Forensic Psychology Education

Initially, the term forensics referred to presenting in the public forum (Shah & Sales, 1991). Today it refers to the application of knowledge and services to the law by numerous disciplines (e.g., American Board of Forensic Psychology, 2006; American Chemical Society, n.d.). Although in psychology, forensics was historically associated with the provision of services by clinical psychologists within legal settings (e.g., the courts or correctional facilities) or to law-involved clients (e.g., offenders on parole or probation), some scholars and practitioners use the term synonymously with the field of psychology and law (DeMatteo, Marczyk, Krauss, & Burl, 2009). For example, a forensic psychologist has been defined as “any psychologist, experimental or clinical, who specializes in producing or communicating psychological research or assessment information intended for application to legal issues” (Grisso, 1987, p. 831), whereas forensic psychology has been defined as both (1) the research endeavor that examines aspects of human behavior directly related to the legal process… and (2) the professional practice of psychology within or in consultation with a legal system that embraces both civil and criminal law and the numerous areas where they intersect and as “the application of psychological research, theory, practice, and traditional and specialized methodology … to provide information relevant to a legal question” (Goldstein, 2007, p. 5).

Although the origins of forensic psychology can be traced to the early-20th-century works of Hugo Munsterberg and Sigmund Freud (Bartol & Bartol, 2006), it was not until 1973 that the first dedicated training program in psychology and law, which incorporated a specific forensic psychology component, was founded at the University of Nebraska under the direction of Bruce Sales. Currently, there are over 40 programs offering some form of graduate training in forensic psychology (Burl, Shah, Filone, Foster, & DeMatteo, 2012), and the membership of the American Psychology-Law Society (AP-LS; Division 41 of the American Psychological Association [APA]) has increased dramatically with over 3,000 full and student members.

The forensic programs can be further classified into subgroups based on the particular type of training they offer. Some programs include dual JD (juris doctorate)— PhD (doctor of philosophy) degrees or dual JD-PsyD (doctor of psychology) degrees. Within the PhD component, the programs offer the option of clinical or nonclinical training, or both. Some programs offer the opportunity for students to solely pursue a PhD with a clinical specialization or a PsyD, with a programmatic emphasis in clinical forensic psychology or in clinical psychology with a subspecialty in forensic psychology. Where the PhD component offers nonclinical training, some programs allow students to focus on the application of nonclinical psychology areas (e.g., cognitive, social, developmental) to forensic issues. Finally, forensic training is also offered by some schools at the master’s level (for a recent listing of forensic psychology programs, see Aderhold, Boulas, & Huss, n.d.; AP-LS, n.d.-a).

To understand the reasons for the existing differences in training approaches, it is first necessary to understand the differing skills of forensic scientists and practitioners. It is the breadth of professional duties and the scientific questions associated with forensic practice that necessitate varied types of training approaches. For example, a common use of expert testimony consists of psychologists testifying about the reliability of eyewitness testimony against a criminal defendant. The expert witness might testify as to the effect of several factors on perception, including stress and weapon focus. The expert might also offer testimony on the effect of certain factors on accurate identification, such as the forgetting curve and suggestive pretrial identification procedures (see, e.g., United States v. Norwood, 1996). Although this type of testimony is well known and may be presented by a forensic clinical psychologist (Contreras, 2001), it is more likely to be the province of someone trained in cognitive or social psychology who studies basic perception, memory, and/or identification accuracy issues.

In contrast, clinical psychologists are more likely to testify about an assessment they performed on a litigant (e.g., Melton, Petrila, Poythress, & Slobogin, 2007) or a treatment they provided to a litigant or offender (e.g., Ashford, Sales, & Reid, 2001). For example, they may testify as to the results of their forensic assessment on a variety of topics, such as: What is in the best interests of the child for postdivorce custodial placement (e.g., Benjamin & Gollan, 2003)? Is termination of parental rights in the best interests of the child (e.g., In re L.A.M., 2001)? Did the defendant suffer from a learning disability in a lawsuit alleging that the disability was caused by chemical exposure (e.g., Mancuso v. Consolidated Edison, Co., 2000)? In other cases, both clinical and nonclinical forensic psychologists educate the trier of fact (i.e., the jury when there is one or the judge in bench trials) about the state of psychological knowledge on some topic (e.g., rape trauma syndrome; causes of eyewitness identification errors) rather than directly focusing on a specific factual question in dispute (e.g., People v. Wheeler, 1992).

