How to Start a Forensic Psychology Career
How to Become a Forensic Psychologist
As much as we might wish for a crime-free world, this is an unrealistic expectation. Instead, we can try to prevent crime by understanding the criminal mind and common dangerous situations.
Forensic psychologists play an important role in helping limit crime by understanding criminal activity. They study human behavior and criminal justice to make analytical and observational deductions.
Learn more about how to become a forensic psychologist, including the educational requirements, skillsets needed, where you can work, and more.
What Is Forensic Psychology?
Forensic psychology is a discipline in the practice of psychology that focuses on individuals impacted by the legal system. This includes observing, studying, and identifying human behavior and brain activity to aid in a legal case or criminal case.
What Do Forensic Psychologists Do?
The word forensic is defined as "the scientific method for investigation of crime." Forensic psychology is often described as the merger of law and psychology. Forensic psychologists play a role in punishing and preventing crimes.
This field of psychology is typically focused on the criminals themselves. Professionals in this field are often given the ominous responsibility of trying to figure out the psychological profile of individuals who commit crimes to better understand the criminal mind and even prevent others from committing crimes of a similar nature.
Forensic psychology can be an important piece of the puzzle when trying to solve a criminal case. Professionals in this field can often help narrow down the suspect list or at least provide a motive for a crime. In some cases, the expert testimony of a respected forensic psychologist might be the last piece of the puzzle when trying to convict a criminal.
The field of forensic psychology is an essential part of crime prevention as well. Professionals in this field might be called upon to participate in rehabilitating criminals, for instance, to help ensure that they become law-abiding citizens. Research in this field can also help pinpoint types of people who might commit crimes before they actually do.
|School Programs||Average Education Length||Choosing Online or Campus|
|1. Earn a Bachelor's Degree||View Programs||4 Years||Online or Campus|
|2. Earn A Master's Degree||View Programs||2 Additional Years||Online or Campus|
|3. Earn a PHD or PsyD||View Programs||2-4 Additional Years||Online or Campus|
What Are the Requirements for Becoming a Forensic Psychologist?
Wondering if a career in forensic psychology is right for you? Before becoming a forensic psychologist, it’s important to understand the skills needed to succeed in the career. These can include both hard skills, such as data analysis and soft skills, including communication and empathy.
Critical Listening and Think
Forensic psychologists should be able to listen and think critically, especially under pressure. The role includes constant problem-solving and looking at things in an unbiased manner. The decisions made by the forensic team can have real-life implications on several parties, which is why it’s crucial to listen and think and process information effectively.
Forensic psychology includes analyzing data and statistics to draw conclusions according to the specific situation you are analyzing. Accurate data analysis is a necessary skill for forensic psychologists.
In addition to data, forensic psychologists must also analyze physical evidence and the state of a crime scene to better understand the nature of the crime and the psychological state of the individual who committed it. Evidence, or even the lack of evidence, at a crime scene can often be used to develop a criminal profile. This can then be used to narrow down a list of suspects.
Research is often a big part of a forensic psychology career. Forensic psychologists will often study and analyze research from other professionals and conduct their own research. They might study criminals and their crimes, for instance, to determine what traits certain types of criminals have. These tasks may involve interviewing criminals, along with their loved ones and victims.
Forensic psychologists regularly work with lawyers, judges, counselors, and clients. Therefore, they must be good at communication and able to tailor their message to the recipient.
Many forensic psychologists also act as expert witnesses during criminal trials. They will often give testimonies about why a crime may have occurred, or whether they believe a defendant was likely to have committed the crimes in question. A forensic psychologist might influence on a criminal's sentencing. Because of these implications, clear and efficient communication is a must.
At the end of the day, forensic psychologists are often dealing with traumatic crimes that affect the lives of those around them. Having empathy for victims and those involved in the case is a powerful trait that helps forensic psychologists excel.
What Is the Average Salary of a Forensic Psychologist?
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), forensic psychologists (categorized by the BLS as psychologists, all other) earned a median salary of $106,420 as of May 2022.
Forensic psychologists working for professional, scientific, and technical consulting companies earn an annual median wage of $109,690 while their colleagues in federal, state, and local governments have a median wage of $113,150.
How much you make as a forensic psychologist will depend on how much schooling you have, where you work, and what state you work in. Every role is different.
How to Become a Forensic Psychologist
Forensic psychology jobs blend multiple disciplines: law, psychology, criminal justice, and counseling. Learn more about how to become a forensic psychologist below.
1. Pursue a Bachelor’s Degree in Psychology
Individuals pursuing forensic psychology careers should make sure that their education is focused on psychology, criminology, and forensics. There are a couple of different ways to pursue this type of education.
First, a student can earn a bachelor's degree in psychology with a focus on criminology or criminal justice. A student can also earn a bachelor's degree in criminal justice or criminology with a focus on psychology or choose a forensic psychology school. Some courses that an aspiring forensic psychologist might take may include courses on forensics, abnormal psychology, and the psychology of deviance.
2. Pursue a Master’s Degree
A master's degree in forensic psychology is considered the standard minimum for getting into the field in a research or consultancy role, while clinical work that involves working directly with patients will require a Ph.D. or PsyD, as is the case with all clinical psychologists.
