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Career Choices: Forensic psychiatry

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Dr. Appelbaum: It may sound at first as though forensic psychiatry is a narrow subspecialty of psychiatry. But the field is actually immense, and the diversity of experiences that it provides is one of the big pros of a career in forensic psychiatry. On the academic side of the field, topics of research interest include prediction and management of violence, involuntary commitment and treatment, informed consent and decisional capacity, privacy and confidentiality of psychiatric treatment, criminal responsibility, and correctional treatment. Clinically, forensic psychiatrists perform a variety of evaluations, ranging from competence to consent to treatment, testamentary capacity, emotional harms in tort cases, psychiatric malpractice, sexual harassment and work-related disability, to competence to stand trial, voluntariness of confessions, insanity defense, and pre-sentencing assessments. Indeed, after nearly 40 years in the field, I still occasionally get asked to do evaluations of a type that I’ve never done before. Increasingly, forensic psychiatrists are involved in treating offenders, both in correctional facilities and in outpatient settings. Most people trained in forensic psychiatry mix their forensic work with general clinical work, whether inpatient or outpatient. So the flexibility that the field offers to craft a career is one of its great advantages.

On the cons side, a career in forensic psychiatry can mean a life of what Alan Stone called “moral peril.” By that he meant that forensic psychiatrists face constant ethical challenges as they perform evaluations and provide testimony. One challenge is to stay grounded in the evidence base of psychiatry and resist the temptation to draw conclusions that may seem “right” but that go beyond what psychiatric knowledge can actually support. Making that challenge even more difficult in private forensic practice is knowing that the party for whom one is working has specific interests that they are hoping you will support, and very definite ideas about what they want your conclusions to be. It may be in your financial interest to accommodate them, but in the long run, your reputation is your most valuable asset. Staying honest both to one’s beliefs and to the broader evidence base in psychiatry is an ongoing challenge, but a critical necessity.

Dr. Ahmed: Based on your personal experience, what should one consider when choosing a forensic psychiatry program?

Dr. Appelbaum: Having supervised forensic psychiatry fellowships for roughly 30 years, I think one of the most important aspects of a training program is its breadth. Given the diversity of the field, a program with a limited number of training sites that focuses on a restricted set of evaluations (usually related to criminal law) will not offer a fellow an optimal training experience. Diverse placements with a variety of evaluations to be performed under the supervision of experienced forensic psychiatrists, and without excessive service demands, are key aspects of a top-notch program. In addition, not everything can be learned hands-on; didactic training is indispensable. Fellows should be offered sufficient background on legal issues and the research base in forensic psychiatry to ground their subsequent work. Finally, for many fellows their time in fellowship is the last opportunity they may have to engage in research or other scholarly projects under supervision, another valuable component of a training program. A good question to ask of any program: What are your former fellows doing now? If the answers don’t reflect the career path you hope to pursue, that’s not the program for you.

Dr. Ahmed: What are some of the career options and work settings for forensic psychiatrists?

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