What is Forensic Psychology?
Forensic psychology is one of the newer fields to be incorporated into the field of psychology by the American Psychological Association (APA). There are a number of definitions, but it is broadly “the application of clinical specialties to the legal arena.” Within this definition is the understanding that “clinical specialties” refers to a psychologist’s study and counseling of individuals, and “legal arena” indicates these individuals are connected with the law, whether it be lawyers, judges, juries, victims, defendants etc. Forensic psychologists therefore are able to use their degrees and expertise in a wide array of fields and applications.
The application of forensic psychology is incredibly important within the legal system, however not in the ways people often think. Having trained clinicians within legal systems means someone is available who can get an in-depth look at a defendant’s mind or the minds of important persons in the law environment.
Many people incorrectly think that the field of forensic psychology involves “reading minds” or only working with high profile criminals and lawyers. This misconception has been promoted through television shows and movies. Although forensic psychologists are not mind-readers, they often have more insight into a person’s mind than the average person.
What Does a Forensic Psychologist Do?
Forensic psychologists are tasked with applying their clinical skills to the criminal and law fields. While the basics of their job duties often overlap with those performed by other psychologists, other responsibilities are unique and are often within a unique setting. Here are some of the most common job duties of a forensic psychologist, however many more are not mentioned here.
Forensic psychologists apply their skills in understanding the human mind to assess numerous groups of people in the legal field. This involves collecting data from interviews and observations, and writing up reports for use by other individuals. Psychological assessments can be completed when a lawyer wants to know how reliable a witness is, to understand the psychological profile of a criminal, or whether a police officer was acting in self-defense, to name a few.
Psychological assessments are particularly important when examining a criminal who pleads insanity. It is often up to one or more forensic psychologists to complete psychological assessments on the criminal, to determine if this plea is false. Depending on the severity of the crime, these types of assessments can last months or years in order to understand the mind of the criminal.
A forensic psychologist with special expertise can act as an expert witness. Essentially, they can be called to the stand to give factual information about a case, the defendant, or a witness. For instance, after completing a psychological assessment of a key witness and finding the person is not psychologically “fit”, they can come to the stand in court and give this information. Forensic psychologists cannot give their opinions and do not speak for the prosecution or defendant, so lawyers will often only call them when absolutely needed.
Like all psychologists, forensic psychologists have been trained to provide counseling services to those in need. In the legal sector, they focus on providing counseling to criminals, judges, lawyers, and others involved with the law. For instance, criminals recently released from prison often have difficulties adjusting to the real-world. They can provide their services to facilitate a smooth transition and promote good mental health.
Forensic psychologists commonly provide their services to persons serving in law enforcement. They can provide counseling to officers who have fired a weapon, experienced a traumatic situation, or have been temporarily suspended from duty. They can also provide counseling to forensic scientists or others commonly exposed to traumatic or graphic scenes.
Child Custody Evaluations
In times of divorce or parental separation, forensic psychologists are called upon to help determine child custody disputes. They look at previous mental history, current psychological health, and collect data from relevant individuals to determine how the dispute should be settled.
Their goals are to place the child/children in the hands of the parent or guardian that will ensure the child is in a stable home. They are not always involved in the process, but become helpful when parents do not agree on custody charges. Forensic psychologists may also help facilitate meetings and reunions between children and a criminal or recently released parent.
Criminal profiling is a specific form of psychological assessment that is performed by highly experienced forensic psychologists. These individuals may work for government agencies like the FBI on high profile cases to solve murders, understand criminals, and predict subsequent crimes. Criminal profiling involves evidence examination, piecing together relevant information, and studying profiles of similar criminals. Forensic psychologists may work alongside neuropsychologists or brain surgeons to interpret post-mortem brain patterns of criminals.
Some, but not all, forensic psychologists focus their efforts on research related to the field. Their main purpose is to study and test certain psychological theories in order to apply them in the field. For instance, a forensic psychologist who has spent time practicing criminal profiling may choose to pause their line of work to study patterns across perpetrators. Their goal may be to better understand criminals so other forensic psychologists can complete criminal profiling in a more efficient and accurate manner.
Why Do We Need Forensic Psychologists?
For the past few decades, forensic psychologists have filled gaps between the fields of law and psychology. The field continues to grow because more of these gaps are being found and filled. For instance, the task of evaluating parental fit during custody battles was (and is still) often performed by a judge or social workers. A forensic psychologist has far more academic training than either of these professionals, and so have delegated their services to this task.
Additionally, there are very few other professionals who have the ability to perform the crucial task of psychologically assessing criminals and defendants. This is obviously an important need within the legal field. Only forensic psychologists who have extensive training and impressive educational background are qualified to assess high profile criminals, often for governmental agencies like the FBI.
