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Forensic Psychologist: Career Guide

Forensic psychologists study human behavior by observing, questioning, and interpreting how people relate to others and how these individuals react to the situations in which they find themselves. Forensic psychologists carefully research and observe all available clues, looking for patterns or behaviors that help them predict how and why an individual reacts the way in which he or she does. Forensic psychologists may work in private practice or may be employed as a consultant for firms, schools, police departments, prisons, and government agencies, including the FBI, the United States Secret Service, and the Department of Defense.

Career Description, Duties, and Common Tasks

Forensic psychologists are specialists that bridge the fields of psychology and criminal justice. Their job includes helping judges, attorneys, and others in the criminal justice system understand the psychology involved in cases. Forensic psychologists often serve as expert witnesses in court cases; thus, they usually specialize in family court, civil court, or criminal court. In family court, they may evaluate children involved in custody cases or even investigate alleged child abuse incidents. In civil court, they may be asked to provide therapy to victims or to offer second opinions in psychology-related matters. In criminal court, forensic psychologists may be asked to evaluate a defendant to determine whether he or she is competent to stand trial. They may also work with witnesses who may be considered emotionally traumatized, such as children or victims of violent crimes. Effective forensic examiners must possess such personal characteristics as emotional stability, maturity, and the ability to deal with others with sensitivity and compassion. In addition, forensic psychologists must be able to communicate clearly with a variety of people – adults, children, law enforcement, attorneys, and judges.

Steps for Becoming a Forensic Psychologist

A doctoral degree in psychology is necessary to pursue practice as a licensed forensic psychologist. Many universities offer a forensic psychology specialization. However, to earn certification in forensic psychology from the American Board of Professional Psychology (ABPP), graduates must meet all of the requirements for certification in general psychology as well as additional criteria for earning specialty certification in forensic psychology. To obtain the ABPP forensic psychology certification, candidates must:

  • Attend an accredited doctoral degree program.
  • Become a licensed psychologist in your state.
  • Complete a minimum of 100 hours of education, which can include supervision or continuing education, in forensic psychology.
  • Earn a minimum of 1,000 hours of postdoctoral forensic psychology experience.

If you are interested in becoming a forensic psychologist, you should expect steps similar to the following:

  1. Acquire a doctoral degree from an accredited program.
  2. Pursue doctoral-level licensure through your state’s board.
  3. Apply for an open forensic psychology position.
  4. Be interviewed.
  5. Submit to a background check.
  6. Be hired as a forensic psychologist.
  7. Complete 1,000 hours of postdoctoral forensic psychology experience.*
  8. Apply for and obtain ABPP forensic psychology certification.*

*Optional.

Forensic Psychologist Job Training

If they wish to be certified, forensic examiners must complete 1,000 hours of training, which can be obtained through postdoctoral work, prior to being eligible for specialty certification in forensic psychology by the American Board of Professional Psychology.

Other Helpful Skills and Experience

Some forensic examiners hold dual doctorates in psychology and law, which may make them more marketable to employers. Successful psychologists have the ability to think critically and to remain calm in difficult situations, to communicate effectively both written and orally, and have knowledge of the legal system, particularly as it pertains to mental health.

Possible Job Titles for This Career

  • Consulting Forensic Examiner
  • Forensic Examiner
  • Forensic Psychologist
  • Licensed Forensic Psychologist
  • Psychologist

Forensic Psychology Salary and Job Outlook

Forensic psychology salaries vary widely, based on education, experience, and geographic location. The US Bureau of Labor Statistics doesn’t provide salary information for forensic psychologists but reports a median salary of $72,580 per year for psychologists overall.1 The employment of psychologists is expected to increase 19% from 2014 to 2024, much faster than the average rate of growth for all occupations.1 This anticipated growth is due to the expected increasing demand for psychological services in social service organizations and in the criminal justice system. Psychologists who have a doctoral degree in an applied specialty, such as forensic psychology, have the best prospects for finding a job.

Related Careers

Interested in a career similar to forensic psychology? Check out these related careers:

Forensic Psychiatrist Career Interviews

Frequently Asked Questions

Question: What kind of hours does a forensic psychologist work?

Answer: A psychologist’s work schedule depends on his employer. Those who are employed by the government, police departments, correctional institutes, and rehabilitation facilities generally work a typical full-time, nine to five schedule. Self-employed psychologists, or those who work in private practice, may work irregular hours, including evenings and weekends, to cater to a wider base of clients.

Question: What is the difference between a forensic psychologist and a forensic psychiatrist?

Answer: Forensic psychiatrists hold doctorates of medicine (MDs), providing them with the ability to prescribe medication and to order lab tests, and to lead patients in psychotherapy. Forensic psychologists will either possess a PhD or a PsyD and generally specialize in an area not covered by forensic psychiatrists, such as psychological testing.

Question: Can I work as a psychologist with just a master’s degree?

Answer: No. To become certified forensic psychologists, candidates must possess a PhD or a PsyD in psychology and specialized certification in forensic psychology.

Additional Resources

Schools with Forensic Psychology Programs

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References:
1. US Bureau of Labor Statistics Occupational Outlook Handbook, Psychologists: https://www.bls.gov/ooh/life-physical-and-social-science/psychologists.htm
2. American Board of Professional Psychology: https://www.abpp.org/i4a/pages/index.cfm?pageID=3356