Frequently Asked Questions
The information on this page is provided in response to frequently asked questions received by students interested in the specialized practice of forensic psychology. Information is periodically added to this page. Watch for responses to questions of interest to you, or contact me me via email if you have a question for which you wish to see my response sooner rather than later.
What is forensic psychology?
There are broad as well as narrow definitions of Forensic Psychology. I view the forensic practice of psychology as the application of education, training, and experience as a psychologist to questions of the law that may be relevant to legal proceedings. Such psychological-legal questions might pertain to criminal, civil, or administrative legal proceedings. Criminal proceedings might involve questions pertaining to competency to stand trial, sanity at the time of an offense, or assessment of likelihood of future offending. Civil proceedings might involve questions relevant to family law cases, such as parenting ability and conservatorship of children following a divorce, or personal injury cases that might involve questions regarding the nature of emotional injuries suffered from an accident or from other events that an individual has experienced. Forensic assessments relevant to administrative proceedings might involve assessment of cognitive or emotional factors that would affect the competency of an individual to practice in accordance with the requirements of a professional license.
You can learn more about the specialty practice of forensic psychology at the website for the American Board of Forensic Psychology (ABFP), a specialty Board of the American Board of Professional Psychology (ABPP). The American Academy of Forensic Psychology is the professional and educational counterpart to ABPP. You can learn about the high quality continuing education that is sponsored by the Academy around the country throughout the year. You may also learn which psychologists in your area are Board certified as a forensic specialist (click here to find out).
What is the difference between being a “forensic psychologist” and a “criminal profiler”?
Generally, a “criminal profiler” is a law enforcement investigator with a background in the behavioral sciences as applied to criminal offending, most often serial killers. While some forensic psychologists may do this, this is not what most forensic psychologists do. Forensic psychologists are applying the psychological methodology to addressing questions relevant to court related matters. Criminal profilers are applying behavioral analysis to patterns of behavior to facilitate investigation and identification of possible suspects.
What kind of education is required to become a Forensic Psychologist? Is a PhD in Clinical Psychology the same thing (or close to the same thing) as a Forensic Psychology PhD?
A Ph.D. is required. A PhD in clinical psychology would be a good foundation for a forensic psychology practice as it is a specialization area. Sam Houston State University which has a Forensic Psychology program is clinically based and forensically sound as are others throughout North America. Some may be more research based and others integrate law and psychology in the form of a PhD/JD program.
What is the most rewarding part of being a Forensic Psychologist?
For me it is the data gathering in the form of interviewing, test administration and record review to gather data relevant to a particular psychological/legal question and then analyzing that data to address the questions at hand in a manner that is objectively and empirically based. I would like to believe that what I produce and testify to is based on the best psychological methodology available and has been obtained and described in the most objective manner possible to facilitate justice being served.
What do you enjoy most about your career?
As I have been in private practice nearly all of my career, the ability to determine what I do and when I do, at least most of the time. I also enjoy the diversity that I’ve described above.
What is the most challenging part of being a Forensic Psychologist?
Taking the time necessary to write a well developed assessment report. I believe the analysis of the psychological data in a forensic evaluation is the most demanding aspect. It is a matter of bringing all the data together to address the psychological-legal question that is the focus of the evaluation. That requires one to also consider why alternative hypothesis for particular findings have been rejected on the basis of the available psychological data.
What is the hardest/most stressful aspect of your job description and how do you overcome the challenge of dealing with it?
There are both physical and emotional aspects. Cases that involve travel can be physically draining even though interesting. Sometimes sitting and waiting in hallway at a courthouse and then a case being reset can be frustrating. Sometimes the nature of the cross-examination may be more stressful than at other times. Emotionally, one may see cases where the facts are disturbing and working to keep objectively based professional opinion separate from personal response to the case may be challenging. Or, seeing an individual you believe may in fact not be guilty get a long prison sentence can be challenging as well. These are just the realities of working in this field. What the forensic psychologist offers, while important, is not the final determination of a case. It is critical that the psychological work is well done and delivered well, but it is ultimately the determination of a third party, e.g. the court, a jury, or an administrative body, that makes the final determination/judgment.
Was there a single defining moment that drew you to pursue forensic psychology? If not, what longer term factors helped you make your decision?
No, but I’d always had an interest in various aspects of public policy and the law. This dates back to my experience as a debater from high school through college and my original intention to go to law school. Perhaps many years ago having been hired as a prosecution expert in a manslaughter case because of my background and expertise in alcohol/drug dependence and treatment may have piqued my interest.
Looking back, if you could begin the process of establishing your career all over again, what would you do differently the second time around?
Not much, but I think that I wouldd have obtained specialty board certification sooner and might have sought that not only in forensic but clinical practice as well.
What do you believe is the defining personal characteristic that led you to become as successful in forensic psychology as you are today?
