A master’s degree in forensic and legal psychology opens many doors: graduates work in anything from intelligence analysis to jury consulting to police psychology. Here I’ve answered five frequently asked questions about the degree, including Marymount’s own program.
1. What are the differences between legal and clinical forensic psychology?
The discipline of legal and forensic psychology (FLP) covers a wide variety of areas involving psychology and the legal system. Marymount’s program balances traditional psychological knowledge and skills with a specialized understanding of the legal system. It prepares students to work in many of these areas, but not for licensure as a clinician. In some of these jobs, for example working in a detention center, graduates may work directly with prisoners but under the supervision of a licensed clinician; they would not be eligible to work in private practice.
For students who do want to become licensed as a clinician, Marymount offers a clinical mental health counseling option for students in the FLP Program. This is an opportunity to earn both a Master of Arts in forensic and legal psychology and a Master of Arts in clinical mental health counseling, while completing the academic requirements needed for licensure as a professional counselor (LPC).
2. What types of jobs do graduates of these programs pursue?
Examples are jobs in intelligence analysis, counterterrorism, child victimization, victims’ assistance and victim advocacy, probation and parole, jails and prisons, sex offender treatment programs, consultation to law enforcement, jury consulting, capital case mitigation and sentencing, police psychology, federal and state law enforcement, public policy, human rights and human trafficking organizations, and research.
3. What are some common misunderstandings about forensic psychology graduate programs? What is the reality?
Because of the current interest in television shows and the media, many students are intrigued by profiling. Profiling does not involve pinpointing a particular criminal perpetrator, but rather examining a crime scene to develop a hypothesis concerning what type of person might have committed the crime.
Rather than profiling, this type of work is generally referred to under the broader category of criminal investigative analysis. To work in this area in the FBI, for example, one usually must have years of prior experience in the FBI. However, the analytic skills involved in this type of work are applicable to many areas of the FLP field. An example is the type of analytic work used at The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, where a number of our graduates have found internships and employment.
A second misconception concerns the accreditation of our program. Marymount University is accredited by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS), but forensic programs, unless they are a specialization within a clinical degree, do not have accrediting bodies.
4. What are the ways that Marymount’s program differs from other common programs?
Marymount’s program is unique in several ways. Our location in the Washington, DC area gives students access to many valuable internships, such as with the FBI and other federal agencies; a number of court systems; private legal firms; and research, policy, and advocacy organizations. Over the 14 years since the inception of our program, we have built up a great many of these partnerships. Frequently, these internships result in employment after graduation for our students.
Another way Marymount’s program is unique is in the variety of courses offered. In addition to our courses in criminal behavior, psychopathology and assessment, and legal reasoning, we have recently instituted a concentration in intelligence studies and begun to offer courses on prostitution and human trafficking. The program also offers a course in behavioral criminology taught by a retired FBI Supervisory Special Agent, and courses in individual and country profiling taught by the former Director of Psychological Operations for the Air Force.
We also have courses that involve real-world application of forensic skills. For example, the wrongful convictions course, now in its seventh year, examines an actual prisoner who has been convicted of murder and is thought to be wrongfully convicted. The cases are referred by the Innocence Project or private attorneys, and the course is team-taught by a forensic professor and a retired homicide detective. The students examine crime scene evidence, witness testimony, police procedures, psychological examinations, and the trial transcript to come to their own conclusion about guilt or innocence, and this information is then forwarded to the attorneys.
Finally, Marymount is unique in that it offers a number of opportunities for students to participate in short-term study abroad courses. Students have studied in London, Sweden, and Israel/Palestine, and trips are currently planned for Cambodia and the Czech Republic.
5. What do you recommend for someone interested in studying forensic psychology? Any recommended reading?
It is helpful for students to read a wide variety of books about the field and to follow forensic and legal issues in the media. One interesting book is, which discusses the reasons law enforcement sometimes goes down the wrong path resulting in the conviction of an innocent defendant. Documentaries about the legal system; articles critically discussing investigative techniques, media coverage of crime, and psychological issues involved in high-profile criminal cases; as well as discussions of important policy issues such as Supreme Court decisions, drug laws, police-community relations, and capital punishment will also help students develop a good background for beginning a Master’s program.
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Dr. Mary Lindahl has been teaching at Marymount since the fall of 2001, and served as the chair of the Department of Forensic and Legal Psychology until 2008. Her research interests include law and society, victimology, post-traumatic stress disorder, and child abuse.