Career SpotlightForensic 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!

Policy Relevant Psychologist

Dr. Heather O-Beirne Kelly, Science Public Policy Office, American Psychological Association, Washington, D.C.

In Washington, I think one of the most fascinating intersections of psychology and law occurs in Congress. I work in the Science Public Policy Office of the American Psychological Association (APA), and part of my job is to bring science, and the science of psychology in particular, to bear on the federal legislative process. This can take the form of lobbying Members of Congress directly on substantive issues about which a body of psychological research has something to say, and it can also entail more indirect ways of highlighting the relevance of scientific psychology on Capitol Hill, such as holding briefings and bringing in psychologists to testify before Congressional committees.

There are many pathways into policy jobs as a psychologist, and I probably gravitated towards this world earlier in my career than most. I was an undergraduate psychology major at Smith College, and then worked in the Washington area for four years doing mostly non-profit development and fundraising before heading back to the University of Virginia for a doctorate in clinical psychology. UVA also has a fantastic community psychology program, and my graduate research interests in adolescent development took on a more community-level flavor while I was there. One graduate summer I came up to D.C. to work in APA’s Public Policy Office on a sexual education research project related to federal funding, and I was bitten by the policy bug all over again.

After the PhD and a clinical internship year at Children’s Hospital here in D.C., I knew I didn’t want full-time academia or clinical work, but something more policy related and ideally, flexible enough to allow me time at home with our young kids. This job is a perfect fit in terms of that flexibility (I work three days a week), but also in terms of combining my scientific and political interests and, frankly, in accommodating my short attention span! The pace of the research process didn’t suit me, while clinical work was rewarding but also incredibly draining and stressful. I find the fast-paced, often hectic world of science lobbying and Capitol Hill exciting, intellectually challenging, and yet not at all stressful. Projects have quick turnarounds and the topical variety is highly stimulating – one day I might be trying to convince a Hill staffer of the importance of basic research at the National Science Foundation, and the next I might be translating applied human factors research on perception into a briefing sheet for a Senator interested in night vision goggles.

The best preparation for this kind of work (other than really good writing and public speaking skills and a hefty dose of extroversion) are: a) a passion for “big” science and its place in the larger world – if you prefer discussion sections to methods sections, this might be for you! b) experience in translating research for a lay audience, which you can practice with your own work; c) graduate training and/or practical experience in community psychology, public policy, law, and political science; d) experience in local, state and federal advocacy, which you can seek at any point in your career, especially through professional associations like APA.