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Eye on Psi Chi: Spring 2019

Eye on Psi Chi

Spring 2019 | Volume 23 | Issue 3


Introducing Forensic Psychology . . . FYI, It’s Not All Criminal Minds and CSI

Ethan A. McMahan, PhD,
Western Oregon University

View this issue in Digital and PDF formats.

Welcome back Contemporary Psych readers. As you are probably aware, depictions of certain careers and fields in pop culture are often inaccurate, sometimes wildly so. My first personal observation of this occurred shortly after watching Point Break for the umpteenth time (the original Keanu and Swayze version . . . not the pitiful remake). As it turns out, being an FBI agent does not typically involve learning to surf in an attempt to infiltrate a criminal gang of extreme sports enthusiasts. Instead, the position involves loads of paperwork, long hours, time away from family, and the requirement that one must hold oneself to a set of behavioral standards that would make a Catholic Priest seem out of control. This insight was, to say the least, disappointing. Similarly, the field of forensic psychology is often depicted inaccurately in a number of very popular (but fictional) TV crime shows such as CSI, Criminal Minds, Cracker, and so on. In this edition of Contemporary Psych, we are going to talk about forensic psychology. But, let’s go ahead and get the disappointing bit done first by identifying some inaccuracies and dispelling a few myths about the field:

  1. Forensic psychology is not the same as criminal profiling.
  2. Forensic psychologists are not responsible for solving crimes
  3. Forensic psychologists do not interrogate suspects.
  4. Not all forensic psychologists work on criminal and/or court cases.
  5. Not all forensic psychologists are smooth, cool characters that confidently handle the all-too-frequent explosive events that occur during your typical murder investigation.1

So, now that we have covered what forensic psychology is not and what forensic psychologists don’t do, we will turn to what forensic psychology is and what forensic psychologists do do. In short, forensic psychology is a subdiscipline of psychology that involves the application of psychological knowledge to legal matters, both in the criminal and civil domains (see Bartol & Bartol, 2017). In what follows, we will cover this subdiscipline in more detail by describing contemporary forensic psychology, common job-related duties and responsibilities of forensic psychologists, typical education and training, and specific careers.

Forensic Psychology . . . The Truth, the Whole Truth

As noted above, forensic psychology involves the application of psychological knowledge and principles to the legal domain. Although a relatively young subdiscipline in psychology, the field has grown substantially in the last 30 years. Currently, the field has its own professional organizations (e.g., the American Psychology-Law Society), dedicated training programs, and specialized research journals (e.g., Psychology, Public Policy, and Law; Journal of Psychology Research and Practice). It is expected that the field will experience continued growth due to increased application of psychological knowledge to legal matters and the need for well-trained psychologists to assist with these matters. Additionally, the provocative subject matter (and perhaps the exaggerated depiction of forensic psychology on TV) attracts student interest and in turn encourages students to pursue further training and careers in this area.

Typical Activities (That Don’t Include Carrying a Gun to Work)

As with other areas of psychology, the responsibilities, duties, and typical activities of forensic psychologists are varied. One of the most common duties of forensic psychologists is the psychological assessment of individuals who are involved in the legal system. These assessments may take the form of a competency evaluation for a trial, child custody evaluations, threat assessment evaluations, and so on. Forensic psychologists are also often called upon to testify in court, serving as expert witnesses on some topic of relevance. In the civil domain, forensic psychologists may be involved in mediation proceedings and dispute resolution. A forensic psychologist may simply be an academic researcher, working at a university, studying some topic of legal importance. Forensic psychologists may also serve in an advisory role, providing consultation regarding, for example, selection of jury members or the screening of law enforcement officer applications. Additionally, a forensic psychologist may be involved in the design and implementation of treatment programs for criminal offenders.

I know what you’re thinking . . . what about criminal profiling? Do forensic psychologists serve as criminal profilers? Perhaps some forensic psychologists, under certain circumstances, engage in criminal profiling. However, it should be made very clear that criminal profiling is a rarely used procedure that many, including those from both law enforcement and the academy, question the validity of. Moreover, when criminal profiling is used, it is typically practiced by individuals with extensive experience in law enforcement, not psychology. The take home message here is that criminal profiling makes for good TV, but forensic psychologists do not typically engage in this practice.

Binge-Watching CSI: Miami Does Not Count as Professional Training

Importantly, forensic psychology is for the most part a postdoctoral specialization. This means that your run-of-the-mill forensic psychologist will have earned undergraduate and graduate degrees in psychology prior to receiving any specialized training in forensic psychology. Given the emphasis on psychological assessment, development and implementation of offender treatment programs, etc., forensic psychologists often need to have clinical training and experience. Accordingly, they often hold a PhD or PsyD in either clinical or counseling psychology, are licensed to provide services in a particular jurisdiction, and have several years postdoctoral experience engaged in forensics-relevant professional activities.

