Maybe you’ve been watching a lot of true crime shows or maybe you’ve always been interested in psychology, law, or both. In either case, forensic psychology could be a great career path for you. Interest in forensic psychology has exploded in the past few years, but there are many misconceptions surrounding this career. For example, it’s not all spouting expert analysis from the witness stand or convincing criminals to admit their guilt.
But how do forensic psychologists spend their days? Read this article to learn the forensic psychology definition, what forensic psychologists actually do, what steps you must take to get a forensic psychology degree, and the four questions you need to ask yourself before seriously pursuing this career.
Forensic Psychology Definition
What is forensic psychology? Forensic psychology is the study of criminal behavior and what causes people to act outside the law. You can think of it as a combination of psychology and criminal justice.
It’s a relatively new branch of psychology. In the 1960s, lawyers first saw the potential for psychologists who could provide expertise in the courtroom, and this caused forensic psychology to develop as a field. In 2001, forensic psychology became an official specialty approved by the American Psychiatric Association. The American Psychology-Law Society now has several thousand members.
People with forensic psychology degrees have a deep knowledge of psychology, criminal behavior, the justice system, and how they all influence one another. Their knowledge is particularly valuable in the courtroom, where they can act as expert witnesses for anything from compulsive stealing to anger management techniques.
What Do Forensic Psychologists Do?
Forensic psychologists need to be experts in both psychology and the legal system. They use their knowledge to try to understand the reasons behind criminal behavior, how people who have broken the law can be reformed, and what can be done to prevent future crimes.
The work forensic psychologists do can be very diverse. Here are some examples of the work they may do:
- Serve as an expert witness in a courtroom
- Visit prisons to determine which inmates are fit to stand trial
- Help attorneys select jurors
- Work as professors in academia
- Interview children in custody battles and suggest a custody arrangement
- Counsel inmates or released prisoners
- Conduct research at large organizations
- Assist with counseling and rehabilitation programs
- Design correctional programs to reduce the number of repeat offenders
- Advise police and prison wardens on the best ways to interact with criminals and potential criminals
Some forensic psychologists have a specialization within the field. For example, a forensic psychologist may specialize in mental health disorders, brain injuries, child psychology, etc. However, all of these jobs will focus on the intersection of psychology and criminal behavior.
How Do You Become a Forensic Psychologist?
Becoming a forensic psychologist is a serious undertaking. You’ll need to receive a doctorate degree as well as postdoctoral training which means you likely won’t begin practicing as a forensic psychologist until your late twenties, at the earliest. However, knowing what to expect will make the journey to becoming a forensic psychologist clearer and less overwhelming. Here are the steps you need to take:
High SchoolThere are no classes you must take in high school to become a forensic psychologist, but we recommend taking any classes your school offers in psychology (especially AP Psych) and law/criminal justice. In general, aim to get high grades across all your classes, especially those in math and science.
There’s no bachelor's degree that’s required to become a forensic psychologist, but there are some that will give you a leg up when you begin your doctorate. Your best option is to major in psychology since you’ll need to be an expert on the topic by the time you finish school. Other potential options include criminal justice, human biology, and pre-law.
No matter what you major in, try to search out internships and research experiences related to psychology, and specifically forensic psychology if possible. This will help you get a better idea of what a career in the field will be like, and it’ll make you more competitive when you apply to grad school.
After you graduate from college, you’ll need to get a graduate degree. Some forensic psychologists get a Masters in psychology; however, having a Masters instead of a doctorate will significantly limit the number of jobs you’re qualified for and will likely limit how much you can earn. The vast majority of forensic psychologists earn a doctorate degree, and that’s what we recommend for you.
There are two options for doctorate degrees: a PhD or a PsyD. People more interested in research often get a PhD, while those more interested in clinical work often get a PsyD, but this isn’t a hard and fast rule, and both paths work well for becoming a forensic psychologist. In either case, you’ll spend about five to seven years conducting research, working with professors, writing your dissertation, and working in a clinical setting.
There’s no forensic psychology-specific doctorate degree, so your work during this time may focus on general psychology or a specialty different than forensic psychology. This is fine since forensic psychology is a postdoctoral career path, and you don’t need to begin specifically focusing on it until after you’ve received your doctorate.
Postdoctoral Training + Licensure
After you receive your doctorate degree you will finally be able to focus specifically on forensic psychology.
You’ll have to complete a certain number of hours of postdoctoral training (the exact amount varies by state) before you can apply for a license to practice as a forensic psychologist. The training will often be clinical work where you work with prisoners/lawyers/law enforcement professionals, etc., although it may also involve research. Your postdoctoral training will typically take about two years to complete, and one of those years must be spent in an internship approved by the APA.Once you have completed your training, you can then apply for licensure. If you pass the exam (which may be oral, written, or a combination), you will officially be a forensic psychologist and can begin working!
