If you think of the “Criminal Minds” TV show when you think of what do forensic psychologists do, you might want to reconsider.
Dr. Christopher Cronin, Saint Leo University psychology professor, says many TV shows glamorize and misrepresent forensic psychology.
“Forensic psychologists don’t run around with guns arresting people. They don’t fly on private jets, and mental health professionals don’t do criminal profiling,” says Dr. Cronin, who has practiced forensic psychology since 1991 and has conducted more than 6,000 forensic evaluations in the Tampa Bay area.
What Do Forensic Psychologists Do?
In reality, forensic psychologists work with courts and attorneys to evaluate accused and convicted criminals’ mental health conditions, as well as to create and lead intervention programs.
“Forensic psychologists work more on domestic violence, aggravated battery, and manslaughter cases than on criminal profiling,” Cronin says. “You’re asked to do an evaluation and report it to the court.”
Type of work for forensic psychologists
Forensic psychologists are involved in cases from child custody disputes to felony murder or assault cases. Forensic psychologists may do assessments to determine if the accused person is competent to stand trial or met the legal criteria for insanity at the time of the crime. They may also assess whether psychological damages were sustained in personal injury cases.
Dr. Cronin currently works with people who been found guilty of crimes. He reviews an individual’s psychological testing, and then meets with the individual to conduct an evaluation. Once the evaluation is complete, he makes recommendations on whether the person should receive treatment.
For cases where an insanity plea may be involved, forensic psychologists conduct criminal responsibility evaluations. In those situations, the psychologist may speak to arresting officers, witnesses, and family members to collect collateral information on the individual to help in the evaluation and report to the court. Forensic psychologists may have to testify in court about their recommendations.
Forensic psychologists also may offer group therapy or intervention programs for criminals.
For example, someone convicted for lewd and lascivious behavior may need sex offender treatment. Someone convicted of a domestic violence offense may benefit from a batterer intervention program, or a person convicted of drug possession may need substance abuse treatment.
Challenges for forensic psychologists
Forensic psychology is different than a typical clinical psychology setting where patients seek out the help of a psychologist to cope with life’s struggles. Forensic psychologists aren’t necessarily there to help an individual, but simply to thoroughly and objectively evaluate them and make recommendations.
A court may order an evaluation of a defendant, and if the defense attorney doesn’t like the forensic psychologist’s report, he may seek a second opinion or try to discredit the psychologist.
“You need to have a thick skin, especially if you’re ever called to testify,” Dr. Cronin says. “Opposing counsel will do whatever they can to discredit your testimony or credentials, or try to get you flustered on the witness stand.”
Another challenge of forensic psychology is maintaining an unbiased perspective of individuals accused or convicted of crimes. “You have to be objective and neutral. You’re serving as a consultant to the legal profession.”
How to become a forensic psychologist
Dr. Cronin says that forensic psychology is a growing, yet competitive field. To succeed in forensic psychology students need to be comfortable with public speaking, dealing with confrontation, and working with offenders. In addition, students need to like to write—since writing reports is a large part of the job.
“You have to be self-disciplined in getting your reports done in a timely manner,” Dr. Cronin says. “Throughout my career, I estimate I’ve written between 5,000 and 6,000 court-ordered evaluations.”
Cronin says students need at least a master’s degree in clinical psychology to become a forensic psychologist. However, in most cases, a doctorate degree and licensure in clinical psychology is needed to be able to conduct certain types of assessments and to help increase the psychologist’s credibility when testifying in court.
“You need to be licensed, and licensure depends on what state the person lives in. In Florida, you can become a mental health counselor with a 60-hour master’s degree,” he says.
To help determine if forensic psychology is the right career path for you, Dr. Cronin recommends completing an internship at a probation office, juvenile detention facility, county jail, public defenders office, or with an intervention program.
He says Saint Leo’s online bachelor’s in psychology can help give students a glimpse of the work they could do if they go on to pursue a doctorate degree in clinical psychology or seek to become a licensed clinical psychologist.
To get into a master’s or doctoral program, he says students need good grades, a high score on the GRE, strong letters of recommendation, and research experience.
Do you have any questions for Dr. Cronin about becoming a forensic psychologist?
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- Is an Online Psychology Degree for You?
- What Can You Do with a Bachelor's Degree in Psychology?
- What Can You Do with a Psychology Degree? Plan Your Future
Image Credits: Saad Faruque