Joel A. Dvoskin, PhD, ABPP
Dr. Joel A. Dvoskin agreed to talk with doctoral student and APA Division 18 member, Clarence Bonander, about his career and the practice of psychology. His experience can provide useful advice for early career psychologists, psychologists-in-training, and professionals interested in practicing psychology in the public service. Dr. Dvoskin agreed to be contacted by email with questions or for further advice.
Dr. Dvoskin has been a licensed clinical psychologist for over 30 years. He earned his Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology from the University of Arizona in 1981 with a dissertation study on the epidemiology of spousal violence. He also holds a diploma from the American Board of Professional Psychology in Forensic Science. He is an expert in the field of forensic psychology and has been asked to contribute to a wide variety of projects and boards throughout academia and public service. Most notably he has served on the White House Panel on the Future of African-American Males, the American Bar Association Task Force on Capital Punishment and Mental Disability, and the Research Advisory Board for the United States Secret Service. Dr. Dvoskin served as the President of APA Division 18 (Psychologists in Public Service) from 2000-2001 and as President of APA Division 41 (American Psychology – Law Society) from 2006-2007. He has served as the Acting Commissioner of the New York State Office of Mental Health and is currently the chairperson of the Nevada Governor's Advisory Council on Behavioral Health and Wellness. He also provides design consultation to architectural projects involving psychiatric hospitals, jails, and prisons, and has served as a monitor of federal court settlements overseeing prisons, jails, and psychiatric hospitals. In addition to numerous corporations and government agencies, among his consultation clients have been the National Basketball Association (NBA), the NBA Players Association, and the National Collegiate Athletic Association.
In addition to his career as a consultant, Dr. Dvoskin is an Assistant Professor at the University of Arizona, College of Medicine in the Department of Psychiatry. His many honors include the Peggy Richardson Award from the National Coalition for the Mentally Ill in the Criminal Justice System, the Amicus Award from the American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law, the Special Achievement Award from American Psychological Association (APA) Division 18, and the Distinguished Contribution to the Sciences of Psychology Award from the Arizona Psychological Association.
Clarence: We are asking what's going on with the members in our division, particularly the key players. I've read your recent articles about the forensic sciences and assessment tools. Where do you see the forensic psychologist role developing in the next 5, 10, 20 years?
Dr. Dvoskin: I expect that we will probably spend a little less time attempting to predict or assess the risk of violent behavior and more time suggesting interventions to reduce the risk of violent behavior. That's probably the most important change that I see coming.
C: How do you see that happening? Is it more a transition from assessment to better intervention tools, better tool development, or better training development?
D: No. I think it mainly comes from an emerging recognition that we don't need any more risk assessment tools. Every time there's a new one that's created, its accuracy is pretty similar to what preceded it. We seem to have reached the point of diminishing returns in terms of creating new risk assessment tools. But there's also an emerging recognition that assessing risk is a relatively worthless enterprise if nobody does anything to reduce it.
C: What is the most promising area of research or methodology when it comes to risk reduction right now?
D: Well, there are several different groups that are working in that field, in real life, not in an academic sense. Some of the people who are outstanding in this area are Reid Meloy (and) Dewey Cornell working on threat assessment, which includes recommended interventions to reduce the threat. Psychiatrist Park Dietz is kind of the grandfather of this stuff. And psychologist Steve Hart, among many others. These are all folks who are working with various agencies and corporations to make recommendations about how to reduce the threat of violence as opposed to simply assessing the individual's risk. In part, this comes from an increasing acknowledgement that the risk of violence is largely situationally determined and that assessing the individual does not take into account the situations that they are likely to find themselves in. It involves attention to what Steve Hart calls risk scenarios.
C: Do you believe that it might be cost prohibitive for certain government organizations to focus on reduction of risk rather than just assessing offenders before they're sent out or as they come through the system? Is cost a factor in putting together these kinds of programs?
D: No. It costs more to not do it than it costs to do it. Because if you have one bad event, the cost in terms of litigation, actual damages, etc. are very significant. For example, take what happened in Virginia Tech. Since that time, they have developed a very comprehensive threat assessment process to identify the people and the situations that appear to be troubling and to recommend interventions to reduce that risk. It is going to be everywhere eventually. It's just like any other change. It takes time for people to understand just how important it is.
