FAQs about becoming a forensic psychologist

Mark Zelig, Ph.D., ABPP:

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FAQs:  Becoming a Forensic Psychologist

1.    How competitive is forensic psychology?

a.    The greatest competition occurs in one’s quest to obtain adequate training.  Once trained, the new forensic psychologist will find plenty of work.

2.    How did you get into forensic psychology?

a.    I worked for a police department while I earned my Ph.D. in clinical psychology.  Once I had obtained my graduate training there were many opportunities to apply psychological science to law enforcement issues.  As I developed a speciality in forensic psychology, I received additional continuing education along with seeking peer consultation from forensic psychologists.

3.    What sort of course work should be taken as an undergraduate to attend graduate school for forensic psychology?

a.    Course work that shows you are unique, yet qualified.  Graduate school admission committees, in general, appear impressed by an applicant who demonstrates competence in diverse, yet relevant areas such as foreign languages, biology, and statistics.   Undergraduate degrees in psychology are a dime-a-dozen and do not distinguish an applicant.  Preparation in the former areas shows that the applicant has already acquired tools that will prove valuable to a new psychologist.

b.    Avoid pursuing a Master’s Degree as a foot-in-the-door to doctoral training in professional psychology unless it is in a field other than psychology.  Many graduate schools are phasing out or have eliminated master’s degrees within their departments, and accordingly, give higher preference to applicants without a master’s degree in psychology.

4.    Do you recommend the prospective forensic psychologist seek a forensic psychology program?

a.    Definitely Not!  The highest priority is to obtain admission to a graduate school that is approved by the American Psychological Association (APA).  If you do not get into an APA-approved program you may have difficulty obtaining a suitable pre-doctoral internship, which you need to graduate.  And of course, regardless of which program you attend, one should make sure that the curriculum is adequate to meet the criteria for licensure in the state or province that you intend to practice.

b.    Regarding specific training in forensic psychology, I recommend that prospective forensic psychologists take minimal course work in forensic-specific courses so they can give preference to general clinical psychology, statistics, and neuropsychology. Keep in mind physicians do not develop specialties until they have completed their MD – and have demonstrated their basic ability to function in all branches of medicine.  Moreover, to my knowledge, there is not a single forensic psychologist, board certified by the American Board of Forensic Psychology who obtained a graduate degree in forensic psychology!

5.    What are the real-world applications of forensic psychology?

a.    Forensic psychology is applicable anytime a court or adjudicative forum requires psychological science to answer a question relevant for their purposes.  For this reason, the application of forensic psychology is limitless, and includes such diversity as child custody determinations, police department consultation, competency to proceed to trial, and many other applications.

6.    What would you consider the rewards and disadvantages of being a forensic psychologist?

a.    Rewards: Ability to practice independently and without the direction of a managed care insurance company.  Higher pay.  Most of all, knowing that I “really made a difference,” is very rewarding.  Endless challenges.  Most forensic psychologists find their job interesting and do not have trouble getting out of bed in the morning to go to work!

b.    Disadvantages: High stress – one works in an environment where the standard of practice is typically higher than general psychology.  Having received training in both clinical and forensic psychology, I believe there is less margin for error in forensic psychology, especially when it involves court testimony.

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