Doctoral Programs in Forensic Psychology

Doctoral programs in forensic psychology are the most prominent educational path for training scholars, 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.

Forensic psychology is one of the fastest growing areas in all of psychology. This tremendous growth is obvious in the continued expansion of psychology into the courts, the establishment of professional organizations such as the American Psychology-Law Society (AP-LS), the number of professional journals devoted specifically to forensic psychology or publishing forensic psychology-related articles, and the increasing number of graduate programs designed to train students. Doctoral programs award the highest degrees possible in forensic psychology, the Ph.D or the Psy.D. The Ph.D. is typically seen as a research-based degree, and the Psy.D. is seen as a practice-oriented degree with less emphasis on students conducting independent research and more emphasis on issues such as assessing and treating mental illness. Although doctoral degrees are not necessary to work in forensic psychology, they are frequently preferred for employment in many areas. This research paper focuses on describing some of the specialty areas available in doctoral programs, evaluating the different training models and training areas of these programs, suggesting some of the employment opportunities, and briefly describing the admission process for those individuals interested in obtaining a doctorate in forensic psychology.

Doctoral Program Specialty Areas

A marked increase in the number of doctoral programs in forensic psychology over the past 30 years is a clear indication of the tremendous recent growth in this specialty area. The University of Nebraska is typically credited with establishing the first doctoral program in forensic psychology in the early 1970s. However, since then, more than 20 doctoral programs with a significant emphasis on forensic psychology have been established across Canada and the United States. AP-LS publishes a comprehensive list of these programs on its Web site. The list of doctoral programs in forensic psychology is as extensive and varied as the available specialty areas and their models for training students.

There are typically five predominant specialty areas of psychology represented in doctoral programs: cognitive, developmental, social, community, and clinical. The cognitive, developmental, and social are considered as nonclinical areas of psychology. Programs in these areas do not train students to assess or treat mental illness but instead focus on research and teaching. Clinical doctoral programs examine the role of mental health on different aspects of the law, and community psychology programs may have a clinical or a nonclinical focus. Whatever the broad training differences, there may be overlap between the topics studied by nonclinical and clinical psychologists.

Cognitive psychologists focus on human perception and memory. Cognitive psychologists who work in forensic psychology focus on topics such as eyewitness identification, repressed memories, and the detection of deception. A cognitive psychologist may be interested in the different factors that influence eyewitnesses’ ability to accurately recall the events surrounding a crime, such as their level of stress, the racial identity of the perpetrator, the presence of a weapon, or the way a police lineup is conducted.

Developmental psychologists examine the issues that normally affect children or adolescents but are increasingly focusing on the entire developmental process, including old age. Developmental psychologists trained in forensic psychology may study topics involving the suggestibility of juveniles when interviewed or testifying, the ability of juveniles to make legal decisions, or the impact of divorce and separation. For example, a developmental psychologist may study whether adolescents have the same ability as adults to understand the criminal charges they are facing and whether their comprehension influences their ability to assist in their legal defense.

Social psychologists examine the influence of others or groups on the decisions people make. Social psychologists are interesting in topics such as jury decision making, jury selection, and the credibility of witnesses. Social psychologists have found that certain characteristics of a jury alter the likelihood of a legal verdict. For example, the size of a jury may vary, depending on the nature of the trial and the jurisdiction. Social psychologists have discovered that the smaller the jury, the less those jurors will deliberate and the poorer their accurate recall of trial related information.

Community psychologists are interested in the way society interacts with the individual. Community psychologists interested in forensic psychology focus on the manner in which the law affects the people it is designed to protect or help. A community psychologist may examine the effects of a change in a specific law—for instance, whether decreasing the blood alcohol limit for driving under the influence of alcohol increases or decreases the number of alcohol-related deaths—or the general impact of health care programs on the people they intend to target.

Clinical psychologists assess and treat individuals who are mentally ill or have psychological difficulties. Clinical psychologists interested in forensic psychology focus on the mental health aspects of criminal and civil law. Clinical forensic psychologists may conduct risk assessments of violent offenders, evaluate defendants for competency to stand trial or insanity, assess whether someone involved in a lawsuit over an automobile accident suffers from posttraumatic stress disorder, or be involved in a child custody dispute after a marital separation. A student attending a doctoral program in forensic psychology is typically interested in at least one of these areas, but there are a variety of models or ways by which a doctoral student may be educated in any of them.

