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, Social Psychology Professor

Dr. Bette L. Bottoms, Professor of Psychology, University of Illinois, Chicago

I grew up on a farm in beautiful Southside Virginia, a couple hours from anything resembling an urban environment. I’m now a Professor of Psychology at the University of Illinois at Chicago. How did I get here? I often wonder that myself, so let’s see if I can tell you.

I first became interested in the field of Psychology and Law when I was in college in the mid- 1980s at Randolph-Macon Woman’s College in Virginia (alma mater of Pearl Buck and home of the first psychology laboratory in the South). A professor named Frank Murray pointed me to a few exciting new books: John Monahan’s Predicting Violent Behavior and Beth Loftus and Gary Well’s Eyewitness Testimony. I was drawn to the topics and Mr. Murray encouraged me to write to Professors Loftus and Wells for their advice about how to enter this field of research. I still have the encouraging letters they took the time to write to me. I conducted my honor’s thesis research on the accuracy of eyewitness memory. Then I was told that I had to go to something called “graduate school” to continue my studies. So I mailed out applications fairly randomly, including one to the University of Denver, where there was a cognitive developmental psychologist named Gail Goodman, who was at that moment starting the field of children’s eyewitness testimony. I took my first ever airplane flight and visited her laboratory, and I knew it was the place for me. I got my Master’s Degree in cognitive psychology at D.U., then followed Gail to the State University of New York at Buffalo, where, with her and others’ wonderful guidance, I got my Ph.D. in Social Psychology.

My graduate training was very broad, so I’m a mix of cognitive, developmental, social, and even a little community and clinical psychology. My work then and now is unified by the theme of children, psychology, and law. I study the accuracy of children’s eyewitness testimony, techniques to improve children’s reports of past events, jurors’ perceptions of children’s testimony, and various issues related to child abuse. If you’re interested in the field, take a look at a book that I edited with colleagues Margaret Kovera and Brad McAuliff, Children, Social Science, and Law, from Cambridge University Press.

As I write this, I’m finishing my 12th year at the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC). Being a professor is one of the best jobs around, although this occupation seems to be a mystery to many students. To varying degrees, professors all teach, mentor students, conduct research and write, and do service for the university, the community, and the field. It’s not an easy job, and it requires dedication and long hours. But it sure ain’t digging ditches, either! You have incredible flexibility in terms of setting your own schedule, choosing what to study, and how to teach. You have the opportunity to work with lots of interesting colleagues and students. To a great extent, you are your own boss. And what about job security? At most colleges and universities, if you are successful in your first 6 years or so, you can be awarded tenure, which means you can never be fired (well, unless you really screw up). At UIC, which is a research-intensive university, there is a particular emphasis on conducting and publishing research, so that has been a big part of my job. But my career has also included a great deal of teaching, graduate student training, and service. I was even an Associate Dean for several years, where I learned at lot about the business of universities. I’m also active in the American Psychological Association, especially Division 41 (the American Psychology-Law Society) and Division 37 (Child, Youth, and Family Services), of which I’ll be President in 2005. I like the varied and changing nature of my job – it’s impossible to get bored.

So, what’s my advice to you? Figure out what you enjoy doing, then work your tail off at it. Read the Careers in Psychology and Law document on this website to learn more about academic and other careers in this field. Don’t bother going to graduate school unless you really like the topic and the nature of the work, and unless you are willing to work very hard to distinguish yourself. If you like what you are doing, then working hard is not onerous, and you will enjoy your professional life. But if this kind of career is not a match for your temperament or interests, do something else – there’s a world of other great possibilities, and no time to waste being unhappy. Good luck!