Read a forensic psychology professor’s expert opinion on getting your forensic psychology degree.
Dr. Linda Daniels
PsyD in Clinical Psychology
Professor, Massachusetts School of Professional Psychology; Co-director, Forensic Psychology Program, MSPP
Besides being a forensic psychology professor, Dr. Daniels has extensive experience as a senior psychologist in the New York State Juvenile Court system, is a court-qualified expert witness, and has served as a panel expert and as a featured guest on television and at professional conferences.
She is also an American Academy of Forensic Psychology board-certified expert in traumatic stress and emergency crisis management. She serves as a consultant with the Transportation Security Administration for Homeland Security and is the author of Healing Journeys: How Trauma Survivors Learn to Live Again.
Did you always want to become a forensic psychologist professor?
My initial interest was in working with people diagnosed with severe and persistent mental illnesses. It was not until my work as a Senior Psychologist in a New York Court Clinic that I felt I found my calling.
What are the biggest misperceptions that students have about the field?
The biggest misperception students have about the field is that they often confuse forensic psychology with the forensic sciences. Many believe that forensic psychology is identical to television programs where physical evidence from a crime scene, or the bodies of victims, are studied in order to help determine potential perpetrators and gather clues about the cause of death. This is mainly because the forensic sciences also overlap with numerous fields, including forensic anthropology, for example, the study of human remains to identify a victim, and forensic linguistics, which is the evaluation of language-related characteristics to profile a particular offender.
In contrast, forensic psychologists generally assess, evaluate, diagnose and study the human mind as it relates to the law. Among other things, forensic psychologists are often called upon to evaluate individuals in cases where criminal responsibility, competency to stand trial, and dangerousness become legal issues in a particular case. Forensic psychologists also often are called to testify as expert witnesses in both civil and criminal cases where the mental state of the defendant is at issue. Some forensic psychologists consult in trials assisting attorneys in jury selection, witness preparation, opening and closing statements and a host of other psychological services.
Additionally, forensic consulting and psychological profiling services are also performed by forensic psychologists. In fact, there are many, many niches for the forensically-trained psychologist in the legal field.
In your opinion, what character traits make for the best forensic psychologist?
A passion for providing assessment, evaluation and care to those who are forensically-involved is first. It’s also essential to have a strong desire to share one’s knowledge and expertise in the legal system in order to help the judges and juries make informed decisions about a person’s guilt or innocence. Also, the desire to be an agent of legal reform and public policy in areas that intersect law and psychology is necessary.
What was the most unexpected surprise about forensic psychology when you began to practice?
The differences between the “legal” versus “psychological” definitions of psychological terms. Many legal terms do not correspond to psychological constructs or terms. For example, the terms “psychopath” is not recognized as a personality disorder. Rather, antisocial personality disorder or dissocial personality disorder are the closest disorders to the term “psychopath.”
Another term is the word “insane.” While a person may be found “not guilty by reason of insanity” (i.e., not criminally responsible) in a court of law, the term “insane” is not a diagnosis. These examples highlight why it is important for the forensic psychologist to be clear in describing the field’s definitions and explanations of human behavior when engaging in this intersection between psychology and law.
How do you see the forensic psychology field changing in the next decade?
I believe there will be increased reliance on what forensic psychologists have to say with regard to human behavior in the legal field that also will entail greater accountability and professional responsibility for forensic psychologists.
If someone asked you, “What do you do most of the time as a forensic psychologist?” how would you respond?
As a forensic psychologist, most of the time I’m teaching and training doctoral students to become forensic psychologists, as well as consulting with federal and state agencies.
What is the most challenging part of your job?
I do not see any part of my job as challenging. Rather, I believe all parts of my job are rewarding and exciting.
Is there anything about your job you would change?
Do you have any advice for a potential forensic psychology student?
My advice to potential forensic psychology students is to learn all you can about the field, narrow your interests down to an area that you feel is best for you, and “go for it” with great passion—and in an ethical manner.