurisdictional requirements and mental health laws—much of which can't be picked up in one-day workshops. "When you get on the stand and testify, you can be embarrassed so easily if you don't know what you need to know," she says.
To better understand the educational foundation needed to work in forensic psychology, she recommends reaching out to organizations such as the American Psychology-Law Society (APA's Div. 41) and the American Academy of Forensic Psychology, which is the education and training arm of the American Board of Forensic Psychology, which certifies applicants in forensic psychology.
And once you have training, you then need experience, Gould says, noting that testifying in the courtroom can be intimidating for many people, especially for new trainees. Attorneys can be very aggressive in their cross-examination, he says.
"You need to recognize that when you go into the courtroom and people are attacking you, that's simply part of how they try to test your credibility," he says. "The way you prevent that is by going in prepared."
Developing a group of mentors and sponsors can also help prepare you for a career in forensic psychology, Tussey says. One way to do this is by getting involved in organizations and talking to people who are successful in the field. "But don't just join an organization to add it as a line on your CV—be engaged and take on a leadership role," she says. "It will help you learn so much about yourself and about the field, and meet people who are doing what you presumably want to be doing at some point."
"No Insurance Required" is a Monitor series exploring practice niches that require no reimbursement from insurance companies. To read previous articles in this series, go to www.apa.org/monitor and search for "No Insurance Required."
Melton, G., Petrila, J., Poythress, N., et al., 2017
By Amy Novotney
This article was originally published in the September 2017 Monitor on Psychology