Updated August 10, 2017
Forensic psychology has become one of the most popular subfields of psychology in recent years. Increasing numbers of students express interest in this field of study, yet many are not quite sure what they need to do to pursue a career in this area. If you have an interest in psychology as well as the law and criminal justice, then this is an area that certainly might interest you.
So how do you get started in forensic psychology?
What topics do you need to study in school, how to you find a job in the field, and what do forensic psychologists do?
Let s start first by answering the most basic question of all:
What Exactly Is Forensic Psychology?
Division 41 of the American Psychological Association. known as the Executive Council for the American Psychology-Law society (AP-LS), formally defines forensic psychology as:
The professional practice by psychologists within the areas of clinical psychology, counseling psychology, neuropsychology, and school psychology, when they are engaged regularly as experts and represent themselves as such, in an activity primarily intended to provide professional psychological expertise to the judicial system.
Essentially, forensic psychology involves applying psychology to the field of criminal investigation and the law. Forensic psychologists utilize their knowledge of psychological principles and use it to understand different aspects of the legal system.
This sometimes involves conducting evaluations of people in the court system, performing psychotherapy with victims of crimes, evaluating witnesses, and even providing testimony in civil and criminal trials.
It is also one of the fastest-growing disciplines within psychology. The AP-LS currently has more than 3,000 members and continues to grow each year.
Forensic psychology is also one of the disciplines I am most frequently asked about by students interested in entering the profession as a career.
Why Is Forensic Psychology Such a Fast-Growing Career?
So what explains the rapid growth in this particular field? Forensic psychology has grown phenomenally in popularity in recent years, partly due to sensationalized portrayals of the field in movies and television, which unfortunately are not always accurate.
Forensic psychologists are often depicted as criminal profilers who are able to almost psychically deduce a killer s next move. In reality, these professionals practice psychology as a science within the criminal justice system and civil courts. Few of these professionals work as hands-on criminal investigators in the field and even fewer are actually engaged in the process of hunting down criminals.
So exactly what do forensic psychologists do?
The Duties of a Forensic Psychologist
Forensic psychologists are often involved in both criminal and civil matters. A few examples include:
- Custody disputes
- Evaluate insurance claims
- Offer testimony in civil lawsuits
- Provide psychotherapy services in family courts
- Perform child custody evaluations
- Investigate reports of child abuse
- Conduct visitation risk assessments.
Those working in the civil courts often assess competency, provide second opinions, and provide psychotherapy to crime victims. Professionals working in the criminal courts conduct evaluations of mental competency, work with child witnesses, and provide an assessment of juvenile and adult offenders.
How Much Do Forensic Psychologists Typically Earn?
Salaries within forensic psychology can range greatly depending on the sector of employment although most entry-level positions for those with a doctorate start out between $60,000 and $70,000 annually. Indeed.com suggests that the average national salary for forensic psychologists in 2017 was around $79,000.
Payscale.com indicates that the median salary is approximately $62,000 with a low-end range of around $35,000 and a high-end range at around $124,000.
Individuals with a bachelor s or master s degree generally hold the title of psychological assistant or psychological associate. Starting level salaries for these positions generally start around $35,000 or $40,000. Those in private practice who offer consulting services typically earn more, often in the $85,000 to $95,000 range.
What Type of Degree Do Forensic Psychologists Need?
Currently, there is no single accepted training model for forensic psychologists. In most cases, however, forensic psychologists need a doctoral degree in psychology, usually in clinical or counseling psychology. In most cases, people interested in this field start by earning a PhD or PsyD in clinical psychology before earning some type of postdoctoral training and specialization in forensic psychology.
A number of schools such as the University of Arizona and the University of Virginia offer degrees specifically focused on forensic psychology that combines courses in both psychology and law. Such a degree typically takes 5 to 7 years of graduate study to complete and admission into doctoral programs is highly competitive.
After the appropriate education, training, and experience, a forensic psychologist can apply for board certification. The American Board of Forensic Psychology offers professionals the opportunity to be certified as a Diplomat of Forensic Psychology.
In an article for Psychology Today. forensic psychologist Dr. Karen Franklin tackled the thorny issue of the sudden rise of terminal online master s programs focusing on forensic psychology. Many of these programs require a mere two years of graduate study and have become an increasingly popular option for students interested in this field. Franklin suggests that many of these programs are what she refers to as false advertising.
Master s level clinicians will probably have trouble competing in a field dominated by professionals with more advanced degrees, Franklin suggests.
Is a Career In Forensic Psychology Right for Me?
Before you decide on a career in forensic psychology, there are a few factors you should consider. Do you enjoy working with others? Forensic psychologists usually work with a team of other professionals in addition to working directly with clients or criminal offenders. Do you enjoy challenging problems? In most situations, people are experiencing problems that cannot be easily or quickly resolved.
In addition to these qualities, experts have suggested that forensic psychologists must have a solid legal knowledge, understand how psychology and the law intersect and interact, have specialized training in clinical forensic psychology, and a background in the ethical issues with forensic psychology.
Forensic psychologists need patience, creativity, and commitment. Are you interested in studying both law and psychology? Students who enjoy both subjects may find that forensic psychology is the perfect career choice.
What Are the Pros and Cons of a Career In Forensic Psychology?
As with any career, there are both pluses and minuses to being a forensic psychologist. Before you commit to this career path, spend some time thinking about how these possible benefits and downsides might influence your life.
Some of the benefits of being a forensic psychologist include:
- The opportunity to help others
- Diverse career paths (i.e. criminal courts, consulting, government, education)
- Can be a challenging and rewarding career
A few of the possible downsides include:
- Requires a substantial time commitment (5-7 years of graduate study)
- Pay is usually low in relation to the amount of education and work required
- Frustration, stress, and burnout can occur
A Word From Verywell
What does a forensic psychologist do? is a common question for many people who are interested in this career choice. While the field might not be quite what is portrayed on television and in the movies, it is still a rewarding, challenging, and exciting option.
One of the most appealing aspects of being a forensic psychologist is that it always offers interesting new challenges and experiences. You might evaluate witnesses one day and offer testimony in court the next. If you have an interest in both psychology and the law, then a career in forensic psychology might be a great choice for you.
DeMatteo, D. Marczyk, G. Krauss, D. Burl, J. Educational and training models in forensic psychology. Training and Education in Professional Psychology, 3(3), 184-191; 2009.
Weiner, I. B. Goldstein, A. M. Handbook of Psychology, Forensic Psychology. Hoboken, New Jersey: John Wiley and Sons; 2012.
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