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 biographies are a great read. Enjoy!

Academic—Graduate, Developmental Psychology Professor

Dr. N. Dickon Reppucci, Professor of Psychology, University of Virginia

My first job was as an Assistant Professor at Yale University (1968-1973), where I was hired by Seymour Sarason to co-teach a seminar in community psychology, a newly developing interdisciplinary area, and to pursue my intervention interests in community settings. My training had been in developmental and clinical psychology, with expertise in behavioral approaches to mental health problems of adolescents and an understanding of the importance of the longitudinal study of development (a la my dissertation adviser, Jerome Kagan). However, Seymour nurtured my identity as a clinical/community psychologist with the emphasis on community. He encouraged me to pursue research and action focused on changing human service organizations, especially public elementary schools and correctional facilities for adolescent offenders, and to challenge prevailing myths, e.g., in a paper entitled, The social psychology of behavior modification, Terry Saunders and I attempted to quiet the fears of a behavioral takeover of the helping professions. In 1973, I was promoted to an Associate Professor, whose professional identity was strongly community/prevention. One major outcome of those years was the realization that interventions with juveniles constituted much more than individual or family therapy, and could be best served by adopting an ecological theoretical framework. Moreover, focus needed to be given to the helping professionals themselves and to the larger societal context that so influenced the developing child.

In 1976, I became Professor of Psychology and Director (1976-1980) of a newly developing Program in Clinical Psychology at the University of Virginia, which I believed could be developed to enhance these perspectives. I also initiated a small, free standing Community Psychology program that allowed students to pursue similar goals but without extensive clinical training in individual psychology. I have directed this Community Psychology program for 28 years, and it has remained focused on these goals and the belief that to be an effective advocate for youth entails using scientific psychology to inform public policy. As with most programs, the research content has varied with faculty interest. Over the past 28 years, several of my Virginia colleagues have shared my interest in prevention and development, but my specific concern has been to integrate psychological research and theory in a manner that can inform the law about development and interventions with children. To pursue these aims, I have developed graduate and undergraduate courses on “Children and the Law” and have collaborated with graduate students in research and action projects related to child maltreatment, juvenile justice, child custody and adolescent decision-making in legal contexts. Because our research has taken genuine cognizance of legal issues, it has been used to inform both the law and public policy. I, of necessity, have become more knowledgeable about the law and have devoted my career to mentoring community and clinical graduate students with similar interests. Many of these students have gone on to very successful careers in academic and governmental institutions and I am very proud of their continuing accomplishments.

Dr. Jennifer Woolard, Associate Professor of Psychology, Georgetown University

My interest in law and policy stemmed from internship and class experiences as a psychology and sociology major at the University of Virginia. Working in a victim-witness assistance program and domestic violence shelter helped me understand that systems affect individuals and families in important ways I wanted to understand further. Unsure whether law school or graduate school was the best route after two years in the workforce, my choice became clear when I quickly sent in the graduate school application but couldn’t make it to the mailbox with the law school application.

With its emphasis on an ecological systems approach to prevention, law, and social policy affecting children and families, the University of Virginia community psychology program was a terrific match. In retrospect, several choices and experiences in graduate school prepared me well for my current work. First, I took advantage of the skill and expertise of teachers and mentors in my own community area as well as several other areas, including developmental and quantitative psychology, and faculty at the law school interested in social science. In particular, Dick Reppucci (psychology) and Elizabeth Scott (law) modeled the teacher-scholar approach to socially relevant issues. Advanced training in methodology and statistical analysis has been incredibly helpful. Conducting interdisciplinary work while in graduate school gave me the experiences, both uplifting and frustrating, that I needed once I became a faculty member in an interdisciplinary academic unit. Second, I sought out several different field placements as part of my work, including stints as a staff member for the state Office of Prevention Services and the state legislative Commission on Family Violence Prevention, and as a consultant to statewide domestic violence and sexual assault advocacy groups. I took my first steps learning the lingo and attempting to translate research into policy and practice, giving me a head start for later work.

I took a position as an assistant professor in the Center for Studies in Criminology and Law at the University of Florida. As one of two psychologists, my colleagues included sociologists, historians, social ecologists and lawyers, among others. My interests in adolescent development and juvenile justice were fostered by collaborations with colleagues within the Center as well as those in the law school and several other schools on Florida’s large campus. I established connections to local schools, justice system facilities and statewide organizations as my research program developed. After several years I left the Center to join the faculty of Georgetown University in the Psychology Department, which initiated a graduate program in Human Development and Public Policy. The Washington, DC area has tremendous opportunities for research that spans psychology, law and public policy and I have continued the interdisciplinary approach by collaborating with colleagues in law, health sciences, and other departments as well as with several psychology faculty members.

My suggestion to students with interests that span social science and policy is to think broadly about your educational experiences, your field work outside the academy, and your options when searching for academic positions. Consider the pros and cons of traditional disciplinary departments, which can be fertile places to conduct such work, but don’t limit yourself. Be open to interdisciplinary centers, institutes, and other options. Use practical experiences in the field, including working on project teams, to hone your research skills and your knowledge of what policymakers, practitioners, and families face in their daily lives. You probably won’t become an expert, but the experience and appreciation will inform your work and enhance your credibility as you partner with those groups throughout your career.

The academic career has been (and will continue to be, I’m sure) hard but rewarding work. The flexibility and autonomy that comes with teaching and research has matched well for me and given me opportunities to work with academics, professionals, and families from a variety of backgrounds and interests on issues important to me.