Carleton University: Probing criminal minds in forensic psychology

Carleton is one of the only places in the country where students can specialize in forensic psychology
The drama of polygraph tests and true crime tales attract students to Carleton’s forensic psychology program. (Photograph by Kaja Tirrul)

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The drama of polygraph tests and true crime tales attract students to Carleton’s forensic psychology program. (Photograph by Kaja Tirrul)
Polygraph tests and true crime tales attract students to Carleton’s forensic psychology program. (Photograph by Kaja Tirrul)

People are fascinated by true crime—a spate of popular podcasts and documentary series prove that fact. It’s one reason why Adelle Forth’s introduction to forensic psychology classes fill up in a matter of days with hundreds of engaged students at Carleton and online all over the world.

Megan Wagstaff took the second-year course on a whim while trying to sort out where her academic interests lay after transferring from business school into a general psychology program at Carleton. She had taken four years off between high school and university to travel and work, and now was set on choosing a program she genuinely cared about. “As soon as I took that class, I was like, ‘This is what I’m passionate about,’ ” says Wagstaff. “I loved the combination of the criminal justice system, law and psychology. It was very exciting.”

Carleton is one of a handful of schools in Canada that offers an undergraduate degree with a concentration in forensic psychology.*  While they’ve long offered courses on the subject, it wasn’t until 2015 that they gave students the option to declare a concentration in forensic psychology that appears on their diploma. The move is a big draw for students like Wagstaff, who aspire to study the area in graduate school. “I feel really lucky to get a taste for it in my undergraduate degree,” she says.

And that taste is a generous one. Students have access to a 35-person full- and part-time faculty, each with their own niche expertise. Seminar-style courses start in first year on topics spanning police psychology, eyewitness testimony, adolescent offenders, sex offenders and jury decision-making. Students can get real-world experience in the field via a semester-long practicum course in third year. For those who meet a minimum GPA requirement, a more intensive three-term co-op option is being offered for the first time this year.

Students round out the program with a final-year research thesis, which is, in many ways, a preview of graduate school. One student from last year’s cohort studied how psychopathic people use manipulation tactics like “love bombing” and “gaslighting” in relationships. Another looked at how psychopathy is presented in mainstream media outlets. Cassandra Conley, who just started her master’s in forensic psychology at Carleton, studied the relationship between youth offenders’ likelihood of committing another crime and the number of adverse incidents they experienced as children.

While many students go on to complete a Ph.D.—the requisite stepping stone to becoming a clinical psychologist or professional researcher—the career opportunities with a forensic psych background are vast. Forth has had students go into law, social work and the RCMP. Some have gone on to do research for the public service, or become parole or probation officers, or assistants to correctional psychologists in the federal or provincial systems. “We don’t train them for a specific job,” says Forth. “What you get here is knowledge and research skills—how to be a critical and analytical thinker. That opens up a lot of doors.”

CORRECTION, February 5, 2018: This article originally contained inaccurate information on the number of universities that offer forensic psychology degrees.

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