From a more research perspective, forensic psychologists have made key breakthroughs in improving interrogation techniques, making judicial processes fairer, and understanding criminal minds. Many of these researchers have gained extensive hands-on experience prior to starting their research career. This means many breakthroughs are readily applicable to the field, rather than based in theory.
Where Does a Forensic Psychologist Work?
Forensic psychologists work in a number of different areas, not just court rooms. They can be found within prisons or jails working with defendants, prisoners, or prison staff and managers. They also work for the government, police departments, or law firms.
Many forensic psychologists work in private practices, which allows them to move between numerous locations and perform a number of job duties. They may have their own office where they can counsel individuals involved in the legal system. They may also act as independent contractors, appearing in court when needed or visiting government agencies or law offices.
These psychologists may also spend most of their time at an academic or government research institution where they conduct law-related research studies. They may also teach and act as a consultant for other forensic psychologists, law firms, prisons, etc.
Regardless of where a forensic psychologist works, most of their time is spent indoors. They may spend time in a personal office, court room, meeting room, etc. Some travel between locations, however a number spend most of their time in one spot.
What Do You Learn in a Forensic Psychology Degree?
Forensic psychology students spend at least 8 years in high education programs. Within this time, they take courses on law and psychology, among others. The following is a small subset of what is learned within forensic psychology degree programs.
- Treatment and Rehabilitation: Students will begin to learn how to treat and rehabilitate criminals, mainly in graduate programs.
- Child/Family Forensics: Programs will teach students family dynamics and how children are protected under certain laws.
- Law: Most forensic psychologists are not legally able to practice law, but all have knowledge on criminal justice and law basics. In depth learning occurs on the job and through tailored courses.
- Clinical Skills: Learning to counsel others will take up the majority of time students spend in graduate programs. Students will learn this skill during classes as well as internships in the field.
- Criminal Thought: Criminal profilers will be interested in taking courses on how criminals think, history of criminal thought, and which major theories govern the field.
- Research and Evaluation: Despite intentions for entering a non research-based field, students will need to understand how to gather and analyze data on individuals.
- Psychology of Victims: Victimhood is an important component of degree programs. Students will learn how victims think and techniques for counseling victims of crimes.
What are the Requirements to Become a Forensic Psychologist?
Step 1: Obtain a high school diploma or GED
During high school, students should aim to complete Advanced Placement (AP) courses and pass AP exams, perform well on their SAT exams, and obtain a high GPA in school. This will give them a higher chance of succeeding in a university setting as well granting them more options on where they would like to obtain their degree.
Step 2: Obtain a Bachelor’s Degree in Psychology
Students should make efforts to enroll in a university that allows students to minor in criminal justice or law-related studies while pursuing a Bachelor’s degree. A very few universities offer Bachelor’s degrees in forensic psychology; students who know they want to become a forensic psychologist should attend these universities. Some graduate programs will accept students that have majored in a law degree or criminal justice with a minor in psychology, however students will need to bolster their applications in other ways.
Within the Bachelor’s program, students will need to excel in their courses to increase the chance of being accepted into a prestigious graduate program. Most programs offer different routes to graduation; students should choose the clinical based route. If a research-based career is desired, classes in statistics should be taken as well. Clinical and research internships should be pursued in order to gain experience while building relationships with professors.
Step 2a: Choose a Discipline
The route to becoming any type of psychologist can be the same until entering a graduate degree. Along the way, a student must choose which field of psychology they will enter. Students who decide on a forensic psychology career early in their Bachelor’s degree program will be able to take more tailored courses, increasing their chances of being accepted into a graduate program. While this choice should occur early, students can always supplement their education with online law and criminal justice courses, or find a Master’s program that will allow students to take additional courses.
Step 3: Obtain a Master’s Degree (Optional)
Earning a standalone Master’s degree is a good option for students who have a Bachelor’s degree in a field other than psychology, or for students who did not perform as well in their undergraduate career. While it is quicker to jump straight into a PhD program, Master’s degrees can be a good way to gain additional experience or take more courses.
Additionally, there are more Master’s programs than PhD programs in Forensic Psychology so employers may be more likely to hire students who have both degrees. Students will need to complete the GRE’s, send in transcripts and letters of recommendation, and write a statement of purpose.
Step 4: Obtain a Law Degree (Optional)
Students who wish to spend most of their time in court may want to pursue a Juris Doctor (JD) degree. Most of these programs last about 3 years, greatly increasing the time a student will spend in graduate school. The degree qualifies individuals to take the Bar exam, and afterwards they can act as an attorney. Students may want to take this route if they want to keep their career options open, later deciding to enter a mainly psychology-based career or law-based career.
