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.

PhD/PsyD Programs

As noted in the prior section, few schools that offer forensic training do so through a program devoted to forensic psychology. Typically, a student enters a clinical psychology program that offers a forensic emphasis, but there are schools where training in forensics is accomplished through a specialized forensic program. As noted earlier, the benefit of such focused training is that it offers an intensive program of study in forensics.

Internship Training

Students in clinical or other professional training programs (e.g., counseling psychology, school psychology), whether they have a forensic emphasis or not, are required to take a year of internship experience, which can be at sites that offer a forensic focus (AP-LS, n.d.-b). Because these experiences are focused on patient assessment and/or treatment, the opportunity for experiential learning is substantial. When combined with a forensic specialty predoctoral training program, these internships can substantially broaden a trainee s skills. Forensic experiences in predoctoral internship programs have become more common over time, with over 50% of APA-accredited internships offering clinical training in a forensic rotation (DeMatteo et al., 2009), although they vary considerably in the depth of training and supervision. While forensic clinical experiences in predoctoral programs that focus on training generalists are valuable, these clinical experiences will not necessarily provide trainees with knowledge about pertinent forensic literatures.

Joint Majors in Psychology and Joint Degree Programs

Some schools allow students to pursue concurrent training in two specialties within one PhD program. The benefit of this approach typically is greatest for those seeking academic careers. Training in two majors typically forces students to master a greater array of the psychological literature and allows them to seek employment in departments that have jobs available in either specialty. Clearly, for joint training to benefit trainees substantively, the acquired knowledge should be integrated to enhance forensic research and scholarship. For example, studying social psychology can enhance forensic research on jury decision making.

When joint training is mentioned, however, it is typically across colleges rather than within a department, with a number of schools offering the opportunity for students to pursue the PhD or PsyD in combination with the JD degree, or the PhD and the MLS (Masters of Legal Studies) degree. The MLS degree typically is a 1-year intensive training program for individuals not seeking to be licensed as lawyers, but who still want to learn a sufficient amount of law to be able to enhance their forensic scholarship or practice.

There are four benefits of joint degree training programs:

  1. Increased proficiency in psychological science and legal research, writing, and thinking
  2. Integration of the two fields of study through the course of graduate education, so that the individual can both think like a lawyer and perform research and practice like a psychological scientist
  3. Greater understanding of legal norms, rules, and standards so, at the least, forensic practitioners emerging from such programs know the laws that affect their practice and the specifics of the legal questions that the court might ask them to address
  4. Greater understanding of legal norms, rules, and standards so that practition­ers forensic research meaningfully addresses relevant legal topics, thereby increasing the likelihood that the research will be accepted by the legal system and policy makers

Finally, some students who pursue the PhD recognize only after graduation that they have an interest in pursuing legal training. This typically takes one of two forms: entering law school to pursue the JD or entering an MLS program after the doctoral degree is completed. The obvious benefit of taking this route is that the forensic psychologist will obtain valuable legal training. The less obvious deficiency of such an approach is that taking training sequentially increases the chances that the student will not learn how to integrate the two fields. Learning biology and learning chemistry, for example, does not ensure that one will learn the theory, findings, and methods of biochemistry. It is no different in combining psychology with the law.

Respecialization and Postdoctoral Training

Two other postdoctoral pathways exist for increasing forensic knowledge. First, students trained in nonclinical programs can reapply after graduation to achieve respecialization in clinical psychology with a forensic emphasis. This type of training may take 2 or 3 years and is a substantial investment of time, and where one does respecialization will affect how competent the trainee becomes in forensic clinical psychology.

The other alternative is for doctoral graduates to seek additional postdoctoral research or practice experience for 1 or 2 years. Postdoctoral training allows intensive work in a given area under direct supervision, and thereby provides an excellent opportunity for doctoral graduates to acquire or increase their forensic knowledge (e.g., a forensic psychology fellowship). A recent review reports that there are 16 formal postdoctoral clinical fellowships in forensic psychology providing approximately 30 positions (Malesky & Proctor, 2012; see also AP-LS, n.d.-c, n.d.-d).

Continuing Education Programs

Perhaps the most common means for many practitioners to increase their forensic knowledge in specified areas is to attend continuing education programs focused on forensic practice issues. For example, the American Academy of Forensic Psychology offers continuing education programs on a wide array of forensic topics that are aimed at practitioners possessing different levels of forensic skills and experience (http://aafp.abfp.com/) It is not clear, however, if a 1-, 2-, or even 5-day workshop can adequately prepare practitioners to fully understand the complexities of different forensic practice areas without additional supervision by a qualified practitioner, additional self-directed readings, prior training, or attendance at a substantial number of continuing education programs.

Master’s-Level Forensic Psychological Training Programs

Although doctoral training is the norm for independent professional practice, some students (e.g., lawyers) who are interested in acquiring entry-level knowledge in forensic psychology or in providing nonclinical forensic services can seek a master’s degree in forensic psychology. Although the AP-LS (n.d.-e) Web site lists over 20 of these programs, such training rarely makes a graduate competent to critically analyze the extant literature or arguably to provide the same quality of service provision that the doctoral-level forensic psychologist would offer.

Return to the overview of Forensic Psychology Education.