What is Forensic Psychology?
Forensic psychologists apply their expertise in legal matters including mental health evaluations, jury selection, dispute resolution, and more.
Psychologists in this field typically work in prisons, jails, rehabilitation centers, police departments, law firms, schools, government agencies or private practices. Forensic psychology relies on the assessment and evaluation skills of clinical specialities.
On this page, we'll explore forensic psychology and list the steps to starting a career in the field.
What Does a Forensic Psychologist Do?
Forensic psychologists offer their professional expertise to aid the judicial system in both civil and criminal matters. Since the psychological assessment of those involved in the legal system is the primary concern of forensic psychologists, it's incredibly important for those in the field to possess strong clinical skills. These include clinical assessment, interviewing, report writing, strong verbal communication skills and case presentation.
Psychologists are often called upon as advisors and expert witnesses and can provide recommendations as to client competency, sentencing and treatment during trial. Analysis of evidence found at crime scenes allows psychologists to develop criminal profiles, which are then used to narrow down a list of suspects. Additionally, forensic psychologists can act as consultants to legal and administrative populations.
Though the role of the forensic psychologist has been sensationalized on TV and in films in recent years, many professionals primarily conduct research in a more scholarly capacity. Such research has contributed to improving interrogation techniques, criminal rehabilitation and the design of correctional facilities. The place of employment and area of specialization of the forensic psychologist determine how they work in the field. Regardless of the setting, forensic psychologists should possess the following core competencies:
Skills & Competencies
- Strong Communication and Listening Skills
- Ability to Establish Trust with Offenders/Accused Criminals
- Ability to Analyze Statistical Information
- Open-mindedness; Non-judgmental Approach
- Ability to Comprehend/Communicate Legal Terminology
- Resilience; Ability to Cope with Potential Personal Safety Risk
Forensic psychology comprises a variety of specialties and concentrations, tailored to the individual needs of various cases and/or patients. Here we've provided a detailed exploration of four primary concentrations in forensic psychology:
Areas of Expertise in Forensic Psychology
Adult forensic psychologists examine, treat and testify on behalf of adult patients regarding their mental state.
Examples of Issues Affecting Adult Offenders
- Substance abuse
- Anger management issues
- Impulse control issues
- Gang activity or involvement
- Sex offenses
Adult forensic psychologists provide crucial input to legal cases, including litigation where criminal competency in regards to custody, child welfare, domestic abuse, sex offenses and other violent crimes is of primary concern. Specialists can evaluate the risk for future offenses, client competency to stand trial and the feigning of mental illness or cognitive impairment. Adult forensic psychologists can also provide expert testimony, consultation and professional training.
Common Job Titles
- Adult Forensic Psychologist
- Forensic Psychologist – Adult Specialty
Child and Family Psychology
This concentration focuses on psychological assessment and treatment of children and families involved in the legal system.
Examples of Child and Family Psychology Cases
- Child abuse
- Juvenile offenders
- Child custody
- Substance abuse
Psychologists in this specialty typically use couples or family therapy sessions to evaluate patients. Evaluations of juveniles tend to focus on competency to stand trial and ways to address dispositional issues. At times, psychologists determine if a juvenile in superior court should be sent back to juvenile court for adjudication. The court can refer clients to psychologists if they are in need of parent-child counseling, therapeutic supervised visitation, parent skills training, anger management training, divorce adjustment counseling for children or parental communication skills training.
Common Job Titles
- Child and Family Forensic Psychologist
- Juvenile Forensic Psychologist
- School Forensic Psychologist
- Forensic Psychologist – Child and Family Specialty
Forensic neuropsychologists study how psychological and physiological brain disorders and conditions impact brain function, potentially resulting in poor impulse control, lack of judgement or criminal behavior.
Examples of Issues Explored
- Behavioral disorders
- Personality disorders
- Abuse and neglect
- Genetic predisposition
Neuropsychologists working within the legal system are often asked to provide insights into how neuroscience and psychology may have impacted the behavior of individual offenders. Certain areas of the brain (e.g., prefrontal cortex, amygdala and hippocampus and temporal lobe) are commonly associated with antisocial personality disorder or psychopathy. Neuropsychologists examine these areas of the brain and others to determine the risk of criminals reoffending. Determining insanity or assessing prisoners prior to their release are also jobs neuropsychologists perform. Additionally, neuropsychologists can testify in court and collaborate with legal counsel for jury selection requirements.