Step 5: Obtain a PhD or PsyD
Students who are certain of their career path and who have taken an appropriate array of criminal justice, law, and psychology courses will want to enter into a PhD or PsyD program directly after their Bachelor’s program. Programs often offer a PhD or PsyD in Psychology with a focus in forensic psychology. These programs have high expectations for students so admission requirements are often rigorous, particularly for top universities. Students must have letters of recommendation, previous internship experience, high marks in courses, and impressive GRE scores.
Choosing the PhD versus PsyD depends on the career a student wishes to enter. A PhD will give students more experience performing research while the PsyD is more clinical-based. Both degrees will teach students to professionally counsel others, often requiring numerous hours (1-2 years) of supervised training. These degrees will expose students to the typical job duties of forensic psychologists like counseling criminals, appearing in court, and performing psychological assessments.
Step 6: Complete Post-Doctoral Training (Optional)
Students who wish to obtain more specific training will enter into a post-doctoral program, which will last 1-2 years. Students who did not receive specific training in forensic psychology during their PhD or PsyD program can enter into a Post-Doctoral program focusing on legal studies. Post-Doctoral training may be mandated by certain states before obtaining licensure.
Step 7: Obtain Licensure
The exact process for this step is highly state-dependent, as licensure is overseen by state boards. This is a required step for all psychologists, regardless of their focus. Most commonly, states require 3,000 hours of supervised clinical work (most of which occurs during the PhD or PsyD), obtainment of an APA accredited PhD or PsyD, and passing an exam. The most common exam required is the Examination of Professional Practice in Psychology, which is a 225-question multiple choice exam.
Step 8: Obtain Certification (Optional)
An optional, but recommended, step is to become certified by the American Board of Professional Psychology (ABPP). Certification requires professionals to complete an oral and written exam after they obtain a doctorate degree. The certification demonstrates professional competence, which is helpful if pursuing a career in government or other high-profile sectors.
Step 9: Remain Licensed
States often require psychologists to take continuing education courses throughout their career in order to remain licensed. The number of hours as well as the exact content required is state-dependent. The APA oversees and approves courses that appropriately satisfy the requirements for continuing education.
What is an Online Forensic Psychology Degree?
Online forensic psychology degrees are available at every degree level, although doctorate degrees are not accredited. Choosing to take online courses alongside standard courses can be beneficial for forensic psychology students since they are expected to be knowledgeable on criminal justice, law, and psychology. However, a fully online degree is often not the best option for potential psychologists.
At the undergraduate level, students will need to build relationships with professors and peers, and begin practicing clinical work and research. This makes fully online degrees very difficult, if not impossible. Within a graduate program, students may be able to satisfy course requirements online, however they will be spending most of their time practicing skills and visiting potential employment sites (e.g., prisons). If students choose to pursue an online degree, they should make sure it is accredited by the APA before enrolling.
What Skills are Needed to be a Forensic Psychologist?
Forensic psychologists are required to have a number of skills before serving in the professional sector. These are learned or are naturally occurring in the individual. The following is a subset of important skills forensic psychologists should have.
- Strong Ethics: All psychologists, but especially forensic psychologists, are faced with ethical dilemmas during their careers. They must ensure they create appropriate relationships with clients and stay unbiased when needed.
- Calm Under Pressure: Working in prisons and with criminals can be stressful, so forensic psychologists must learn to stay calm and professional.
- Active Listening: While counseling individuals, forensic psychologists need to pay close attention to their client and process what they are saying.
- Unbiased Judgment: Acting as an expert witness requires unbiased judgement and presentation of facts. Forensic psychologists must also make sure they are staying unbiased when creating psychological assessments.
- Negotiation: Forensic psychologists may serve at a cross section between disagreeing individuals (e.g., divorced parents). Negotiating on behalf of an individual or between parties can occur often.
- Knowledge of Law: Beyond ethics, forensic psychologists need to be fully aware of laws that apply in immediate situations and to their clients in general. This takes constant updating and learning as laws change often.
What Tools and Technologies are Used by a Forensic Psychologist?
The majority of tools and technologies used by forensic psychologists are mental tools which they learn in their educational program and while on the job. However, here are a few technical tools they use as well.
- Psychological Tests: There are a number of different tests forensic psychologists use to help create psychological assessments. These may include personality (e.g., MMPI-2) and intelligence tests (e.g., WAIS-III) among others.
- Statistics Packages: Psychologists who spend most of their time conducting research will need to be familiar with various statistical packages, including R, SAS, and SPSS.
- Video Cameras: Forensic psychologists are tasked with conducting interviews with clients. When speaking with criminals, they often need to use cameras and re-watch videos to gain more information.
- Project Management Software: Packages like Virtual Case Management can help forensic psychologists keep track of cases on clients. This type of software is also used by lawyers, which makes for easier communication between professionals.
