Undergraduate Student Mentee Interview with Forensic Psychologist Mentor
Student Mentee: I saw that your had your own firm, and I was just wondering what your day-to-day responsibilities were and what it is like to be a forensic psychologist.
Forensic Psychologist Mentor: So, a forensic psychologist is essentially a psychologist that has gone on to develop an understanding an expertise in the legal process as it overlaps with psychological practice.
We use psychological methods, like interviewing people and psychological testing, in order to assist the judicial system with making legal determinations concerning a variety of different issues (potentially a law suit due to a motor vehicle accident or potentially whether or not someone is suitable and meets the standards to be executed under the death penalty). So, there is a variety of different ways that we use our tools as psychologists in order to help the legal system.
When you are engaged in that type of work, and when you are using psychology that way, then you are practicing as a forensic psychologist.
So, on a day-to-day basis, I am interviewing people, I am administering psychological testing, I am writing long reports that are very scientifically detailed, so that they are prepared for scrutiny in courts. Then on occasion, I have to attend depositions or trials to testify before a judge or jury about that report. So that is what my day-to-day looks like.
Student Mentee: Wow, that is very interesting….I am just wondering how would you suggest that I find internships or opportunities to get meaningful experiences out of it.
Forensic Psychologist Mentor: That is a tough question because of what you alluded to. If a law firm refers someone to me, it is often the case that that firm may not be comfortable with someone observing the interview or being present. Essentially, you can end up being called as some type of witness in court and that will be problematic for a variety of reasons, right? As an intern.
A lot of the agencies we deal with are very concerned about the privacy rights of individuals because it is not like these individuals are choosing to come to us often times. They are being required to. In other words, their liberties are being taken away from them and they are being forced to come and see us. So, to have someone else observe it, that is just even more of an infringement upon their privacy; and agencies are often reluctant to allow that.
I believe that the closest you would be able to consistently see the work of a forensic psychologist at your stage would be to work in some type of jail or prison as an intern. This is technically known as correctional psychology, but these correctional psychologists are assessing people emergently and determining whether or not they are competent, and what’s their risk for re-offense as they near their release date.
So, I would suggest checking out local prisons and jails to see what is happening. I do not suggest cold-calling forensic psychologist or randomly e-mailing them saying hi; because believe it or not, we actually get a lot of those emails from people, a lot of them. And usually, they get ignored. So, I do not suggest doing that.
Student Mentee: Okay. I just wanted to ask, I am not a US citizen, so do you think that local jails and prisons and like law enforcement would like consider that like in taking on a student, who is not a US citizen?
Forensic Psychologist Mentor: Okay, I am uncertain because I have never been presented with that issue before. I can tell you when I go into a correctional environment, they usually want to run a background check on me first. They ask for my social security number and address; and when I go there, they want to see ID like a driver’s license. So, if you don’t have a social security number and you don’t have a driver’s license then I am not sure how they will process your background to determine that you are safe to enter into the facility.
Student Mentee: Right. So, you do not think that my passport or like my I-20 or like any of those documents would be allowed.
Forensic Psychologist Mentor: So, I would have to guess, which is something a forensic psychologist doesn’t like to do. We do not want to do things based on inference, but if I had to guess, I would say no.
Student Mentee: Okay great. So my next question was just about applying to graduate school and I again saw in your bio that you had pre-doctoral experiences. Was that before graduate school, just to be sure? What experiences do you think that you had the most important that you believe make you stand out?
Forensic Psychologist Mentor: You have to have the basics as you know GPA has to be up there, you have to have a good GRE score, both the regular GRE and the subject specific GRE in psychology. So, assuming that all of those things are there, I think you will standout if you’re bilingual, which I trust you are. That would help you. Your ability to relocate is something that would be helpful. If you are trying to just stay in the New York area, there is a lot of aspiring psychologists there; so, it can become challenging.
Student Mentee: So, my next question is about research and whether you think that is part of it. How do I find research and like get people to let me assist; particularly in forensic psychology?
Forensic Psychologist Mentor: So the specialization in the area of forensic psychology does not occur until postdoctoral years, meaning after you have already completed graduate school, master’s and doctor degree. At that point, people start becoming more experienced and specialized in the area of forensic practice. I would not suggest solely going after forensic mental health research experiences. I would suggest just finding a professor that you know has active research going on and it seems like a professor whose personality you enjoy, that seems very approachable. Tell them you would like to become involved and volunteer. That is what I did and that paid off for me. I was picked up by a social psychologist, and I was able to use that as a benefit in my application for graduate school. I also got a job at a residential treatment program for severe and persistent mental illness. So, I got a job there essentially just observing their behavior, taking light case notes and just getting exposed to what psychopathology looks like. That also helped my application. I did not pursue anything forensic specific until my fourth year of my doctoral training when I got a job working in a prison.
Student Mentee: Okay, that is interesting. That is good to know.
I was actually aiming to go to a graduate school in the UK, they have a great program there in doctorate in clinical forensic psychology. It is a three-year program and it is a masters in criminology and that sort of might be combined here in the US after I graduate. It is better for me financially. So if I do get into a good school here and I will try my best and I will receive As then I will stay, but I would have to leave the country if not, so, I am going to be pursuing that course of that sort.
Forensic Psychologist Mentor: Something you should know is that many (if not most) doctoral programs that I am aware of, that are university-based, waive your tuition; meaning, they actually pay you to go there. You will be paid a stipend to teach undergraduate courses and to help out with research. So, in terms of tuition, I did not have to pay anything. I was not aware of that until I actually went to interview that if I get in it will be free, so that was really good news to here at that time.
Student Mentee: Yeah, definitely that is. So that’s pretty great news.
Forensic Psychologist Mentor: This is only university based programs; however, not professional schools.
Student Mentee: Right, that makes sense. Okay that is the really good thing to hear. I would definitely look into that more.