Training Models in Forensic Psychology Doctoral Programs

No matter what the specialty area, the ways in which a student is trained in these doctoral programs are significant. Doctoral programs in forensic psychology are joint-degree programs or specialty programs in forensic psychology or provide a minor or emphasis in forensic psychology. There is no agreement about the superiority of any of these training models. Each approach presents unique advantages and disadvantages that any student should consider.

Joint-degree programs enable the student to receive both a degree in psychology, typically a doctoral degree (Ph.D. or Psy.D.), and a law degree, typically a J.D. Although the doctoral degree and the J.D. are the standard degrees awarded in joint-degree programs, the oldest joint-degree program, at the University of Nebraska, also offers a master’s degree in psychology (M.A.) and a master’s degree in legal studies (M.L.S.) in combination, corresponding to Ph.D and J.D. There has been an increase in joint-degree programs, so that several universities now offer them. The joint-degree programs tend to be extremely competitive because a student must have the ability to complete advanced degrees in two very different and demanding disciplines. The goal of these joint-degree programs is not to simply train someone in both law and psychology but to integrate that training. This approach means that students alternate their formal coursework between psychology and law to better understand the interaction between the two fields.

The benefit of this training model is that it allows for the true integration of the divergent disciplines. This integration may better allow the graduates to identify aspects of the law that could benefit from a sophisticated psychological investigation. The simultaneous exposure also may increase the familiarity an individual feels in examining issues from both perspectives. The joint degree may open up a variety of different employment possibilities that training in one field does not offer. A graduate of a joint-degree program may be able to work as an attorney for a law firm, as a clinical psychologist, or as an academic in a law school or psychology department. However, there are several disadvantages to joint-degree programs. There is the additional time and financial expense required for attending these programs because one has to complete two rigorous advanced degrees without being employed full-time. In addition, simply obtain­ing two advanced degrees in two different disciplines does not automatically mean additional employment opportunities. Graduates of these programs often struggle with the question of whether they are psychologists or attorneys and with proving one or the other to a prospective employer.

Specialty programs in forensic psychology offer only doctorate degrees in psychology but typically have the same depth of training in psychology and law as joint-degree programs. Students in these programs still take specially designed courses in psychology and law, maybe even take some law classes, participate in research on different psycholegal topics, or participate in clinical practicums in prisons or forensic hospitals. Students in specialty programs are allowed more flexibility in designing their program of study than those in joint-degree programs but are still considerably immersed in forensic psychology. They also are able to do so while spending less time in school. However, students in these programs may not have the same flexibility in terms of employment or understand all the areas in which psychology and law interact, because of their more narrowly focused training. As a result, they may lack some sophistication in applying psychology to legally relevant issues.

The third model for training in forensic psychology is the forensic psychology minor. These programs do not offer the same depth or breadth that the other two training models offer. Students in these doctoral programs usually work with a professor in one of the five specialty areas and conduct research on a forensic psychology-related topic or engage in some forensic clinical work. These students may take specialty courses related to psychology and law, but their primary train­ing is in their specialty area (e.g., cognitive). These programs offer some experience in forensic psychology but do not allow the interested student to become an expert in the interdisciplinary field.

Training Areas and Objectives in Forensic Psychology Doctoral Programs

By 1995, the field of forensic psychology recognized that there was a great deal of diversity in the training models for forensic psychology programs, and there was some concern about future training. As a result, the National Invitational Conference on Education and Training in Law and Psychology was held at the Villanova Law School. The conference attendees worked in several different areas related to both undergraduate and graduate training in forensic psychology. One of those groups focused on the specific objectives doctoral programs in forensic psychology should have in training psycholegal scholars. The conference did not endorse any of the training models previously identified but did identify five areas that they believed were crucial in the development of psycholegal scholars.

First, doctoral programs should train students in substantive psychology. Substantive psychology encompasses the foundational areas of psychology, such as biological, cognitive, developmental, personality, and social psychology. It also includes an awareness of the professional and ethical issues that arise when working in psychology. In addition to these foundational topics, doctoral programs should encourage awareness of the cultural and social forces that work to shape our view, especially since many graduates of these programs will shape social policy.

Second, these programs should emphasize training in research design and statistics. The conference attendees suggested that because one of the strengths of graduates of forensic psychology programs was their ability to apply different psychological methods to legal issues, it was important for students to have a foundational knowledge in the area. Students should get experience in performing research both in the laboratory and in a real-world setting. They should also be familiar with rudimentary and sophisticated statistical techniques.

