How to Become a Forensic Psychologist

Peter D. Schulz is a forensic psychologist in Cary, North Carolina. He runs his own practice, Triangle Forensic Psychologists. Peter earned his PsyD at Wheaton College and he has spent more than 20 years in the forensic psychology field. Peter previously worked for the US Department of Justice, and he has served as an expert witness in countless court cases throughout his career.

What is a forensic psychologist?

A forensic psychologist (FP) is a licensed psychologist who operates as a mental health expert in areas that overlap into the legal system. The FP almost always has a doctorate degree in psychology with a fair amount of specialized training in legal issues. Unlike most psychologists, the FP does not do treatment (therapy) with clients but assessments or consultations designed to answer specific legal issues. Sometimes the issues are of a criminal nature (e.g., Is the defendant competent to stand trial? Is he responsible for his criminal behavior? Is the criminal a danger to society? What deviations to sentencing guidelines should be considered?). Other times the issues have to deal with civil matters (e.g., Is the employee fit or safe to be in the workplace? Is the victim psychologically damaged from an accident or assault? Which parent is better suited to have custody of a child after a divorce? What demographics should be considered of potential jurors during jury selection?). The FP can either work for a government agency (e.g., prison, psychiatric hospital, Dept. of Justice, police dept.) specifically designed to assist the legal system or he/she can work in a private or group practice that is hired by various entities (e.g., law firms, insurance/disability companies, human resource managers) to provide services for a set fee.

Why did you decide to become a forensic psychologist?

After providing outpatient psychotherapy for many years, I grew tired of how subjective the process of treatment can become. I longed to operate more in the scientific realm of psychology where symptoms of a diagnosis had to be verified, quantified, and measured against a legal statute that would ultimately be evaluated by a judge or jury. Unlike a treating psychologist who generally has a caseload of clients who are seen weekly or monthly for therapy sessions, I liked the nonroutine variety of constantly seeing different individuals for one-time evaluations without assuming responsibility for treating their problems.

Are there common misperceptions about your profession?

It is nothing like how it is portrayed by Hollywood. Most of the work involves lengthy interviews with challenging individuals, countless hours of reading records, and even more hours of writing detailed reports. Going to crime scenes or solving crimes is not included in the job description.

What is a typical day like for you?

When I previously worked for the Federal Bureau of Prisons as a FP, it was a structured 8-5, M-F job that involved interviewing and testing pretrial inmates for federal courts across the country to determine if the inmate was mentally competent or criminally responsible for their behavior at the time of the crime. At the conclusion of the evaluation, a detailed report with pertinent findings was submitted to the Court with the understanding that I could be called at some point in the future to testify in Court.

In private practice, every day is different. My workweek fluctuates between 20 and 60 hours per week. I typically focus more on civil cases instead of criminal cases, so the referral question helps dictate if an evaluation will last two hours or two days. Thus, some weeks I only do two evaluations (including record review, interview, testing, and report writing) while other weeks I do up to 20 evaluations. One benefit of private practice is the freedom to pick the types of cases you do and do not want to conduct, which in turn determines how many hours you want to work in a given week.

What are your favorite aspects of your job?

The biggest reward is the knowledge that in some small way you help the justice system work effectively. By operating as an expert witness, your evaluations help equip the decision-maker (e.g., judge, jury, employer, insurance adjuster, etc.) to make intelligent decisions on very important matters. As a result, the wheels of justice run a little smoother as victims get justly compensated, malingerers get denied unwarranted claims, quality candidates get hired for vital jobs, criminals get proper sentences, and psychiatrically unstable individuals receive much-needed treatment.

What are your least favorite aspects of your job?

In this line of work, you see aspects of society that can be difficult to stomach. Rapists, murderers, child molesters, suicidal individuals, unwanted children, hostile employees, unethical attorneys, depressed people in chronic pain, violent predators, innocent victims, delusional psychotics, apathetic officers, pathological liars, and severe burn victims can all be the people you spend your day interviewing for hours at a time. As an unbiased forensic expert, you need to know how to not let disgust, sympathy, fascination, or any other personal reaction taint your ability to remain objective in formulating a final opinion.

Is there anything you would have done differently while studying to become a forensic psychologist?

Rather than earn a bachelor’s degree, master’s degree, and then a doctorate degree (11 years!), I would have eliminated the master’s degree and used that time to work a few more years in the mental health field before going from the bachelor’s to the doctorate. Most of the classes in the master’s program were redundant once I started the doctorate program.

I would have also taken more law classes to better familiarize myself with legal terminology, concepts, and case law. In addition, it would have been helpful to take a class on how to start and operate a business, corporation, or private practice.

What classes did you take in college that are the most relevant to your job?

Clinical interviewing skills, psychopathology, statistics, public speaking, professional report writing, forensic psychology, and all classes related to psychological testing.

What personality traits do you think would help someone to be a successful forensic psychologist?

Confidence, thirst for knowledge, self-starter, thick skin, good listener, able to multitask, logical, problem solver, strong work ethic, and superb organizational skills.

What personality traits do you think might hinder someone’s success as a forensic psychologist?

Being gullible is an obvious disqualifier as most evaluations require you to think critically and recognize the hidden agendas of very manipulative people. Procrastination is another negative as almost all evaluations involve rather tight deadlines. Needing to fix people’s problems or becoming emotionally involved will take a major toll on you as your role is to remain objective without allowing yourself to take sides or get swayed by emotions.

One of the most damaging traits is the need to be liked or admired. In forensics, the legal arena generally consists of opposing sides (plaintiff v. defendant, claimant v. insurance company, employer v. employee, etc.) who do not agree on an issue involving mental health. Thus, the results of your evaluation will generally make one side pleased with your findings and the other very unhappy with you. No matter how thorough, factual, tactful, and ethical you are in your assessment; there is usually an opposing side that will be losing a case, claim, job, etc. Therefore, having someone upset with you is generally a common element that cannot be prevented. Sometime these disgruntled individuals will slander your reputation, make ethical complaints against you, and file frivolous lawsuits against you out of anger just to spite you. If you do not handle conflict well or lose sleep at night knowing someone is angry with you, then this is not the right profession for you.

What advice, or words of caution, would you give to a student who is considering studying to become a forensic psychologist?

First, you need a doctorate degree to excel in this field. Many states are licensing master’s level individuals as psychologists, but unless an attorney can refer to you as “doctor” when you take the witness stand in court, the odds are stacked against you to get hired doing forensic cases.

Second, some of the best places to get experience in forensic psychology as a student are at psychiatric hospitals and large prisons with hospital wards. Not only will you be exposed to select portions of the legal system but you will sharpen your diagnostic skills with very challenging patients.

Third, learn to love to write reports. Almost half of my time is spent writing complex reports that are submitted to courts, major corporations, law enforcement agencies, and law firms. Your written work represents you and is a legal document that will be treated as evidence in court. Thus, make sure you possess excellent writing skills and are able to explain highly complex information in a convincing yet user-friendly report.