Forensic psychology was formally recognized as a specialty by the American Psychological Association (APA) in 2001 (through the Committee for Recognition of Specialties and Proficiencies in Professional Psychology). The basic elements of specialty training in professional psychology are graduate education (doctoral program), internship, and postdoctoral training. This model of training is pyramidal in structure: Students receive a broad and general education at the graduate level, more specific applied experience at the internship level, and advanced specialized knowledge and skills at the postdoctoral level. An organized, systemic postdoctoral program is called a residency or a postdoctoral fellowship (these terms are interchangeable). Although the APA does not yet accredit forensic residency programs, the American Board of Forensic Psychology has developed some interim recommendations that can be used by students who are interested in applying to residencies.
The first formal concerted effort to develop training models in forensic psychology was convened in 1997 (the “Villanova Conference”). The participants in that conference discussed the entire range of training and specifically noted that there were inadequate numbers of postdoctoral fellowships (or residencies) to meet the training needs of all those seeking forensic specialization. In 2001, when forensic psychology was recognized as a specialty by APA, 11 residency programs in forensic psychology were identified. A recent search of ads in the American Psychological Association Monitor, the Web site of the American Psychology-Law Society, and an Internet search resulted in identification of 17 residency programs as of March 2007. Although there may be a few more programs that were not identified, it is clear that there are still too few programs to meet the demands of students interested in becoming forensic psychologists. Many psychologists will obtain alternative means of training (e.g., through continuing education activities and individually arranged supervision of forensic work), but residency programs remain the “gold standard” for preparation for forensic specialization.
The APA’s Committee on Accreditation accredits postdoctoral residencies, based on general principles for such programs, buttressed by specific Specialty Education and Training Guidelines. The Forensic Specialty Council is the entity responsible for developing such guidelines for forensic psychology, and it is anticipated that these will be available in 2008. In the interim, there is no mechanism for formal accreditation of forensic residency programs. However, the American Board of Forensic Psychology (ABFP), which is a Specialty Board of the American Board of Professional Psychology (ABPP), which awards diplomate status to qualified practitioners, has developed its own guidelines. The ABFP has recognized the value of residency training in forensic psychology and has determined that successful completion of such a residency is considered equivalent to 4 years of postdoctoral experience and, thus, would meet the experiential requirements to apply for diplomate status. The ABFP had identified the following criteria to recognize residency programs for this purpose (with a caveat that these will be superseded by the criteria to be developed by the Forensic Specialty Council as noted above):
- The residents must have completed all requirements for their doctoral degree, including an internship, prior to beginning residency training.
- There must be an identifiable director of training who either has a diploma in forensic psychology from ABPP, has at least 5 years’ experience practicing forensic psychology, or is certified by their jurisdiction (through statute or regulations) to perform forensic evaluations.
- The residents must be formally identified as trainees, paid a stipend, and be given a diploma or certificate of completion.
- The residency must have a structured written curriculum, including didactic training or a regular series of seminars. Although the ABFP does not identify a required curriculum, it does require that the didactic training include a course on case law, ethics, and sociocultural factors/ethnic factors that affect individuals who are provided forensic evaluations or treatment.
- The residency must include clinical experiences in forensic practice.
- The residency program must include at least 2,000 hours of training, over a minimum 9-month period and a maximum of 24 months. At least 25% of the resident’s time must be spent providing professional forensic psychological services.
- A minimum of 2 hours a week of supervision by a licensed psychologist is required.
- The residency program must have a formal evaluation process that includes a written assessment of the resident’s progress and skill attainment.
Standard Elements of Forensic Residency Programs
Gary Melton and colleagues, in one of the classic books on forensic psychology, identified, in addition to basic clinical training, the following elements of specialized knowledge and experience required by forensic psychologists:
- Understanding of how the legal system works
- Forensic evaluation methodologies, including specialized forensic instruments
- Legal doctrines relevant to forensic evaluations
- Research about areas that are relevant to forensic psychology but that are not part of the standard “clinical” preparation
- Rules, procedures, and techniques related to providing expert witness testimony
An additional, important element relates to special ethical dilemmas and practice issues that are unique to forensic practice. All forensic psychologists must be familiar with the Specialty Guidelines for Forensic Psychologists (which were developed in 1991 jointly by the American Psychology-Law Society and the American Academy of Forensic Psychology and are currently being revised). Residency training programs in forensic psychology should prepare residents for forensic practice by providing education and training within all these areas, at a minimum.
Accessing Information about Programs
The majority of the current forensic residency programs emphasize forensic work within the criminal justice system (as opposed to areas of civil practice). Most programs focus on work with adults (in areas such as competency to stand trial, criminal responsibility, aid in sentencing, violence risk assessments, sex offender evaluations), although some focus on juveniles. At least one program focuses on civil work with children and families, including child custody issues and termination of parental rights. As there is no current directory of forensic residency programs, specific information about the available programs can be obtained either through their advertisements in the APA Monitor (publication of the APA) or through the American Psychology-Law Society Newsletter.
- Bersoff, D., Goodman-Delahunty, J., Grisso, T., Hans, V., Poythress, N. G., & Roesch, R. (1997). Training in law and psychology: Models from the Villanova Conference. American Psychologist, 52, 1301-1310.
- Melton, G. B., Petrila, J., Poythress, N. G., & Slobogin, C. (1997). Psychological evaluations for the courts. New York: Guilford Press.
- Otto, R. K., & Heilbrun, K. (2002). The practice of forensic psychology: A look to the future in light of the past. American Psychologist, 57, 5-18.
- Packer, I. K., & Borum, R. (2003). Forensic training and practice. In A. M.Goldstein (Ed.), Handbook of psychology: Vol. 11. Forensic psychology (pp. 21-32). Hoboken, NJ: Wiley.