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How to Become a Forensic Psychologist in 2021

October 4, 2021 | Staff Writers

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What a forensic psychologist does

According to the American Board of Forensic Psychology, forensic psychology is the application of the science of psychology to the legal field. In recent years, public interest in true crime has skyrocketed, which seems to have spiked interest in this fascinating subject. While off-putting to some, curiosity about the darker side of people’s behavior seems to be a normal aspect of the human psyche.

Understanding the extremities of human psychology helps scientists gain a deeper knowledge of the mind as a whole. As the field of forensic psychology continues to evolve, the legal system gains a more proficient understanding of the causation behind criminal behavior. This means law enforcement become better equipped at solving crimes — and psychologists who work with young people are able to spot warning signs before at-risk young people become deviants and criminals during adulthood. 

To get into a career in forensic psychology, you’ll need to have a curious mind above everything else. Most states require that forensic psychologists are qualified to doctorate level, which means conducting extensive research and making contributions to advancing the field. In clinical practice, you’re expected to approach people with violent criminal histories with compassion and impartiality.

It’s not an easy job, but it makes society a safer place for everyone to live and provides vital research to prevent criminal activity in the future.

What do forensic psychologists do?

Forensic psychologists combine extensive knowledge of human behavior and the law to help solve crimes, conduct assessments of suspects, offer criminal profiling services, rehabilitate offenders, and more.

Many professionals who carry out forensic psychology duties have different job titles, such as counselors, school psychologists, or clinical psychologists. They offer their expertise in criminal investigations and court cases, which is what makes the nature of the work forensic by definition.  

For example, a clinician might provide treatment to individuals in contact with law enforcement. Alternatively, they could be called upon to give evidence in court about whether a defendant has a mental illness that impacted their behavior. Another example of forensic psychology would be when a school psychologist is asked to perform an assessment of a child who’s a potential victim of abuse or take the stand in a child custody dispute.

Some of the key responsibilities of a psychologist works on behalf of the law include:

  • Making recommendations about sentencing
  • Evaluating competency for trial
  • Child custody assessments
  • Academic research in the field of criminology
  • Giving testimony as an expert witness
  • Offering consultancy services to law enforcement
  • Providing treatment to people who have committed criminal offences
  • Assisting with jury selection
  • Designing programs in correctional facilities

History of forensic psychology

In the grand scheme of science and academia, psychology is one of the youngest fields. Its popularity rose at the turn of the 20th century, and areas such as forensics have been growing ever since.

By the 1920s, psychologists had started working with police officers to solve crimes and give testimony regarding the mental state of people on trial. Next, forensic psychologists designed personality assessments to determine suspects, offenders, and inmates’ mental state — and the field has continued to grow ever since.

In the last century, the field has advanced significantly and its popularity among students continues to rise. In addition to helping society find answers to questions that make the world a safer place, you get to use your communication skills and understanding of human nature to change lives and bring about justice.

Daily duties

There’s no such thing as a typical day for a forensic psychologist because the scope of the field covers so many distinct disciplines. This is a general list of the main duties professionals in the field perform:

  • Taking part in individual assessments determining factors in inmates such as risk of suicidal behavior and risk of re-offending
  • Giving presentations about your findings
  • Designing assessment and treatment tools such as psychometric tests and personalized talking therapies
  • Interviewing inmates and reporting to the prison governor when there’s an incident
  • Taking part and leading research projects to push forward with updated to policies, program development, and service elements
  • Investigating issues within prisons and jails such as bullying and riots
  • Examining the reasons for probation drop out and implementing preventative measures
  • Assisting with training of probation staff and prison officials
  • Developing and assessing the effectiveness of drug prevention and anger management initiatives in prisons
  • Writing risk assessments
  • Training junior mental health providers to deliver effective group counseling
  • Using your expertise to offer consultancy services to judicial system representatives, education leaders, police, social workers, probation officers, health care providers, and prison workers

Skills a forensic psychologist should have

Working as a forensic psychologist is a challenging career that offers immense job satisfaction, as well as impressive prospects. Many of the individuals who offer consultancy services in forensics do so as contractors, earning additional income on top of the already high salary enjoyed by licensed clinical psychologists.

To excel in this role, a firm yet compassionate temperament is required, in addition to sharp intellect, and exceptional communication skills. You’ll regularly come into contact with people who have committed heinous crimes, have nothing but contempt for people who work in the criminal justice system, resist treatment, or are actively try to manipulate you.

