When the field of psychology and law began to expand in the 1970s, the majority of psychologists who conducted research or engaged in practice were not specifically trained in psychology and law. This began to change with the creation of the first psychology and law graduate program in the United States, when the University of Nebraska began its program in 1973. Since then, graduate programs have been established in many other universities in the United States, Canada, Europe, Australia, and elsewhere in the world.

While there are now many graduate programs in which specialized training in forensic psychology is available, a doctoral degree specifically in forensic psychology is not necessary to engage in work in the field. Many, even a majority, of psychologists have training in the traditional areas of psychology (e.g., clinical, social, experimental) and no formal graduate training in forensic psychology. These psychologists have typically participated in workshops and other continuing education programs to keep up-to-date with the latest advances in psychology and law. The number of forensic psychologists with formal graduate training in forensic psychology has gradually increased in the past 20 years as more programs have been initiated.

Graduate Programs

Graduate programs offer a number of options for training in forensic psychology. Some programs adopt the scientist-practitioner model of clinical training, offering basic research and practical training in clinical psychology but with an emphasis on forensic applications. Other programs are non-clinical in nature, focusing training on more traditional fields of psychology, such as social, developmental, or other experimental areas of psychology. A few programs offer joint-degree programs, with students obtaining a Ph.D. and a law degree.

Heilbrun’s Conceptualization of Training in Forensic Psychology

Heilbrun (2001) presented a table summarizing the approaches to training in forensic psychology. He conceptualized the training in a 2×3 model, in which research scholarship and applied activities can be taught within three major interest areas: Clinical, Experimental, and Legal. This is a useful model in that it shows that each interest area includes training and experiences in research and scholarship but also in the application of psychology to the legal system. Thus, students in clinical programs learn the basic research on assessment and intervention but also how to conduct forensic assessments and provide treatment in the legal context. Experimental students study basic research in memory, perception and other areas of experimental psychology, but also how to apply that research to consultation activities in the legal system, such as jury selection and expert testimony. Students in law schools who also receive some training in behavi

oral science learn about mental health law and legal movements, but also how to apply that to developing new law or to consult about policy and legislative change.

Law and Psychology Interest Areas (with associated training)
Clinical(clinical, counseling, school psychology) Experimental(social, developmental, cognitive, human experimental psychology Legal(law, some training in behavioral science)
Research/ Scholarship 1. Assessment tools2. Intervention effectiveness3. Epidemiology of relevant behaviors (e.g., violence, sexual offending) and disorders 1. Memory2. Perception3. Child development

4. Group decisionmaking

1. Mental health law2. Other law relevant to health and science3. Legal movements (law and social science, therapeutic jurisprudence, psychological jurisprudence)
Applied 1. Forensic assessment2. Treatment in legal context3. Integration of science (idiographic, nomethetic, reasoning) into practice 1. Consultation on jury selection2. Consultation on litigation strategy3. Consultation on “state of science”

4. Expert testimony on “state of science”

1. Policy and legislative consultation2. Model law development

Source: Heilbrun, K. (2001). Principles of forensic mental health assessment. New York: Kluwer Academic/Plenum.

Preparing for Graduate Training

Undergraduate students who wish to pursue a career in forensic psychology should be aware that admission to graduate programs in forensic psychology (or psychology more generally) is highly competitive, with most programs admitting fewer than 10% of applicants. Students will usually need to major in psychology, have outstanding grades and scores on the Graduate Record Exam (GRE), and excellent references. Students are advised to obtain as much research experience as possible, working in labs of professors as well as conducting their own research. Volunteer work or jobs in forensic psychology settings, such as juvenile detention centers or forensic hospitals, can also be helpful.

Click here for a list of Graduate Programs in Forensic Psychology

Excerpted from: Roesch, R., Zapf, P. A., & Hart, S. D. (2010). Forensic psychology and law. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley.

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