So You Want My Job: Forensic Psychologist

by Brett & Kate McKay on July 22, 2009 · 28 comments

in Money & Career, So You Want My Job

forensic

You know when you’re watching Law&Order SVU and Dr. Wong pops in to give his opinion on whether or not a suspect is nuts? He’s a forensic psychologist. But that’s not all they do. In today’s installment of “So You Want My Job,” Dr. Eric Mart gives us the low down on what the life of a forensic psychologist really looks like. For more info on this line of work, check out Dr. Mart’s book, Getting Started in Forensic Psychology Practice.

1. Tell us a little about yourself (where he from? Where did you go to school? How old are you? Describe your job and how long you been at it, etc)?

I’m 53 years old, and I’m from Beachwood, Ohio which is a suburb of Cleveland. I received my bachelor’s degree from New College of Florida in 1973. I went on to receive my master’s degree in educational psychology in 1982 and my doctorate in school psychology in 1983 from Ferkauf Graduate School of Psychology of Yeshiva University in New York City. I started out working in the New York City schools as a school psychologist and also worked in schools in the San Francisco Bay area and in New Hampshire. In the mid-80s I retrained in adult clinical psychology at the Pauline Warfield Lewis Center in Cincinnati, Ohio. I went into private practice in Manchester, New Hampshire in 1986 and have been in private practice ever since. After five years of supervised forensic work, I was eligible to apply for board certification in forensic psychology through the American Board of Forensic Psychology. This involved providing work samples and undergoing an oral examination. I have been board-certified since 2002.

My practice consists almost entirely of forensic psychology, although I do continue to provide school consultations and individual psychotherapy to child and adult patients. Forensic psychology is a specialty area of applied psychology. Forensic psychologists work at the intersection of the legal world and clinical psychology. They provide assessments and expert testimony in a variety of types of cases and some also provide court ordered treatment in clinics and prisons. I work in a variety of forensic areas, but much of my practice involves evaluating persons accused of criminal offenses to see if they are competent to stand trial, evaluating defendants to see if they are legally insane (not guilty by reason of insanity) and evaluating convicted sexual offenders to see if they are eligible for commitment as sexually violent predators. I also perform personal injury, child custody, and fitness for duty assessments.

I’m not sure that I have an average day. In the course of a week I may spend days in my office doing evaluations or traveling around New England to evaluate prisoners in various jails and prisons. As part of my work, I often testify in district, superior and federal courts. Sometimes I spend entire days reviewing files, and there are always reports to write. In between all of this, I squeeze in a few psychotherapy patients. I have also published three books and a number of journal articles.

2. Why did you want to become a forensic psychologist? When did you know that it was what you wanted to do?

Oddly enough, when I started my education in psychology, I’m not sure I even knew there was such a thing as forensic psychology. I enjoyed school psychology but wanted to expand my horizons, which is why I retrained in adult clinical work. In New Hampshire, I met Dr. Wilfrid Derby, who was board certified in clinical and forensic psychology. He took an interest in my career, introduced me to forensic psychology, and provided me with referrals and supervision. My career path is a little different than many other forensic psychologists in that I was trained almost as an apprentice rather than going to a postgraduate program. I took to the field of forensic psychology immediately because it was exciting and challenging and seemed to play to some of my strengths.

3. If a man wants to become a forensic psychologist, how should he best prepare? What’s the best route into the job?

If you want to be a forensic psychologist, you have to obtain a doctorate in applied psychology (clinical, counseling, or school) although lately several excellent programs offering doctorates in forensic psychology have opened for business. After completing internships and supervised experiences to become licensed, many psychologists pursue post-doctorate programs with a concentration in forensic psychology. Others who are already working in different applied fields may gain experience and expertise through self-study, supervision, and continuing education. I should mention that you do not necessarily have to be a doctor level psychologist to be a forensic mental health professional. Social workers and licensed masters level counselors can train to perform forensic mental health roles.

