Forensic and Criminal Psychology in Singapore

This is an invited post by Dr Majeed Khader.  Dr Khader is Chief Psychologist at the Singapore Police Force and Director of the Home Team Behavioural Sciences Centre, Home Team Academy. He is also an Adjunct Assistant Professor at NTU where he teaches criminal and forensic psychology. Please direct all your questions to majkhader@gmail.com or Khader_Majeed@spf.gov.sg. Thanks!

When I tell those I meet that I work as a police psychologist and have been trained in forensic psychology, most ask me if I am a criminal profiler!

Much as I would relish the notion of making my job sexier; this is not the whole truth!

What is forensic psychology then, if it is not just about criminal profiling as popularly made out in the media?  Because the word ‘forensic’ comes from the Latin ‘forensis’, meaning ‘of the forum’; where the courts of ancient Rome were held; ‘forensic psychology’ is about the intersection between psychology and the criminal justice, civil justice and legal systems.

In Singapore, most of us work in the Singapore Police Force, The Singapore Prisons Service, the Home Team Behavioural Sciences Centre, and the Ministry of Social and Family Development. A smaller number of forensic psychologists work at the Institute of Mental Health working with forensic psychiatrists. Most forensic psychologists work in public sector settings but there is a sprinkling of forensic psychologists who work in the private sector, mainly undertaking forensic assessments for lawyers.

What is it they do?
The areas of practice in forensic and criminal psychology are:

Police psychology – police psychologists work in three main areas: 1) applying psychology to enhance police Organisations (e.g. pre-employment screening tests for new police officers, police leadership assessment and development, assessing the organisational climate of police commands), 2) enhancing police Operations (e.g. working in hostage negotiation teams, detection of deception, developing criminal and terrorist profiles for investigation and crime prevention, morale assessment, handling victims of crimes), and finally 3) providing services for police Officers (e.g. peer counselling training, counselling programs for police and civilian staff, and life skills building). We call this the 3 O’s of police psychology. To find out more about police psychology, try this url: http://psychweb.cisat.jmu.edu/spcp. Also look up http://www.apa.org/careers/resources/profiles/hibler.aspx.

Studies on the criminal behaviour & delinquency – these may be practitioners and academics who study criminological psychology, evaluate violence prevention programs, provide policy advice to legislators, help school officials identify troubled and dangerous youth, and conduct research on psychopathy.

Legal and Court Room psychology – Forensic psychologists sometimes work in partnership with lawyers to develop forensic reports and sometimes they work as ‘friends of the court’ to assist the court in answering legal questions which may have a psychological or behavioural angle. Legal and courtroom psychology involves issues such as child custody evaluations, child abuse evaluations, pre-sentencing evaluations, witness preparation, evaluating a defendant's competency or sanity, research on decision making in the courts, and advice on the reliability of eyewitness testimony and confessions.

A sub field of Legal Psychology is ‘Litigation psychology’ and this involves witness preparation, trail research, courtroom decision-making, and persuasion strategy, in relation to the courts cases and trail consultancy. Check out for more information on the American Psychology and Law Society. There is also a European society. In Singapore, there is a multidisciplinary team of counsellors and psychologists who do some aspects of this work.

Correctional and rehabilitation psychology. Most correctional/prisons psychologists undertake inmate classifications, the assessment of ‘criminogenic’ needs, rehabilitation, implementing of treatment programmes, modifying offender behaviour; responding to the changing needs of staff and prisoners; reducing stress for staff and prisoners; and they may advise parole boards and mental health tribunals. For more information, check out http://www.aa4cfp.org.

Civil law applications. In the arena of civil law, forensic psychologists are usually involved in assisting with personal injury suits, sexual harassment cases, child custody disputes, and workers’ compensation cases.

If you would like to find out more about the field of forensic psychology look up the BPS’s Forensic Psychology website.

What type of degree do forensic psychologists need?
Historically, forensic psychologists have been trained in clinical, clinical-forensic, social, organizational psychology or criminology at postgraduate level. Ideally, however those planning to work in forensic and legal settings should be trained formally at postgraduate level in the field of forensic psychology. You would generally need a Second Upper Honours degree and a Masters in Forensic Psychology.

