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As the day gets closer to when I will be getting my Associates degree, it is very apparent that I’m still undecided as to what I want to do. Though I am extremely interested in forensics, there are many different fields of forensics available. One of the fields that I have been looking into is forensic psychology. I wanted to take this opportunity to research and gain a better idea as to what forensic psychology is all about. I hope to come closer to that decision of whether to further my studies in this field or if I should consider another.
I am extremely interested in the “hands-on” field forensics aspect, although I have such a seemingly effortless understanding of psychology.
Forensic Psychologists can play a number of key roles in a criminal investigation. Immediately following a crime a forensic psychologist may be asked to act as a criminal profiler. Most of us have an idea of what profiling is.
It has over the years become the love child of numerous television programs, movies, and crime novels. Criminal profiling involves the psychologist (though all profilers are not psychologists) using his understanding of human behavior, motivation, and pathology so that he/she can create a psychological profile of the offender. The profiles can be surprisingly accurate. From observations of the crime scene one can infer the behavioral characteristics of the individual who created it. To a profiler everyone is a slave to their psychological makeup. In turn, profilers use their knowledge of whom the typical offender is that bears these characteristics and then predicts not only how the investigators can expect the offender to behave in the future, but also what their physical appearance will likely be.
While profiling may seem very exciting, few psychologists are ever involved in this field. There fortunately are not a lot of serial offenders out there.
Unfortunately, there are even less places where one can obtain profiler training. Once the suspect has been apprehended there are more opportunities for psychological intervention. Psychological knowledge has been applied to many more areas of investigative police work, from the police interrogation to the police line-up. Both of these areas have prospered greatly from psychological research. While those studying in these areas do not typically work within the police station (they will often do their research from an academic institution) they will often act in a consulting capacity and will perform teaching projects with the department. One may also find a Police Psychologist working with the officers. While this individual may preform a number of the above jobs, they will also be on hand to provide counseling for officers, aid in the evaluation of prospective applicants, and provide crisis counseling for crime victims. Now we must leave the police station and enter the courtroom!
Outside of the “front-end” operations of police work there is numerous opportunities for the application of forensic psychology. In the court system, Forensic Psychologists are frequently used for both criminal and civil cases. In the criminal realm, the forensic psychologist is often asked to assess competency. Competency assessments can serve a number of purposes. First, a defendant can be assessed for the ability to stand trial and/or make legal decisions on their own behalf. These types of decision have been frequent in the news. Most recently in the Ted “Unabomber” Kazynski case, in which Kazynski wished to defend himself but was deemed mentally unable to do so. These evaluations are carried out when the defendant appears to suffer from a mental defect, such as an acute psychiatric disorder (i.e., schizophrenia) or a mental disability (i.e., mental retardation). Secondly, Psychologists may also be asked to make an evaluation regarding the defendant’s mental state at the time of the offense. The entire “not guilty by reason of insanity” defense relies on the psychological evaluation of a defendant’s inability to form criminal intent. Frequently, people forget about the applications of forensic psychology to civil law. Often a forensic psychologist is asked to make evaluations of defendants or plaintiffs disability or level of trauma. From these evaluations the court can decide whether compensatory damages should be provided. Civil-Forensic Psychologists also work on child custody, sexual harassment, and immigration cases. Virtually any civil matter that requires psychological evaluation may include the work of a Forensic Psychologist. It is important to remember that not all Forensic Psychologists work with violent criminals. The Forensic Psychologist that investigates the social-legal components of the
common law court system can provide influential knowledge to both criminal and common law cases. Forensic Psychologists often are asked to evaluate potential jury members. To this date numerous ‘mock’-jury investigations have been published. From this research, one can determine who is a potentially prejudiced juror. Many believe that a good evaluator can determine, before the case, which jurors are on their side. These Psychologists identify jurors who are potentially prejudicial to their case, and whom can thereby be eliminated from the jury panel during jury selection (or ‘voir dire’ as it is called in the legal realm). Since both sides can challenge potential jurors this will not usually stack the jury in the favor of either the defense or prosecution. The result is hopefully a fairly balanced jury. These jury experts can also inform the attorney in regards to potential ways to influence the jury. This can include a number of things from the defendant’s clothing to the lawyers mannerisms. Many social-legal psychologists are also experts at how to psychologically motivate witnesses. They will inform the lawyer of potential questions that could stump a witness or set him/her off on a tantrum. Such theatrics can be very influential in a trial.