Let’s take a look at the most important skills and traits required for a role as a forensic psychologist and the benefits of a career in forensic psychology.  

Benefits of a career in forensic psychology

People who enter a forensic psychology role often do so because they have a deep interest in the mechanisms of the human mind and thrive in a high-pressure environment. Law enforcement is a notoriously high-octane industry, and being able to apply scientific knowledge to the legal system is one of the reasons many forensic psychologists are attracted to the role.

Giving evidence in court and facing the scrutiny of skilled attorneys is probably the most stressful aspect of working as a forensic psychologist, but if you thrive in a competitive environment, this is likely a pro rather than a con.  

Traits successful forensic psychologists possess

Forensic psychology is a dynamic field that requires practitioners to be highly-education in addition to possessing particular skills and traits. While being a fan of true crime or watching detective stories on-screen might serve as a good inspiration for some, the role is much more demanding than it seems in the movies.

Below is an explanation of some of the most crucial soft skills you’ll need to hone as well as pursuing a doctoral degree and seeking licensure.

Listening

The most useful trait for any psychologist is active listening. You need to be able to make extensive notes while paying close attention to the finest details of clients’ speech and body language. When interviewing suspects and offenders, the most crucial data you get is what they display to you.

You’ll draw on your extensive knowledge of human behavior to make connections and sort the fact from fiction of what they say to you. 

Objectivity

Your personal feelings towards a client should never have a bearing on your interactions. It’s essential that you’re capable of remaining objective when faced with circumstances that might shock, disgust, or frighten some people. Forensic psychologists take the stand to give evidence under oath on a regular basis, which necessitates a strong sense of morality and objectivity. 

While you’re not expected to bottle your feelings up, and security measures are in place for your physical and mental safety — you’ll need to keep your feelings out of all professional interactions in your capacity as a mental health practitioner. 

Communication

A career in forensic psychology often involves speaking to people from every background within the space of a day. You’ll interview and help victims, inmates, judges, lawyers, juries, and everyone in-between. As such, impeccable people skills and a confident, self-assured manner are vital. 

Attention to detail

Analysis and observation are two of the most important skills a forensic psychologist possesses and both rely on an eye for detail. Whether it’s making people feel at ease so they open up to you, reading body language in case of conflict, or projecting a dominant persona to show you’re not intimidated — attention to the finest details of yours and your client’s behavior is essential. 

Critical thinking

Forensic psychology is interdisciplinary by nature, which means critical thinking skills are a must. In some cases, you’ll need to make quick decisions based on limited factors, and be as confident and accurate as possible. 

Compassion

While being able to stand your ground and maintain absolute objectivity is crucial for success in the role, so is compassion. It might seem like these traits are incompatible, but that’s the nature of this role. There’s a major difference between caring about getting the best outcome for all parties and letting your emotions cloud your judgment.

Forensic psychology is the area of law enforcement that aims to bring an element of humanity and understanding. Learning about why people commit crimes and delving into their psyche are some of the best ways to gain information for research. Your findings could contribute to the improvement of the entire criminal justice system and help prevent crimes in the future.    

Educational requirements for forensic psychologists

Getting work as a forensic psychologist takes years of studying and practical experience. However, passionate individuals with a strong work ethic and the tenacity to hone the above skills can qualify and land their dream job as psychologist who assists law enforcement.

Read on to discover how to become a forensic psychologist and learn more about the various degree program options you can pursue.

How to become a forensic psychologist

There are five steps involved in obtaining the education necessary to become a forensic psychologist:

  1. Earn a four-year bachelor’s degree in psychology or a related field
  2. Study towards a two-year master’s degree and try to hone in on forensics as a specialization
  3. Apply to a doctoral program and earn your Ph.D. or Psy.D. in psychology and take courses in forensic psychology
  4. Earn your state license and apply for certification if it’s required where you practice
  5. Gain experience as a clinical psychologist and express and apply for positions assisting law enforcement or private offices

Bachelor’s degree

Depending on the university, you might be able to study forensic psychology at bachelor’s degree level, but it’s rare. In most cases, students earn a degree in a general field and specialize when they get to graduate school. Bachelor’s programs usually last four years and provide 120 semester hours, with coursework in topics such as sociology of crime, social psychology, and criminal psychology. 

