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.

Forensic Clinical Practitioners

Approaches to Achieving Educational GoalsAlthough we have no data, our impression is that the vast majority of practitioners who describe themselves as forensic psychologists were not trained in graduate programs specializing in forensic psychology, because few such specialty programs existed when they were in training. As a result, most forensic practitioners received general clinical training in graduate school and later undertook more specialized training through postdoctoral work, continuing education courses, on-the-job training, or some combination of these possibilities.

Individuals trained under such a paradigm are likely to benefit in their forensic work from the generalist knowledge gained during clinical training. In addition, these individuals often have accrued a wide range of clinical experience across a significant range of treatment settings, patient characteristics, and disorders before attempting more forensic-based clinical practice. As these practitioners refine their skills in the forensic arena, this general clinical training can serve as part of the foundation for forensic practice.

Yet in a variety of ways, such general clinical training is also likely to serve as a constraint on the forensic psychological skills of these professionals. General clinical training does not often prepare individuals to understand the clinical and research literature most pertinent to forensic practice. For example, forensic psychological assessment often is predicated on the evaluator responding to specific legal questions (e.g., is the person incompetent to stand trial? Which custodial placement would be in the best interests of the child?). Not understanding the governing law can lead to inappropriate assessments. Because general clinical training is unlikely to offer trainees such specific legal training, even if trainees want to access the forensic literature, they would be unlikely to know under what circumstances they would need to access it and where to find it. Moreover, even if practitioners uncovered the appropriate literature for the legal question at issue, they would be unlikely to understand the legal nuances involved.

Consider the case of a practitioner who wishes to perform an insanity evaluation for the first time. Without explicit knowledge of the legal standard governing such an assessment in the jurisdiction prosecuting the defendant, it would be impossible for a practitioner to do an appropriate job. Insanity standards vary markedly across jurisdictions. For example, the federal system defines an insane individual as a defendant who “at the time of the commission of acts constituting the offense… as a result of severe mental disease or defect was unable to appreciate the nature and quality or the wrongfulness of his [or her] acts” (United States Code, 18 USC § 17). Other jurisdictions, however, also include a volitional component in their definition that allows for the acquittal of individuals whose mental illness affects the ability to conform their behaviors to the requirements of the law (Wisconsin Code, § 971.15, 2012). Within these two large subtypes of insanity definitions are several additional minor jurisdictional variations. Further, some states do not even allow for an insanity defense and allow the introduction of psychological evidence only for the much more limited purpose of determining whether the defendant had the mental state required for the crime (i.e., a mens rea defense). As a consequence, the assessment techniques utilized by the practitioner must be based on the idiosyncrasies of the controlling legal definition, or the practitioner will end up answering a question that the legal system is not interested in. Without specialized forensic psychological training, the clinical practitioner is unlikely to know the controlling law or realize that readings relevant to the insanity defense in one jurisdiction may not be informative about the insanity defense in the jurisdiction in which the forensic practitioner currently practices.

In regard to forensic treatment, the practitioner trained as a generalist is also likely to experience problems in forensic psychological practice. Clinical training typically encompasses courses on various major therapeutic modalities, such as cognitive-behavioral therapy. But these same programs are unlikely to assign the literature that addresses which type of treatment modality will work best with various types of adult and juvenile offenders (e.g., Andrews & Bonta, 2010; Ashford et al., 2001). Indeed, the research literature on treatment for offenders, or persons otherwise involved with the law, typically is not covered in general courses on clinical treatments and interventions.

A related problem is that forensic psychological services often have different goals from those set for therapy with private clients. Whereas in the latter, the client is seeking to “feel better” mentally and emotionally, the goals for the treatment of forensic patients are often set by the law. For example, the most appropriate treatment or intervention for persons found incompetent to stand trial involves making the person competent to return to court, not necessarily making him or her mentally or emotionally healthy. Similarly, correctional administrators are more concerned about clinical services that reduce inmates dangerousness and suicidality and are less concerned with programs designed to produce mentally healthy inmates. In general, clinical program trainees will not receive important information specifically relevant to the needs of and the requirements imposed by various laws and legal systems (e.g., state and federal courts; state or federal departments of corrections) that set the standards for the clinicians hired by the government.

