Forensic Psychology is Not Like What You See in The Movies

by Trish Sammer Johnston, September 21, 2010

Interviews with Forensic Psychologists

Who didn't get a thrill from watching the young, ambitious Clarice Starling face off with the evil, cannibalistic genius, Dr. Lecter in The Silence of the Lambs?

Be honest. Didn't you picture yourself in that damp basement for just a moment - matching wits with one of the most complex criminal minds on the planet?


Forensic Psychology ProfessionalDr. Robert Prentky, Director of the M.A. Program in Forensic Psychology at Fairleigh Dickinson University, always gets a chuckle out of this characterization:

"People have a perception that this field is like Silence of the Lambs. That's not what a forensic psychologist does."

With over 30 years in the field of forensic psychology, Prentky has learned to deal with a certain amount of misinterpretation about his field:

"One of the biggest questions I get asked is, What was it like the first time you saw a dead body? I usually reply, 'The patient wasn't very responsive when I interviewed him. Seriously though, we deal with live humans in this field."

What Does Forensic Psychology Really Entail?

When asked for the basic, 101-style definition of forensic psychology, Prentky puts it this way:

"It's the psychological legal analysis of criminal cases and the interface of a particular discipline in psychology within the legal system. Usually you're working in a sub-specialty of psychology and doing very specialized evaluations.What that means, in practical terms, is that the forensic psychologist generally isn't going to be traipsing through crimes scenes or attempting to crack the mental workings of the deranged serial killer. Instead, the forensic psychologist is the person who is hired to act as an expert witness during a trial and evaluates the mental state of a defendant to determine if the person is competent to stand trial. In a traditional clinical setting, your client is the patient. In forensic psychology, you're working for whoever hired you. The defendant isn't the client. The client is the lawyer. The intricacies of the field are vast. You have to keep in mind how psychological questions bear on legal questions. You always have to consider what the court needs to know."

Stephanie Scott, a 2010 master's candidate at Fairleigh Dickinson who is currently completing field work at a lockup facility states the following about her experiences as a forensic psychology graduate student:

forensic psychology graduate student"It's fascinating what goes into this field. You have to understand the law in the particular state or states where you're practicing. You have to keep in mind certain levels of confidentiality, and how that applies to the legal setting versus the clinical setting. Also, there are professional ethics and how they apply to the legality of the proceedings. It's different every day."

Is Forensic Psychology A Good Match for You?

If you are considering pursuing a career in the field of forensic psychology, Prentky advises prospective students keep in mind the following fact:

"The work is intensely interesting, but it's not for everyone. There is an aspect of the job that can get pretty yucky, as my kids used to say. You're going to be going through case files of brutal murders and rapes sometimes. You're dealing with some gruesome details. You have to be able to hold the case at arm's length so that you can be dispassionate and objective. You can't be consumed by fantasies of what the person did. You can't allow your judgment to be clouded by emotional responses."

He also stresses another important characteristic of the forensic psychologist:

"You have to be willing to suspend disbelief on a certain level. Oftentimes, we're dealing with constructs that have no meaning to anyone that is, they're not defined by the court or in case law. For someone who needs to know operational definitions, it's going to be a struggle. For example, volitional incapacity is a term we use to describe someone who is unable to inhibit his irresistible urge to act out. How do you assess this? There's a certain level of ambiguity. You have to be OK with that."

What Kind of Background Do I Need In Order to Pursue a Career as a Forensic Psychologist?

Prentky says that most of his students are female and are either just out of college or have one to two years of work experience. He also notes that the program at Fairleigh Dickinson includes several international students, including a Fullbright scholar from Syria. He stressed that you don't necessarily have to have a degree in psychology to get into a grad program in forensic psychology, but many people do. However, at a minimum, students should at least want to have taken a class in abnormal psychology. They might also enroll in a grad-level class in statistics before applying to a program. Most students also have very high GPAs in undergrad work (a minimum of 3.2 - 3.4).

As for Scott, she's a rather atypical student in this field, as she comes from a background in television and has an undergrad degree in communications.

"I actually used to work for Court TV. We did a show on the first female profiler and I became fascinated with the field."

Educational Requirements for Forensic Psychologists

People working in the field of forensic psychology usually have either a master's degree or a doctorate-level degree such as a Ph.D. or a Psy.D.

Forensic Psychology Master' Degree coursework is often completed in two years. Many programs involve an intensive externship, often at lockup facilities, such as prisons or state mental hospitals, or working under the supervision of a licensed psychologist in a private practice or in a detention facility. Tasks often involve reviewing discovery (court evidence), preparing defense history and preparing psychological testing under the direction of the licensed psychologist. Earning a master's degree in forensic psychology can make you a more attractive candidate if you decide to later pursue a Ph.D. or Psy.D.

The time it takes to earn a doctoral degree in forensic psychology varies by school and students can choose to pursue a Ph.D. or Psy.D. Either degree can lead to licensing after graduation. Most people who earn a Ph.D. in forensic psychology work in private practice, evaluating patients for attorneys.

Prentky and Scott both stress the importance of field work during the degree program. The goal is not just to enhance your CV, but to be a pathway to a job, Prentky asserts. That's why one of his main focus points is ensuring that all of the degree candidates in his program are placed in externships that aligned with their future career goals. Scott states:

It's important to research the professors at the school. Forensic psychology is a specialized field. You want to be in a place where professors are going to take a personal interest in you so they can help you with job placement. Establishing a rapport with faculty before you matriculate is key. I asked a lot of questions before I even applied. Scott advises doing Internet research on the school, as well as taking advantage of other opportunities such as the alumni network.


Click here to Search Forensic Psychology Graduate Programs

About the Author: Trish Sammer Johnston has a B.S. in Communications from Kutztown University. She's a writer in the Philadelphia area.

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