A young woman who was working on a high school assignment recently contacted me to ask questions about forensic psychology. She asked several thoughtful questions, including this one: What are the qualities of a good forensic psychologist?
In the course of my 30-year career as a forensic psychologist, I have encountered enough forensic psychologists to give me an idea about the qualities that distinguish the best from all the others. Four qualities stand out, in my opinion.
• First and foremost is objectivity. Maintaining objectivity, however, involves other qualities, including the ability to resist the pressure to be an advocate not just for your own ideas, but for the side that has retained you. Being able to resist pressure from others, in turn, requires self-confidence, or what is often referred to as “ego strength.”
A forensic psychologist who is unable to maintain objectivity will almost certainly be seen as merely a “hired gun” who will say anything for money. Once you are seen in this light by a judge or jury, your opinions will have little effect, and instead of helping your client, you will accomplish the opposite result.
• Critical thinking is also of the greatest importance. A good forensic psychologist must have the ability to do the research necessary to answer the questions posed by the case, which in turn requires an ability to evaluate the scientific and professional literature with a critical eye. Does this published study actually demonstrate what the authors say it demonstrates, and if so, do the results truly have implications for the question at hand?
A forensic psychologist who fails to think critically risks being refuted by the other side’s forensic expert, who will show the judge or jury that the scientific studies being relied upon are either flawed, or are beside the point. Once it is shown that you have uncritically relied upon unhelpful sources, all of your opinions will be seen as questionable.
• Thoroughness and an attention to detail are essential. This quality requires perseverance and a willingness to work until you can honestly say that no stone has been left unturned.
A forensic psychologist who is not thorough or who tends to skim over details will sooner or later miss important facts or an important study. Once the other side points out these omissions, your opinions will not be seen as trustworthy.
• An ability to communicate is also essential. Simply put, it is necessary to be able to express and explain your opinions clearly and forcefully, both in writing and orally.
A forensic psychologist who is unable to state and explain his or her opinions will not be effective, regardless of how sound the opinions might be. Effective communication, of course, requires not only careful preparation, but also considerable practice, perhaps with guidance provided by others who have greater experience.
The qualities I’ve described are partially, but not entirely, the product of a long period of personal development. Guidance provided by others is essential, in my opinion, and it is for this reason that I’ve prepared a low-cost audio-visual program designed to help the beginner develop the necessary qualities. Click here to see what’s in the program and to order it.
Shirley Feldman-Summers, Ph.D.