The lack of specialized forensic training in general clinical training programs is not limited to forensic treatment outcome research or to legally relevant standards and criteria. Generalized clinical training also suffers because it typically does not include didactic training on the unique ethical problems that forensic practitioners face. Shuman and Greenberg (2003), for example, have written on the unique ethical problems that treating therapists confront when they are retained to evaluate and testify about their clients. These kinds of unique concerns have led to the publication of the Specialty Guidelines for Forensic Psychology (APA, 2013). These specific ethical issues are unlikely to be covered adequately in general clinical training.

Graduating students from general clinical training programs have relied on several routes to address their lack of appropriate forensic psychological training. These include attending an internship program that focuses on forensic psychology, receiving postdoctoral supervision from a forensic specialist, attending continuing education programs, and engaging in self-directed readings, all of which are likely to improve a practitioner’s forensic abilities. Unfortunately, anecdotal evidence suggests that some graduates of general clinical training programs do none of these things, assuming instead that what is good clinical practice in other settings will be sufficient in the legal arena.

As a direct solution to this problem, some general clinical training programs offer an emphasis in clinical forensic practice. Such training can compensate for the limits in general clinical training, with the caveat that how well a program compensates depends on the comprehensiveness of its forensic emphasis and the training and education opportunities the program provides. Students would be well advised to check the specialty courses and practica that programs of interest offers to them. For example, many existing programs still lack adequate legal training for forensic practice in most areas. Miller, Sales, and Delgado (2003), for example, identified more than 75 areas of law that substantially affect the provision of forensic services. A recent survey of forensic psychology graduate programs confirms this omission (Burl et al., 2012), with only one-third of clinical programs with a forensic emphasis offering courses in mental health law.

Logically, the most effective form of training for providing forensic clinical services should be provided by forensic psychology specialty training programs. We say logically because there are no empirical studies of training outcomes in this area. These programs typically offer comprehensive forensic coursework and externship placements to ensure that the graduates are well prepared for forensic practice after licensure.

Forensic Psychology Nonclinical Practitioners

Not all forensic practice is related to clinical psychology. For example, training to be a government policy analyst may be best accomplished through focusing on evaluation research and methodology. In contrast, training to provide consultation to child protective service agencies may be better accomplished through applied developmental training than clinical training, while individuals interested in providing trial consultation to lawyers are typically best prepared for their occupation through forensic social psychological training.

These programs, because they are organized in similar ways to forensic clinical programs, suffer from the same benefits and limitations. Some are general programs, others offer opportunities for the acquisition of some forensic skills (e.g., faculty offering training to students in eyewitness identification and false confessions), while others offer forensic nonclinical specialty training. These programs, however, often neglect important areas of forensic psychological knowledge. For example, results of a recent survey indicate that less than one-third of these programs offer classes on juvenile offending, psychology of criminal behavior, mental health law, ethics, victimology, and sociocultural issues in forensic psychology (Burl et al., 2012).

Forensic Scientists

Not all forensic psychology trainees aspire to a practice career. As already noted, some of these students will look to academic careers to pursue their research or to other venues that will allow them to work as researchers (e.g., research think tanks). Training for these positions is in many ways similar to training scientists in any subfield of psychology, with only the content of the research examined changing. Thus, individuals interested in studying eyewitness identifications often study in a cognitive psychology program, while individuals interested in pursuing child suggestibility in interview situations often enroll in a developmental psychology program. Finally, individuals interested in researching forensic psychological assessment could pursue their interests through one of the scientifically driven clinical programs.

Such training has its benefits. Trainees graduate from respected traditional psychology programs, which often open the door to faculty positions in other respected psychology departments. But there are also costs to attending such programs. Often these programs do not have faculty members who are expert on forensic issues beyond their own research interests. For the individual interested in broader training in forensic psychological science, the solution is to attend a program that focuses more generally on forensic science and offers the necessary concomitant didactic and experiential experiences for more expansive forensic scientific training.

Return to the overview of Forensic Psychology Education.