Career Corner

AP-LS Student Committee Career Corner

Interview with Robert Prentky, PhD, professor of psychology and director of the MA and BA/MA programs in forensic psychology at Fairleigh Dickinson University.

By Laura Grossi

The Career Corner is intended to highlight the individuals who work at the intersection of law and psychology, where they come from, how they got there and how their experiences influence their research, teaching and/or practice. This edition of Career Corner profiles Robert A. Prentky, PhD, professor of psychology and director of the MA and BA/MA programs in forensic psychology at Fairleigh Dickinson University. Prentky's specialized area of practice includes the forensic assessment of sex offenders. His research interests include assessing risk of harm to others in juvenile sexual offenders; modeling proximal externalizing outcomes of early adverse life events in abuse-reactive children; attachment deficits, emotional detachment, and violence; internet child sexual victimization; and discriminating between high- and low-risk possessors of child pornography.

AP-LS Student Committee: Dr. Prentky, can you please describe your academic and clinical training, starting with your time as an undergraduate?

Prentky: I grew up in California, majored in geology, had a fantasy that I could spend my life working in the mountains, and wanted to be a forest ranger. I took lots of science courses in college, and in my junior year, I was swept up in politics around the Vietnam war. I started taking psychology courses because of my roommate, and ended up completing majors in geology and psychology—the two, of course, being highly related.

I wasn't sure, for a long time, what I wanted to do with these rather disparate majors, and so I worked for a number of years, decided on graduate school, and eventually applied to a school that I was directed to by Abraham Maslow, who was at Brandeis. I went to this school in San Diego that he recommended (Carl Rogers had just been hired there), started the program, was horrified by it, and the university told me that I couldn't come back to campus unless I got a haircut. I hired a lawyer, and they agreed to let me shift from their doctoral program to receiving a terminal master's degree, as long as I didn't come back to campus. I owe my career to that decision. This made my search for a graduate program more serious, and I ended up at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois. My PhD is in experimental psychopathology. I completed a three-year NIMH postdoctoral fellowship, being trained as a psychophysiologist doing research on high-risk schizophrenia. My third postdoc year was at University of Rochester Medical School in psychiatry. While I was there I also completed a more-or-less traditional clinical psychology internship at Rochester General Hospital under the tutelage of Bernie Schwartz, a Harvard-trained psychoanalytic character. I completed my required contact hours and supervision hours for licensure as a psychologist, and stayed there doing research in psychophysiology for about two years.

In the 1980's, I applied for academic positions, went on interviews, and while I was in Boston for an interview at Brandeis, I applied for a director of research position at a Massachusetts Treatment Center. They made me an offer, and I accepted the job somewhat disingenuously, because it supported my relocation from the Midwest and I thought I would move on to an academic job. The job ended up being at a prison for sex offenders. I had never been in a prison or, to the best of my knowledge, ever met a sex offender. It happened to appeal to me given my very strong commitment to radical feminism. That, in combination with a windfall of grant money, kept me working there for about 13 years. We built up a large team, supporting as many as 15 people at a time doing research on sexual violence. While I was there, I sat for the licensing exam and became licensed as a psychologist. In all my years there, I was asked to do therapy with one inmate—the only person I ever saw in treatment there—and he went on to become a serial killer upon his release, so you can see what a successful therapist I was.

Anyway, in those years formal training programs in forensic psychology were few and far between, so most of the people I know in forensic psychology entered the field by some serendipitous route.

AP-LS Student Committee: And can you please illustrate your career path?

Prentky: Sure. Within a number of years, I started receiving requests from attorneys to evaluate sex offenders under the sexually dangerous person (SDP) civil commitment law. Those requests began to mushroom in the early ‘90s, during a time when states all over country were adopting the new iteration of sexually violent predator (SVP) laws. I was traveling all around the country evaluating sex offenders. This was my first real exposure to practicing as a forensic psychologist and testifying in court. It was a steep uphill learning curve, to say the least. In those years, I relied overwhelmingly on a handful of cherished colleagues who supervised my early work, and were the very few people that I could find who had some experience working within the criminal justice system as experts. AP-LS didn't merge with Div. 41 until the early ‘80s, and we didn't have our Specialty Guidelines or formal Ethical Guidelines until almost a decade after that. Between supervision, and my own reading, and eventually going to workshops, I educated myself about the world of forensic assessment.

APLS Student Committee: What was that experience like for you?

