In August 2015, the Department of Psychology hired Justin Ramsdell, PsyD, to develop new courses and programs in forensic psychology for undergraduate students. As of this fall, psychology majors can now pursue a concentration in forensic psychology, while non-psychology majors may earn a forensic minor.
There is a growing demand for forensic psychologists, and the American Psychological Association has identified forensic psychology as a post-graduate growth area. At the time Ramsdell joined the faculty at Mason, no other public university in Virginia offered forensic psychology as a program of study.
Ramsdell has developed the concentration and minor, as well as courses on mental illness in the criminal justice system, criminal behavior, crime victims, and pseudoscience in forensic psychology. He also revamped the previously-existing Introduction to Forensic Psychology class, making sure the content of the new curriculum did not simply repeat or overshadow courses that the criminology department offers.
“A forensic psychologist focuses on why an individual commits crimes,” Ramsdell explains. “While criminologists ask ‘why do people commit these crimes?’ we ask ‘why did this particular person commit this crime?’ We take a more individual approach.”
He appreciates the creative freedom he was allowed during the content development process. “When we were in discussions about creating [the minor and concentration],” he says, “I had some crazy ideas about things I wanted to teach and ways I wanted to present the information. And everyone I talked to [in our college] was okay with that, so it was kind of nice to have a blank check.”
Ramsdell was not always interested in forensic psychology. He began his education as a vocal performance major at a music conservatory. He left school to take a job at a music studio, eventually becoming a music teacher for children with special needs.
By his own admission, he was “an awful teacher.”
“I needed to learn about classroom management, which got me into behavioral therapy,” he recalls. “I needed to learn about psychology for kids’ disorders and that got me really interested in psychology. So I went back to school at night for a psychology degree when I wasn’t teaching, worked my butt off, took an extra job in the evenings as a case manager to gain more experience, then started doing my doctoral work so I quit the job. It was awesome, it was so fun.”
Ramsdell worked in jails and maximum-security mental hospitals while teaching as an adjunct professor. In the hospitals he primarily performed assessment for violent recidivism, evaluating whether or not patients who have committed violent offenses are at risk of committing further crimes if they are released. In the jails, his work was much more intensive.
“In jail you have to do everything,” he says. “You’re doing therapy, assessment, crisis management, all of it. [Unlike prison], people are coming to us straight off the street so there’s no lag time between the time you’re talking to the police and coming to us. People are still high off PCP or in a manic state when we talk to them.”
Ramsdell greatly enjoys his —considerably quieter— work at Mason.
“I love it here,” he says. “With the notable exception of traffic, I have never gotten into my car on my way to work and dreaded having to come here. I get to teach what I love, how I want to.”
Outside of work, Ramsdell enjoys camping and biking with his wife and children. Often, he will bike 27 miles from his home in Tacoma Park, Maryland, to Mason or vice-versa.
He also invites several musician friends to his home for what he calls “songs from a hat” every month.
“We all throw a song idea into a hat and one idea is picked at random,” he explains. “The next time you come over you have to do that as the theme, and that’s the price of admission. Last time was ‘Artists Who Died in 2015’ so we did Bowie, Prince, things like that. Sometimes we do ‘80s hair metal, 1920s music, Broadway, French pop, so you have to find a song that you can perform for everyone. It’s really just a bunch of grown-ups act[ing] like kids, but you get to learn about cool new music.”
Ramsdell still works in the criminal justice system, occasionally serving as an expert witness and consultant for lawyers in court. He also trains local police officers in the Northern Virginia area.
His advice to students, regardless of the career they want, is to pursue what captures their interest.
“Be curious,” he says. “If you’re genuinely curious about a topic and follow that curiosity, it will work out. Even if you have to work hard for it, you’ll have nothing to worry about