C: W hen I google your name a wide variety of hits come up on that first page. The first page is obviously your website followed by the University of Arizona medical school, the Advisory Council on Behavioral Health, the Threat Assessment Group, and then a research website devoted to your curriculum vitae. Of all the things that you're affiliated with and all the things that you're doing, what has been the most enjoyable and then what's been the most rewarding aspect of the variety of career choices you've made?
D: I absolutely, can't possibly answer that. I enjoy the diversity of my work. I can't really say there's one thing that I enjoy more than othes. Almost everything I do allows me to work with outstanding colleagues, which I really like. I enjoy working in teams. I enjoy helping people to solve problems, especially organizational problems. The most rewarding and enjoyable thing, usually for me, is what I happen to be doing at the time.
C: You mentioned the problems you are solving. You're working with architectural firms on designing hospitals, you're working with government entities on solving policy problems. Do you have advice for budding psychologists or psychologists in training on how to get to the level where your expertise is sought by these kinds of organizations?
D: You know, people ask me that a lot and you're going to think I'm being a wise guy, but the honest answer is: be very lucky. I'm just very fortunate that I've had a lot of opportunities and I can't really explain why; I have been lucky. I learned about architecture because I was running several state psychiatric hospitals and I was kind of dissatisfied with some of the architectural work we were getting. So, I started working really hard to learn about it myself so I could be a better consumer when we hired an architect. Pretty soon I started getting requests from other states to consult them about their security, their therapeutic environments, and architecture projects, which eventually led to being a design consultant in some new hospitals that were built. I probably have done about 12 of them now. But one thing leads to another.
However, the best advice, the first advice I would give to people is before you can be a good forensic psychologist, you have to be a good psychologist. For your doctoral program, just pick the best program you can get into. After graduate school is when you should start, in my opinion, focusing on a particular area like forensic psychology or correctional psychology and then try to structure your internship to focus on those settings. Select internships and fellowships that move you in a direction that you are interested in.
The other thing that has helped me is that I happened to be hooked up with some superstars that had one foot in academia and one foot in the so-called "real world" that encouraged me to write very early in my career. A lot of the opportunities that I've gotten came out of articles that I had written at one time or another. That's also a good suggestion. One of my biggest regrets is that I did a pretty interesting dissertation but I was too lazy to publish it and that would have been really good for me to jumpstart my career. I always admire the professors who are especially demanding of their doctoral students and say, "You know, I want your dissertation to be of publishable length and quality" – it is a great idea.
C: The Division wants us to ask about your mentors and the people who've helped you along in your career. You mentioned your mentors who had one foot in academia and one in the real world. I'm interested in those people. Can you drop some names?
D: Sure. I have had a lot of them. I'm very lucky. Park Dietz , Hank Steadman, and John Monahan, were among the people who helped me a lot early in my career. I was also privileged to spend time with Dean Smith, who was a basketball coach, but had an enormous influence on my approach to psychology, leadership, and life.
In some cases I've been mentored by people who were much younger than me but were smarter. This includes people like Jennifer Skeem, Kevin Douglas, Laura Guy, and many others. Every time I work with a student, it seems I learn more from the student than the student learns from me, which is very helpful.
C: Along those lines, I'll be doing a practicum next year at a state prison working with offenders and conducting therapy. For a psychologist-in-training and for the early career psychologists out there, do you have any advice for working on the forensic area besides the career progression that you just laid out, actual practical, relating to offenders advice?
D: Well, it was really helpful for me to get my hands dirty, so to speak. Early in my career, I worked in prisons for several years and I learned a lot from the inmates, from the correctional officers, and from the other mental health professionals who worked in corrections. It's really important, in my opinion, to get hands on experience with people who have real, severe mental illnesses so that you can understand them better. And also to do it respectfully, so that you learn from the patients and you learn to not be such a “pathology freak” and that you learn to recognize strengths in people who have big problems . It makes you a better clinician. I learned a lot from consumers over the years about the things we do that help, the things we do that do not help, and the things we do that make it worse.
C: Some advice for early careers - it seems that you have quite a reputation in addition to numerous citations. With social media being the way it is, how have you straddled that line between putting your name and your brand out there yet still maintaining a professional image?
D: I've never put myself out there, period. I've never marketed or advertised. My marketing consists entirely of answering the phone every time it rings. Writing articles, I suppose, could be considered marketing in a sense because lawyers sometimes will go on Google when they are looking for an expert, but I've never done it for that reason. Whatever reputation I have is probably a combination of a lot of luck and trying hard.