I believe it’s important to be able to shift perspectives and take into consideration all factors. I was a member of a debate team from early in high school through college and learned to consider more than one perspective and be able to consider alternative approaches to an issue. I also believe it is important to keep up with the professional literature as it bears on cases with which one works. Writing reasonably well and integrating data and being able to form an opinion that is supported by psychological evidence and is relevant to the psychological-forensic question is probably another ability. These are at least qualities that I have found useful in being at least competent.
What is the importance of your job to outside people and situations that are not directly related to forensics or psychology?
The importance of the forensic psychologist’s role is that it is part of the balance of the justice process. It assists society at large in maintaining the balance of justice whether for the victim or for the accused. That balance is important not only for those involved in a particular case, but to society at large.
I have read several books, such as Dr. Haycock’s “Murderous Minds: Exploring the Criminal Psychopathic Brain: Neurological Imaging and the Manifestation of Evil” present perspectives opposing the validityof the Psychopathy Checklist Revised (PCL-R). What is your perspective on the validity of the PCL-R as a piece of defining psychological evidence in a court case?
I trained on the PCL-R with Hare and one of his colleagues that developed the youth version of the psychopathy checklist. I believe the PCL-R provides a standardized means of assessing the presence of characteristics whether of genetic or developmental origin that are relevant in considering future risk. However, while a high score on the PCL-R is a risk factor, such a score is not by itself sufficient to make a prediction with a high level of certainty. It remains to be seen the extent to which it correlates with more closely with possible neurological, genetic, or developmental factors. The concept of psychopathy, in and of itself, tends to be prejudicial. In my opinion in should not have the weight of “defnining psychological evidence.”
Could you provide a brief procedural run through of preparing and giving a psychological evaluation on a convicted criminal/patient?
First, I would make a distinction between “patient” and an individual I evaluate for forensic purposes. In forensic cases my client is the court, a lawyer for the prosecutor/plaintiff, or the defense. The individual being evaluated is neither my patient nor my client. My opinion may or may not be of benefit to them and in some cases may be inconsistent with what they hope for. While psychological treatment in criminal justice settings is often referred to as “forensic,” this is something different than what forensic psychologists do when testifying in court. When the two roles get confused and mixed together this poses significant ethical problems.
With regard to the question, an evaluation will ideally involve more than one interview with the evaluee, review of various relevant records, possibly collateral interviews of witnesses or correctional personnel, and administration of psychological tests relevant to whatever the psychological/forensic question might be, e.g. competency to stand trial, sanity, fitness waiver from juvenile to adult court, likelihood of recidivism, parenting capacity, fitness for duty, etc. This is followed by integration of the assessment data into a report that provides the basis for opinions that have been formed and explains those opinions. The report preparation may take a significant amount of time in and of itself as this is in my opinion the most complex part of the whoe assessment process, it is where it all comes together and is communicated, hopefully in a cogent manner.
What procedures must be taken to ensure the presentation of your psychological evaluation in a court is given confidently, accurately, and conveyed properly?
One must be knowledgeable about the psychological instruments they use, i.e., the construction, standardization, administration, interpretation, error rates, etc. as well as standards of practice for whatever type of evaluation is being conducted. Also, general knowledge of the law that has a bearing on the case in which an opinion is being offered, at least to the extent that the law has a bearing on what opinions can or cannot be offered.
Other than the perpetrator himself, are there any others related to the case that factor into the overall presentation of psychological evidence? If so, then who?
I might note that the perpetrator might be “herself” as well as “himself” as I have evaluated both males and females accused of a range of criminal charges, e.g., assault, sexual abuse, embezzlement. Certainly in cases where mitigation for purposes of sentencing is the issue being addressed by the forensic psychologist, interviewing family members and significant others will assist in understanding the developmental factors that may have had a bearing on the offense committed by an individual. Such evidence is required in capital sentencing. And in insanity cases, certainly understanding the experience of witnesses or other individuals who had contact with the accused during 24-48 hours prior to the offense is important to developing a well-grounded professional opinion.
How does one’s body language affect the overall outcome of their psychological evaluation?
I am presuming this is in reference to the “body language” of the individual being evaluated. If that is the case I would say, only in a small manner if at all. Behavior is always part of what is observed whether in forensic or general clinical practice. Unusual behavior and mannerisms will be noted and taken into consideration in the overall context of the evaluation. I wouldn’t expect that behavior to have a dramatic effect on the outcome unless the individual was floridly psychotic or directly threatened or assaulted the evaluator. Even in the case of an assault, the motivation for that would need to be understood and taken into consideration. While I have seen individuals who were psychotic, I have never been threatened or assaulted. If it is body language of the evaluator to which you are referring, that should be as professional and neutral as possible. Certainly biased attitudes that an examiner might hold could come across in the form of “body language” and might well affect the responsiveness of the individual being evaluated in a negative manner. Obviously, this should be avoided by the examiner and requires some degree of self-awareness and appropriate management of professional self-presentation.