A Bachelor of Science program tends to include more maths and science, while a Bachelor of Arts degree includes more courses dedicated to the field of psychology. Either serves as a platform for the further study necessary to get into the field of forensic psychology.  

Master’s degree

A master’s degree alone isn’t enough for a license to practice in any state, but it’s the next step on the journey towards earning your doctorate and entering the field of forensic psychology. This type of degree program usually takes one or two years to complete, and you need around 30 credits to graduate.

Learners choose from electives and take a set number of prerequisites, with many taking the opportunity to study courses such as criminology and forensic science. There’s often an option to choose between working towards an advanced research project and taking part in fieldwork or an internship in a clinical setting.

Upon graduation, you’re ready to take the final step towards becoming a licensed forensic psychologist.

Doctoral degree

At doctorate level, you get the opportunity to specialize further in your chosen subfield of forensic psychology. That might be crisis leadership management, legal issues, or forensic social work. Some of the core courses you might take during a forensic science Ph.D. include teaching in psychology, conducting research in forensic psychology, and deviant behavior.

Once the prerequisite courses are complete, you’ll spend at least one year researching and writing a dissertation. You’ll defend this piece of writing in front of a dissertation committee and ideally get your first scientific paper published!

Degree requirements

To get into a graduate forensic science program, students usually need to evidence a 3.0 GPA in their bachelor’s degree. Some of the coursework you’re expected to complete includes:

  • Psychology of violence
  • Psychopathology
  • Psychology and the law
  • Research, theory, design, and method
  • Family systems and family treatment
  • Evaluation and treatment of offenders
  • Evaluation and treatment of sex offenders
  • Social psychology
  • Theories of personality and counseling
  • Issues in family law
  • Interrogation and interviewing 

Forensic psychology course examples

There’s a lot to learn in the pursuit of an education in forensic psychology, including best practices, theories, ethics, and research methods. Let’s take a look at some of the most popular forensic psychology courses:

  • Introduction to forensic psychology: Practically every graduate forensic psychology program offers a high-level overview of the field. This involves learning key landmark cases where forensic psychology has played a pivotal role. You’ll gain an extensive understanding of the tools and methods used in the discipline, as well as reviewing ethical case studies.
  • Psychology of child abuse: Sometimes working as a forensic psychologist involves working with offenders who have committed crimes that society considers unthinkable. This course gives students insights into the elements that arise frequently in this type of case, as well as providing a background of the factors that influence child abuse and child exploitation.
  • Psychology theory: Over the years, experts in the field of psychology and psychiatry have developed models and theories that combine to guide modern practice. If you enter a career as a researcher of forensic psychology, you could add to this growing body of literature that aims to make society a safer place.
  • Ethics in forensic psychology: Forensic psychologists work side-by-side with law enforcement, so ethics and morality are vital to the role. Forensic psychology is carefully governed by strict rules and regulations, which you’ll learn about in this course. Learners investigate and discuss major cases that have led to the implementation of legislation. You’ll also learn the importance of keeping up-to-date with the ever-changing laws.

Career outlook for forensic psychologists

According to the Bureau for Labor Statistics, the average salary for psychologists is $82,180 and the job growth is set at 3% between 2019 and 2029, which is in-line with the average. Individuals with doctoral degrees, including forensic psychologists are best placed to earn the most and enjoy the best career outlook. 

The highest paying states for psychologists are California ($124,910), Alaska ($118,270), Illinois ($115,340), Virginia ($109,060), and Colorado ($103,560). 

Who hires forensic psychologists?

As new technology develops to complement the efforts of law enforcement, and scientific studies improve our understanding of human behavior, the scope for work in forensic science is expanding. That said, psychology is one of the most popular degree paths with modern students, so placements at college and the workplace are likely to be competitive.

There are a range of organizations that hire forensic psychologists, who are often self-employed. They work as independent consultants to police, attorneys, law-enforcement agencies, the federal government, state hospitals, and any other element of the civil or criminal justice system. 

Top forensic psychologist jobs

Forensic psychology is a broad field, so if you want a varied and challenging job role, the following careers could be perfect for you. 

Crime analyst

Crime analysts are forensic experts who work closely with police to predict and prevent criminal activity. They do this through the study of data, where they identify trends that could indicate rises and falls in local crime rates. Economic, locational, and demographic elements are often at play. Finding these risk factors can impact how society is structured in the future to mitigate the cocktail of circumstances that combine to create conditions for crime, such as ghettos and lack of state funding.

