If you have been following my blog postings for Time2Track, you’ve read about what kind of training programs are available to those of you interested in (and using the term broadly) forensic mental health work. I’ve also discussed the complexities of instituting and maintaining boundaries with forensic clients.
Now, I’m going to break down the forensic practicum placement process in three parts.
Part I (below) will talk about how you might choose and then how you prepare for an interview with a forensic-oriented site. I use the term “forensic-oriented” to be broadly inclusive of any mental health training site for masters or doctoral level trainees that will work in a place where psychology and the law intersect.
Part II will touch on what to do after you’ve accepted your forensic placement offer but before you actually begin your training.
Part III will then address what you might actually get to do as a trainee in a forensic-oriented site.
Forensic-Oriented Training Sites
You’ve heard about how interesting they can be. You’ve heard how challenging they can be. You’ve heard about what good training it can be. Now you’re ready for it. You’re finally going to go after that forensic-oriented field placement site!
But… wait! Where do you start?
Sure, your school has a list of placements to which you can apply for next year’s advanced practicum and some of them are identified as being “forensic” placements. But how do you decide, as someone relatively new to the forensic field, which placement is best for you?
Use Your Resources and Consider Your Path
As someone who went through that process not too long ago, my first piece of advice would be to check in with your advisor, mentor, and/or the head of your school’s forensic concentration. Each program structures this type of support differently, but essentially what you want to do is to be able to check in with someone who has knowledge of your state’s forensic-oriented subfield and accessible sites.
You also want to make sure that you’re checking in with a faculty member that will help you determine what works best for your career trajectory and, more immediately, what will work best for your academic path at your current institution.
Depending on the state where you are training, there can be a plethora of forensic-oriented site choices. The client population can also be relatively diverse.
You could find yourself working with youth and/or adults of all gender, sexual orientation, religious and ethnic expressions. Whether you need experience working with a particular population or need training in a specific form of intervention (e.g., various forms of therapy, various forms of assessment), forensic-oriented sites can certainly deliver.
As I mentioned in my previous blog posting on forensic psychology, you could find yourself working in correctional facilities, court clinics, state hospitals, police departments, sex offender treatment centers, and so many more.
It also never hurts to vet a site before applying. Do not let the anxiety of your academic program’s demand to find a site by a certain date get in the way of looking into an institution to see if the work you might do there fits with who you are as a person.
Obviously, if you have strong moral or ethical concerns about working in a prison, don’t apply to one. If you grew up in the area where you’ll be training, don’t knowingly apply to a residential facility where a number of the kids housed there likely went to school with you or your younger siblings.
Use common sense. Forcing yourself into a place that is not a good fit because it might look good on your CV is not worth it in the long run.
Prepping for the Interview
So now that you know the broad field of forensic psychology will be anything but boring – and you have chosen a few sites to apply to that fit (and pique) your interest – you have to get ready for the interview. Sure, there will be those standard questions about your strengths and weakness, explaining what you learned about a difficult situation you had with a supervisor, and what your theoretical orientation is.
But there are other things you should be prepared to discuss.
You’ll likely be asked questions that will offer the interviewers insight into your judgment, skill set, and attention to institutional policy during a crisis. Generally speaking, they’ll want to know how you handle a situation that pulls for two competing aspects of your existence.
An example question scenario: Your work day is supposed to end promptly at 4:30pm. At 4:25pm, you are packing up your things and getting ready to head home when you receive word that a patient on your unit is being placed on suicide watch and needs to be assessed by a clinician immediately. You are the only clinician available at that time.
What do you? What tools/techniques would you use to assess the patient’s suicide risk?
In another scenario, the interviewers might ask you questions about your willingness to engage in physical restraint and/or self defense training and the use of both as part of your training there.
There are so many more questions you may be asked or scenarios that may be posed to you. The truth of the matter is, if you have had good generalist academic and clinical training, the “what would you do?” as a clinician should come easily.
Have confidence in your clinical judgment. The facility or institution knows you are a trainee and they will not expect you to know every answer about their policies and procedures. They just want to make sure they are hiring someone who thinks critically, follows the rules, maintains appropriate boundaries and fits into their workplace environment.
Dressing for the Interview
Unless otherwise specified by the site prior to the interview, dress in weather appropriate business attire. Well-fitted suits and appropriate dress shoes are best.
Whether you identify as male or female, the “don’ts” are: skirts, shorts, dresses, revealing tops, open-toed shoes, visible tattoos, certain piercings (e.g., facial piercings or any kind, multiple ear piercings on a single ear, hoop earrings, dangly earrings, large gauges, etc.), high heels, large purses or bags, distracting makeup or hairdos.
You want to make a good impression but you do not want to stand out based on your makeup or clothing. Dark colored suits and neutral or solid color tops are often worn.
If you are interviewing at a prison, be careful about the color of your outfit or suit. If the inmates wear orange, green, khaki, blue or any other color, it is best that you avoid wearing a similar shade.
As far as hair goes, while it is good practice to keep your hair out of your face for an interview, try not to show up with an elaborate up-do. Some facilities will ask you to take out your ponytail or bun when you go through security. (You don’t want to be fixing your hair the entire walk from security to your interview!)
Also be mindful of the fact that many, if not all, institutions will have restrictions on what you can bring into the facility. If you do not receive communication about the “dos and don’ts” for the facility prior to the interview, make sure to ask the director of training if you have any questions.
The general rule of thumb is to plan on bringing in your driver’s license, portfolio with copies of your CVs and paper so that you can take notes and not much else. If possible, leave your phone, wallet and purse/bag in the car.
While I discuss boundaries with clients in a forensic setting in another piece, this section is geared toward boundaries specific to the interview.
Do not, under any circumstances, share personal information about yourself with patients/clients/inmates should you be introduced to them during your interview process.
That will undoubtedly be the immediate end to your chances of getting the position. Now, do not be rude to the people that you’ll be introduced to on a tour or in the interview. Everyone you meet is still a person and they should be acknowledged. You might even get to ask them questions about their experience as a patient in their facility. Just be vigilant about how you present yourself while also being polite.
There are also boundaries to maintain with the staff with which you will interact during your interview process. You want to balance giving them enough information about yourself so that you seem like a real person with also not giving away too much that it feels like therapy or a confessional. Answer their questions but leave out extraneous details about yourself in the process.
For example, if you’re asked why you entered the mental health profession you don’t tell them the detailed story about how your mother has bipolar disorder, your father was an alcoholic and you have always been fascinated by mental health issues.
Instead, you might offer your truth in this way, “There are people that I care deeply about that I have watched suffer from addiction and mental illness and I’m committed to finding ways in which I can bring culturally competent and evidenced-based mental health services to others.”
Boundaries also include social media.
I was once asked in an interview, “If I Googled you, what would I find?” You want to be able to answer, “Nothing.” Now, if you have been published or there are electronic news articles of you doing amazing work, you certainly want to highlight that.
However, the real questions they are asking are, “Will I find drunken photos of you on Instagram? Are you spouting insensitive remarks about certain groups of people on Twitter? Will there be endless diatribes about your political activism on Facebook?”
Of course, you are a human being and you have a life outside of school and practicum. However, if your social media accounts are public those aspects of yourself are there for everyone to see…including your potential supervisors and eventual, current, and past clients. So, word to the wise: make all of your social media accounts private!
As mentioned above, stay tuned for Part II: Once you’ve gotten that training offer there are several things you can do to prepare yourself for the experience before you even get there, and I’ll cover that in my next article.
As always, please feel free to comment below or contact me directly if you have any questions.