Although expert testimony is an important part of forensic work, it is by no means exhaustive of forensic practice opportunities. For example, some forensic psychologists work in the administration of forensic correctional facilities (see, e.g., Hafemeister, Hall, & Dvoskin, 2001), provide treatment services in detention facilities to juvenile or adult offenders, or develop policy for facilities and governmental bodies. Finally, while the preceding activities are practice related, many psychologists produce the research and scholarship that provide the foundation for forensic psychological practice.

What type of education and training is best suited for this diverse set of activities? There is no simple answer. The training options should be varied, based on both the trainee’s career goals and the educational administrative limits of the existing programs. This section considers both the more mundane and the more nuanced aspects of training goals, approaches, and issues.

Forensic Psychology Educational Goals

We train and pursue educational opportunities to achieve specific career goals. The student interested in working with elderly patients logically seeks training relevant to gerontological issues, and programs interested in attracting students who wish to work with persons with dementia of the Alzheimer’s type will create didactic, experiential, and research training opportunities specific to the needs of students interested in this area. It is no different for students interested in working in legal and law-related settings. In this section, we describe the most common training goals in forensic psychology. Read more about Forensic Psychology Educational Goals.

Approaches to Achieving Educational Goals

Given that the training and career goals of forensic psychologists can differ markedly within and across categories, training programs have developed divergent programmatic approaches to educating their students so that they can attain these disparate goals. These programmatic approaches are not based solely on achieving specific training goals, however. They are also subject to administrative factors that affect the type of training a program can offer (e.g., number of faculty lines in forensics). As a result, the existing subtypes of training programs all possess both benefits and limitations that affect their ability to effectively train their students to attain their career goals. In this section, we describe the most common types of training programs and highlight the areas in which they are likely to benefit and limit their students for different types of forensic careers. Read more about Approaches to Achieving Educational Goals.

Degree and Nondegree Education

Given the different approaches to achieving training goals, what are the specific degree and nondegree training opportunities in forensics that are available to trainees? As it turns out, there are quite a few. Read more about Degree and Nondegree Education.

Master’s Programs in Forensic Psychology

The field of forensic psychology has witnessed tremendous growth in the past 40 years in both academic and professional realms. While many of the early clinicians engaged in forensic practice did not receive specialized training prior to assuming their role within a forensic setting, graduate training in forensic psychology, or psychology and law, has attempted to address this need. The number of programs offering graduate-level forensic psychology training has exponentially increased in the past 30 years, such that future generations of forensic practitioners will have received specialized course work and practical/research experiences that will only augment their effectiveness in conducting sound research, promoting relevant policy, and delivering competent clinical forensic services. Read more about Master’s Programs in Forensic Psychology.

Doctoral Programs in Forensic Psychology

Doctoral programs are the most prominent educational path for training scholars in forensic psychology, providing training for many students interested in the core areas of these disciplines. There are a variety of training models aimed at educating students in both disciplines, but there is lack of agreement about the best model. However, recommendations have been made for the core objectives that should be present in any doctoral program. Regardless of the training model, there are a variety of employment opportunities available for graduates of these select programs, and students applying to them should be aware that admission can be very competitive. Read more about Doctoral Programs in Forensic Psychology.

Understanding the training goals, approaches to achieving these goals, and alternate structures used for delivering training—although a good first step for understanding forensic training opportunities—is not sufficient. Myriad challenges that these programs face and that training raises deserve extended discussion. Some of these, like law and ethics, were considered earlier but are worth reconsidering, given their importance. The other topics logically extend our earlier discussion.

Faculty Expertise and Student Goals

In assessing a forensic program, it is reasonable to ask about faculty and adjunct supervisor qualifications and expertise. It is important that programs have faculty members who are well qualified to teach and supervise in the areas to which they are assigned (APA, 2002, Standard 2.01). Although this admonition sounds obvious, as the pressure for forensic psychological training increases and new programs are created, it is important that programs and potential students critically evaluate the expertise of faculty for providing forensic training. We should never confuse competence in providing clinical services with competence in providing forensic clinical services or nonclinical forensic services or research. Read more about Faculty Expertise and Student Goals.