Most Forensic Psychologists work either in a correctional institution (i.e., prison, jail, or juvenile hall) or in a psychiatric hospital. In this environment they will preform a number of important roles. One of the most essential roles is therapeutic intervention. The Forensic Psychologist in these institutions will often provide a range of therapies in order to control or eliminate the psychiatric disorder that has led to the offenders criminal acts. Whether these interventions will be successful is highly dependant on the nature of the disorder. Certain disorders (i.e., obsessions, schizophrenia, bipolar depression, addictions) that can be correlated to criminal behavior can often be treated satisfactorily, others (i.e., sociopath, psychopath) are far less successfully controlled. Before, and after, treatment the Forensic Psychologist may preform diagnosis and psychometric testing (the evaluation of behavior/personality via tests/surveys) in order to evaluate the clients risk of violence and/or recidivism (the likeliness that the criminal will recommit the crime). These evaluations are very important to future parole and competency hearings. A person who is found not guilty by reason of insanity for a crime that would typically hold a ten year sentence could potentially spend their entire life in prison or a psychiatric hospital if these evaluations raise concerns.
It is important that one realizes that no single Forensic Psychologist preforms all of these tasks. Each practitioner will focus on a specific area of the field, and thereby become an expert in that particular area. The Court Psychologist tends to have a experimental background, while the Correctional Psychologist is typically a Clinical Psychologist with forensics training. The investigative practitioner, however, is a fuzzier boundary. For the potential forensic psychology student, deciding which discipline interests you is very important. The court versus correctional disciplines come from very different origins, differing as early as at the Masters of Arts – Psychology level.
It doesn’t really matter at the undergraduate level. As long as your school is an accredited university (i.e., meaning its recognized as a post-secondary institution) by your country and the appropriate associations (i.e., APA or CPA) which school you go to shouldn’t be an issue when you apply for graduate school. The key thing to look for is how the program is compared to other schools. Does it offer an equal number of courses as the top schools? Does it have a good sized faculty? The best way to figure this all out is to check and compare school calendars. One good rule is, if the school has a psychology graduate program (particularly a Ph.D. program) it probably has a good undergraduate program. Of course if the school has a forensics graduate program you will be provided with further forensics related opportunities as an undergraduate (i.e., the topic of your dissertation could be forensics related) but this is possible at most institutions regardless of forensics faculty. For example, I am doing a forensics related thesis but I attached my interests onto one of the social psych faculty’s area of interest.
First you must have a four year undergraduate degree. This degree is usually in psychology, but some institutions will accept degrees in behavioral science, sociology, etc. You should do a thesis, as most schools do require it for academic advancement. You must next get a masters degree. This is typically a two year program. Finally you must complete a 3 year Doctoral Ph.D. (or PsyD). Some schools will have the 2 year Masters and 3 year Ph.D. incorporated into a 5 year Ph.D. program.
I’ve learned a lot about what a forensic psychologist does, and was pretty surprised. I wasn’t aware of many of the responsibilities they handle. After the research that I’ve done on this, I’m not too sure this is the field of forensics I wish to pursue. I enjoy “hands on” work in whatever it is that I do. Though I do enjoy understanding people in all aspects of psychology and find this subject very interesting and intriguing, I must look into the many fields of forensics and come to a decision as to what I’d like to pursue in my future. Ballistics seems to interest me. Gathering evidence also catches my eye. It seems as though forensic psychologists do a lot of work in the aspect of therapy and analysis of criminal defendants and making decisions in the way of their mental competency. I was under the impression that forensic psychologists actually went out on the field and helped figure out how the crime happened by investigating the scene along side of the FBI or police, and that was why I was interested.
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