Forensic psychology is a fascinating career that combines psychology and the legal system. In general terms, forensic psychologists focus on the application of psychological theory and practice to the criminal, court and corrections systems. Forensic psychologists work with the justice system and members of the court to assist in its functioning. The application of many legal concepts requires understanding psychological principles, such as state of mind, memory and perception.
Due to the unique and specialized nature of forensic psychology, a graduate education is a necessity. Here’s a discussion on what forensic psychologists do, what it takes to become one and how to succeed as a forensic psychologist professional.
A forensic psychologist helps facilitate the legal process by providing psychology expertise to various individuals in the legal system. Their understanding and explanations of certain aspects of psychological health can help move along court cases, inform juries, determine the reasons behind crimes being committed, and otherwise play an integral role in the system.
Forensic psychologists provide advice to trial counsel, evaluate litigating parties and witnesses on behalf of judges or attorneys, and conduct research, such as figuring out why juries vote a particular way or why eyewitness testimony can be unreliable. A forensic psychologist might serve as an expert witness to explain a complex psychological concept to the jury, provide consulting advice to an attorney about a person’s state of mind or evaluate a defendant to determine whether they are competent to stand trial.
Beyond the court system, forensic psychologists are often employed in jails and prisons, providing rehabilitative treatment and education to inmates in preparation for their release and return to the outside world. Forensic psychology professionals are also sometimes hired by police departments as consultants and profilers during criminal investigations. Finally, forensic psychologists conduct research on criminal behavior and the development of effective clinical treatments.
What forensic psychologists can expect to make depends on many factors, including their education, legal experience, courtroom savvy and geographic location. This map represents typical salaries forensic psychologists can expect to make based on what state they’re working in.
Becoming a forensic psychologist takes many years of study as well as hundreds of hours of experience. Here’s how the educational path usually goes.
Among the paths one can take to become a forensic psychologist, the starting point is the same: earning a bachelor's degree from a fully accredited college or university. A common course of action on the undergraduate level is to major in psychology with a minor in criminal justice, criminology or pre-law. An alternative is to major in a law subject and minor in psychology, but some graduate schools only accept candidates with a bachelor's degree in psychology. A limited number of colleges may offer an undergraduate program in psychology that focuses on forensic psychology, with studies in the legal aspects of the field.
A bachelor's degree does not guarantee acceptance into a graduate program. Students are advised to strive for the highest GPA possible while also preparing for any graduate school prerequisites and admissions requirements. Psychology students need to do extensive research to determine their career goals and the best academic route to achieve them.
Most doctoral programs in psychology do not have a dedicated forensic psychology program. Instead, the PhD or PsyD will be in psychology with a concentration in forensic psychology. To boost their specialized knowledge, students may wish to pursue the master’s degree in forensic psychology.
Although not a mandatory degree, a Juris Doctor can provide legal instruction on concepts and procedures of the court, as well as qualify an individual to sit for the bar and become an attorney. Some schools offer joint degrees, combining a JD degree with a master’s or doctorate degree.
The PhD in psychology is great for those who are research-oriented, while the PsyD is best for those who focus on treatment of patients. Depending on the school, the curriculum may not be that far apart between the two degrees. If the student has a particular professional goal, such as evaluating criminal defendants or conducting research, there might be reason to choose one degree over the other.
If a forensic psychologist wants to evaluate individuals on behalf of the court or serve as an expert witness regarding competency, a state license will probably be needed. Each state oversees its own licensing requirements, but most states will require a doctorate degree, passing the Examination for Professional Practice of Psychology and having a certain amount of relevant experience.
Although not an absolute requirement for practice, forensic psychologists may wish to apply for professional certification with the American Board of Forensic Psychology (ABFP). Overseen by the American Board of Professional Psychology, the Diploma in Forensic Psychology from the ABFP is the only postdoctoral certification for forensic psychologists recognized by the American Psychological Association. ABFP certification candidates must hold a doctoral degree from a professional psychology program, be licensed in their jurisdiction of practice, and complete at least 100 hours of formal education and 1,000 hours of practical experience in the field.
Although not as common of a major as psychology, a forensic psychology degree will cover both the legal and psychology concepts that will serve as a foundation for graduate studies. A wide range of topics will be studied, including statistics and research methods. More advanced courses will cover topics such as:
This degree covers how the criminal justice system works, at both a practical and theoretical level. Not only do students learn about the law and courtroom policies and procedures, they also study the legal theories underlying why things are done they way they are. Typical classes a criminal justice student can expect to take include:
Each forensic psychology program has its own unique set of requirements and time for completion. Here’s what to expect from each degree level, as well as common classes.
Time to Complete
Students Most bachelor’s degree programs in forensic psychology take four years to complete and are comprised of 120-130 credits. In addition to general education courses, students will take courses in their chosen major and minor.
Anyone who wants to become a forensic psychologist must earn a bachelor’s degree. Whether the student skips the master’s degree before getting a doctorate or pursues all three degrees, a bachelor’s degree will always be needed.
Students can accelerate their degree completion by taking summer courses, enroll in extra courses during the school year and enter college with some college credit earned in high school; this might reduce the time needed to about three years.