Common Job Titles
- Forensic Neuropsychologist
- Neuropsychology Forensic Specialist
Forensic psychologists specializing in this area are trained to apply principles of psychological practice to the law enforcement field. Often they're required to maintain expertise in both fields in order to fully understand situations in which they overlap.
Examples of Law Enforcement Psychology Cases
- Hostage negotiations
- Psychological intervention
- Public safety
- Forensic training and workshops
Law enforcement forensic psychologists may be employed in a variety of settings, and in both educational and forensic capacities. Police officers frequently require the assistance of law enforcement psychologists when dealing with crises such as suicide threats and other traumatic events. Psychologists also design law enforcement training and stress management programs. This specialty is unique in that it incorporates comprehensive intervention and recovery technique training to accommodate the remarkably high stress levels that accompany the work.
Common Job Titles
- Law Enforcement Forensic Psychologist
- Forensic Psychologist – Law Enforcement
Forensic Psychology By the Numbers
Forensic psychologists comprise a subsection of clinical, counseling and school psychologists in the U.S. Employment in this field is expected to continue to rise by 11% from 2012 to 2022, providing 16,400 new jobs to psychologists in the field, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Annual Mean Wage of Child Psychologists, By State, May 2014
|State||Employment||Employment per Thousand Jobs||Location Quotient||Hourly Mean Wage||Annual Mean Wage|
Source: Occupational Employment Statistics, Bureau of Labor and Statistics, June 2015
How Do I Become a Forensic Psychologist?
Most jobs in the forensic psychology field require a master's degree, including high-level specialist and therapist positions. Those interested in operating a private practice and/or achieving a position of seniority should pursue a PhD or PsyD. Specific concentrations include civic, family or criminal forensic psychology, among others. At the graduate level, practical experience, state licensure and professional certification are required in addition to completing required curriculum to practice as a psychologist in the U.S.
The following are a series of options along the path to becoming a successful forensic psychologist. Select the status that best describes your present level of education in the field:
Declare as a psychology major.
Core psychology courses may include:
- Intro to Psychology
- Behavioral Psychology
- Abnormal Psychology
- Cognitive Psychology
- Biological Psychology
- Social Psychology
- Statistical Methods
- Psychology Seminar
- Criminal Law
- Developmental Psychology
Consider a specialty.
- Hone your interests. Start looking into a niche related to forensic psychology. Narrow down the options that appeal to you the most.
- Take foundational courses for the field, such as forensics, psychology of deviance and abnormal psychology. Consider taking courses in criminology or criminal justice. These courses will help you determine which areas interest you the most.
- Talk to professors or academic professionals at your school who are working in your area of interest. Find out what topics they're researching. Some forensic psychology careers are steeped in research; determine if you're interested in these and if so, learn what areas you want to focus on. It's never too early to start forming thesis ideas.
Take the GRE.
- Know the minimum admittance score requirements for your school.
- Take multiple practice tests.
- If your practice scores remain low, consider a paid GRE prep course.
- Schedule your test date with enough time to take again if necessary.
Get reference letters.
- Stay friendly with professors and make an effort to make yourself memorable to them. Ask questions in class and attend office hours. If you make an impression, professors will likely remember you when you start requesting references.
- If you and your instructors or academic acquaintances have fallen out of touch, don't feel intimidated about approaching them. They will likely need to be reacquainted with your interests and goals before writing a reference letter.
Choose a graduate school.
- Our psychology school database can help you find the best graduate forensic psychology programs. The school you attend is directly proportionate to your success finding employment after graduating. Choose a school with not only a reputable forensic psychology program, but also a strong network of alumni to help with your job hunt. Look for professors conducting research you're interested in.
Come up with a thesis.
- Your thesis is the framework of your early professional identity. Ideally, you will have decided your interest at this stage, but if not, don't delay in selecting a topic.
- Professors' insights can help to form a full hypothesis from your original idea.
Find an internship.
- Secure an internship while still in school. Internships build valuable professional experience and can lead directly into jobs and networking opportunities.
- Internships for forensic psychology students are offered through prisons and juvenile detention centers, research institutes, government programs and medical settings.
Network with professors and professionals in the field.
- Networking is crucial to the job-search process.
- Practice your interview skills with the help of your school's career services department. These skills will continue to help you throughout your career.
Refine your resume and keep it current.
- Keep the information on your resume relevant and interesting. Make sure it appears professional and is easy for employers to read.