If you don't have a forensic psychology degree, this doesn't not mean you can’t work in policing or correctional settings. In some organisations, you may be considered for employment even if you didn't have a master’s degree in forensic psychology, as employers can be interested in employing psychologists with a Masters in Occupational, Clinical or Health Psychology. For example, the police employ Occupational Psychologists to undertake leadership assessments of police senior managers and personnel selection amongst other things. Prisons departments also employ clinical psychologists and counsellors and the administration of treatment programs.

What is typically covered in a forensic psychology course?
Most forensic psychology/criminal psychology degrees teach courses on criminology, legal systems, how the courts operate, criminal behavior, mental illness within the legal contexts, how to prepare reports for court purposes and how to be an expert witness. Therefore, psychology courses (e.g. clinical, occupational or education psychology) that do not cover these are lacking in coverage and cannot really be called true-blue forensic psychology courses.

What are some good courses I might consider?
I can’t recommend a specific program for all needs, and it depends on what you want (for example, whether you want a policing focus, or a correctional and rehabilitation focus,  an investigation focus or a crime profiling focus). Generally, to become a forensic psychologist, you need a minimum of 4 years of first-degree education (equivalent of Second Upper Honours) plus 1 or 2 years Masters degree specialising in Forensic Psychology/Crime Psychology (make sure your degree is accredited by the professional society). A PhD or PsychD is always ideal in the long run, but since it takes such a long time to get one, I would encourage most Singaporean students to take things one step at a time.

Here are some reputable programs, but these are not exhaustive in any way and it is always good to find out more yourself.

In the USA,
Castleton State College,
The University of Denver,
John Jay College of Criminal Justice (New York)
Marymount University.
The University of Arizona,
The University of Nebraska,
Sam Houston State University, and
Simon Fraser University
Alliant International University - California School of Forensic Studies

Many U.K. universities offer one or two-year postgraduate courses in Forensic Psychology but some of the more established ones are
The University of Birmingham,
University of Leicester,
University of Portsmouth and
University of Liverpool.

Not all of these programs have the same focus within forensic psychology with some emphasising correctional psychology, others emphasising police and investigative psychology and others emphasising forensic-clinical course work. Also, in my personal opinion, the course is only as good as the teaching and research faculty in it; so find out more about the experience and publication record, reputation of the professors teaching there, whether it offers you an internship, whether it is accredited etc.

Several universities in Australia also offer masters or doctoral level postgraduate programs in forensic psychology including:
The University of Melbourne,
Monash University,
University of New South Wales, and
University of South Australia.

In Singapore, forensic and criminal psychology courses are offered at:
NUS (Forensic Clinical Psychology Module and Correctional Psychology Module)
NTU (Forensic Psychology of Crime and Disasters Module)

2 main branches of FP practice experiences in Singapore.
I think that in Singapore, there are 2 main types of forensic psychology: ‘forensic-law enforcement psychology practice’ type (FLEP) and the ‘forensic-clinical practice’ type (FCP).

Those keen on FLEP should speak to those working in police psychology, narcotics psychology and with the HTBSC. The nature of their work may entail crime prevention, criminal profiling, working with police and law enforcement, hostage negotiations, morale assessment, police leadership development, psychological inventions for intelligence operations, detection of deception, victim support etc.

Those keen on FCP should approach the MSF’s CPFP, the Courts psychology branch and the IMH branch. The nature of work tends to have a more clinical slant and covers areas such as risk assessment, rehabilitation, child abuse, domestic violence, family conferences, and interventions for juvenile offenders, therapy and treatment of offenders.

In North America and Europe, there is a third branch, which is developed and that is the forensic and criminal psychology academic research. This third area is underdeveloped in Singapore and forensic/criminal psychology research is limited.