Prentky: As a feminist, I have always had a lot of trouble evaluating sex offenders. They were pretty alien creatures to me. The affect heuristic was my bane. Very early on I adopted a “scientific” approach to forensic assessment, and I believe that's helped me throughout my career. I've treated every evaluation as a mini-study. I would translate legal questions into hypotheses, decide what data I needed to answer the hypotheses, and reach final opinions based on the data. In that way, I tried to hold clients and their offenses at arm's length by treating them as a research study. I like to think it has made me a more independent evaluator, although in truth, over the past three and a half decades I have overwhelmingly been retained by the defense. I found that as I became better known in the field, I was increasingly hired to evaluate the worst of the worst, which frequently involved homicide. The affect heuristic was in these cases so profound that it became ever more important to me to try to hold these cases at some arms' length, and not dwell upon about what the offender had actually done.

APLS Student Committee: You seem to have become invested in your work in the field?

Prentky: I've spent my life as a staunch feminist—I guess it sounds like a refrain, almost like an apologia for having spent my life evaluating sex offenders. I prefer to think that I stumbled upon it, rather than it being epigenetic. Honestly, I had never really thought about being a forensic psychologist. My three dominant scholarly and research interests after graduate school were biological bases of normal personality—my first book— in 1979; creativity—my second book— in 1980; and high-risk schizophrenia research. Evaluating criminals for the court never crossed my mind. However, the more high-risk schizophrenia research I did, the more I was convinced that schizophrenia would best be understood by behavioral geneticists, and that I was not likely to make a significant or meaningful contribution to the field. As much as I was fascinated by creativity, I didn't think that I could sink my teeth into it; it seemed so fraught with methodological problems. So, I turned to what I had been doing. Naively, I thought I could make a contribution to the scourge of sexual violence.

AP-LS Student Committee: Your career involves teaching, research and clinical work. What do you find the most interesting and/or gratifying?

Prentky: I've always found my research and writing to be the most intellectually gratifying. Although I've spent 35 years evaluating criminals, I would infinitely prefer to spend time with my students. I don't know how to say it in a socio-politically correct way, but I love my students. They keep me young.

AP-LS Student Committee: What has it been like for you to wear all those different hats, and also be an adult person with your own family and personal life?

Prentky: I guess I've been criticized by Jackie more than once for devoting far too much time to my work, but I think I've only done it out of a genuine sense of intrigue, passion and challenge. Research and writing is just not like a regular 9-to-5 job. Overall I've loved my working life—I've loved pretty much everything that I've done. I love my teaching, I love my students, and I've even enjoyed the opportunity and the challenge of trying to understand the psychopathology in offenders I evaluate—even when their psychopathology has nothing at all to do with the legal questions at hand. I guess it's just how I was trained as a graduate student. I recall spending eight hours talking to a man in a Missouri prison who had murdered three women. All of a sudden, like a proverbial light being lit, I understood where his madness came from. I will never forget that moment. Although I felt so gratified that I thought I figured out this puzzle, I knew bloody well it would be of no help to him—or the court. So, I must admit to you that my gratification has rarely been from helping the court or the client, so much as discovering what motivated the client's behavior.

AP-LS Student Committee: Some would argue that doing clinical work as a forensic psychologist requires a clinical degree—students are often told this. What has it been like for you to move forward on this career path with your degree?

Prentky: I see forensic practice as a niche of clinical psychology. We do much the same things, have very similar skills, just different tools and different techniques. I do not believe, if this is what you are asking, that you need a PhD as opposed to other doctoral degrees, such as a PsyD. Never in 35 years have I been asked in court about my degree area not being clinical, or if an internship was APA approved. Nor have I ever heard anyone on the stand being asked about their PsyD degree. What's essential is that you be licensed, so in addition to the requirements to sit for the licensing exam, you have to look at your state requirements for licensure—state licensure requirements are set by each state.

AP-LS Student Committee: Do you have any words of wisdom for students seeking a career in forensic assessment, academia and research?

Prentky: The upside is it's an immensely intellectually stimulating and challenging field. The downside is that one walks a perilous path maintaining one's independence and objectivity. The court system in the U.S. is among the most adversarial in the first world. Maintaining objectivity in that environment is very challenging, to say the least. Acquiring a taste for cross-examination is like acquiring a taste for Limburger cheese. You would not believe the things that I have been asked on the stand—it requires a certain constitutional make-up.