Margaret Bull Kovera, PhD, thinks she knows what's driving students into her classroom: television shows about forensic psychology.
"For a while, when I asked students why they wanted to take the class, the show 'Profiler' was the main reason," says Kovera, a past president of APA's Div. 41 (American Psychology-Law Society) and a psychology professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City. "Now there's 'Law & Order: Criminal Intent.'"
The reality of forensic psychology isn't necessarily as glamorous as its TV portrayals, Kovera and other experts say. But forensic psychology—the application of psychological expertise within the judicial system—can be an exciting, intellectually challenging and lucrative career option.
Why it's hot
The field of forensic psychology is relatively young, says Ira K. Packer, PhD, a clinical psychiatry professor at the University of Massachusetts Medical School. It wasn't until 1962 that a landmark case established the precedent that properly trained psychologists were competent to provide diagnostic expertise in a courtroom.
Since then, the field has flourished. There has been a "proliferation of the need" for psychologists to provide all sorts of mental health expertise to the legal system, says Packer. In 2001, forensic psychology became an APA-approved specialty.
But as Packer points out, the demand for forensic psychologists is outstripping the supply as the legal system thinks up more and more ways to put their expertise to use. That imbalance isn't the only factor that makes forensic psychology an attractive career option, especially for clinical psychologists. It also offers an opportunity to diversify their practices—and get a revenue stream that's not dependent on insurance reimbursement.
What you can do
"There are just huge possibilities for people to develop practices in many areas," says Stanley L. Brodsky, PhD, who coordinates the psychology and law concentration at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa.
One of forensic psychology's main emphases is evaluation, he says. Those working in prisons or forensic hospitals, for example, might focus on determining which inmates are fit to stand trial, not guilty by reason of insanity or too dangerous to be released.
In private civil practice, forensic psychologists may evaluate people involved in personal injury or class-action suits and then testify about the harm they've suffered. Some of these practitioners are highly specialized: If a car wreck has caused a brain injury, for example, attorneys might hire a forensic neuropsychologist to assess how badly that person's life was affected.
Practitioners working with the criminal system also do evaluations. In child abuse cases, for example, a forensic psychologist might assess the damage done to victims or evaluate the truthfulness of children's testimony.
Civilian courtrooms aren't the only venue for forensic psychologists, says Mary Connell, EdD, a private practitioner in Fort Worth, Texas. Connell devotes most of her time to consulting on military court-martial cases involving allegations of rape or child abuse.
Forensic psychology isn't just for clinical psychologists, says Kovera. Social and experimental psychologists, for example, help attorneys select juries, hold focus groups to determine which arguments are most persuasive and survey communities to see if pretrial publicity has precluded a fair trial.
In addition to such applied work, forensic psychologists can opt for careers in academia, says Brian L. Cutler, PhD, editor of the journal Law and Human Behavior and a professor of criminology, justice and policy studies at the University of Ontario Institute of Justice. And there are some opportunities for researchers at such organizations as the National Center for State Courts, the Federal Judicial Center and the RAND Corp., he says.
While salaries for academic, research and institutional careers are similar to those in other areas of psychology, forensic psychologists in private practice are often well compensated, says Connell, especially if they work long hours during the weeks leading up to a trial.
"People sometimes work eight, 10, 12 hours a day on certain kinds of highly intensive work or if there are vast amounts of documents to review before a report is written," she says.
Although there's great variability in the work people do and the settings where they work, Connell estimates that forensic psychologists typically earn $200,000 to $400,000 a year.
Of course, it takes a while to build up to that level. Many forensic psychologists in private practice start out part time, says Brodsky, and it can take time to establish a practice. "Attorneys tend to use individuals they've used before, people they trust and have had good experiences with," he says. And in criminal cases where they're being paid by the state, he adds, "there's often a lag of two to three years from the time they get started doing evaluations to the time money starts coming into their practice."
How to get there
A variety of educational paths can lead you to a career in forensic psychology, says Cutler.
Specialized graduate programs in psychology and law are one option, he says, citing the programs at the University of Nebraska, University of Arizona and Drexel University as just a few examples. Some programs offer joint PhD and law degrees. Traditional psychology departments may also have prominent forensic psychologists, he adds.
Another route is to begin with a traditional degree in an area such as clinical psychology, neuropsychology or experimental psychology, says Connell.
"That's where you will be tested on the witness stand," she says. "Attorneys will want to know the foundation of your opinion, so you have to have that kind of expertise."
Students who go this route should then gain forensic experience via research opportunities, internships and postdocs, she says.
Pros and cons
One of forensic psychology's main draws is the stimulation it offers, says Brodsky. "It's a fascinating intellectual challenge," he says. He and others cite the pleasures of puzzling out cases, the variety of settings and the constant evolution of this young, vibrant field.
On a practical level, forensic psychology offers freedom from managed care and insurance hassles. "There are no insurance companies involved and relatively little paperwork," he says.
But on the downside, ethical issues can be especially thorny in this field. One of the major issues that arises is what Brodsky calls the "pull to affiliate" with the attorneys who hire you. Friendships often develop—something that can compromise the objectivity needed to do the job properly.
Plus, says Brodsky, you can't be thin-skinned and survive. When fiercely challenged by opposing attorneys, he explains, some practitioners end up frustrated or discouraged. Others become emotionally invested in cases and can't let go when courts don't do what they think is right.
The logistics of forensic work can also take a toll. "Courts aren't working on your schedule; you're working on theirs," says Kovera. That often means lots of last-minute travel, she adds.
The subject matter can also be distressing. Connell, who helped craft APA's recently approved revised guidelines for child-custody evaluations, found she eventually had to shift her emphasis away from custody battles because of the stress.
And the stakes are high. "A person's whole life can change course because of your opinion—their access to their children, their freedom to move around in the world, even their lives," Connell says.
For Connell, those high stakes only add to the excitement. "It's a great field," she says. "I love what I do."
By Rebecca A. Clay
Rebecca A. Clay is a writer in Washington, D.C.
Further Reading, Resources
Div. 41 (American Psychology-Law Society) student section.
Brodsky, S.L. (2009). Principles and Practice of Trial Consultation. New York: Guilford Press.
Bush, S.S., Connell, M.A., & Denney, R.L. (2006). Ethical Practice in Forensic Psychology: A Systematic Model for Decision Making. Washington, DC: APA.
Kuehnle, K., & Connell, M. (2008). The Evaluation of Child Sexual Abuse Allegations: A Comprehensive Guide to Assessment and Testimony. Hoboken, N.J.: Wiley.