- Have friends or colleagues you respect review your resume for suggestions and edits.
- Update your resume frequently to include the most recent activity. Remember to tailor it to each position before applying to them.
Start sending out job applications.
- Expect a long process from application to potential employment. You have the best chances of finding a job in a timely fashion if you are systematic in your approach.
- Always customize cover letters depending on the particular organization and position you're applying for.
- Find potential employers on LinkedIn; don't overlook opportunities to make a personal connection and make your application memorable.
Prepare for interviews.
- Hold mock interviews with friends.
- Expect the company you are interviewing for to test your knowledge of their business. Research the company so that you can describe basic talking points in a few sentences, if asked.
- Dress professionally, bring your resume/cover letter with you and speak and act respectfully during the interview.
You're now a forensic psychologist!
- Congratulations! Hopefully following the steps outlined above has helped you secure your first job in the field.
- Don't stop looking for new opportunities once you've found your first job. Be aware of ongoing developments in the industry and seek out new chances to advance your skills and increase your income.
To assist you in the process of selecting a school, we have created a database of top forensic psychology programs tailored to your needs. Simply set the customizable filters to browse the best U.S. schools.
Meet a Forensic Psychologist
Raquel Warley, Ph.D., LCSW
Foremost, as a forensic social worker or counseling psychologists, you use qualitative assessment tools to gather information about the person, the problem, and the circumstances.
To give an inside perspective of forensic psychology, we sat down with forensic psychologist Dr. Raquel Warley to get her view on the ins-and-outs of the field.
Skip to Question
- What's your educational background/How did you get interested in that subject?
I have a Bachelor of Arts in forensic psychology, a Master of Arts in criminal justice, a Master of Social Work, and a Ph.D. in social welfare.
When I was in 10th grade, a television show called "America's Most Wanted" debuted; it was the first of its kind. I was fascinated with the show, engrossed with the notions of crime and criminals. More specifically, I had a strong desire to learn about the criminal mind. For that reason, after graduating high school, I decided to attend college and to major in forensic psychology. Immediately after receiving my bachelor's, I pursued a graduate degree in criminal justice.
I then went to work for a research institution where I did face-to-face interviews with young offenders who were remanded to the care and custody of the New York State Department of Corrections for committing a violent offense; namely, robbery, aggravated assault, sexual assault, or homicide. During that time, I "discovered" the field of forensic social work. Instantly, I was enamored with the field; I understood that being a member of the profession would give me an opportunity to work with people as victims of crime as well as offenders. Moreover, I realized it would make it possible for me to intercede with at-risk individuals before they actually committed a crime that could destroy their lives and the lives of others.
- How did you choose that school and program?
In the mid-1980s, when I was applying to colleges, John Jay College School of Criminal Justice was identified as the number one institution of higher learning in the United States for this course of study. Fortunately, the school was in my hometown, which made it geographically and financially appealing. By the time I returned to school to pursue my Master of Social Work degree, I had a family and a full-time job; I couldn't entertain the idea of attending a university outside New York City.
Once again, it was my good fortune that a very reputable School of Social Work was located where I lived. That school was Hunter College School of Social Work, which is now Silberman School of Social Work. I applied and was accepted to the graduate program. Post-graduation, I was immediately enrolled in the Ph.D. program at the same school.
- Who do you think makes the best counseling psychologists/candidates? Do you recommend doing anything in undergrad/grad school to better set yourself up for success?
Frankly, I think a person with a foundation in adequate social skills makes for a good counseling psychologist. The reason being: there is over 30 years of valid research indicating that 85% of the variance in positive treatment outcomes is related to three factors:
- The therapeutic relationship
- What the client brings to the therapeutic process
- The therapist's ability to enhance the client's motivation for change.
These core conditions involve the methodical and appropriate use of self in each and every interaction with clients. That is to say, the therapeutic effect is more a consequence of the connection and association between the therapist and the client than it is because of psychometric testing and treatment of mental disorders by psychoanalysis or other modes of psychotherapy and counseling.
To hone one's skill in the effective use of self for this purpose, I recommend acquiring knowledge of six foundational theories of practice. I call them the "Sexy 6": client-centered practice, solution-focused approach, strengths-based perspective, motivation enhancement, task-centeredness, and empowerment. Furthermore, I advise budding and veteran practitioners to become competent in techniques that give these practice models visible form in work activities with clients.
- What's your area of specialty within counseling psychology?
