If you are interested in both the law and psychology and want to contribute to the criminal justice system or the legal system, forensic psychology might be your dream career. Explore in this guide how to become a forensic psychologist, what kind of education and licensing you need, and the skills you need to succeed.
What Is Forensic Psychology?
Forensic psychology is a newer discipline in psychology and law. It looks at how law, crime, and the justice system all interact. Forensic psychologists may specialize in field work, working with investigative teams; in legal work, acting as expert witnesses or as part of a legal team; or in research, finding ways to apply forensic psychology to prevent crime and repeat offenses.
There is an overlap with criminal psychology and the training for criminal psychology overlaps with how to become a forensic psychologist, but the two careers are different.
Forensic psychology is a popular topic for entertainment, especially crime dramas like "Mindhunter" and "Criminal Minds." But like medical dramas, television makes it seem more dramatic and glamorous than the reality.
However, it is still a fascinating career and a growing field. The number of forensic psychology programs is growing as the demand and interest grow.
|Lowest 10%||Median Annual Salary||Highest 10%||Projected Growth Rate (2021-2031)|
|$39,760||$102,900||$133,200||6% (for all psychologist jobs)|
Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics
Forensic Psychology: Example Job Titles
Forensic psychology can prepare you for many different careers in the legal and justice systems. While you must have a doctorate to become a licensed psychologist, you can apply your knowledge of forensic psychology in other careers.
Forensic psychologist Forensic clinician Forensic evaluator Special agent expert: psychology/counseling Psychologist Clinical psychologist Criminal psychologist Detective Clinical director Criminologist Forensic scientist Correctional psychologist Jury consultant Testing psychologist
Online Forensic Psychology Programs
How Do I Become a Forensic Psychologist?
To become a licensed forensic psychologist, you must earn a doctorate. This can take 7-10 years. However, you can study forensic psychology at the bachelor's or master's level and work in another field, with just 4-6 years of formal education.
Some programs offer a concentration rather than a specific degree in forensic psychology.
Education for Forensic Psychologists
You must earn a doctorate, either a doctor of philosophy (Ph.D.) in psychology or a doctor of psychology (Psy.D.) to become a forensic psychologist. Generally, students interested in practicing as a forensic psychologist enroll in Psy.D. programs and researchers in Ph.D. programs, but you can earn a license with either degree.
Because there are relatively few degree programs for forensic psychology, doctoral programs typically admit students with any relevant psychology master's degree, with either an on-campus, a hybrid, or an online program.
Licensure for Forensic Psychologists
You do not need special licensure beyond what is required for clinical psychologists to become a forensic psychologist, which requires taking the Examination for Professional Practice in Psychology. (However, these requirements may vary from state to state, so check to ensure you complete all the necessary steps.)
Board Certification for Forensic Psychologists
The American Board of Professional Psychology (ABPP) offers a specialty board certification in forensic psychology. While this is not required by most employers, it demonstrates a strong understanding of the standards of the profession and can set you apart from competition.
To pursue this certification, you need to meet the ABPP's eligibility requirements. Then, you can take the three-hour oral examination and written exam.
PreProfessional Experience for Forensic Psychologists
The time you spend in your internship, fellowship, or supervised experience in forensic psychology following your doctoral degree is what differentiates you from general psychologists. It qualifies you for forensic psychology positions.
Individuals typically spend 1-2 years in these positions. During this time, you will gain the necessary hands-on experience to find employment in forensic psychology.
During these experiences, you can expect to administer forensic psychological assessments, violence risk assessments, evaluate a defendant's competency to stand trial, attend seminars, participate in mock trials, and conduct research, among other clinical experiences with forensic populations.
What Does a Forensic Psychologist Do?
Forensic psychologists may work for the government, academia, or nonprofits on reducing the likelihood of crime or repeat offenses by advising on prevention, sentencing, and rehabilitation. They regularly work as part of a team that might consist of government officials, police, schools, individual organizations and coalitions of organizations, and community representatives.
They may also work on investigative teams to help identify criminals or with attorneys as expert witnesses to explain criminal behavior and legal implications to judges and juries.
They also work within the correctional system. They might provide clinical services or interview and study criminal offenders. They may do this to help a specific offender rehabilitate. Or they may learn more about how to prevent crime and develop the best justice system responses to criminal offenders.
Skills and Competencies
The skills required to succeed as a forensic psychologist differ slightly from a clinical or counseling psychologist.
While a natural empathetic disposition leads many students to pursue careers in psychology, you must balance compassion with objectivity. This is important because your psychological assessments will be used for legal purposes, such as to prosecute offenders and determine custody agreements. These decisions lead to ramifications on people's lives.
Objectivity will also prove important in your interactions with members of law enforcement and the criminal justice system. You will likely build friendly relationships with detectives and lawyers, which can compromise your ethical standards and ability to remain unbiased.
It also helps to develop a "thick skin" at work, more so than with other branches of psychology. As a forensic psychologist, you may often interface with people who have committed violent crimes. Interacting with certain individuals and maintaining a professional disposition can be challenging.
You must also be able to defend your psychological evaluations from scrutiny in court, which can be intimidating.
Additionally, strong analytical skills and attention to detail will also help you with daily tasks like conducting clinical assessments, interviews, and report writing.
Frequently Asked Questions About Becoming a Forensic Psychologist
How many years does it take to become a forensic psychologist?
It takes 10-15 years of education and training. You must earn a bachelor's degree, then typically a master's degree, followed by a doctorate. You must also work under the supervision of a licensed psychologist before earning your license. The specific state regulations vary.
Do you need a doctoral degree to become a forensic psychologist?
People often ask how to become a forensic psychologist without a doctorate. While you must have a doctoral degree to become a licensed psychologist, you can work in the forensic psychology field without a doctorate. For example, you might work in criminal rehabilitation or in the justice or correctional systems.
What is the difference between criminology and forensic psychology?
Criminal psychology focuses more narrowly on crime and criminal behavior. Forensic psychology covers these topics, but also looks at these issues from a legal perspective. They study how law, criminal justice, and crime prevention all affect one another.
Where do forensic psychologists work?
Many forensic psychologists work in the criminal justice system, as investigators, experts, or administrators. They also work in the legal field as expert witnesses, as part of legal teams, or in government and nonprofit organizations that work to reduce crime and prevent re-offending.
Other forensic psychologists work in correctional institutions, directly with offenders.
Forensic Psychology Resources and Professional Organizations
Page last reviewed November 22, 2022