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 10 biographies are a great read. Enjoy!
Academic—Liberal Arts/Undergraduate Professor
I am especially interested in jury decision-making, the death penalty, police interrogations, mediation as an alternative to litigation, and sexual harassment. I received my Ph.D. in social psychology from the University of California at Santa Cruz in 1986 and I am currently a Professor of Psychology and co-director of the Center for Applied Psychological Research at Claremont McKenna College (CMC). CMC is a small liberal arts college which is part of the Claremont consortium of colleges (Pomona, Pitzer, Scripps, Harvey Mudd, and McKenna). Although I am primarily a teacher and researcher, I also consult with attorneys and occasionally serve as an expert witness. In addition to my research articles, I have written two books in the area of psychology and law — Just Revenge: Costs and Consequences of the Death Penalty (St. Martin’s Press, 1997), and Psychology Applied to Law (Wadsworth 2004).
I first became interested in psychology and law during graduate school when I was working as a consultant for a Public Defender’s Office and spending too much time watching legal dramas on television. I began to see the legal system as an ideal arena for looking at how basic psychological processes–such as persuasion, motivation, decision-making, memory, and group dynamics–operate in the world outside the laboratory.
Prior to joining the faculty at CMC, I had no experience with small liberal arts colleges. Through my job at CMC, I have found that working at a small liberal arts college has several benefits. I am able to teach small, in-depth undergraduate seminars (e.g., Psychology and Law, Research Methods, Mediation and Dispute Resolution) and am encouraged to develop close working relationships with students. I feel fortunate to be able to work with talented undergraduate students who have the great luxury of being able to focus on their college education for four intense years. Also, because small liberal arts colleges tend to value cross-disciplinary scholarship, they tend to be welcoming environments for people who examine the legal system using the tools of psychological theory and methods.
I have much advice for students. My own students generally thank me for wise advice and then ignore it. My standard advice to undergraduates is to avoid premature specialization. By taking courses in many different fields, students can clarify their own interests and learn to see the connections between disciplines. Completing a major is secondary to the more important goal of developing essential skills— thinking critically, expressing ideas clearly, working effectively with other people, and acting in ethically responsible ways. I have two bits of specific advice. First, take a course in Psychology and Law or Forensic Psychology to get a sense of whether you might want to pursue a career in this exciting, expanding field. Second, try to do research in collaboration with a faculty member. Becoming involved in the research process will help you decide whether you are suited for a career in psychology and law.
Although my primary appointment is at CMC, I also work with graduate students at Claremont Graduate University. I advise graduate students who are interested in psychology and law to find ways of working with the legal system during graduate school. More generally, I try to remind students that graduate school is a rare and precious opportunity to immerse themselves in their chosen discipline and to learn most of what there is to know about a few important issues.
I am currently an assistant professor of psychology at Bates College in Lewiston, Maine. Bates is a small, residential liberal arts college of about 1700 students. I teach the required statistics course for our majors, a first-year seminar in social influence and an upper level course in psychology and law. My department has 8 full time faculty and about 65 senior majors every year.
My interest in psychology and law was piqued during my junior year at Williams College when I took Psychology and Law with Dr. Saul Kassin. Until that semester, I didn’t even know that such an area existed. Needless to say, his course was fascinating and prompted my search of graduate schools in which I could pursue my interest in psychology and law. To that end, I chose the Iowa State University social psychology program, where I worked with Dr. Gary Wells, earning my Ph.D. in 2001 with a research focus on eyewitness testimony.
During graduate school, I always planned to return to a liberal arts environment. This career path appealed to me because of the close relationships I developed with faculty during college and because I believed that a liberal arts college would allow me to focus on psychology and law, while maintaining my interests in other areas. To a large extent, my assumptions have proven correct. I enjoy very close relationships with current and former students. I also love teaching a first-year seminar on social influence and our statistics course, two things I probably would not do had I chosen a position defined as “psychology and law.”
I think that my broad training as a social psychologist as well as my research expertise in one area (eyewitness testimony) made me appealing to a liberal arts college. In addition, the fact that I earned a graduate minor in statistics allowed me to apply for positions in which departments were searching for someone to teach statistics and “any other courses in a specialty area”. My experience suggests that defining oneself broadly might increase the possibility of finding a good match with a liberal arts college.
People sometimes shy away from liberal arts colleges, in part, because of a perception that teaching loads are unreasonably high and undergraduates are unable to contribute to research programs. In my experience, neither of these perceptions is true. At Bates, the teaching load is reasonable: 5 courses per year. The students are talented enough to contribute to my research program in meaningful ways. In fact, because each senior must conduct original research for a senior thesis, there is no dearth of students ready and willing to listen to ideas for a senior thesis. Of course, some students come with their own ideas which means that I do supervise theses outside my area of expertise or interest. However, as students become more familiar with my research program, the proportion of theses I supervise that are directly related to my own interests continues to grow. The liberal arts college has been a good fit for me, one that I find both fulfilling and challenging.