4. You work as a forensic psychologist in private practice. How does working in private practice compare to working in the public sector?

I have only worked as a forensic psychologist privately, but many of my colleagues work for correctional facilities or for the government. The advantages of working in private practice for me include being able to perform a wide variety of activities, traveling, and better pay compared to most forensic psychologists working in the public sector. Plus, my wife Kay runs the business part of my practice, and I can bring my dogs to work with me. The disadvantages include lack of a regular paycheck, few non-taxed benefits, and having to pay my own health insurance costs.

5. You said there is an element of danger in your job. Tell us about that.

Being a forensic psychologist is nowhere near as dangerous as being a policeman or fireman, but it does have its risks. Some of the people I evaluate are impulsive and capable of sudden, intense violence. I have been threatened and physically attacked in the course of my work, and I have learned to be cautious when dealing with potentially aggressive individuals. Often, when evaluating individuals in a prison, you are locked into an attorney-client room with them. If they became aggressive it might take a while for any help to reach you. There have been times in my career when I have looked into the room and seen the prisoner and not liked what I saw. Several times I have made a decision not to evaluate them one-to-one. I take my cue from Robert DeNiro’s character in the movie Ronin: “If there’s any doubt, there’s no doubt.” Some of my colleagues have bulletproof glass in the windows of their offices and start their cars remotely.

6. How competitive is it to get a job as a forensic psychologist?

Forensic psychology is one of the few areas in mental-health where demand often outstrips supply. This may be because of the unusual skill set that is required to perform the job. For example, I know many clinical psychologists who are just as knowledgeable as I am about psychological testing and diagnosis, but they simply do not want to be cross examined publicly by skilled attorneys. If you have appropriate qualifications and training and are willing to relocate, I do not believe it would be difficult to find employment or start a successful private practice.

7. What is the best part of the job?

Believe it or not, I enjoy providing testimony most of all. While it can be stressful to be cross examined in public, there is also a certain competitive, almost combative aspect to that part of the job. I have always enjoyed combative sports such as wrestling, judo and fencing, and testifying in court is a bit like verbal combat; I find it very stimulating.

8. What is the worst part of the job?

While I enjoy most aspects of forensic psychology, I also come in contact with a great deal of human misery and suffering. No child dreams of becoming a murderer or rapist and no parent wants to have his or her marriage dissolve and have to fight to see their child on alternate weekends. Coming in contact with this much pain can take a toll, and you can build up a low level of trauma yourself. As a result of my work I avoid watching movies or reading books that involve interpersonal conflict or emotionally challenging situations.

10. What is the biggest misconception people have about the job?

That’s an easy one. Most people think that forensic psychologists are involved in crime scene analysis and profiling like the shows on TV. While a handful of forensic psychologists engage in this work, it is not close to being most of what a forensic psychologist does.

11. What is the work/family/life balance like?

That has never been a big challenge for me but then my situation is a bit unique. As I mentioned, my wife works with me nearly every day and that is a very positive thing. Although we all have financial pressures, I have a great deal of flexibility in how many hours I work and I have been reasonably successful in not becoming a workaholic. One of the advantages to having a private practice is that if you can afford it, you can take off school vacations and spend them with your wife and children. On the other hand, some forensic psychologists do work long hours in the same way that lawyers and physicians do.

12. Any other advice, tips, or anecdote you’d like to share?

I think forensic psychology is a great profession, but it’s not for everybody. You do need a great deal of education, and these days that takes a great deal of money. In addition, you have to have certain characteristics if you are going to be successful and enjoy this type of work. Anybody who obtains a PhD in psychology is bound to be reasonably intelligent, but a forensic psychologist needs to be able to think on his feet, tolerate intense scrutiny of their work, and be comfortable in an adversarial system.