Essentially, I am a generalist practitioner. This is, I have a fund of knowledge and experience that allows me to intervene effectively in a variety of settings, with diverse individuals who experience an array of mental and behavioral health disorders, as well as social problems. Notwithstanding, one of my areas of expertise is forensics.
- Where do you currently work? How did you find that position?
My primary job is in academia. I am an associate professor in the School of Social Work at California State University, Los Angeles. I am also a forensic examiner for the Pasadena Juvenile Court.
- Were there any unexpected hurdles in getting where you are today?
Certainly, life is full of hurdles and some of us, for a variety of reasons, experience more hurdles than others in trying to achieve desired goals. The hurdle that was probably the most unexpected for me involved networking and mentorship. Some time ago, I realized that no one succeeds alone. Oftentimes, educational and career opportunities come by way of social and cultural capital. Intellect, focus, initiative, and tenacity are important factors in regards to success; however, social relations with people and institutions that provide indispensable support (i.e. material, emotional, financial, and informational support) are just as significant.
- What does your typical day involve?
In my role as forensic examiner I do biopsychosocial assessments and fitness evaluations for youth who are justice involved. These youth have been remanded to the care and custody of the Los Angeles Department of Probation and are either under the auspices of residential care or are being supervised in the community.
The process begins with an attorney (usually a public defender AKA an indigent attorney) contacting me to inquire about my availability for taking a case. Once I agree to take a case, the attorney files a petition with the court to request my appointment as a forensic examiner. After a judge makes the appointment and the attorney sends me official record data (i.e. the charge petition, the arrest report, the probation officer's report, school records, psychological reports, etc.), I do a face-to-face interview with the minor.
When possible, I also gather information from the legal guardian. If necessary, and with the minor's/guardian's consent and authorization, I might collect data from other significant sources. Next I assemble the database then organize and analyze the information; from there, I make an assessment regarding predisposing, precipitating, and perpetuating factors that explain the youth, his/her lived experience, the instant offense, and his/her propensity for delinquency and crime. In addition, I present diagnoses, suggest a placement arrangement, and offer recommendations for ongoing mental/behavioral health treatment.
When asked to do a fitness evaluation, this means that the prosecutor wants the minor to be tried in adult court; therefore, I also offer my professional opinion regarding eligibility criteria for the youth's case to be heard in juvenile court.
Finally, I generate a confidential report of findings, which I submit to the defense attorney who makes a decision whether to present my assessment or evaluation to the court and, if so, to what extent that information will be presented. When deemed necessary by the defense, the prosecutor, or the judge, I will be subpoenaed to testify in court as an expert witness in a case.
- What's your favorite part of the job?
Honestly, working within the sphere of the criminal justice system, or any court setting, can be very dispiriting; nevertheless, I appreciate a number of things about my work. Foremost, as a forensic social worker or counseling psychologists, you use qualitative assessment tools to gather information about the person, the problem, and the circumstances. To that extent, you understand the "what" as well as the "why" of the situation under consideration.
Qualitative assessment indicates the use of semi-structured or unstructured open-ended interviews to gather information and to make an appraisal of the matter. By this very fact, basic social and communication skills are so important. The integrity of the data provided by the client and collaterals are largely predicated on the practitioner's ability to develop rapport and a working alliance. Accordingly, he/she cannot be intimidating or judgmental, must appear genuine, be respectful and prepared to collaborate in the interview process, must give the other party an opportunity to speak freely, and have the capacity to develop and convey accurate empathy regarding what the person has expressed. I recognize the importance of these interpersonal conditions from a practical standpoint; furthermore, this process is agreeable to me as it humanizes the client and helps to suspend my judgment and personal biases.
On account of the aforementioned, when appropriate, I am able to effectively advocate for youth. This is absolutely the best part of the job in my opinion! Although I am not always successful in changing the outcome of a case or what happens after adjudication, I am always willing to speak up for and to be an ardent supporter of what I believe is in the best interest of rehabilitation and good health for the client.
- Is there anything you don't like about your work?
No. Although there are times I feel overwhelmed by the amount of work it takes to gather information, organize the database, analyze the information, and present a fitting formulation for each case, I love doing this work! I feel blessed to make a decent living doing something that is both worthwhile and pleasing to me.
- What's the most interesting or challenging case/experience you've come across?