Faculty as Advisors and Mentors

No matter what the expertise of the faculty, it is important to consider whether faculty members view themselves as advisors or mentors. The former, which is more typical, occurs when faculty members perceive their role only as imparting information to students and being available to answer student questions. The latter role involves faculty members taking personal interest in the growth of students and in their success after graduation. We have no data to know how individual students fare under each type of training role, but students ought to be aware of the existing differences in supervision styles and seek information about the faculty approaches to training before making a decision about which program to attend.

Number of Trainees

Much like the size and expertise of the faculty, the number of students currently enrolled in a program is likely to affect their training experiences and education. Some forensic training programs admit few students, while others admit many more. Being in a program with a small cohort of students is likely to lead to more individualized attention for the trainee, but it will also limit a student s opportunities to interact with, share experiences with, and learn from other graduate students in the field. Programs with a smaller cohort of students may also (but not necessarily) experience a smaller number of experiential and didactic training options. In contrast, larger forensic training programs, while offering less individualized attention, are more likely to offer a wider array of both training opportunities and coursework across a range of forensic psychology topics. This typically occurs because the larger the student body, the more faculty members are likely to be associated with it. Prospective trainees should obtain a realistic picture of the programs in which they are interested.

Didactic and Experiential Training

Forensic training requires both didactic and experiential training components. Didactic courses are necessary because they provide the intensive opportunity to acquire the scientific and practice knowledge base underlying forensic psychology. Simply apprenticing under a practitioner might lead to a narrow perception of what forensics entails and a skill set that is limited to what that practitioner knows and does in practice. Experiential training through externships, internships, and other supervised practica can augment the learning that has occurred in the classroom and in directed readings courses. Read more about Didactic and Experiential Training.

Learning the Relevant Law and How to Find It

Training programs need to be especially cognizant of the legal research and training skills that are a necessary component of effective training. For example, it is one thing for forensic trainees to know the legal standard that governs the specific forensic evaluation they are being asked to perform in a jurisdiction. It is quite another thing for students to be trained in the skills that would allow them to identify the relevant law, fully understand it and its implications for forensic psychological practice, and keep abreast of changes in that law. At a minimum, expertise to perform a particular type of legal assessment entails the ability to do five things:

  • Identify and read the central case law in that jurisdiction on a particular evaluation question.
  • Use this case law in a meaningful way so that the evaluation best addresses the legal standard controlling the forensic issue in question.
  • Keep current on changes in that law and related evaluation practices.
  • Be aware of legal standards in other jurisdictions that may have implications for the forensic work on the identified case.
  • Be aware of legal changes not central to the evaluation standard itself but critical to the success of the forensic work (e.g., changes in admissibility standards) because they will affect both the evaluative procedures utilized and whether the eventual psychological conclusions generated will be accepted by the court as expert testimony.

Training programs that do not have extensive legal components risk handicapping their trainees by compromising the quality of their future work.

Forensic Ethics Training

It is also important that forensic training offer competent training in forensic psychological ethics. However, even forensic psychology specialty programs largely fail to offer coursework relevant to ethics in the forensic context, with fewer than 15% of doctoral programs in forensic psychology offering a specific course. Forensic psychological ethics receives more attention in master’s programs, with approximately half of these programs providing a specific ethics class (Burl et al., 2012). Lack of specialty ethics training is particularly problematic because ethical challenges in general practice are not always identical to the challenges faced by forensic practitioners, with forensic practice generally raising more and different ethical issues. For example, who is the client when a psychologist performs services with a prisoner—is it the prisoner, the prison, or the Department of Corrections? As noted earlier, to help answer questions such as these, there are specialty ethical guidelines designed specifically for forensic psychological practice (APA, 2013). Although these guidelines are aspirational, all forensic practitioners should be aware of, understand, and strive to follow them as well as keep abreast of more current forensic ethics scholarship. Due to these unique ethical concerns, not having an expert in ethics teach the ethics sequence and not having that teaching supplemented by an expert in forensic ethics is questionable training practice. In addition, given that in many graduate psychology programs, general ethics training is provided by practitioners or faculty members who are not expert in ethics, forensic programs need to consider if their approach is also acceptable for creating competent forensic specialists. We think not.

