This is the 2007 version. Click here for the 2017 chapter 14 table of contents.

Forensic Psychology

Forensic psychology is literally court-related psychology, but the term is usually applied to police work such as criminal investigation. Relatively suddenly, in the late 1990s, many students became interested in forensic psychology. Perhaps it was the publication of FBI "profiler" John Douglas's best-selling book, or the appearance of several TV programs starring profilers who develop uncanny intuitions about the personal characteristics of uncaught murderers.

One student at our university who was interested in forensic psychology found that there were no undergraduate courses devoted to the topic. That is common. As of 2000 there was only one undergraduate program in forensic psychology in the entire United States, at the specialized John Jay College in New York City. Since then, for-profit institutions, including technical colleges, have responded to the economic opportunity by offering courses in forensic psychology. Such courses may be helpful for a student seeking entry level positions in a prison system.

How did a student arrange to take a course in forensic psychology?

The student in question wanted to stay within the programs at our medium-sized public university. The solution to her problem was the field experience course available to psychology majors, which allowed individual placements in psychology-relevant settings. The student contacted people at the Atlanta city jail, close to where she grew up, and she received approval to serve as a volunteer there during the summer when she was living back home. She was required to keep a daily journal about her experiences, and she received academic credit for her volunteer work through the Field Experience course number. She was a senior psychology major who had taken courses like Abnormal Psychology, Social Psychology, and Behavior Modification. All of these courses she found to be relevant to her summer field experience.

What was the undergraduate student allowed to do?

During the summer, the student did intake interviews (collecting information from prisoners when they arrived), talked to prisoners in their cells when they needed a good listener, and ran errands for the professional staff. Of course, she could not make important decisions or administer mental tests. Those responsibilities had to be performed by a licensed psychologist. However, the student's work was appreciated; she was offered a job when her field experience course ended.

Due to the surge of interest in forensic psychology, many good web sites provide information for students. See, for example, this URL:


The everyday activities of a real-world forensic psychologist usually involve testing, talking, and counseling, not coming up with a psychological profile of a serial killer. However, the "profiler" stereotype does have its real-world counterpart in the work of John Douglas of the FBI and the earlier work of James Brussel.

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