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:
- Trial Consulting
- Non- Academic Research
- Academic—Liberal Arts/Undergraduate Professor
- Academic—Graduate, Community Psychology Professor
- Academic—Graduate, Social Psychology Professor
- Academic—Graduate, Cognitive Psychology Professor
- Academic—Graduate, Developmental Psychology Professor
- 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 biographies are a great read. Enjoy!
Academic—Graduate, Community Psychology Professor
It was no accident that I ended up specializing in scientific research on psychology and law, especially as it relates to children. I grew up in Los Angeles, CA, the youngest daughter of an attorney and an elementary school teacher. Growing up hearing about my mother’s experiences in an orphanage left a deep impression that has had a strong influence on the direction of my research.
Although my original goal was to become a child clinical psychologist, my honors thesis at UCLA on Piagetian theory convinced me that my true calling was as a researcher. I went on to receive a Ph.D. in developmental psychology from UCLA in 1977. However, my doctoral training was in basic cognitive development, with a focus on memory. My graduate program offered no training in psychology and law. To satisfy my desire for such knowledge, I audited several law school seminars (e.g., on the Constitutional Rights of Children) while serving as a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Denver. By that time, Dr. Elizabeth Loftus had published landmark work on memory malleability in adult witnesses. As a developmentalist, with sensitivity to child welfare, I wondered why there was so little research on children’s eyewitness testimony, given how potentially important children’s statements could be in certain types of legal situations (e.g., child maltreatment cases).
Back in the late 1970s, no one in psychology seemed to care about the topic of child witnesses. For example, my first concept paper to a granting agency was unsuccessful: The rejection letter was addressed to “Dr. Fail Goodman.” Some early attempts to present papers and publish on child witnesses met with a similar lack of enthusiasm. However, a friend at Psychology Today Magazine arranged for me to publish an article there. The article won Honorable Mention from the American Bar Association in a contest on papers contributing to the American legal system. The Journal of Social Issues then accepted a proposal from me to edit a special issue on child witnesses.
At about the same time that the special issue was published, the topic of children’s testimony became of national concern, as a result of several high-profile child sexual abuse cases (e.g., the McMartin Preschool case). I found myself being perhaps the only scientist in the world who at that time was specializing on child eyewitness testimony, including having conducted scientific research on such topics as children’s memory for traumatic events and children’s suggestibility concerning abuse allegations. It has never been my view that either children or adults are unsuggestible, but my students and I have found that many children, by age 4 or 5 years, are typically less suggestible about taboo abuse- related acts than about many other types of information. This was quite controversial at the time.
I was a new assistant professor and found myself way over my head. Although I am extremely hard working, I also tend to be shy, and I hated public speaking. I just wanted to do something for justice, children, and science. And suddenly, I was in the national limelight. I went on to become the first person to obtain a federal grant on child eyewitness testimony and to have work on child witnesses cited pivotally in a U.S. Supreme Court decision. I continue my research today on child witnesses, as well as trauma and memory generally (and numerous other topics), with one of my great joys being mentoring graduate students. It is such an important time in one’s life, to go from being an undergraduate to becoming a skilled professional. I am so grateful to have had an opportunity to fulfil my life dream of contributing both to child welfare and to science. It is part of my mission to help others fulfill their dreams as well.
I am currently a Professor of Psychology at the University of California, Davis, and Professor of Forensic Psychology at the University of Oslo, Norway. I’ve won many awards for research and teaching, and I spend my free time with my twin daughters, Lauren and Danielle, and my husband, Phillip Shaver, who is also a psychology professor.
My advice to students: Find a topic about which you feel passionate and then give it all you’ve got. In the end, there’s nothing better than knowing you can make a difference. And if a shy, short person like me can do it, you can, too!
When I entered college sixteen years ago at the University of California, Davis, I planned to be an engineer. My first engineering course convinced me otherwise. I did not enjoy the subject, nor was I particularly good at it. The social science courses were much more palatable, however, so I decided to follow in my mother’s footsteps by majoring in psychology and pursuing a career as a clinician. I knew that this would require graduate training. I also knew that standardized test-taking was not one of my strengths. I therefore made a concerted effort to excel in class, in the lab, and in the department, in order to counteract what I knew would be unimpressive GRE scores. I worked hard on my courses (made easier by true interest), I volunteered as a lab assistant for Rebecca Eder (who was exploring young children’s self concepts and their ability to mimic facial expressions), and I served on the Psychology Department’s curriculum development committee. After two years of interviewing 3-5 year olds using puppets, and after being peed on a number of times, I knew that this was not the age group for me, but I was harboring a growing interest in developmental psychology. I had not yet abandoned my plan to become a clinician, but was growing increasingly familiar with the world of research, publication, and conference-going that occupies professors’ time during the hours they aren’t in class.