Forensic Psychological Competence

Defining forensic psychological competence in one area of practice or research or across several areas is not an easy task. For example, the acceptance of certain types of expert testimony, research, or practice by the legal system is often a poor indicator of the competence of individuals who proffer, engage in, or use such techniques. Consider a jurisdiction that has accepted expert testimony based on pure clinical hunches about a defendant s future dangerousness in death penalty sentencing (Barefoot v. Estelle, 1983). A practitioner offering such testimony is not forensically competent. A forensically competent practitioner would be aware of the superiority of actuarially based dangerousness predictions over unstructured clinical judgments (Grove & Meehl, 1996; Krauss & Sales, 2001) and recognize the limitations in using an existing actuarial instrument as the basis for expert testimony on dangerousness (Krauss, McCabe, & McFadden, 2009; Monahan et al., 2002).

Forensic psychological competence is also not necessarily performing a forensic service in the exact same manner as supervisors did during training. It entails recognizing that advances in the field, differences in the applicable law based on the jurisdiction where the evaluation takes place, and changes in the law over time will influence how each forensic service should be performed in the future. The key is for forensic training programs to instill in their graduates the necessary intellectual rigor that they will regularly ask themselves this question: Is what I am about to do what ought to be done or am I simply repeating past practices?

Credentialing in Forensic Psychology

The timing of forensic training raises a fundamental training issue. As previously noted, forensic training can occur predoctorally, during internship, postdoctorally, through continuing education programs, through on-the-job training, or through self-directed reading. All may be perfectly appropriate for providing forensic psychological expertise, but we have no data to know what kind of impact these training methods have on the acquisition of forensic psychological knowledge and skills. Read more about Credentialing in Forensic Psychology.

Maintaining and Increasing Forensic Psychological Competence

One measure of the success of forensic training programs is whether graduates are motivated to seek continuing education programs that will maintain and increase their forensic psychological competence. Unfortunately, there are no data available to address this issue. In addition, although continuing education programs exist in the forensic arena, there has been limited analysis of the variety of topics covered by existing programs, the comprehensiveness of the coverage of the presented topics, the availability of programs in various parts of the country, and whether the covered topics match the wide diversity of forensic psychological training needs. Hopefully, research will address these important issues in the future.

Accreditation of Forensic Psychological Training

Forensic doctoral training programs are not accredited by the APA. When they advertise that they are accredited, they are referring to the fact that their generalist clinical, counseling, or school psychology program is APA accredited. Whether accreditation is something that will increase the quality of forensic psychological practice training is an issue that the field needs to consider. If the consensus is yes, representatives of the field will need to petition and work with the APA Accreditation Office to ensure that forensic training programs come under the APA’s accreditation umbrella. Similar concerns can be raised about the accreditation of forensic internship and forensic postdoctoral training programs.

Challenges in Training Forensic Psychology Scientists

Programs that specialize in the training of forensic psychology scientists face spe­cific training challenges. In order to perform useful forensic psychological research on a topic, a forensic training program must first teach its students how to identify the questions that the law needs answered by psychological science. For example, in the case of McCleskey v. Kemp (1987), Kemp, an African American, was charged with murder of a White man. The defense introduced the testimony of an expert to support its claim that the Georgia death penalty statute and process discriminated against the defendant. Read more about Challenges in Training Forensic Psychology Scientists.

Empirical Research on Forensic Psychology Training

Ultimately, forensic psychology training, like training in all fields, will need to be scrutinized empirically if we are to discern the best pathways to improving forensic competence in practice. This is not a simple task, however, given that the learned professions, including forensic psychology, have never embraced such a research agenda. The problem for forensic psychology is that such research will be confounded by the validity of the knowledge base that is imparted during training. For example, if a training approach is not shown empirically to produce competence in practice, is it the result of the approach or the lack of validity in the treatment method taught? Although a problematic issue for research design, the importance of the larger issue still stands—the need to study empirically the outcomes of different training approaches—and deserves serious scholarly attention in the future.

Read more about Forensic Psychology:


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