Internship opportunities in Singapore.
Those interested should write in to departments for an internship stint or temporary contract employment to see if they are suited for this field. Some of these departments offer an allowance of some sort and some charge for internship experiences! If you are really keen on getting this experience but find it hard to do so, you should offer to complete an internship without internship allowances (if you can afford this!), since internship opportunities are hard to come by and budgets are limited (however do go in with your eyes open as internships can be a lot of hard work!). The main benefit of this experience and exposure is that you will know after the internship whether FP is something you want to do for the next 20-30 years of your life! Given the challenging nature of nature in the forensic world, it is not everyone’s cup of tea.

Just another word of advice to students: ask around and talk to practitioners if you can. But a word of caution. I tend to get the occasional email with enquiries about FP, and some contain as many as 15 questions! This doesn't create a good impression, since it suggests that little thought has been put into the questions. Think carefully about what you want to ask and limit your questioning to 3-4 questions when you email busy practitioners.

Forensic psychology is a great field to be in! Drop me an email if you have enquiries but don't expect an instant reply. Being a forensic psychologist keeps me real busy!

Good luck!

Dr M.
majkhader@gmail.com

SGPsychStud: Power of Networking


Networking is a activity that most people will associate with business.  However, it should be an activity that everyone in psychology is doing as well.  Why?

I was introduced to this idea of networking several years ago during my Masters program, and that was one of the things the lecturers said was important to do.  I could not understand why then as well too.  However, having gone to several symposiums and conferences, I finally saw its importance and reasons for why we need to do networking, even in psychology.

So, here are the main reasons:
  • Employment / business opportunities - You never know; you might just find your next boss / customer just by talking to them. 
  • Opportunities to knowing new associates from similar or different fields - Support for your clients often tend to be holistic, rather just from the psychologist (yourself); hence often, you may need the help or support from others from a similar or different line of work, such as psychiatrists, doctors, lawyers, etc.
  • Research opportunities - Through knowing others in the similar field or area of research, this may open up your chances of working with others in research projects in your area of research.
  • Social networking - Just purely for the reasons for making friends and acquaintances in psychology and your psychological speciality/area of research.  

Hence to sum up, it's all about the opportunities to know new people for your own career / research prospects, as well as others to know you (which is very important as well).  With networking, it will help you to largely expand your work opportunities and network of associates. So always make sure to get your name-cards ready before the event and their name-cards during the event.  Quite many people actually go for events and conferences not only just for the talks, but also for the chances to do networking with others. So make sure you go for the upcoming events / conferences

Some of you may say "I am quite a reserved person and so during meetings/events/conferences, I will sit and have my meals either alone or only with those I am very familiar with."  However, this may not very good.  So for those who may be shy and reserved, I would recommend that you could use your "listening skills" (I will talk more about these in future posts) in these situations. For starters, you could firstly work up the courage to introduce yourself, followed by letting the other party talk about themselves, and from there, just keep the conversation going.  That would hopefully help build up your courage (and skills) to do better networking in the next event!  

SGPsychStud: Recognition - Such a vague word!

In the questions that I have got from readers, a certain word often shows up: “Recognition / Recognised", with questions often revolving around whether certain psychological programs are "recognised" in Singapore.  I would not like to present myself as ranting about this matter; however, I understand that some clarifications are required so that more readers of this blog would understand this matter at hand.

Most people are concerned whether the degrees that they are pursuing are "recognised", as they may feel that it may affect their future job applications.  But this is a very hard question to answer.  This is because this "recognition" of the degrees would be done by the companies and their human resource departments, and there is no way of really knowing how they quantify or measure or recognise the degrees, unless you are working in the HR department (I have never worked in HR departments, so I do not really know).  The only exception I know of would be for government-related jobs, which your degree should be a local degree or permitted by the CPE (that is if you are studying in a private education institution).  However, this might be flawed too.

So the only two ways we should be looking at overseas degrees programs conducted at PEIs are:
1. If it is permitted by CPE
2. If it is accredited by the respective psychological societies (APS/BPS).

So what about local degrees?
There is no accreditation of local psychological degrees, i.e. degrees from NUS, NTU, SMU, by SPS or Ministry of Education.  But, pretty much, if you attained your degrees in a Singaporean university, it should be "recognised" in Singapore.