C: So, how important would you say your reputation has been in the forensic realm compared to maybe some other aspects of psychology, perhaps individual counseling or hospital work, those kinds of settings? Is it more important in the forensic setting where you're called up to be an expert witness or you're making assessments about people who could have possibly catastrophic negative effects on unsuspecting bystanders?
D: No. I would say one is not more important than the other. Probably a pretty significant hunk of my work is consulting with mental health systems, correctional systems, and social services to solve organizational problems. That requires me to try to maintain good clinical skills. The course I teach in the medical school was not even on forensics, it's on leadership and management. I guess you have to take stock of your skills. When an opportunity comes, one of the things you have to do is ask yourself: Do I have the chops to help? And if you don't, have enough integrity to say it, "You know, you should call somebody else because this isn't my strength." Sometimes, I'll send the case to somebody else when I could have done it but I think they would do it better. That has actually gotten me more work than it has cost me because people really appreciate it when you are honest about who the best people in the country are. Early in your career, it's really hard to turn anything down because you need the money. It's a good thing to do because it helps give you a reputation for integrity and at the end of the day that is the best thing I like about my career and this business that we're in - integrity is lucrative. If you cut corners, if you are dishonest or disingenuous, you might make a few extra bucks in the short run but it'll catch up with you and you'll be out of work soon. So, the people I have tremendous respect for in this business, such as Kirk Heilbrun, Randy Otto, as well as the other people I'd mentioned and many others, they are people with tremendous integrity and they have a reputation for calling 'em as they see them, as opposed to the pejorative notion of experts that are disparagingly called “hired guns.” Occasionally, it's possible for a forensic psychologist to do well (as a hired gun) but for the most part the people who really are giants in forensic and correctional psychology are honorable people who call them as they see them and try really hard to always do the right thing.
C: You touched on another question I have for you in terms of training. In terms of the current status of training for psychologists, do you see any deficiencies in the psychologists that are getting churned out by the Psy.D. and Ph.D. programs?
D: Yes, one for sure. I'll probably get in trouble for saying this but, in my opinion, most of the programs that train psychiatrists and psychologists do not do an adequate job of teaching people how to do assessments of risk, of violence against self and others. Because often times I'll see a progress note that says, "No H/I, no S/I, DC /SW" meaning “no homicidal intent, no suicidal intent, discontinue suicide watch.” That is not a risk assessment! When somebody has already been identified as suicidal or homicidal, the risk assessment should be much more comprehensive than that. And I fear that the training in many programs do not teach that adequately.
C: I would have to agree with you on that one. What are you working on now? Are you working on any special projects, any new books?
D: No, I am not working on any new books. I am doing a few chapters, one on suicide prevention and I'll periodically write a chapter or article on correctional mental health. Most of what I am working on right now is I am heading a council for the Governor of Nevada, an advisory council on behavioral health. I'm spending a lot of time on that and I am working on designing a new forensic hospital in Missouri . Those are two projects that I am spending a lot of time on right now and I've been doing some institutional consultations around the country as well.
C: Do you have any other advice, comments, or anything else that you'd like the Division or early career psychologists within forensics to know?
D: One thing I would say is that I'm really, really pleased with the current leadership in Division 18. Anne Klee and Femina Varghese. Anne Klee is the current president and Femina is the president elect and they have been just absolutely outstanding.
One thing that I wanted to do when I was president of Division 18, and was not very successful that I would love to see in the future, is that I still think that we have far too few psychologists of color in Division 18. I do not know what else to try but somehow we have to get more diversity. There are psychologists of color in training programs across the country. Many of them work in public settings like hospitals and prisons but for some reason they do not seem to be joining APA or Division 18. I do not know what to do about that but I would say it's, in my opinion, probably our biggest problem. It's an issue for APA as well and I know APA spends a lot of time thinking about it and they've tried a lot of things. We just need to do a better job of convincing people that there is something in it for them to join. From a division perspective, a pretty high percentage of the clients that we serve are people of poverty or people of color and it's useful for at least some of the psychologists who are writing about this issue to come from the same cultures that they're writing about . I think that, as a field, we would greatly profit from more diversity.
C: I would completely agree with you on that assessment doctor. I would like to thank you for your time and for speaking with me.