Written by Rachel Schneider
What is Forensic Psychology?
Forensic psychologists apply their expertise in legal matters, including mental health evaluations, jury selection, and dispute resolution. These professionals 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 forensic specialities.
Read on to learn how to become a forensic psychologist, including potential forensic psychology career paths.
What Does a Forensic Psychologist Do?
Forensic psychologists offer their professional expertise to aid the judicial system in both civil and criminal matters. These professionals need strong forensic skills since they focus primarily on psychologically assessing those involved in the legal system. Forensic psychologists also need strong verbal communication skills and should excel at assessment, interviewing, report writing, and case presentation.
During trials, forensic psychologists often serve as advisors and expert witnesses. They can provide recommendations as to client competency, sentencing, and treatment. By analyzing crime scene evidence, these psychologists can develop criminal profiles, which helps them narrow down a list of suspects. Additionally, forensic psychologists can act as consultants to legal and administrative populations.
Though TV and film often sensationalizes forensic psychologists, these professionals primarily conduct research in a more scholarly capacity. This research contributes to improving interrogation techniques, criminal rehabilitation, correctional facility design. Forensic psychologists' employers and specializations determine how they work in the field. Regardless of the setting, these 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 many specialties and concentrations, tailored to the specific needs of various cases or patients. Read on for details on 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
The Bureau of Labor Statistics projects jobs for psychologists to grow 14% between 2018 and 2028. Demand for clinical and counseling psychologists continues to expand as people increasingly seek help from psychologists. Competition for psychology jobs varies depending on an individual's education level and specialty. Candidates with a doctoral degree or an education specialist degree can explore the largest scope of job opportunities and the highest earning potential.
In 2018, psychologists earned a median annual wage of $79,010, with these figures breaking down further depending on the discipline. Forensic psychologists fall under the "all other psychologists" category, enjoying annual median wages of $98,230. The top-paying industries for psychologists include government, hospitals, ambulatory healthcare services, and elementary or secondary schools.
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 or achieving a position of seniority should pursue a Ph.D. or Psy.D. Specific concentrations include civic and family or criminal forensic psychology. At the graduate level, individuals need practical experience, state licensure, and professional certification. They must also complete the required curriculum to practice as a psychologist in the United States.
See below for some options along the path to becoming a successful forensic psychologist. Select the status that best describes your present level of education.
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.
Licensure for Forensic Psychologists
Students who want to learn how to become a forensic psychologist should explore their state's licensing requirements. Psychologists must meet different licensing requirements depending on the state in which they want to practice. Each state's licensing board can provide more information about the process.
Specific licensing requirements vary by state. To begin the licensing process, candidates must meet the educational criteria. Most states require candidates to hold a doctoral degree in psychology from a regionally accredited college or university. Many states also require students to complete a psychology degree that features accreditation from the American Psychological Association or a related programmatic accrediting agency.
After satisfying the educational component, candidates in all 50 states must complete and pass the Examination for Professional Practice in Psychology to demonstrate their competencies in core psychology areas. Some states might also require candidates to complete and pass a jurisprudence exam.
Psychology Internship Opportunities
Forensic psychology education requirements typically include an internship or practicum. Since forensic psychologists complete much of their daily job responsibilities in the field, these internships and practicums can prepare students for their postgraduate careers.
Whether a program requires an internship or practicum depends on the degree level and school. Internships and practicums allow students to complete in-the-field experience that helps them connect competencies to career responsibilities.
The main difference between practicums and internships is the scope of work students can perform. Learners involved in practicums typically observe psychology professionals conduct common responsibilities, including counseling patients or suggesting treatment plans. In internships, students complete most of their work independently, reporting to a supervisor, but not working directly with them.
Settings for psychology internships differ depending on the type of psychology learners want to practice after graduation. Forensic psychology students often pursue internships or practicums in prisons, government settings, or research institutes, focusing on the type of work they want to pursue after graduation. Students can browse this page to learn more about psychology internships and practicums.
Find a Forensic Psychology Degree Program Near Me
Aspiring forensic psychologists should focus on several program elements to select the right program for their needs. Learners can use the following database to filter their search by campus type, degree level, and location to customize their search results.