How to Become a Forensic Psychologist

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Staff Writer
September 16, 2021

Forensic psychologists help solve criminal cases by studying suspects and evidence to determine a motive. They work with an investigation team and often testify in court cases.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), forensic psychologists must complete a doctorate before practicing. These professionals can work in prisons or government agencies. Some forensic psychologists open their own private practice or consulting agencies. Others conduct research on how to prevent crimes caused by mental health issues.

Forensic psychologists must have a strong understanding of both psychology and forensic science. This job requires strong communication and strategic thinking skills, as these professionals must conduct interviews and analyze answers and body language.

Read on to learn how to become a forensic psychologist, what salary to expect, and professional organizations that can help along the way.

What Does a Forensic Psychologist Do?

Career Basics

Forensic psychologists perform many tasks, so no two days on the job look exactly the same. They work primarily in the office, in the courtroom, and at crime scenes. While these professionals conduct many interviews in an office setting, they often need to meet individuals offsite for interviews.

Forensic psychologists must work well in a group setting. They collaborate with detectives, police officers, and forensic scientists to provide their expert opinion on the possible motive or mental illness that contributed to the criminal action.

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Forensic Psychologist Salary and Job Growth

The BLS reports that psychologists earned a median annual salary of $80,370 in 2019 with a projected job growth rate of 14% between 2018 and 2028.

However, several factors, including experience, influence salary potential for these professionals. According to PayScale, forensic psychologists with under one year of experience earn an average annual salary of $51,400. Forensic psychologists with more than 20 years of experience earn an average annual salary of $92,110.

Geographical location and specific employers also impact salary. Private practice forensic psychologists who work in coastal cities may charge higher rates than counterparts who work in areas with lower costs of living, like rural towns in the Midwest.

Professionals who work in government settings typically experience a more steady income flow than private practice psychologists, which may result in a higher salary.

State

Four Steps to Becoming a Forensic Psychologist

Developing a forensic psychology career takes time, but with effort and planning, any devoted professional can successfully earn a job in this field.

See below for four steps to becoming a forensic psychologist.

Step 1
Complete a Degree
Students who want to enter this field must earn a bachelor's and master's degree before pursuing a doctorate. Some master's programs accept students with different educational backgrounds. However, most doctoral programs only accept candidates with related master's degrees.
On average, it takes four years to complete a bachelor's degree, two years to complete a master's degree, and four years to complete a doctorate.
Step 2
Earn State Licensure
Each state requires forensic psychologists to earn a license. The Association of State and Provincial Psychology Board provides information on each state's licensure requirements. Most states require a doctorate in psychology, supervised hours, and an exam.
In addition to a license, forensic psychologists can earn professional certification. The American Board of Professional Psychology awards forensic psychology certification.
Step 3
Find a Forensic Psychologist Position
After earning a doctorate and a license, forensic psychologists can begin applying for jobs. Graduates often begin careers at the firm or organization where they completed supervised hours or an internship.
Some graduates may choose to start their own forensic psychology firm. However, these professionals typically work for an established organization for a few years before doing so.
Step 4
Maintain Licensure
Each state sets its own maintenance requirements for forensic psychology certification. With new research discoveries, best practices for this field often change. As such, to renew their licenses, most forensic psychologists must complete continuing education.
Many professional organizations offer free continuing education courses to members, although some courses require a fee. These courses often take place online, but some states may require a certain number of in-person hours.

Preparing to Become a Forensic Psychologist: Schools and Programs

Selecting the right forensic psychology program takes time and research. Above all, students should ensure their chosen program is accredited before enrolling.

Prospective students should also consider cost. State schools generally cost less than private colleges or universities. Enrolling in an online program can also save students money on room and board, transportation, and moving fees.

Students who want to complete their program quickly or maintain a full-time job during their studies should consider the program's format. Accelerated programs usually require full-time enrollment, but students can enter the workforce sooner. Working professionals can pursue self-paced or part-time programs.

Online programs also vary in format. Asynchronous programs require that students watch recorded lectures and complete assignments on their own schedules before a deadline. Synchronous online programs require scheduled class meeting times.