What Is the Outlook for Forensic Psychology Jobs?
The field of forensic psychology is growing steadily. As the legal system develops new ways to use forensic psychologists and their expertise in the courtroom, demand has grown. While the US Bureau of Labor Statistics doesn’t provide data specifically for forensic psychologists, in the field of general psychology, demand is expected to increase 14% every year from 2018 to 2028, which is much faster than average.
Forensic psychologists with a doctorate will have the best job prospects. Forensic psychologists with only a Master’s often compete for the relatively small number of job openings that don’t require a PhD, but, if you have or plan on getting a doctorate in psychology, chances are your job prospects as a forensic psychologist will remain high for the foreseeable future.
It can be difficult to estimate the average salary for a forensic psychologist because there is so much variability in the type of work they do, but the median salary for a psychologist in 2018 was $79,010. As they gain more experience, it is not unusual for forensic psychologists, especially those in high demand by attorneys, to make anywhere from $200,000 to $400,000 a year.
Should You Become a Forensic Psychologist? 4 Questions to Ask Yourself
Should you join this growing career field and get a forensic psychology degree? Before you begin applying to programs, there are four key questions to ask yourself.
Are You OK With a Lot of School?While there are multiple ways to become a forensic psychologist, as you saw above, they all require a significant amount of school. After college, you’ll be in school for another five to seven or so years while you get your PsyD or PhD. During this time, you’ll attend classes, read many, many journal articles related to psychology, conduct research, and write a thesis. Getting a doctorate is a major undertaking, and you want to be sure you’re OK with spending close to a decade in postgraduate school before you can begin practicing as a forensic psychologist.
How Do You Feel About Studying and Working With Criminals?
Many people are drawn to the field of forensic psychology because of an interest in watching, listening to, or reading crime-related material. However, there’s a big difference between listening to a true crime podcast and sitting in a room with, say, a child abuser who is completely unrepentant.
As a forensic psychologist, you’ll be studying and interacting with people convicted of terrible crimes, such as sexual assault, child abuse, and murder. You’ll need to remain professional and non-judgmental when speaking with them, even if they say or have done things you find abhorrent.
Do You Like Fast-Paced and High-Pressure Work?
A lot of people are initially drawn to forensic psychology because of how exciting it seems. And it’s true, suddenly being asked to provide testimony for an important case can be very interesting. However, the flip side of the coin is that it’s easy to burn out from the fast pace and intense nature of the work. You may be asked to work a significant amount of overtime to prepare for a case, you may be called on short notice to evaluate a prisoner, you might need to travel frequently for different clients, etc. If you want forensic psychology to be a career you stick with long-term, make sure you’re OK with a job that often goes far beyond 9-5.
Additionally, the work can also be high pressure. Your opinion may be what determines whether a criminal is fit to stand trial, a parent is able to retain custody of their child, and/or if a defendant is found guilty or innocent. It’s an incredibly important position to be in, and you’ll need to be able to be OK with having such a large influence on other people’s lives.
Do You Have a Thick Skin?
Many forensic psychologists spend at least part of their time as witnesses in a courtroom, and, although this may sound exciting, it can actually be very stressful. When you’re the expert witness for one side, you can expect the other side to fight back against anything you say, try to prove you’re not a reliable source, question your credentials, and generally do anything they can to convince the judge/jury that they shouldn’t believe you.
While all this is happening, you’ll need to remain calm and professional. If this sounds like it may be difficult to do day after day, you may want to rethink forensic psychology, or at least look into an area of the field that doesn’t involve much or any time in the courtroom.
Summary: Forensic Psychology Definition
What is forensic psychology? You can think about it as the intersection between psychology and criminal justice. Forensic psychologists do any work related to mental health and the law, whether that’s determining if someone is fit to stand trial, working on programs to reduce the rate of repeat offenders, or offering expert testimony in a courtroom.
Forensic psychology has been growing in popularity, and many people are considering it as a career, but it’s a serious undertaking to become a forensic psychologist. You’ll need a doctorate plus additional postdoc training before you can begin practicing. Before you begin searching for forensic psychology jobs, make sure you’re OK with a lot of school, working in close contact with criminals, working long hours under pressure, and defending yourself against the opposing team on the witness stand.
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Christine graduated from Michigan State University with degrees in Environmental Biology and Geography and received her Master's from Duke University. In high school she scored in the 99th percentile on the SAT and was named a National Merit Finalist. She has taught English and biology in several countries.