Some general advice: I am successful in my practice because the work is a good fit with some of my personal characteristics. I like to investigate, I am interested in people and how they think, and I’m a bit of a performer. I am also a bit disorganized and can take on too many projects if I don’t watch myself. I also prefer working on my own to being part of a group, and I am not a great team player. For this reason, while forensic psychology was a good choice for me, being part of the sales team or project director would not have been. I think people often do not think enough about their personal strengths and weaknesses and how they might affect what career they should pursue. It helps a great deal to make a clear eyed assessment of what you can bring to an occupation in deciding whether or not it is for you.

{ 28 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Playstead July 22, 2009 at 11:17 pm

“Some of my colleagues have bulletproof glass in the windows of their offices and start their cars remotely.”
Geez, you have to admire a guy in a field like that. My biggest threat last week was that the company took away our Styrofoam coffee cups. There’s was almost a riot.

He does make a good point about finding a career that not only fits your skill set, but also your personality.

2 Christatos Aristad July 23, 2009 at 3:49 pm

A fascinating post. The recesses of the human mind are of great interest to me, and it always impresses me when individuals such as you sir are willing to put yourselves at risk to explore the minds of the criminally dangerous. Society owes you, your wife, and your field a great debt. Thank you for the insight into your profession.

3 Dan July 23, 2009 at 7:09 pm

Great post. I love reading about people’s jobs –the way they actually are, and not the way they are portrayed on TV.

4 Dan July 23, 2009 at 7:10 pm

Bummer that this post was overshadowed by the gun post because this is a good one.

5 Kim July 26, 2009 at 12:27 pm

My boyfriend found this article for me and asked me to read it as I’m getting ready to begin a Masters level Forensic Psycholgy program in August. This was most informative and only confirms that I’m making the right decision in pursuing this career path. Thank you for the wonderful article and I will be picking up your books soon!!!

6 Rich September 11, 2009 at 11:30 am

Yeah thanks for this post. I am also pursuing a MA in psychology with a focus on forensic and have been semi confused about what exactly i can expect to be doing. I am really pumped now to get this thing going. Thanks!

7 Jesse September 17, 2009 at 11:01 am

New College, great school. Thanks for the interesting post.

8 frances October 22, 2009 at 9:18 am

heyy kim,same here. am plannin on doin a masters in forensic psy. and needed to knw wat i was up for. does any one knows a good school i can do this in the usa,am lookin for a campus and not online…plsss i need help on dis,anybody. talk2frances2003@yahoo.com,thanks

9 Nzk October 24, 2009 at 9:29 am

wow, this interviewis amazing. i cant wait to go into college. would it be weird for a female to choose this path?

10 jenna krueger December 1, 2009 at 10:43 pm

Hello, I am a student of Century College and I have an interview assignment to do and I chose to interview a forensic pathologist.
Would you allow me to interview you?
jmkrueger13@yahoo.com

11 Preet Momi February 11, 2010 at 9:29 pm

Hello. I am in grade 12 and I feel almost magnetic towards the field of psychology. I applied to many universities for programs in psychology and am just awaiting acceptances, which are in May. I was wondering If in order to become a criminal psychologist would one have to earn a BSc in psychology, or a B.A in psychology? I am very interested in pursuing a career as a criminal psychologist in Canada and I was wondering if one is looked at as higher than the other?

- Preet

12 Katelynn April 20, 2010 at 1:55 pm

I loved reading about your job. I felt as if it was extreamly helpful.

13 Jemour Maddux May 12, 2010 at 6:31 pm

I actually published a review of Dr. Mart’s book, “Getting Started in Forensic Psychology Practice.” I too am a forensic psychologist in private practice, located in Manhattan. Like Dr. Mart, I also enjoy Judo and practice Brazilian Jiu Jitsu under Renzo Gracie. Undoubtedly, this profession attracts certain types of individuals that are relative outliers from the typical mental health practitioners. At the same time, the work of a forensic psychologist in the court room can be just as rewarding as the work done by general practitioners in therapy offices. I admire Dr. Mart. He downplayed his ABPP, which is quite an accomplishment. He also appeared to downplay how easy it is to start a private forensic practice. While I’ve had a great deal of success organizing Lamb&Maddux, LLC (www.lambmadduxgroup.com), it really took a great deal of perseverance. Being good at what you do is not enough because the lawyers in your area will already have experts they regularly use. It’s all about you taking the opportunity to show your best stuff when an attorney gets a case that’s worth rolling the dice on a new expert witness such as yourself.