The most interesting case I have had so far is one I am currently working on. I was asked to do a fitness evaluation for a youth whose charge petition includes nearly 15 felony counts. All of the alleged violations took place during a one-day crime spree. The youth denies wrongdoing. What makes this case unusual is the heinous nature of the crime in the absence of ANY predisposing, precipitating, or perpetuating factors to explain the situation. In fact, there are only protective factors (and several of them) – attributes and conditions – that would eliminate the risk of the youth being criminal. Inasmuch as this individual maintains that the charges are mistaken or wrong and my account requires more than the standard assessment, I am very puzzled and uncertain about how to address the eligibility criteria for fitness in this case.
- Are you involved with any professional organizations? If so, why?
I am a member of the National Organization of Forensic Social Workers. I joined this group because it is the premier professional association in my field. As a member, among other perks, I receive the quarterly journal and a discount on the registration fee for the annual conference. Practitioners and students who decide not to join a professional association, should still be vigilant about keeping abreast of the current state of knowledge in the field by perusing the literature and attending workshops/conferences.
- What do you think is the most exciting thing happening in this field right now? Who is doing the most interesting research?
At this time, I am very interested in literature on the cross-examination of expert witnesses, as well as training opportunities that effectively prepare me to give fitting court testimony in my capacity as a forensic examiner.
- Any other advice for those looking to go into the field?
As a forensic social worker/counseling psychologists who interfaces with the court system, you must be familiar with the nuances and challenges regarding client confidentiality. Another matter to be prepared for is the dual responsibility that you may have to advocate for someone who has committed a crime in view of the protection of society. Sometimes these needs are not only different, they conflict.
- What are the biggest considerations someone should think about before pursuing your field?
As a therapist, you are a container for clients' thoughts, feelings, and experiences. When you work in the forensic domain, you are apt to hear, maybe even see, a lot of savagery, destruction, and damaging disorder. This will make you susceptible to vicarious trauma, burnout, and compassion fatigue. Clinicians and individuals who are thinking about entering this field of practice should consider this, as well as deliberate and self-initiated strategies of care.
Forensic Psychology Resources
These resources were personally selected by our editorial staff and capture the organizations, journals and conferences driving forensic psychology today. If you feel an imperative resource is missing, please don't hesitate to inform us by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
- Academy of Behavioral Profiling
- American Academy of Forensic Psychology / American Board of Forensic Psychology
- The American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law
- The American Academy of Psychoanalysis and Dynamic Psychiatry
- American Board of Assessment Psychology
- American Board of Forensic Psychology
- American Educational Research Association
- American Psychoanalytic Association
- American Psychological Association
- American Counseling Association
- Association for Psychological Science
- The International Association for Forensic Psychotherapy
- Psychologists of Northwest Arkansas
- Arizona Psychological Association
- California Psychological Association
- Connecticut Psychological Association
- Colorado Psychological Association
- Delaware Psychological Association
- Idaho Society of Individual Psychology
- Kentucky Psychological Association
- Louisiana Psychological Association
- Louisiana Group Psychotherapy Society
- Maine Psychological Association
- Maryland Psychological Association
- Massachusetts Psychological Association
- Mental Health Association of Montana
- Mental Health Association in Michigan
- Mental Health Association in Hawaii
- Mental Health Association of Southeastern Pennsylvania
- Metropolitan New York Association for Applied Psychology
- Mid-Atlantic Group Psychotherapy Society
- Mississippi Psychological Association
- Montana Psychological Association
- New York State Psychological Association
- New York State Association for Behavior Analysis
- New Jersey Association of Cognitive Behavioral Therapists
- Nebraska Psychological Association
- Ohio Psychological Association
- Oregon Psychological Association
- Rhode Island Psychological Association
- Tennessee Psychological Association
- Texas Psychological Association
- Utah Psychological Association
- Vermont Psychological Association
- Virginia Academy of Clinical Psychologists
- Washington State Psychological Association
- Wisconsin Psychological Association
- Wyoming Psychological Association
Magazines and Journals
- The American Journal of Forensic Medicine and Pathology
- Forensic Magazine
- The Forensic Panel
- Journal of Forensic Psychology Practice
- Legal and Criminal Psychology
- Open Access Journal of Forensic Psychology
- American Board of Professional Psychology Annual Conference and Workshops
- 9th Annual International Conference on Psychology
- 71st Annual Meeting of the American Society of Criminology
- 32nd Annual Symposium in Forensic Psychology
- 6th Meeting of the Society for the Scientific Study of Psychopathy
- 3rd North American Correctional and Criminal Justice Psychology Conference