Courses typically found in a psychology bachelor’s degree program include:
A basic overview of psychological principles, history, theories and concepts will be taught in this class.
Students are introduced to how psychological ideas are utilized by the legal system.
This course reviews why and how individuals commit crimes from a psychological perspective.
Students will learn about different types of deviant behavior and their origins.
Time to Complete
Most master’s degree programs consist of about 35 to 40 credits plus a practicum or internship requirement. Courses will typically cover basic forensic psychology topics; however, there will be opportunities for students to gain more specialized forensic psychology knowledge and instruction.
A master’s degree in forensic psychology is well suited for students who do not already have a psychology, forensic psychology or criminal justice degree and want more specialized knowledge.
Many forensic psychology degrees at the master’s level are offered either online or with flexible class schedules, recognizing that many of its students are also working while attending school.
Students can expect to find the following classes in a master’s degree program:
Students are taught about the perpetrators of family violence and its impact on the victims.
This course is an overview of various methods for examining and evaluating a criminal.
Examination of intervention and treatment options of criminals to prevent recidivism.
A broad overview of criminal laws and the reasoning behind them are reviewed in this class.
Time to Complete
Four to five years
The typical doctorate forensic psychology program has two to three years of courses, a comprehensive examination (or two), research requirements, practicum/internship requirements and a dissertation. It must be noted that PsyD degree curriculums are more likely to not have a dissertation, but have a practicum or internship instead.
A doctoral program is good for any student who is set on becoming a forensic psychologist and wants to be able to maximize their professional potential.
Whether a student gets a PsyD or PhD degree, they will be fully trained to practice as forensic psychologists. Because they have a doctorate degree, they will also meet the first major step to state licensure and board certification.
The typical doctorate program will have a wide variety of courses to meet the unique interests of its students. A sample of what’s available is listed below:
Fundamental principles of clinical research and statistical analysis are covered in this class.
Students will learn various techniques in testing personality traits.
The underlying biological processes that affect behavior are presented in this class.
Students are taught the underlying principles and concepts for treating and evaluating sex offenders.
Those who are interested in forensic psychology might find a variety of other career paths that interest them. Here are a few of the more common places aspiring forensic psychologists might wind up.
Lawyers represent entities in legal matters. These entities can include individuals, children, governments and corporations. A lawyer who also has training in forensic psychology can either bypass the need for a forensic psychologist or serve as a built-in second opinion to the forensic psychologist brought in as a trial consultant or expert witness.
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.
Detectives are police officers that conduct criminal investigations. A significant amount of what they do involves interacting with witnesses and suspects, including interrogating or interviewing them. Becoming a detective rarely requires more than a bachelor’s degree, although sometimes a high school diploma could suffice.
An experimental forensic psychologist focuses mainly on research and conducting experiments. Since much of the consulting advice given to court officers and lawyers is based on research data, this subset of forensic psychology is vitally important. Because research forms the basis of what an experimental forensic psychologist does, they are well suited for enrolling in a PhD forensic psychology program.
Trial consultants provide advice and insight to lawyers working on a legal case. The type of advice, usually based on research data, can range from choosing the best jury to assessing the strength of an opposing expert’s testimony. There are generally no concrete educational requirements to becoming a trial consultant, but success is based strongly on credibility and reputation. Therefore, a doctorate level degree is a practical requirement.
Success as a forensic psychologist requires a number of skills and credentials. There are also many tools and technologies commonly used by forensic psychologists. Let’s discuss these components in more detail.
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
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.
The field of psychology includes a wide range of specialized areas of practice, many of which might appeal to those persons considering a career as a forensic psychologist including clinical psychology, biological psychology, school psychology, neuropsychology, industrial organizational psychology and more. A medical degree would be needed for entry into the field of psychiatry. Those interested in forensic psychology may also want to consider occupations outside the field such as counseling, teaching, sociology, anthropology and social work, which may require specialized education. The graph below provides a comparison of salaries that can be earned in related occupations.
The AAFP acts as the training and educational component of the American Board of Forensic Psychology.
The ABFP serves as a certifying body of the American Board of Professional Psychology (ABPP). The ABFP also promulgates guidelines for forensic psychology certification process.
The ACFP assists the forensic psychology field by administering continuing education programs and hosting regular meetings.
The APA is the largest professional organization for psychologists. It is comprised of divisions catering to many subfields, including forensic psychology. The APA also works to advance the professional careers of psychologists and facilitate education and research.
The IACFP is a membership organization with the mission of providing mental health services to criminal offenders and promoting criminal behavior research.
The SPCP’s mission is to advance police and criminal psychology research. The actions, motivations and behaviors of all criminal justice participants are examined by the SPCP.
The clearest path to a successful career in forensic psychology is through a fully accredited degree program. Courses of study in forensic psychology can be found either online or on college and university campuses, both public and private. This search tool is built to help aspiring psychologists locate a program that can suit their needs.
Online degree programs may be an appropriate choice, particularly for those students who require extra flexibility in fitting a course of study into an already busy schedule. Those seeking a degree in forensic psychology can find online or hybrid programs available from both traditional colleges and universities and primarily online institutions. Doctoral programs may be less common online as they include extensive clinical experience in forensic facilities.
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