20 Questions: Kent A. Kiehl, PhD – Criminal Psychopathy

Last Updated on June 27, 2022 by Laura Turner

Dr. Kent Kiehl is an associate professor in the department of psychology at the University of New Mexico. He received a bachelor’s degree in psychology with an emphasis in biology from the University of California Davis (1993), and both a master’s degree (1996) and a PhD (2000) in psychology and neuroscience from the University of British Columbia. Dr. Kiehl specializes in the use of clinical brain imaging techniques to understand major mental illnesses, with special focus on criminal psychopathy, psychotic disorders, traumatic brain injury, substance abuse and paraphilias. He has designed the one-of-a-kind Mind Mobile MRI System to conduct research and treatment studies with forensic populations. To date, his laboratory has deployed the Mind Mobile MRI System to collect brain imaging data from over 3,000 offenders at eight different facilities in two states, which represents the world’s largest forensic neuroscience repository.
Currently, Dr. Kiehl is the director of Mobile Imaging Core and Clinical Cognitive Neuroscience, Mind Research Network (a nonprofit organization) in Albuquerque, as well as executive science officer of the Mind Research Network. He is a member of the Society for Psychophysiological Research, Cognitive Neuroscience Society, International Organization of Human Brain Mapping, International Society for Magnetic Resonance in Medicine, Society for the Scientific Study of Psychopathy, Neurotics Society, Society for Neuroscience, and American Psychological Association. He is associate editor for Psychophysiology, an ad hoc reviewer for numerous journals, and has been published in countless journals, including Journal of Personality and Social PsychologyIssues in Criminological & Legal PsychologyPerception and PsychophysicsJournal of Cognitive NeuroscienceClinical NeurophysiologyBritish Journal of PsychiatryJournal of Neuropsychiatry and Clinical NeurosciencePsychological MedicineSchizophrenia ResearchPsychophysiology
International Journal of Psychophysiology, Biological PsychiatryBrain ResearchBrain Imaging and BehaviorSocial Cognitive and Affective NeuroscienceBritish Journal of PsychologyJournal of Financial CrimePsychological ScienceJournal of Personality DisordersFrontiers in System NeuroscienceNeurologyJournal of NeuroscienceJournal of Abnormal PsychologyDevelopmental Cognitive NeuroscienceArchives of General PsychiatryFrontiers in Neuropsychiatric Imaging and StimulationJournal of Personality and Social PsychologyJournal of Abnormal Child PsychologyAmerican Journal of PsychiatryBiological PsychologyFrontiers in Human NeuroscienceHuman Brain MappingJournal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent PsychiatryCriminal Justice and Behavior and Neuroimage.
When did you first decide to pursue a PhD in psychology? Why?
I decided as a junior in college. I realized I wanted to teach and do research. At the time a PhD was the best path to do so.
How/why did you choose the graduate school you attended?
I selected my graduate school because the world’s leader in my field of interest was there. I specifically went to work under his tutelage. That was Dr. Robert Hare, psychopathy expert, at the University of British Columbia. I always recommend people identify a mentor first and then the school.
What surprised you the most about your psychology studies?
In my area, what surprised me most was the realization that the psychopath’s brain is very different from the rest of us.
Why did you decide to also pursue a PhD in neuroscience?
I decided to do so because neuroscience had the tools and techniques to answer my questions about the psychopath’s brain.
If you had it to do all over again, would you have followed the same academic path? (Why or why not?)
Good question. If I was to start over, I might do a combined MD/PhD program rather than a PhD program. The reason is because I enjoy treating individuals, and I would do more treatment if I was clinically involved with the clients. Right now we do treatment in research contexts but it would be interesting and rewarding to do treatment in a clinical context.
Has being a psychologist met your expectations? Why?
Yes it has met my expectations. I very much enjoy the work that I do. I highly recommend people find a path that excites them. One that they look forward to getting up every day and working on. That’s what I did and I’ve always been happy.
What do you like most about being a psychologist? Explain.
The mind/brain is the most amazing organ. I am always fascinated to learn more about it every day.
What do you like least about being a psychologist? Explain.
I can’t point to anything in particular. I was just fortunate to be able to select an educational path that enables me to do the science that interests me. It’s a perfect match.
What was it like finding a job in your field—what were your options and why did you decide what you did?
I realized early on that I had to publish peer-reviewed papers if I wanted to be a successful academic. I enjoy the writing process, even when it is a struggle, and have been able to publish many papers. This has led to much of my successes. I have been fortunate to work at a number of great schools and with nonprofits. I try to educate my graduate students and post docs to always be open to new things and to never let geography limit your job search. You really have to be willing to move any place in the world that helps you do the best science you can.
Describe a typical day at work—walk me through a day in your shoes.
I devote 3 a.m. to 8 a.m. to writing. Then I drive to campus. From 9 a.m. to 12 p.m. there are meetings. I take lunch from 12 p.m. to 1 p.m (usually with my post docs). From 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. there are more meetings. Then I head home for family time from 5 p.m. to 9 p.m. I try to be in bed by 9 p.m. I travel once per month minimum, and often as frequently as four trips per month. I am also at prisons, often at least three to five days a month, working with my laboratory.
On average: How many hours a week do you work? How many hours do you sleep per night? How many weeks of vacation do you take?
I work 50 to 60 hours per week. I typically run on six hours of sleep. I try to take two weeks off per year. Sometimes more, but usually just two.
Do you feel that you are adequately compensated? Why or why not? 
I’ve been fortunate to generate income from books, lectures, and other consulting. Generally speaking, academics are underpaid relative to peers in law schools or similar.
If you took out educational loans, is/was paying them back a financial strain? Please explain.
I was a fortunate recipient of NIH student-loan repayment awards. I highly recommend them. Had I not won those awards, I probably would still be renting an apartment rather than owning a house.
In your position now, knowing what you do – what would you say to yourself when you were beginning your career?
I would not change anything. I have been very fortunate.
What information/advice do you wish you had known when you were beginning your studies?
Write even more than I have done. I have so much data that I need to publish. It could be worse…. having no data. I just feel that there is not enough time to write up all the great data we collected.
From your perspective, what is the biggest problem in health care today?
I lived in Canada and loved the socialized medicine. I think we need to alter the for-profit priorities in the U.S. for health care and catch up with the rest of the world.
Where do you see your specialty in five years?
I see it growing. And hopefully lobbying for more treatment dollars for high-risk youth and adult offenders.
What types of outreach/volunteer work do you do, if any?
Mostly education to judges, lawyers, and lay audiences about neuroscience and law.
Do you have family? Do you have enough time to spend with them? How do you balance work and life outside of work?
Yes, I have a wife and a daughter. I do my best, but it is hard to find the right balance between work and life. But finding that balance would exist for me regardless of the career path I chose. I love my work, so I would be working just as hard if I had chosen a different career.
What is your final piece of advice for students interested in pursuing a career in your speciality? 
Write. More. Do the best science you can.