Courses in Forensic Psychology Programs

During forensic psychology programs, students learn about research methods, ethics, theories, and best practices in the field. Certain schools offer specializations and concentrations.

See below for five common forensic psychology courses. Keep in mind that not every program may offer these courses, and many schools offer these courses with different titles.

Introduction to Forensic Psychology

Most programs offer a foundational course that provides a high-level overview of forensic psychology basics. In this course, students discuss landmark legal cases involving forensic psychology. This course also requires ethical case study reviews.

Psychology of Child Abuse

In this course, students learn about the mental disorders that influence the actions of child abuse and exploitation. This course also covers common themes that emerge during a child abuse investigation. Learners must research the laws surrounding child abuse and read court case summaries.

Laws and Ethics in Forensic Psychology

This course teaches students about the laws and ethics that govern forensic psychology. Students discuss cases that have influenced the creation of laws and discover ways to stay current on changing laws during their careers. This course also requires learners to read case studies and discuss the ethics involved.

Psychology Theory

This course covers the history of common psychology theories that guide the practice today. Students discuss each theory and critique its validity based on research.

Forensic Psychology Research

This course covers best practices for forensic psychology research. Students review the scientific theory and choose a research topic to test. The remainder of the course involves designing and conducting a research project. Learners then analyze their data to draw conclusions.

Accreditation for a Forensic Psychology Program

Prospective students should research accreditation before enrolling in a program. When a school earns accreditation, it periodically receives quality assessments from a third-party organization that the U.S. Department of Education (ED) and the Council for Higher Education Accreditation approve.

Schools can earn two types of accreditation: regional and national. Employers and other educational institutions tend to view degrees from regionally accredited schools as more prestigious than degrees from nationally accredited institutions.

When a school earns regional accreditation, it receives this accolade from an accrediting agency that only reviews schools in a particular region. Some scholarships reserve funds specifically for students studying at a regionally accredited school.

Programs can also earn accreditation. The American Psychological Association Commission on Accreditation is the top accrediting agency for forensic psychology degrees.

Prospective students can research a school or program's accreditation status using the ED's database.

Forensic Psychology Specialties

Forensic psychology is a broad field. As such, many programs often offer concentrations that position students to earn specialized jobs.

For example, learners who want to work primarily as an expert witness in the courtroom can pursue a specialization in trials. Students who want to work at crime scenes can specialize in investigative forensic psychology.

Another common specialization is the psychology of child abuse. Learners who pursue this concentration learn about mental disorders that influence these criminal actions and the psychological impact these experiences can have on survivors.

Aspiring forensic psychologists who want to conduct research can earn a doctorate with a specialization in research. Most doctoral programs use a research-based format and require that students complete a dissertation.

Finding a Forensic Psychology Program

Components of a Successful Forensic Psychology Career: Skills, Credentials, Tools, and Technology

Forensic psychologists need a certain skill set. Detail-oriented critical thinkers often thrive in this career. Forensic psychology courses also teach students hard skills that can help them succeed, like research methods, data collection practices, and how to preserve investigation scenes.

To position themselves as desirable job candidates, students should pursue internships and volunteer opportunities in the field. Employers often expect students to complete real-world experience during their studies.

Creating a portfolio or a detailed resume with recommendation letters can also help students earn competitive jobs. A portfolio can include academic work like research projects. Getting a research project published in a scholarly journal can also impress potential employers.

Some employers may require certification through organizations like the American Academy of Forensic Psychology. These professionals must stay current on the latest advancements in the field to continue succeeding during the later stages of their careers. Joining a professional organization can keep forensic psychologists current on the latest advancements in the field.

The following section provides more information about forensic psychology professional organizations.

