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!

Forensic Clinical Psychologist

Dr. Patricia Zapf, Associate Professor of Psychology, Director of Clinical Training, John Jay College of Criminal Justice at The City University of New York

I first became interested in the study of forensic psychology as an undergraduate at the University of Alberta in Edmonton. I was completing an honors degree in psychology and my thesis had to do with the relationship between personality characteristics and the types of crime that were committed by adolescent offenders. Fascinated, I began delving deeper into the literature on crime and psychology and became convinced that I wanted to go on to graduate study in the area of forensic psychology. I applied to the two (at that time) Canadian clinical doctoral programs that had an emphasis in forensic psychology.

I received my PhD in Clinical-Forensic Psychology from Simon Fraser University in British Columbia in 1999. During the course of my graduate studies, I worked for the Correctional Service of Canada in a maximum-security institution as an institutional psychologist conducting psychological risk assessments for the parole board of Canada. I also worked as an intake interviewer at a Provincial Pretrial Facility interviewing all inmates upon intake and screening for mental health and special placement needs. I conducted research on competency to stand trial at a forensic psychiatric facility interviewing actively psychotic individuals to determine their competence-related abilities. To conclude my clinical training, I completed a one-year internship at the Florida Mental Health Institute in Tampa.

I always knew that I wanted to be an academic. Conducting research and working with students is something that I have always been interested in and from which I gain a lot of satisfaction. I took my first academic position at the University of Alabama where I was an assistant professor for three years in the Clinical Psychology and Law program. After three years in Alabama, I was recruited to John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City to come and assist in developing a Doctoral Program in Forensic Psychology. This has been a very rewarding experience and, now, five years into my career, I am the Director of Clinical Training and Deputy Director of the largest Doctoral Program in Forensic Psychology in North America.

In addition to my academic position, I also do some private practice work where I conduct evaluations for the courts with respect to competency to stand trial, criminal responsibility, mitigation evaluations in capital cases, and risk assessments. I testify as an expert witness on these issues and have been retained by counsel to consult on cases where other professionals have done less-than-adequate evaluations.

I believe that the most important ingredient to getting what you want is determination. Work hard, get good grades, and take part in as many experiences as possible while in graduate school. This is the time to experience it all as this will help you to figure out what you like and what you don’t. Take nothing for granted and try to maintain a good balance between your personal and professional life.

[Author’s note: I wrote this biography a few years ago when I was still the Director of Clinical Training for the Doctoral Program in Clinical Forensic Psychology at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, The City University of New York. My wonderful friend and colleague, Dr. Michele Galietta, has since taken on the role of Director of Clinical Training.]

Dr. Antoinette Kavanaugh, Clinical Director, Juvenile Justice Division, Cook County Juvenile Court Clinic, Chicago, IL

Cook County Juvenile Court is the oldest Juvenile Court in the country and is a very large court system. The Cook County Juvenile Court Clinic (CCJCC) does many things, among which is conducting court-ordered forensic evaluations of youths and their families involved in the Juvenile Justice and Child Protection Divisions of the Court. As Clinical Director, I conduct juvenile justice forensic evaluations (e.g., sentencing, fitness, Miranda, and Not Guilty by Reason of Insanity), supervise doctoral level clinicians who also conduct evaluations as well as masters level professionals who are the liaisons to the courtroom, and train judges and lawyers about issues related to forensic psychology. I love my job! It is an exciting combination of clinical and administrative work. My job is unique in that it allows me to play a role in individual cases and bring about systems change in juvenile forensic work.

My graduate training was not forensic but was psychodynamic in nature, and primarily with adults. Now I realize my training gave me a solid clinical foundation, which is fundamental when conducting evaluations. During graduate school I participated in mock trials at the law school, through this and other experiences, I realized that I wanted to become a forensic psychologist. I completed my internship at Cook County Hospital in Chicago. This allowed me to work with adults, adolescents, and children while providing exposure to forensic evaluations. During internship, I decided that I wanted my clinical focus to be working with adolescents and adults. As I felt I needed more clinical experience with adolescents, I also completed an Adolescent Fellowship at Cook County Hospital. After this fellowship, I completed a Forensic Postdoctoral Fellowship at the University of Massachusetts, where my area of emphasis was conducting forensic evaluations of adolescents. By far, my forensic fellowship was both the most difficult and most rewarding year of training to date. It was difficult because my knowledge of forensic issues was very limited. Consequently, I had a steep learning curve, but it was well worth it. The things that made it worth it were: first and foremost the supervision (good supervision is invaluable), second the variety of cases, and last but not least were the other fellows. After my postdoc, I worked at the Clinical Evaluation and Services Initiative (CESI) in Chicago. This was a McArthur sponsored project in which we designed a new model for the court clinic, piloted and implemented the model court wide; thus becoming the CCJCC. I am not a researcher per se. However, as a clinical forensic psychologist it is imperative that I am knowledgeable of the research, literature, and case law in the areas in which I practice.

Finally, if you are contemplating becoming a clinical forensic psychologist—go for it! I urge you to develop your clinical skills. You cannot conduct a forensic evaluation without utilizing your clinical skills. However, you also cannot conduct a forensic evaluation without being knowledgeable of the forensic area at hand. Consequently, you also need forensic training; nationally there are many opportunities for obtaining this training.