What is it like to practice as a forensic psychologist?

Before setting out on a path to develop a forensic practice, it’s natural and reasonable to ask: What will my life be like, once my practice is established?

In the absence of survey data, I cannot say how all or even most forensic psychologists would answer this question. I can offer my own perspective, however. That is, I can say what it’s been like for me over the course of 30-plus years as a forensic psychologist.  I’ve listed below the points that stand out for me:

• The work has never been repetitious and dull. Although some of my cases have required me to address similar questions, the factual and/or legal issues have always been different. As a result, every case has presented its own unique problem-solving challenge. Your mind will always be kept active.

• Virtually every case has presented an opportunity for me to share what I have learned about psychological processes with others; i.e., with the parties and their attorneys, or in some cases, with a judge and jury. Being in a position to help others acquire a better understanding of human behavior is gratifying.

• The work has involved doing on a daily basis what my education and training prepared me to do, for example, to analyze data so as to test hypotheses, to think critically about research findings, to acquire and integrate information from multiple sources, to diagnose mental disorders and to describe what I have learned in a coherent presentation, whether orally or in writing. In short, you will probably experience a sense of continuity from the past to the present.

• Maintaining my own forensic practice has provided a sense of independence and freedom that has been unmatched by anything else I have ever done. It is liberating to be able to decide which cases to take, and to set your fees in accordance with what you believe is fair and appropriate.

• There are often moments when the “adrenaline” will flow, for example, when events in the courtroom or actions by the other side make it necessary to complete a task sooner than you expected, or when you are being called on to explain and defend your opinions.

• Underlying all of my forensic work has been the belief that it has societal value, in that it contributes to the just and peaceful resolution of disputes in which psychological issues are involved. Psychologists have made significant contributions to the judicial resolution of some of our most important societal issues, such as segregation in our public schools. Knowing that you are playing your own role in our justice system will probably be a continuing source of satisfaction for you.

• For the most part, my forensic work involves limited interactions with others. Although there are occasions when others are involved or are present, such as when interviews are underway or when a deposition or courtroom hearing is taking place, most of the work — the reading, the writing and the thinking — is done alone.

It’s conceivable that other forensic psychologists would answer the question posed at the outset in a quite different way, or would endorse some of the points but would reject others. For the most part, however, I suspect that most forensic psychologists would find common ground with what I have said here.

If you have any questions, please contact me. I will do my best to answer them.

Shirley Feldman-Summers, Ph.D. 

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