Skills

The ability to convey complex ideas is extremely important for a forensic psychologist, as much of what they do is explain things to those who do not understand a particular psychological concept or theory. Forensic psychologists need to be able to asses a given situation or individual – examples include evaluating the recidivism risk of a sexual offender, determining competency of a witness or conducting research on human memory. A forensic psychologist must be capable of thinking outside the box and viewing issues from unusual angles and perspectives. Research skills are necessary whether a forensic psychologist conducts formal and experimental research or is crosschecking the formal conclusions of an opposing expert witness. Forensic psychologists must be able to take in information, process it, and then present it to the client, whether that client is a lawyer, judge or panel of jurors. The better observation skills a forensic psychologist has, the better advice and conclusions they can provide

Tools and Technology

Personal computer Statistical data software DSM-5 Personality tests Computer spreadsheet software Medical software Dictaphone Electromyography

Credentials

State licensure

Technically speaking, state licensure is not required to become a forensic psychologist. However, it is recommended for several reasons. Some courts might deem an unlicensed psychologist as unsuitable to provide competency reports. State licensure can also enhance marketability. Each state will have its own requirements for licensure, but the major components include a doctorate degree, several years of relevant experience and passing of the Examination for Professional Practice of Psychology.

Certification

Certification is not an essential requirement for forensic psychologists, but it is very important to improve marketability, prove experience and boost credibility in the courtroom. Certifications vary based on the expertise of the forensic psychologist.

Forensic Psychologist Professional Organizations

Professional organizations help students and practitioners stay informed in the ever-changing field of forensic psychology. Most of these groups cost money to join, but members receive many benefits, including scholarships, continuing education courses, and networking events.

Read on for five organizations for professionals working in or pursuing a career in forensic psychology.

American Academy of Forensic Psychology

The AAFS brings together professionals from multiple disciplines and includes a specific branch for forensic psychologists. The academy publishes a scholarly journal, and members can submit essays and research papers for consideration.

American Academy of Forensic Sciences

Simply put, judges oversee legal proceedings within a courtroom. Typically, they manage courtroom proceedings such as trials, arraignments, hearings and oral arguments. Forensic psychology training can be useful to any judge who is trying to determine credibility or how much of a danger to society an individual might be. Becoming a judge doesn’t require a PhD or PsyD; most have a bachelor’s and Juris Doctor.

American Psychological Association

The APA provides accreditation for psychology programs and welcomes psychology professionals as members. The association also offers discounts on liability insurance and public speaking training.

International Association for Correctional and Forensic Psychology

The IACFP connects forensic psychologists worldwide. The association provides members with a monthly subscription to its scholarly journal and discounts on books, conferences, and events.

Society for Police and Criminal Psychology

Professionals who want to work for criminal investigations can join this society. Regular membership includes four print versions of the organization's journal per year. Students and professionals can select a discounted membership, which comes with digital access to these journals.

FAQ on Becoming a Forensic Psychology

What does a forensic psychologist do?

Forensic psychologists contribute their expertise in the mental health field to criminal investigations. They also serve as expert witnesses during trials.

How much do forensic psychologists make?

According to the BLS, psychologists earned a median annual salary of $80,370 in 2019. Salaries can vary based on years of experience, employment setting, and geographical location.

How long does it take to be a forensic psychologist?

Most forensic psychology positions require a doctoral degree. Most professionals in this field spend four years on their bachelor's degree, two years on their master's degree, and four years on their doctorate.

What can I do with a BA in forensic psychology?

Learners with a bachelor's degree can continue their studies or earn an entry-level position as an assistant for a forensic psychologist.

Resources for Forensic Psychologists

American Psychology-Law Society Book Series

Forensic psychologists who want to learn more about industry issues from an expert's perspective can read these books, which are published by Oxford University Press. Professionals can also submit a book proposal for consideration. Some colleges and universities use these books in their curriculum.

Forensic Psychology Online Blog

This free resource features posts about topics like the distinction between forensic and therapeutic psychological evaluation and how childhood events impact psychology. Each post is a quick read that provides a high-level overview of these topics.

Graduate Programs in Psychology and Law

The American Psychology-Law Society also provides prospective learners with information about graduate programs in the field. Prospective students can read through a list of possible programs and find more information about each one.

List of Codes of Ethics and Regulations by Zur Institute

This website provides a list of the codes of ethics and rules for several psychology organizations. These codes can assist professionals facing an ethical dilemma.

See Also

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