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:
- 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 biographies are a great read. Enjoy!
Non-Academic Research Psychologist
Dr. Marisa Reddy Randazzo, Chief Research Psychologist and Research Coordinator, National Threat Assessment Center, U.S. Secret Service
I currently serve as the chief research psychologist and research coordinator for the U.S. Secret Service, working in their National Threat Assessment Center. In this capacity, I direct all Secret Service research on threat assessment and various types of violence, including assassination, stalking, school shootings, workplace shootings, and terrorism. The day-to-day aspects of my job include developing research ideas, forming partnerships with other government agencies, collaborating with consultants, implementing study plans, overseeing the work of the project managers who run the studies, and translating research findings into training modules relevant for law enforcement operations. As part of my job, I regularly conduct training for local, state, and federal law enforcement personnel, for agencies in the U.S. intelligence community, and for school and corporate security personnel. On occasion, I have to brief members of Congress, Cabinet secretaries, and White House staff.
In general, my career has focused on understanding and preventing violent behavior, and on the interface of behavioral science and criminal justice. Throughout my 10 years with the Secret Service (the past eight as a full-time employee, and before that as a part-time research intern), my research and training activities have focused on applying threat assessment principles and behavioral analysis to better understand and prevent targeted violence against public officials and other protected persons; in schools and the workplace; and against critical infrastructures and information systems. Prior to joining the Secret Service full time, I was awarded the SPSSI James Marshall Public Policy Fellowship at the American Psychological Association (APA), where I worked with congressional staff on violence- prevention legislation and authored testimony for congressional hearings.
For students considering a career in psychology and law outside of academia, I highly recommend two things: (a) early and ongoing involvement in APLS to get a full understanding of the breadth of career options in the field; and, (b) pursuing internship opportunities wherever possible. I credit being active in APLS as a student member with helping to land my first job within the Secret Service and with helping me explore opportunities in other psychology and law settings while still in graduate school. It was through serving as the chair of the APLS Student Section that I first met the psychologist who oversaw psychology and law research at the Secret Service and found out the Secret Service has an internship program.
I actually interned for the Secret Service for 20 hours a week for a year – without pay! –while in my last year of graduate school. The experience was a valuable lesson in helping me understand the type of environment in which I wanted to work and seeing real-life applications of psychology and law research. My other summer internships during graduate school – at the Federal Judicial Center, the RAND Corporation, and APA’s Public Policy Office – offered similar lessons in helping me clarify what I wanted out of my career. One piece of advice on pursuing internships: If an organization does not have an internship program, consider volunteering your time (photocopying, filing, answering phones, anything) or ask to spend some time shadowing one of their psychologists. Any exposure to a setting where you may want to work can offer insights into realities of the job (both god and bad!) and may even help strengthen your candidacy for a position by making you a ‘known’ applicant.
It is quite common that people don’t know what they want to do when they “grow up.” I think I knew in high school when I volunteered at a nearby state mental hospital. There I gained exposure to persons with chronic and severe mental illness. Some 15 years later, after remaining in psychology, but being minimally involved in issues surrounding mental health, I have come full circle and conduct research on mental health and the law. I am now at Policy Research Associates (PRA), a privately owned firm dedicated to the interface between mental health and criminal justice issues.
My first involvement with psychology and the law was though a research assistantship at the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, working with Michael Lamb and his colleagues. During the two years I spent there, I assisted on projects relating to children’s disclosures of sexual abuse. I was hooked and knew I had much more to learn. From NICHD, I left for UC Davis to obtain my doctoral degree with Gail S. Goodman, the “founding mother” of child witness research. The five years I spent with Gail were extremely fruitful; in addition to gaining an education in psychology, generally, and psychology and the law, specifically, I gained an education in how to be a research psychologist. That is, being a researcher is not simply about “knowing your stuff” (which of course you need to succeed as well), but being a researcher also entails all of the unspoken rules and offerings of precious advice on how to achieve success. My first piece of advice is to seek out mentors and don’t just limit yourself to your advisor. I have found that most people are nice, even the ones you find intimidating. Having a helpful, hard-working, and caring mentor—especially in graduate school—can make all the difference. If you are at the stage of applying to grad schools, go to the school in person and talk to your would-be advisor and talk to the current graduate students. I have seen several instances of people dropping out of programs because they lacked the proper mentorship to keep them on track.
After UC Davis, I completed a postdoctoral internship at Stanford University, in the Department of Psychiatry. Admittedly, it was difficult at first to step into a psychiatry department from a psychology department. The two are different disciplines with different methods and trainings. After some initial stubbornness, I adapted and was able to continue my education by learning about mental and substance use disorders in juvenile offenders. From there, it was an easy transition into my current position at PRA.
My official title is Senior Research Associate. What I do is conduct research, all day, every day. I still conduct research relevant to psychology and the law. More specifically, I work on projects concerning mandated treatment of persons with mental illness, the majority of which are funded by the MacArthur Network on Community Mandated Treatment. I also continue to conduct research on police interrogations and confessions. My position as a researcher in a non-academic setting allows me the freedom and time to study the issues that are important to me. Finally, I try not to limit my world to PRA. I remain active in societies, such as APLS and Child, Youth, and Family Services (Division 37, APA), consult on legal cases, and collaborate with colleagues.
Throughout my career, I have been fortunate to work with luminaries in the field. This is most certainly not something I had to give up when I came to PRA. I remain quite productive and feel like I’m on the cutting edge of research on mental health and the law. If I was asked as a graduate student whether I would end up in a “non-academic research” setting, I don’t know what my answer would have been. I don’t think it was something I had to decide at that point though. Thus, my second piece of advice is to keep your options open. Don’t box yourself in to specific titles. Do what it takes to be prolific and productive and this by itself will give you the flexibility to choose what is right for you at any point on your career path.