With that said, depending on the nature of the forensic psychologist’s interests, other forms of training and experience may be preferable. For example, a university-employed researcher with scholarly interests in the fallibility of eye-witness memory may have a PhD in experimental or cognitive psychology, rather than clinical psychology. So, although the above describes a common educational route to a career in forensic psychology, particularly for those engaged in the practice of forensic psychology, it is by no means the only route.

Rather than focus on the specific degrees, licensures, and certifications required to become a forensic psychologist, it is probably more useful to focus on the requisite skills and knowledge a student should develop in order to be prepared to serve in this professional context. Most forensic psychologists should have appropriate clinical training and experience; a strong background in scientific research design, analysis, and statistics; excellent oral and writing skills; and the ability to maintain one’s composure under stress (see DeMatteo, Marczyk, Krauss, & Burl, 2009). Additionally, it is critical that a forensic psychologist have extensive legal knowledge because nearly all of the activities a forensic psychologist engages in require a firm understanding of the policies, procedures, and requirements common to legal proceedings and domains.

A Psychologist in the Legal System (Or, I’m Not From Around Here)

So, you’ve got your undergraduate and graduate degrees, all required certifications, and you have developed enough legal knowledge to make Rudy Giuliani look like a first-year law student.2 What careers are available to you as a budding forensic psychologist? In short, there are many, but here are some of the more common professional opportunities. As you might expect, many forensic psychologists are academic researchers, working at colleges or universities, conducting research on topics relevant to the legal system and law enforcement. Forensic psychologists also serve as consultants to law enforcement, engaging in the development of officer training programs, personnel management, treatment referrals, and crisis intervention. Similarly, one could work as a correctional psychologist, interacting with inmates and prison personnel in correctional settings. One could specialize in evaluation and assessment, focusing on the evaluation of relevant parties in criminal or civil cases. One could also serve as a trial consultant, engaging in a number of important activities for legal teams (e.g., assisting with jury selection). Note that this list is just the tip of the iceberg, and numerous professional opportunities are available to individuals with the requisite skills and experience.

Summary: Closing the Case

At this point, I hope you, dear readers, now have a more accurate understanding of forensic psychology. But as always, my editors have only allowed me so many words to describe this fascinating area, so if the above has sparked your interest, I encourage you to take a look at the additional readings and resources listed below. Until next time.

Additional Reading and Resources

American Psychology-Law Society, Division 41, American Psychological Association. (n.d.). About. Retrieved from

Clements, C. B., & Wakeman, E. E. (2007). Raising the bar: The case for doctoral training in forensic psychology. Journal of Forensic Psychology Practice, 7, 53–63. https://doi.org9/10.1300/J158v07n02_04


Bartol, C. R., & Bartol, A. M. (2017). Introduction to forensic psychology: Research and application. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.

DeMatteo, D., Marczyk, G., Krauss, D. A., & Burl, J. (2009). Educational and training models in forensic psychology. Training and Education in Professional Psychology, 3, 184–191.

1 Although many forensic psychologists are quite smooth, others are as nerdy and anxiety-ridden as the rest of us. And while we are dispelling myths, I should probably also point out that your typical murder investigation is not all gun fights and banging down doors. Rather than being explosive, they are actually very business- like affairs . . . except of course that you are dealing with a murder.

2 I recognize that being able to beat Giuliani in a hypothetical legal showdown is not exactly setting a high bar. But, in this scenario, you are just starting out, so allowances must be made.

Ethan A. McMahan, PhD, is an associate professor in the Department of Psychological Sciences at Western Oregon University where he teaches courses in research methods, advanced research methods, and positive psychology. He is passionate about undergraduate education in psychology and has served Psi Chi members in several ways over the last few years, including as a faculty advisor, Psi Chi Western Region Steering Committee Member, Grants Chair, and most recently, as the Western Regional Vice-President of Psi Chi. His research interests focus on hedonic and eudaimonic approaches to well-being, folk conceptions of happiness, and the relationship between nature and human well-being. His recent work examines how exposure to immersive simulations of natural environments impact concurrent emotional state and, more broadly, how regular contact with natural environments may be one route by which individuals achieve optimal feeling and functioning. He has published in the Journal of Positive Psychology, the Journal of Happiness Studies, Personality and Individual Differences, and Ecopsychology, among other publications. He completed his undergraduate training at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs and holds a PhD in experimental psychology from the University of Wyoming.

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