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.