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—Law School Professor

Dr. Jennifer K. Robbennolt, Associate Professor of Law, University of Missouri

I am an Associate Professor of Law at the University of Missouri School of Law and a Senior Fellow in the Center for the Study of Dispute Resolution. Before accepting my current position, I earned a law degree and a Ph.D. in social psychology in the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s Law/Psychology Program, clerked for a state supreme court judge, and spent two years as a Postdoctoral Research Associate and Lecturer at the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs and Department of Psychology at Princeton University. As a psychologist working on research topics that implicate both psychological and legal questions, I have had the opportunity to explore areas as diverse as how citizens and judges determine punitive damages and the implications of these findings for tort reform, the role of empirical research in informing the law of intestacy, the role of the media in influencing the public’s perceptions of the legal system as well as the decisions of various players in the system, and the role of apologies in the resolution of disputes.

The academic environment of a law school is both similar to and different from that of a department of psychology. While psychologists within departments of psychology may have primary interests in diverse areas of psychology, they have in common both a shared interest in the study of psychology and a shared commitment to the use of scientific methodologies to explore their questions of interest. In a law school, faculty members have primary interests in diverse areas of the law (ranging from constitutional law to the law of property or contracts, to criminal law and so on), and more diverse methodological approaches, but have a common interest in understanding, commenting on, and improving the law.

That there are fewer empirical researchers in a law school than in a psychology department is both the biggest challenge and the biggest opportunity. There are fewer natural opportunities for detailed discussion of research design or statistics. Instead, there is a wealth of practical experience that grounds one’s research and stimulates one’s ideas about areas of the law that are ripe for the insights of psychology, but that have been relatively neglected by psychologists. Moreover, the opportunities for interdisciplinary collaboration and exchange abound – law faculty may have backgrounds in fields such as economics, sociology, journalism, political science, history, and the physical sciences. Thus, there are exciting possibilities for bringing psychology to areas of the law that have been less frequently examined by psychologists.

Another difference is that law faculty are less likely to work directly with graduate students in psychology, though may still sit on thesis committees. Instead, I am able to introduce psychological science to large groups of future attorneys.

It takes some effort to retain an identity as a psychologist when one’s academic home is a law school. A desire to maintain a connection to psychology has implications for decisions about how to frame research questions, where to publish the results, and how to keep current with developments in psychology as well as law. While the challenges are plentiful, the opportunities make meeting those challenges worthwhile.

Dr. Jeffrey Rachlinski, Professor of Law, Cornell University

Like most kids in the United States, I was obliged in junior high school to undertake a personality inventory designed to identify sensible career choices. The results of the inventory produced “lawyer” and “psychologist” as the careers to which I was best suited. Upon entering college at the Johns Hopkins University, I majored in psychology, hoping to put off deciding between the two. In my sophomore year, I was fortunate enough to enroll in a course in law and psychology taught by Donald Bersoff, then the director of the joint program in law and psychology at the University of Maryland law school and the psychology department at Johns Hopkins. Upon being exposed to Professor Bersoff’s seamless synthesis of the two disciplines, I resolved never to truly make a choice.

I applied to several programs in law and psychology offered in the late 1980’s and eventually settled on Stanford. The small program had the advantage of having an advisor–David Rosenhan–who was appointed in both the law school and the psychology department. Unknown to me when I enrolled, it also had the advantage of having two psychologists, Amos Tversky and Lee Ross, whose work was beginning to have a big impact on the discipline of law.

I spent graduate school balancing time in the law school with research in the psychology department. The balance was not always successful. Maintaining research in the psychology department sometimes left me little time to prepare law school classes, and preparing law school classes often meant that research had to be put off.

In my law school classes, I was stuck by the pervasive influence of economics on law. Rational choice theory, rather than psychology, seemed to be legal scholars’ principal model of how people think. At the same time I was discovering the role of economics in law, I encountered Tversky’s extensive critiques of economics. Bringing some of the psychological research on judgment and choice to law would also enable law and psychology to branch out a bit beyond traditional areas of scholarship. The potential to bring psychology’s thinking to law through the critique of economics has become my work. My dissertation, for example, restructured a widely cited economic model of litigation developed by economists with Tversky and Kahneman’s Prospect Theory.

Upon completing my law degree, I entered private practice while completing the work for my dissertation. This lasted only a brief time, however, as I was fortunate enough to find a law school with a strong and growing interest in social science–Cornell. Although I have taught as a visiting scholar at four other law schools since then (Chicago, Penn, Virginia, Yale), I have remained at Cornell for the past ten years. I continue to conduct research and write on the application of the cognitive psychology of judgment and choice to areas of law that have previously treated economics as the only relevant social science. These include securities regulation, environmental law, products liability, corporate governance, and administrative law.

As far as advice, I recommend that any budding law-and-psychology scholar read Michael Saks’ article, “The Law does not live by eyewitness testimony alone” (Law and Human Behavior, vol. 10, pp. 279-80, 1986). Forensic psychology, jury research, and eyewitness identification are laudable subjects– but there is a whole world of unexplored opportunities for a law-and-psychology scholar willing to reach beyond them.