When the time came to apply to graduate programs during my senior year, my GRE scores were, as expected, low. In addition, I found myself inexplicably engaged to a first-year graduate student at Princeton. Undaunted, I drew a circle on a map and applied to clinical and developmental graduate programs located within 60 miles of Princeton, NJ. After applying, I flew to the area and toured each department, arranging for informal interviews with department chairs and other faculty members, so that they could witness first-hand my potential (or at least my chutzpah), and so that they would (hopefully) overlook my GRE scores. This effort proved invaluable. During my visit to Temple University, I met Laurence Steinberg, who had just become chair of the Developmental Psychology Department. He warned me that it was his first interview as chair. I told him, “That’s fine, this is my first interview as a future graduate student.” I also met with Nora Necombe. They both asked if I would retake the GRE to improve my score. I don’t know how I did it, but I firmly refused. I told them that taking the test again would not help, that my record was otherwise exemplary, and that they would simply have to look past the test score to see me as a dedicated and industrious student with great potential. Miraculously, they did! I entered Temple’s doctoral program in developmental psychology.
Knowing the dangers of working with young children, I joined Larry Steinberg’s adolescent development lab (adolescents, at least, are potty trained). Still, I hadn’t given up on my idea of becoming a clinician, so I found a part-time job as a counselor at a teen shelter in New Jersey. When I was forced to relinquish an 8-year old girl to her alleged abuser because she recanted her story, I decided that I did not have the stamina to endure a lifetime of such frustration. I would become a researcher, and would work to help these kids that way. During one lab meeting, I volunteered to work with Larry on a paper about adolescent development and juvenile justice issues. We debated about the age at which adolescents become competent to stand trial, to be tried in adult court, or to be considered culpable for their actions. We pored through the research to see what developmental psychology could tell us about these questions. This was the most interesting and exciting project I had ever worked on, and led naturally to a dissertation topic. (With dissertations, it is important that you be absolutely wild about the idea when you start, because that enthusiasm has to get you through many years of hard work.) During my final year of graduate school, Larry was working to establish a MacArthur Foundation research network on Adolescent Development and Juvenile Justice. As his assistant, I attended meetings with many of the leading psychologists, criminologists, sociologists, historians, economists, and practitioners (judges, attorneys, etc.) from across the country, all of whom were trying to understand various aspects of adolescence and the law. It was the best classroom in the world. After finishing my Ph.D., I was offered a postdoctoral position at the Center on Adolescence at Stanford University. With Hans Steiner, a child psychiatrist, and Shirley Feldman, a developmental psychologist, I began to explore the mental health and developmental issues of youths in the California Youth Authority. This emphasis on clinical issues (such as the detection of Posttraumatic Stress Disorder in incarcerated youth) placed me even deeper into the “interdisciplinary” category. This can make it hard to find a good “fit” in a traditional department, although interdisciplinary programs are growing in popularity.
During two years on the job market as a post-doc, I received only two offers (neither of which was from a psychology department), so my next move was to the Western Psychiatric Institute and Clinic (WPIC) at the University of Pittsburgh to work in the Psychiatry and Law Program with Edward Mulvey. I’m neither a psychiatrist nor a lawyer, but there I was. At WPIC, survival as a researcher is predicated heavily on the ability to obtain outside funding for one’s work. I was given two years to raise my salary through grant funding. Fortunately, in Ed Mulvey, I had an expert in the art of grant-writing as a mentor. During my years at WPIC, I received a 5-year Career Development Award (K01) from NIMH, a 4-year grant on psychopathy from the William T. Grant Foundation, a 2 year grant from NIJ to analyze data on female offenders from the 1920s, and a 2-year grant from the State of Pennsylvania to study mental health issues among kids in detention. Despite this success, though, I missed having students and I missed the feel of a more traditional academic department. So I went back on the job market once again. I recently accepted a position at the University of California, Irvine, in the Psychology and Social Behavior Department. So, it’s yet another cross-country trip (number four, in case you’ve lost track) for another new chapter in my ever-evolving career.
People tend to recount their personal histories as if the outcome was inevitable, or as if they had always been working toward their present situation. In reality, one must choose a goal and make plans based on the information available at the time, but remain open to altering course if conditions change or unique opportunities arise. Equally important: remember that the journey is as important as the destination. This sort of career, especially, is one that you need to love to do well in, because it’s all journey.