Third, doctoral programs should encourage the acquisition of legal knowledge. Acquiring legal knowledge does not simply mean that students should be familiar with the law but that they should be comfortable and able to act as active participants in an interdisciplinary field with psychologists, lawyers, and judges. Doctoral programs that offer this type of training will allow their graduates to better address legal questions in ways that are psychologically meaningful and legally relevant.

Fourth, doctoral programs training psycholegal scholars should train them in substantive legal psychology. An education in substantive legal psychology should comprise coursework across a variety of different topics and domains. This approach should give students an understanding of the integration of the two disciplines by encouraging them to read empirical and nonempirical work in the area, examine some of the historical underpinnings of the application of psychology to the legal arena, and become familiar with the role of specific statutes and case law in social science.

Finally, the conference recommended that one of the crucial objectives in training doctoral students should be immersion in scholarship and training. Doctoral programs should educate students in conducting their own original research and scholarship. Students should present at scholarly conferences and publish in professional journals. This experience should culminate with their doctoral dissertation in an area of interest to them. Training should not be confined to production of scholarship but should also take place in real-world settings.

Employment Opportunities for Graduates of Forensic Psychology Doctoral Programs

There are a host of different employment opportunities for students who graduate from forensic psychology doctoral programs. However, the employment opportunities depend on the specialty area, the training model, and the available opportunities in the doctoral programs. One of the most common areas of employment for graduates of doctoral programs in forensic psychology is academia. Many graduates of these programs become professors in undergraduate and graduate departments. They continue to teach and conduct research and scholarship with students who have similar interests. Because of the interdisciplinary nature of forensic psychology, graduates may teach in psychology departments, law schools, criminal justice departments, or a variety of other social science related areas.

Clinically trained graduates may be employed as forensic clinicians. They may work in prisons, forensic hospitals, or private practice, conducting evaluations and providing treatment for individuals with mental health issues. For example, a forensic clinician may run a group for individuals who have been convicted of sexual assault to reduce the likelihood that they will sexually reoffend when they are released from prison. The clinician also may conduct an evalu­ation to assist the court in determining whether a defendant is competent to stand trial or is not responsible by reason of insanity. Forensic clinicians are routinely called on to testify in court as expert witnesses in order to explain their findings to judges and juries.

Some graduates of doctoral programs in forensic psychology work as trial consultants. Trial consulting includes a wide range of activities, such as preparing witnesses to present themselves in the best possible manner, educating attorneys on presentation of their evidence, and selecting juries. Trial consultation involves the direct application of psychological knowledge to the practice of law. Trial consultants may work for one of the many large trial consulting firms, work internally for a large law firm, or have a primary position as an academic while providing trial consultation as a secondary part of their job.

Other graduates of doctoral programs in forensic psychology solely conduct research in the area. Some researchers function primarily as policy evaluators and work for state agencies, where they may assess the ongoing effectiveness of sex offender treatment, evaluate the impact of a child welfare program, determine whether the detention of juveniles in a juvenile-only facility is more effective than their detention along with adult offenders, or identify psychological research that is relevant when a state or the federal government is proposing new legislation. Researchers also may work for federal agencies such as the Secret Service or the Federal Judicial Center to assist law enforcement and the courts by conducting research on violence prediction or various issues relevant to the federal courts.

Applying for Admission to Forensic Psychology Doctoral Programs

Applying for admission to doctoral programs in forensic psychology does not require special qualifications above those required for admission to a doctoral program in any area of psychology. Forensic psychology doctoral programs are looking for applicants with outstanding undergraduate grades, impressive Graduate Record Exam (GRE) scores, excellent letters of recommendation, experience in conducting research, and demonstration of a genuine interest in the field of forensic psychology. However, applicants to doctoral programs in forensic psychology should be aware that the process is extremely competitive for the most established programs. For example, for the most competitive programs in psychology, clinical Ph.D. programs, the acceptance rate typically is around 10%. There is no reason to believe that the acceptance rates at the most competitive programs are any lower for forensic clinical students, and in fact, they may even be more competitive because of the increased interest in the area and fewer available spots. Furthermore, because there are only a few joint-degree programs and students must possess the motivation and intellectual ability to complete two advanced degrees, they are likely to be extremely competitive. There are also doctoral programs that are less competitive or even master’s programs that may be viable options for individuals who do not possess the qualifications or ability to gain admission to the well-established doctoral programs in forensic psychology.

Return to the overview of Forensic Psychology Education.