Forensic Psychologist Career
Forensic psychologists apply their expertise (their knowledge of the mind and behavior) to the criminal justice system, i.e. in legal, correctional and/or law enforcement settings. The roles of these specialized psychologists vary, from providing psychological services in a correctional facility to consulting, researching and providing expert testimony.
“Forensic psychologists are psychological scientists,” wrote forensic psychologist, Karen Franklin, Ph.D. for the Psychology Today “Witness” blog in 2010. “The investigatory component requires strong detective skills. We must compare data from multiple sources in order to test alternative hypotheses.” Dr. Franklin added that in addition to being versed in the scientific method, forensic psychologists must delve into social, cultural, legal and clinical disciplines and foster their communication and critical thinking skills.
To become a forensic psychologist you need to complete a doctoral degree (Ph.D. or Psy.D.); however, there are also related careers that you can pursue after completing an undergraduate or Master’s degree.
Career & Job Description
“Forensic psychology refers to any application of psychology (by a doctoral-level psychologist) to the legal system…,” say Tara L. Kuther and Robert D. Morgan (in the fourth edition of their book Careers in Psychology: Opportunities in a Changing World, 2013). The authors add that “forensic psychologists are probably best known as practitioners” that conduct “forensic assessment and treatment service” with an educational background in counseling or clinical psychology; but some also focus on or additionally conduct research and/or teach.
Forensic psychologists may work in a variety of settings including private practice, correctional facilities, for court systems, mental health centers, universities and colleges, law enforcement agencies, forensic hospitals and more.
In an American Psychological Association article (“Postgrad growth area: Forensic Psychology”), the coordinator of the Psychology-Law Ph.D. program at The University of Alabama, Stanley L. Brodsky, PhD, is quoted as saying, “There are just huge possibilities for people to develop practices in many areas [within forensic psychology].” Some of the major career functions performed by forensic psychologists include:
- Assess/screen inmates in correctional facilities and others implicated with the criminal justice system.
- Provide treatment services to inmates and others implicated with the criminal justice system (including those that are employed as criminal justice professionals, such as police or correctional officers): delivering individual and group therapy and relevant programs, such as anger, crisis or stress management and rehabilitation programs.
- Perform evaluations for purposes, such as determining whether defendants are competent to stand trial, qualify for insanity pleas or their risk of reoffending, to serve as an expert witness, to determine parental abilities, etc.
- Consult and teach correctional staff, law enforcement agencies, attorneys, advocacy and social service organizations and others related to the criminal justice and mental health systems.
- Assist with jury selection.
- Teach college and university students and supervising students during their clinical and research experiences.
- Conduct research in a specialized area and present/publish relevant findings.
- Evaluate and develop public policy relevant to both psychology and the law.
- Provide clinical or counseling services to victims of crime.
- Facilitate mediation or dispute resolution procedures.
Forensic psychologists might perform evaluations for purposes, such as determining whether defendants are competent to stand trial, qualify for insanity pleas or their risk of reoffending, to serve as an expert witness, to determine parental abilities, etc.
Specializations & Concentrations
While a forensic psychologist will come across many topics within their academic studies and career, many determine certain areas that intrigue them, that are specifically poignant or that are compatible with their talents, interests and professional experiences. Some of these specializations within forensic psychology include:
- Memory (i.e. false confessions, blackouts induced by substances or eyewitness testimony)
- Criminal profiling (although this role is performed by law enforcement/criminal investigators more often than psychologists, say Kuther and Morgan).
- Sexual offenders (i.e. effective treatment or reoffending patterns)
- Discrimination and hate crimes
- Child custody and the impact of divorce on children
- Jury selection
- Rehabilitation/treatment for a particular type of criminal offender
- Treatment for a certain type of mental health illness/disorder (and a certain target group, such as offenders suffering from bipolar disorder or cops suffering from PTSD).
