“I would tell a student who is interested in forensic psychology that they need to be mentally and emotionally strong. Enduring cross examination on the witness stand requires a certain keenness of intellect, backbone and strength.”

Dr. H.D. Kirkpatrick is a forensic psychologist with a private practice in Charlotte, North Carolina. He offers a range of forensic psychology evaluation services in both civil and criminal cases.Dr. Kirkpatrick earned his Doctor of Philosophy in Psychology from the Humanistic Psychology Institute in 1978. He also earned a Master of Education in Guidance and Counseling from the College of Human Development and Learning at University of North Carolina at Charlotte, as well as a Bachelor of Fine Arts from Harvard University. Dr. Kirkpatrick is a licensed clinical psychologist and marriage and family therapist, as well as a member of the American Academy of Forensic Psychology.

In your own words, what is a forensic psychologist?

Forensic psychology is the application of psychological methods, procedures and knowledge to a legal setting, such as civil law, criminal law or legislation.

As a forensic psychologist, I work in private practice addressing both civil and criminal cases. For civil cases, I usually get appointed by a family court to provide impartial expertise in high conflict, post-divorce custody matters.

Otherwise, I get appointed through a consent agreement, where both parties in the litigation for custody agree to have me appointed by court order. In that context, I often examine issues, such as parenting capacity, child abuse, personality disorders, child safety allegations and substance abuse. I might also be appointed by a juvenile court to help the Department of Social Services settle parenting issues involving the termination of parental rights, as well as offer consultation on abuse and neglect matters.

For criminal cases, I am often retained by the defense council to provide consultation on pre-sentencing or sentencing issues related to the defendant’s mental state at the time of the offense or the defendant’s competency to stand trial. Every so often, I determine whether or not an insanity plea is the appropriate route.

If a student said to you, “I am interested in becoming a forensic psychologist,” what would your response be?

I would tell a student who is interested in forensic psychology that they need to be mentally and emotionally strong. Enduring cross examination on the witness stand requires a certain keenness of intellect, backbone and strength. Not everybody can handle that type of pressure.

What level of education is necessary to become a forensic psychologist?

In order to become a forensic psychologist, students need to obtain a PhD in psychology, as well as licensure to practice psychology. Because there is no forensic psychology governing board or licensing structure, a great deal of variation exists among forensic psychologists in terms of their actual training and experience.

With that said, the American Psychological Association declared forensic psychology a specialization in 1995, I believe. The American Psychological Association grants certifications in various specializations, such as school psychology, criminal psychology, neuropsychology and now forensic psychology.

In order to qualify for this certification, students need to acquire a minimum of 5 years of post-doc experience in forensic psychology, submit their credentials to the American Academy of Forensic Psychology and pass an oral and written examination. The entire process takes about 2 years to complete. Currently, there are about 260 forensic psychologists with this certification. Although it is not required, I believe it is the best certificate to obtain in the field of forensic psychology.

After becoming a forensic psychologist, it is recommended that professionals complete continued education requirements, which can vary in each state. Although it is not a legal requirement, and only an ethical requirement, forensic psychologists should feel obligated to keep up with the knowledge and research in the field.

Why did you decide to become a forensic psychologist?

I decided to become a forensic psychologist because of my dual interest in psychology and law. After earning my PhD in psychology from the Humanistic Psychology Institute, now called Saybrook University, during the 1970s, I received a few referrals involving legal issues that sparked my interest. After graduating, I came across the emerging specialty of forensic psychology and decided to complete my post-doc at the University of California, Berkeley’s forensic psychology institute. Through this experience, I discovered my passion for the intersecting fields of psychology and law.

Personally, it is a good fit for me because I am able to work in both the legal and psychology worlds by investigating, thinking legally and testifying.

What were the biggest misconceptions that you had about becoming a forensic psychologist?

I think one of the biggest misconceptions about becoming a forensic psychologist is the limited career options in the field of forensic psychology. Due to the popularity of television shows like CSI, many people believe that forensic psychologists spend most of their time examining dead bodies and analyzing DNA and blood splatter evidence. There are actually many other career options for forensic psychologists, and most of us don’t solely perform that kind of work.

