Forensic Psychology Career Spotlight

A few years back, I was part of the American Psychology-Law Society’s Careers and Training Committee, which put together a career handbook for prospective students in forensic psychology (psychology and law). Part of this manual contained a series of biographies from various professionals in forensic psychology to give students an idea of what it is like to work in this field as well as the wide variety of opportunities that the field holds. Short, personal statements were solicited from successful doctoral-level psychologists whose work related to psychology and law (forensic psychology issues).

Biographers were asked to describe how they choose their career path, how they ended up in their current position, and what advice they would give to aspiring students. The intent was to give interested students a glimpse of career options and the steps some people took to get there.

To ensure a wide variety of professionals, biographies were solicited from 10 different categories:

  1. Forensic/Clinical
  2. Policy-Relevant
  3. Trial Consulting
  4. Non- Academic Research
  5. Academic—Liberal Arts/Undergraduate Professor
  6. Academic—Graduate, Community Psychology Professor
  7. Academic—Graduate, Social Psychology Professor
  8. Academic—Graduate, Cognitive Psychology Professor
  9. Academic—Graduate, Developmental Psychology Professor
  10. Academic—Law School Professor

These biographies serve as an interesting collection of careers that are possible within the field of forensic psychology. I can’t help but think as I re-read through my own, and my colleagues’, biographies what a wide variety of options there are within this field and how my love for the field has not yet waned. For anyone who is considering a career in forensic psychology, these 10 biographies are a great read. Enjoy!

Academic—Graduate, Cognitive Psychology Professor

 

Dr. Christian A. Meissner, Assistant Professor of Legal Psychology, Florida International University

I’m not sure that you actually choose a career – rather, I think it is probably more likely to find you. Ever since I was a child I had wanted to be a lawyer, and eventually a judge. My family had a rather extensive history in the legal system, from local police officers to federal agents and state attorneys. As a result, I was fascinated with the law and as long as I could remember I wanted to be a part of it. With this in mind, I headed to Pfeiffer University to pursue a degree that would prepare me for law school. I began as a criminal justice major, then changed to sociology before finally settling in the psychology department. I wasn’t able to explain it, but something about psychology’s approach to studying the human mind, particularly aspects of memory and decision-making, captivated my attention and interest. At the same time I decided upon psychology, I was pulled into the study of epistemology, phenomenology, and various other philosophical writings on human thought, intelligence, and decision-making. It seemed as though my studies were beginning to focus, but my own goals were still targeted on law school. Then along came that one event that seemingly set me in the right direction – I had a wonderful discussion with a new faculty member in the psychology department, Dr. Susan Kirkendol, who after hearing of my interests in law school suggested that she might offer a seminar in Psychology & Law. Although I didn’t know it at the time, this seminar would shape my career goals and send me to graduate school at Florida State University to study eyewitness memory and juror decision-making with Dr. Jack Brigham.

When you find your passion in life, you will know it, and graduate school at FSU was that type of experience for me. I thrived primarily because I absolutely loved what I was doing, from learning the details of cognitive and social processes in the classroom to conducting my own research, writing-up the results, and presenting them at conferences. In the end, I knew that I wanted a career in academia – I wanted to continue teaching in the classroom and conducting research that would have some practical benefit to society. I arrived at my current position (Assistant Professor of Legal Psychology at Florida International University) through a rather competitive application process, as academic faculty positions are not easy to obtain and I was but one among many excellent and qualified candidates. Of the fifteen or so positions that I had applied for, FIU was at the top of my list because it was one of the premiere programs in the field of Psychology and Law, and it would permit me to work with graduate students that would be most directly interested in my area of research. Today I supervise a handful of wonderful graduate students, and have had the wonderful pleasure of graduating several at the doctoral level. My research focuses on understanding the cognitive and social processes that govern eyewitness identification and juror decision- making, and I have recently begun conducting research on the psychology of interrogations and confessions. In addition to teaching and conducting research, I also provide consultation to attorneys and law enforcement groups on the proper conduct of lineups and interrogations, and I have also provided expert testimony to the court on the issues. In the end, academia was the most wonderful profession I could have selected, although I suppose I should be happy that it selected me.

Dr. Kathy Pezdek, Professor of Psychology, Claremont Graduate University

I’m lucky because I have always had opportunities to do things that I really enjoy. It has been my experience, however, that good luck is more likely to come your way if you have worked hard to prepare for it. I received a Ph.D. in Cognitive Psychology from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. It was there that I began studying “visual memory.” I was interested in what characteristics of a visual stimulus are retained in memory when the stimulus is “remembered,” and the vulnerabilities of these memories to suggestive influences. This has continued to be the focus of my research throughout my career.

I am a researcher because I like doing research. The study of memory is inherently interesting to me and, as the daughter of an electrical engineer, I find the specificity of cognitive research methods appealing. But I am also a social being and much prefer working in a group than alone. This is why I am well-suited for an academic career. I have spent most of my adulthood as a Professor of Psychology at Claremont Graduate University, where I have directed the graduate program in Applied Cognitive Psychology. At any point in time I have a handful of studies in progress and a team of graduate students helping me with each of these. As far as I am concerned, any success I have achieved has been because of the graduate students I have had the pleasure of working with. So my academic job is not just days of teaching large classes of students. I do teach, and love that part of my work. But the most rewarding teaching that I do is really outside of the classroom in a research context, and I wouldn’t give this up for anything.

For me, one of the draws of Cognitive Psychology has always been the fact that the work has so many possible applications to real world issues. The application that most naturally fits my research on visual memory has been the field of eyewitness memory. After all, understanding what characteristics of a visual stimulus – such as a perpetrator’s face – are retained when the face is “remembered,” is at the heart of eyewitness memory.

I have testified as an Expert Witness on Eyewitness Memory in more than 200 trials in Federal, State and Superior Courts. I did not plan to work in Courts as an Expert Witness, nor is it likely to have worked out if I had planned for this. The truth is that for me as well as anyone, my credibility in Court as an Expert Witness relies on my academic credentials and publication record. In other words, you have to be an “expert” at something before you can testify in Court as an Expert Witness. And, I truly believe that no one can be an expert at anything unless they really enjoy it – it’s too hard and too much work otherwise. Testifying in Court is tough; I would not want to do it full time. Where else do you spend hours sitting on a stage in front of a large group of people facing a smart, verbally articulate individual whose job it is to make you look like an idiot? But the truth is that my research is better because it is informed by the experiences I have had as an Expert Witness, and my work in Court is better because of the research that I do to back it up. There is a synergy here that makes my professional world work.

But, am I all work and no play? No! One of the best features of my career is that although it necessitates long hours of work, the hours are flexible. Most of the time I can work when I want and where I want. So I am at home much of the time where I can work near my family. And, yes, I do work too late at night, but I also am home most afternoons when our boys come home from school, and most days find time to run, row or do yoga. I don’t have rigid lines that separate my family and my work – I know their world and they know mine, and I like it this way.