Correctional officer

Correctional officers usually work in local and state and local prisons, and county jails. They oversee inmates, upkeep safety within the facility, stop inmates from escaping, and perform checks to locate and remove contraband such as firearms and narcotics. Prison officers are expected to remain confident and energetic throughout long shifts, and must be able to keep calm when faced with challenging behavior.  

Forensic case manager

Forensic case managers work with convicted offenders, victims, and families to prevent repeat offending. Leaving prison and re-entering society poses an array of challenges, and seeking meaningful employment and making a valuable contribution are usually the most important factors in keeping an ex-offender from going back into prison.

Case managers coordinate with social workers and other forensics experts to implement care plans for people when they leave a correctional facility.

Expert witness

Many forensic psychologists work in some capacity as expert witnesses, where they offer their expertise in support or refute of claims about a defendant’s mental health. Credentials are essential in this role, as the opposition will conduct extensive research and use any gaps in your resume against you.

Expert witnesses can come from a wide range of the well-respected fields. Forensic psychologists are particularly useful in matters regarding extreme behavior, violent crimes, and ambiguous mental health diagnoses.

Juvenile correctional specialist

Children and young people who commit crimes are very likely to have already experienced significant trauma and setbacks. If you’re passionate about helping children, a role as a correctional specialist at juvenile correctional facilities would be rewarding. You’ll assess young offenders to identify if there are mental health conditions at play, and develop individual plans to treat them. 

Some professionals in this field work with ex-offenders, supporting social workers in preventing future offenses. Others work with the facilities themselves, directing mental health programs and analyzing the effectiveness of the processes and procedures in place. 

Jury consultant

Jury consultants work in courtrooms, helping lawyers select jury members and assessing their conduct throughout the course of a trial. They conduct extensive research into the background of each jury member and interview them to compile a group that’s representative of a range of demographics.

When acting as consultants to attorneys, they use their extensive knowledge of facial expressions, mannerisms, and micro expressions to help lawyers direct their arguments in the right way.   

Forensic social work

Forensic social workers assist victims and perpetrators following on from a crime. They’re trained to spot signs of criminality, take the stand as expert witnesses, assess clients’ mental health, and make recommendations regarding therapy for offenders and the people who are impacted by their crimes. 

Victim advocate

A popular path for certified forensic scientists is becoming a victim advocate. In this position, you help the victims of crime by developing and implementing talking therapy, in addition to performing advocacy duties. You make arrangements in case an individual or family needs to relocate to a safe place following a violent assault or threat. Additionally, victim advocates make referrals and ensure long-term care plans are in place for those who are in need.  

Researcher

Researchers use the knowledge they gain throughout their extensive studies in combination with raw data to conduct research into the field of forensic psychology. This could involve developing new treatment modalities for victims or perpetrators of crime, extensively interviewing families and offenders to determine patterns in criminal behavior, and develop new methods for examining crime scenes. 

Clinical director

Clinical directors usually have considerable experience in the field and a number of certifications to their name. They oversee legal agencies and criminal justice organizations to establish and deliver programs to improve outcomes for offenders.

They can work directly with perpetrators, using their advanced understanding of body language and verbal and nonverbal cues to establish if they have problematic attitudes and beliefs. This is particularly crucial when it comes to probation. Most offenders want to re-join society desperately, so clinical directors must be highly adept at distinguishing lies and manipulate tactics from genuine shifts in character.

Private practice attorneys and the court system need the expertise of forensic psychologists for an array of legal concerns. Consultants assist with a variety of activities, including jury selection, focus groups, and conducting mock trials.

Defense lawyers and prosecutors might call a legal consultant as an expert witness, where they stand trial to offer their professional opinion about the mental health status of a dependent. For example, they might be asked to give an opinion about someone’s competency to stand trial in a case where a plea of insanity or diminished responsibility it entered. 

Law enforcement

Forensic psychologists are indispensable tools for law enforcement because they use their skills and knowledge to help detectives narrow down suspects. They don’t usually have full-time roles in police departments due to demand, but tend to offer their services on a freelance basis. Forensic psychology is also an excellent degree choice for an aspiring police officer because it prepares them for dealing with the behavioral aspects of criminal behavior.  

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