What do you enjoy most and least about being a forensic psychologist?

The most enjoyable aspect of being a forensic psychologist is the autonomy and freedom of working in a private practice. Because I am my own boss, I can set my own work schedule.

On the other hand, I consider not receiving vacation pay the least enjoyable aspect of being a forensic psychologist in private practice.

What is a typical day like for you?

On a typical day, I start by going over my daily schedule with my secretary. While my secretary is working on transcribing some of my forensic interviews, I meet with a few people who need to complete some court-ordered testing. In addition, I analyze data from other cases and draft a report on my laptop. Finally, I speak with other psychologists about out-of-state cases, and converse with attorneys about criminal matters.

How do you balance your work and your personal life?

One way that I balance my work and personal life is to have graduate-level interns work part-time at my office. Currently I am working with an intern who has her PhD, but wants to refine her skills in performing child custody evaluations.

In addition to receiving outside help, I try to maintain clear boundaries between my professional and personal life, but this is not always possible. Certain cases get under my skin and keep me awake at night if they happen to be particularly challenging.

What personality traits do you think would help someone succeed as a forensic psychologist and what traits would hinder success?

To become a successful forensic psychologist, you need to be intellectually curious. A good forensic psychologist investigates a case from multiple angles and collects corroboratory data points for every assertion made.

On the other hand, if you lack integrity, you may struggle in the field of forensic psychology. It is important to be honest when working in the court system as a trusted expert.

Looking back at your formal education, is there anything you would have done differently?

I don’t think I would have done anything differently in my formal education. Although my undergraduate degree in fine arts is largely unrelated to forensic psychology, it taught me how to appreciate the aesthetics of sculpture and painting and decipher an artist’s intended message. As a result, I developed an appreciation for stepping outside of myself and learning how to empathize with another human being. These skills, particularly the ability to empathize, informed my approach to therapy in the forensic psychology field.

Are there any extra-curricular experiences that you think a student interested in becoming a forensic psychologist should pursue?

A prospective forensic psychologist should join professional groups and organizations, such as the American Academy of Forensic Psychology, to become involved with the forensic psychology community. This allows for intellectual stimulation, as well as the exchange of ideas and information. As a member of the American Academy of Forensic Psychology, I interact and consult with other members from all over the country on the academy’s web page. I am also a member of multiple professional groups that hold seminars and conferences, usually centered on a particular topic in forensic psychology, family law or child abuse and neglect.

What classes did you take during your schooling that you have found to be the most valuable for the work you do today?

I consider my clinical classes to be the most valuable for the work I do today. Forensic psychologists need to develop a solid clinical assessment foundation in order to conduct a good clinical interview and evaluation, and interpret testing properly. Forensic psychologists utilize specialized tools to evaluate a case using multiple methods and data points, such as the Personality Assessment Inventory and the Validity Symptom Inventory. For example, in a typical forensic case, I interview and test the individual, collect collateral documents, such as school, work and criminal records, interview people associated with the individual, and apply research to the particular issue at hand.

My clinical classes also taught me how to maintain a healthy level of skepticism. Forensic psychologists can’t take what people, especially in a criminal situation, say at face value, so they must corroborate any conclusion with a minimum of 2 data points. For example, if a person says they are depressed, I look for multiple data points to confirm this assertion, whether it be family history, medication or treatment records. In addition, I examine the person’s approach to evaluation by assessing whether his or her response is honest, transparent, exaggerated or malingering.

What words of advice or caution would you share with a student who is interested in becoming a forensic psychologist?

I would caution prospective forensic psychology students to be prepared for online criticism. A few times, angry people involved in custody cases that I have testified in have write negative comments about me on different webpages. Hearing negative feedback about your work is an unfortunate likelihood, especially because of how easy it is for anyone to communicate publicly on the Internet.

I would also remind prospective forensic psychologists to act both empathetic and skeptical when working with clients. Forensic psychologists need to realize that clients are not going to tell the truth most of the time.

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