Forensic Psychology Research Advice

As a student studying the topic formally, conducting forensic psychology research is likely to be an integral and extremely important component of any course, program or degree. It should be the most enjoyable and rewarding piece of work you undertake. More often than not, however; planning, executing and writing up forensic psychology research, be it a thesis, dissertation or project becomes a source of great stress and worry for many students.

With this in mind, particularly in my capacity as a research supervisor I put together the following guidance notes for my students, which I hope you’ll find useful.

Getting Started

In many cases the first thing you'll be asked to do is to submit, or at the very least think about putting together a project/research proposal. At this stage, any general ideas you have will probably be too broad or too vague. Don't worry, you belong to the 99.9% of students who find themselves in the same position.

The good thing about putting together a forensic psychology research or project proposal so soon into the process is that it will force you to refine your ideas sooner rather than later. What follows, therefore is designed to get you thinking about the early key stages in the research process.

Developing A Focus

This stage of the research process assumes that you have a general research idea in mind.

Whether you consider this idea to be somewhat vague or well developed (the former being the most likely) you must establish and maintain a clearly defined focus throughout your investigation.

I can't emphasize this point enough because it really will determine how well you do.

Unless you are embarking on exploratory or emergent forensic psychology research, where theoretically/philosophically you do not envisage issues and questions to arise until the investigation is underway, it is extremely important that you establish your focus at the beginning of the research process.

The main reason for this is that it will provide the foundation for what is known as the golden thread i.e. the major concept within your research that influences every stage of the research process; and just as importantly can be seen developing within each section of your dissertation/thesis write-up.

In developing your focus of inquiry remember that practicality and ethics must be taken into account.

To help reiterate the points raised above, the following real example of forensic psychology research relates to a Masters dissertation I supervised a couple of years ago.

The student in question had stated that for her Masters research dissertation she wanted to look at whether any of the techniques used in criminal profiling could be adopted/adapted to investigate financial fraud.

In developing a focus within this general area of interest, between us we explored the following questions and issues:

1. The profiling techniques the student was particularly interested in.

2. Eliciting the profiling perspectives that these techniques reside within e.g. classic psychodynamic FBI type profiling and the more ‘scientific’ approaches e.g. statistical modeling.

3. Could a theoretical link be established between profiling and employee/financial fraud, the most obvious link might be that it may tell us something about the personality of the offender.

4. Approaching the research from the employers’ perspective, as contacting individuals who have committed fraud would be fraught with a host of practical and ethical difficulties.

5. Leaving profiling aside, what about researching occupational crime prevention strategies in general? For instance, the use of cognitive interviews to detect false insurance claims. What prevention strategies do banks employ? Are these effective?

The Literature Review

Another benefit of narrowing your focus is that you will have a structured search strategy in place when conducting your literature review.

Having a clear idea of what to look for will save you valuable time and energy.

Unless you are researching something unique, most topic areas will have an established body of research from which to draw upon.

In such cases you should endeavor to familiarize yourself with both the traditional/classic studies in the field, as well as the most up-to-date research.

Developing Research Questions

The main way to demonstrate and maintain your focus of inquiry is to develop appropriate research questions or hypotheses. There are no hard and fast rules as to what constitutes an ideal research question/hypothesis. Nevertheless, a sensible rule of thumb is that you are able to provide a clear rationale for the question/prediction being posed.

Essentially you have to take each research question/hypothesis in turn and justify its inclusion. More often than not, this justification will have emerged from your literature review e.g. this research question approaches a particular topic from a new angle, it taps into current debate etc (NB: You should be able to provide a similar rationale for your research as a whole). Also, again don’t forget ‘practicality.’ Is the question over ambitious given your ‘time-scale’, ‘word limit’, ‘resources’ etc?

Developing simple and straightforward research questions does not mean you cannot undertake sophisticated research.

You will know if you are on the right track with your forensic psychology research project if you ask yourself, and can confidently answer the following questions.

  • What am I hoping to explore in the course of my research?
  • What is the thinking behind my study's research questions/hypotheses?
  • Can I access a wide range of background material?
  • Will it be relatively straightforward to access my target population?
  • Ethically, am I on safe ground?

  • The best advice I can give you in the early stages of your forensic psychology research, is to keep it simple and be pragmatic. Remember research is a process, and you will be assessed on how well you undertake that process.

    Essential Reading

    The Psychologist as Detective: An Introduction to Conducting Research in Psychology by Randolph A. Smith & Stephen F. Davis

    Book Description

    The Psychologist as Detective conveys the excitement of research methodology through a lively, conversational style. To make the study of the research process interactive and accessible for readers, pedagogical features and critical thinking activities are integrated throughout the volume. Actual student research appears in each chapter to increase relevance and heighten reader interest.

    This text evaluates the science of psychology, research ideas and hypotheses, ethics, nonexperimental methods and the basics of experimentation variables and control, statistics, designing-conducting-analyzing and interpreting experiments, as well as alternative research designs, external validity, critiquing experimental research and writing and assemblling an APA-format research report.

    For individuals involved with or interested in psychological research.

    See following link for more details:

    The Psychologist as Detective: An Introduction to Conducting Research in Psychology (4th Edition)

    UK Visitors Click Here
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