14 Amy September 27, 2012 at 11:42 am

Thank you for posting this article. I am currently working on my bachelors degree for forensic psychology and previously worked as an evidence technician. You seem to have a lot of similar interests that I have. It’s very encouraging to me and makes me work that much harder at my education to attain my desired career goals after reading this article.

15 Adam October 16, 2012 at 2:35 pm

How do you switch to private practice?

16 Jovine December 3, 2012 at 10:20 pm

I too enjoyed reading your post. Very insightful. I’m totally interested in this career my only concern is the amount of money I will have to put into my studies and where I am going to source the funds. Apart from that everything else just pulls me in more. Also we seem to have similar personalities; as I too prefer working alone, never really like working in a team, I am SO fascinated with the mind and how other persons think etc.

17 latoshia morrow March 7, 2013 at 3:39 pm

Great article!

18 Christal March 13, 2013 at 1:28 am

Great!!!!! Article….Makes my decision make more sense to why I keep coming back to Forensic Psychology! You decribed it (Me) perfectly!

19 Chantelle June 18, 2013 at 2:01 am

I am thinking of becoming a forensic psychologist and this article helped me enormously, thank you!

20 Fatima Musaibli June 20, 2013 at 11:41 pm

This is such an amazing article and makes me want to pursue this career even more! you also have the same personality as i do except i like to work with a team, not by myself. Thank you so much for posting this!

21 Zach July 5, 2013 at 10:42 am

Dr. Wong on SVU is a psychiatrist not a psychologist. How can you say that he’s a measly “psychologist” when you see him talking about medicine and personally diagnosing personality disorders?

22 Anti-Zach August 24, 2013 at 7:16 pm

Those measly psychologists to whom you are referring have more sense about them than those pesky psychiatrists who have absolutely no training in psychological assessments.

23 Yasmin August 28, 2013 at 6:52 pm

If I cannot become a Forensic Psychiatrist I want to become a Forensic Psychologist – I live in the UK (but I want to live abroad) – I was just wondering if it’s hard to get a job as a Forensic Psychologist? Psychology is my backup if I don’t get into medicine but people tell me I will get no job as a psychologist :/ what do you think?

24 Carol October 10, 2013 at 2:27 pm

Hello,
Does one need to be a licensed psychologist to be a Forensic Psychologist working for the courts? Do some states differ on requirement for licensure? want to know more about what one can do with that degree. Thank you, Carol

25 Joel January 9, 2014 at 12:20 pm

I’m studying forensic psychology no at the chicago school now, http://www.thechicagoschool.edu/Chicago/Our_Programs/PsyD_in_Clinical_Forensic_Psychology and this article has answered so many questions of mine on whether I should go into private of public

26 Kaylie January 25, 2014 at 11:11 pm

My name is Kaylie Cunningham, I am a Junior at Washington High school in Missouri. I am doing a research paper on Forensic Psychology for a career that I am interested in going in to, and a part of that project is having a personal interview. I was wondering if you would be willing to let me interview you. If so, please email me back at Kaylie.Cunningham@washington.k12.mo.us

27 Desiree March 25, 2014 at 12:54 pm

Amazing article!! I am soo excited to join this foeld because I love helping others and I think it’ll be worth the 5-7 years of preparing! I’m also writing a research paper for my senior english class on my future career and was also wondering if I could interview you for it! It is just ten questions! please email me at desiree.nemecek@yahoo.com
thank you so much for this article!

28 Jade April 3, 2014 at 10:07 pm

Do you need to be certified on the American Board of Forensic Psychology to be eligible to be a forensic psychologist?

Leave a Comment

Previous post:

Next post:

Site Meter