- Crime trends
- Violent crime predictors
- Competency to stand trial
- Addictions and relationship to criminal behavior
- Motives for crime
- Insanity pleas
- Psychology of confessions (i.e. interviews and interrogations)
- Forensic ethics
- Criminal responsibility
- Capital punishment
- Battered woman syndrome
- Waiving of Miranda Rights
- And more
The Educational Journey
To become a forensic psychologist you need to obtain a doctoral degree (Ph.D. or Psy.D). However there are forensic psychology careers that you can pursue with less education (either en-route to becoming psychologist or as a lifelong, fulfilling profession).
To Become a Forensic Psychologist
Bachelor’s Degree: A number of universities offer the option for undergraduate students to major in Forensic Psychology. However if you are completing a more general program, such as a Bachelor’s in Psychology, it will be advantageous to take courses in areas like abnormal psychology, criminal justice, criminology, law, psychological assessment, addictions, psychopathology, clinical or counseling psychology, research methods, criminal behavior, personality disorders, etc.
Relevant careers with a Bachelor’s Degree: Correctional treatment specialist, probation or parole officer, law enforcement officer, substance abuse counselor, adult or youth correctional officer, probation counselor, forensic science technician, research assistant, etc. (Note that some positions may require specific coursework, previous experience or licensure).
Master’s Degree: Universities offer numerous relevant Master’s degrees, including an M.A. or M.S. in Forensic Psychology, Master’s in Counseling with a forensic psychology track, Master’s in Mental Disability Law, Master’s in Forensic and Correctional Psychology, Master’s in Forensic Mental Health, a joint Master’s in Clinical Psychology/Juris Doctor (J.D.) program and more.
Careers with a Master’s Degree
Careers with a Master’s Degree: Correctional counselor, research coordinator, program manager of a community corrections agency, mental health counselor, clinical counselor, behavioral health therapist, problem sexual behavior (PSN) therapist, juvenile justice specialist, etc. (Note that some positions may require specific experience or licensure).
Doctoral Degree: Prospective forensic psychologists need to complete a doctoral degree, such as a Ph.D. in Forensic Psychology, a Psy.D. in Forensic Psychology, a joint Psy.D./J.D., a joint Ph.D. in Psychology/J.D., a Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology with a forensic specialization, a Psy.D. in Clinical Psychology with a forensic track, a Ph.D. in Psychology and Law, a Ph.D. in Social Psychology with a concentration in psychology and law, a Ph.D. in Legal Psychology and more.
Those who wish to gain expertise in the field, through continuing education, can also complete university certificate programs in areas of forensic mental health, forensic psychology, forensic and mental health counseling and mental disability law. Some forensic psychologists also refine their expertise and specialties and foster their research and practice through pursuing a postdoctoral degree.
Certification & Licensing Requirements
Psychologists who are practitioners (who provide direct psychological services such as psychotherapy, assessments and consultations) must be licensed. Requirements for licensure (outlined by the Association of State and Licensing Boards) vary state by state, but generally require a doctoral degree, approximately two years of supervised training/practice and the completion of national and/or state qualifying exams.
Depending on jurisdiction, forensic psychologists who focus do not focus on clinical and counseling roles (such as professors and researchers) may not have to be licensed. However, this may be changing as numerous employers (such as universities and government agencies) are seeing the value in licensure and may prefer or require candidates to be licensed. Research prospective employers and talk to those already practicing in the field to gain advice on whether you should be licensed as an academic forensic psychologist.
Certifications, though generally voluntary, demonstrate expertise and specialty. Forensic psychologists can gain “forensic psychology” certification through the American Board of Professional Psychology (ABPP), for example.
- * May 2010 (for Psychologists Overall, U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics)
- ** May 2010 (for Psychologists Overall, U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics)
- † Salary data from US BLS http://www.bls.gov/ooh/Life-Physical-and-Social-Science/Psychologists.htm#tab-5
- ‡ Job Outlook data from US BLS http://www.bls.gov/ooh/Life-Physical-and-Social-Science/Psychologists.htm#tab-6