- Scheduling Software: The busy schedules of forensic psychologists can be managed with scheduling tools like TherapyBuddy or Google Calendar.
How Forensic Psychologists are Different from Forensic Psychiatrists?
Forensic psychologists and forensic psychiatrists have a number of overlapping job duties, including counseling of individuals in the legal field, criminal profiling, and conducting psychological assessments. The main difference is in the additional years a psychiatrist spends learning about the use of medication for treating mental-illnesses. This time is spent in medical school and during a residency. As forensic psychiatrists understand the effects of medication, they may have additional information that could be helpful during trial if serving as an expert witness. Forensic psychologists on the other hand cannot prescribe medication.
This additional training is important for some specific job tasks. For instance, dangerous criminals may need to receive medication in addition to psychological counseling while in prison or after being released. The majority of forensic psychiatrists have clients who have mental-illnesses. For this reason, their jobs are often more stressful than those of forensic psychologists, however both may work with dangerous or mentally unstable criminals. Forensic psychiatrists are also awarded much higher salaries than forensic psychologists, often exceeding $200,000 per year.
What are the Benefits of Being a Forensic Psychologist?
- Diversity in Job Options: Forensic psychologists have numerous choices when it comes to employment. They can work with criminals, help children, conduct research, and assist law enforcement.
- Salary and Benefits: All psychologists are well-paid, particularly as they gain experience in the field. Some careers within the forensic psychology field are very well paid and include healthy benefit packages.
- Respected Career: As is evident from television shows, people admire others who work directly with criminals and who study the minds of criminals. Many psychologists put their talents to work helping others gain better mental health.
- Create Own Schedule: Forensic psychologists who are self-employed are their own boss and can create their own schedule.
- Interesting Work: Every mind is different which makes a forensic psychologist’s work diverse and interesting. Day to day job duties are often varied, indicating low rates of boredom.
What are the Disadvantages of Being a Forensic Psychologist?
- Mentally-Straining Environment: Working with criminals, mentally-ill parents, or law enforcement officers with depression can be difficult. Some environments, like court rooms or prisons can be stressful places to work.
- Incorrect Judgement: Although properly trained, a forensic psychologist is not capable of producing 100% accurate psychological assessments every time. There may be times when their observations or interviews produce misleading results which can result in irreversible harm to individuals.
- Young Field: The recency of the forensic psychology field is an advantage and disadvantage. On the negative side, this means there are fewer established resources available to professionals, and connections and support in the field may be harder to find.
What is the Job Outlook for Forensic Psychologists?
While exact data does not exist, the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) estimates a positive outlook for forensic psychologists. In the next decade, the field of psychology as a whole is estimated to grow 14% with psychologists in the “other” category expecting an 11% increase in available jobs. This is higher than the 7% expected growth of jobs as a whole in the next ten years.
As the field of forensic psychology is new, there remains a growing need for these psychologists to enter the job market. In any new field, this may mean needing to create a unique position or serve as a consultant before working full-time within a company. It’s clear that forensic psychologists play a valuable role in the legal realm so it is expected they will flourish in the field.
How Much Does a Forensic Psychologist Make?
There is a lack of sufficient data on exact employment salary of forensic psychologists. However, the BLS indicates psychologists as a whole earn close to $77,000 per year and those in the “other” category earn about $98,000 per year. The numbers are highly dependent on where a forensic psychologist works and what they choose to do with their degree.
The BLS indicates psychologists working in government make the most, at roughly $95,000 per year. Salaries of forensic psychologists working as criminal profilers for the FBI likely make far more than this, particularly those with numerous years of experience. Salaries are also higher for those working at private prisons.
What Professions are Similar to Forensic Psychologist?
Forensic and clinical psychologists sometimes overlap in their career as both are legally able to counsel individuals. Clinical psychologists may specialize in a number of different areas, but overall, they counsel persons with mental illnesses or long-standing behavioral issues. They often have their own office where they see patients, but they may visit individuals in other arenas as well.
Juvenile Offenders Counselors
Professionals who hold a Master’s degree in forensic psychology are able to counsel underage persons in juvenile detention facilities. A juvenile offender counselor can provide counseling for mental-illnesses, facilitate group discussions, and counsel activity coordinators on mentally healthy activities. They may also follow juvenile offenders outside of the detention center to provide additional counseling.
Jury consultants are needed to select individuals who are unbiased in order to participate in a jury. This involves interviewing jury members, looking at their demographics, and formulating profiles. They will consult with attorneys to ensure their requirements are met. They continue to observe jury members throughout trial to ensure their selections were not biased.
Forensic Social Workers
These professionals perform similar job duties as social workers, however within the legal field. They often work in between law professionals, victims, and defendants to ensure each of these individuals is not being mistreated and they understand their rights. They may work alongside other social workers to help rehabilitate those recently released from custody.