Decide Where You Want to Work
Forensic psychologists most often work independently as consultants and expert witnesses, which means they can be hired by either prosecution or defense teams to testify during trial. When working in a rehabilitative or clinical capacity, forensic psychology jobs may include being part of the rehabilitative staff found in prisons or juvenile detention centers.
Are You Ready for a Career in Forensic Psychology?
Forensic psychology is a unique career because it blends aspects of so many different industries, including law, criminal justice, and psychology. Forensic psychologists should be good listeners and communicators and understand how to process data, both on paper and from crime scenes. Is a career as a forensic psychologist right for you? Find a psychology program fit for your needs, including ones focused on the discipline of forensics.
Employment Outlook & Career Guidance for Forensic Psychologists
As cases regarding school violence, workplace conflict, sexual abuse, and other serious crimes in the United States continue to emerge, the escalating awareness of mental health issues and criminal behavior creates a demand for the services and expertise of forensic psychologists.
What Type of Positions Can a Forensic Psychologist Hold?
Companies and agencies that seek to hire forensic psychologists are those that have legal roles or clientele, which includes anyone associated with family, civil, or criminal court. Forensic psychology graduates may follow a range of diverse career paths, including positions in consulting, private practice, government, education, and in the courtroom. Learn more about how to become a forensic psychologist.
Career options available to forensic psychologists include:
- Becoming a criminal profiler, and working with a local police department or federal law enforcement agency.
- Developing a curriculum for and training law enforcement/corrections agencies, as a consultant.
- Counseling at-risk youth for an agency that focuses on the prevention of criminal behavior.
- Striving to improve public policy as a political advisor to government agencies and/or politicians on issues relating to crime and criminal law.
- Becoming a non-profit lobbyist for changes to criminal law and crime prevention methods.
- Conducting research at an institution or university on topics related to the legal system.
- Providing counseling and treatment to criminals at prisons, halfway houses, mental health centers, and/or psychiatric hospitals.
- Becoming a professor for an undergraduate or graduate program, as well as teach juris doctorate candidates at law schools.
The type of degree a forensic psychology graduate possesses will determine some of the positions he or she qualifies for.
"At the master's level, they can work in criminal justice settings like probation or parole, work as therapists in mental health or drug courts and work in correctional facilities as therapists or case managers. At the doctoral level, they can work as forensic psychologists in state mental hospitals, complete competency evaluations for the courts, complete psychological evaluations for legal cases, complete custody evaluations, and work in correctional facilities as psychologists or administrators."
–Dr. David Stephens
Featured Forensic Psychologist Degree Program
Forensic psychologists also find employment within a:
- Courtroom Setting: Because forensic psychologists possess valuable insight into human behavior and the criminal mind, they often play an important role in courtroom settings, such as testifying in court. Lawyers also use their specialties during the jury selection process because of their ability to 'read' people through their actions and body language.
- Law Enforcement Setting: In addition to becoming a criminal profiler, forensic psychologists also work with law enforcement to select, train and evaluate police officers. They may work for an agency, or provide their services as a consultant hired on a temporary basis.
- Government Agency Setting: The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) is an option for forensic psychologists, who are hired to create basic working profiles of killers and other criminals by analyzing their previous activity.
- Crime Scene & Laboratory Setting: Some forensic psychologists play an important role in criminal investigations, and spend their time analyzing crime scenes and evidence to conclude a criminal's actions, and/or how they committed a crime. They often rotate between working in a laboratory, crime scene, and courtroom setting.
- Child Law Setting: Forensic psychologists may opt to focus on child law, and investigate reports of child abuse. Oftentimes, their abilities are called upon to work on child custody cases, where they interview parents and the child(ren) on a separate basis to help determine the best overall custody decision.
- Mental Health Setting: Those who enter the clinical forensic psychology field, often work with patients suffering from a mental disease that significantly affects their behavior. In addition to working with the court system, these professionals often assume position at prisons and mental institutions (especially those that have a criminal ward). When working at a rehabilitation center, forensic psychologists evaluate and create treatment plans for convicted criminals.
- Education Setting: Forensic psychologists are hired to educate children and adults on the possible dangers regarding sexual abuse, domestic violence, and other threats to their health and wellbeing.
Dr. O'Leary suggests focusing on the job settings that are most enjoyable to a forensic psychology student or graduate, as a way to easily build upon his or her marketability.
"…if one's passion is working with victims of crimes, then they [should] look for advocacy centers, legal aid, department of social services, etc. This is more beneficial if one uses this approach while still attending school as it positions them for available positions once they graduate."
–Dr. Bill O'Leary
Ways for Forensic Psychologists to Increase Desirability as a Job Candidate
Forensic psychologists can enhance their attractiveness as a job candidate through their volunteer efforts; by joining and being involved in professional organizations; by presenting papers at professional conferences; and being published in a professional journal.
Dr. O'Leary suggests taking an open-minded approach towards a forensic psychology career in order to create a broader range of opportunities as a professional, which can ultimately increase a job candidate's desirability to potential employers.
"I have done anger management for the NY Giants, gone to schools to present to students and parents, worked with victims as well as perpetrators, taught for several universities…"
–Dr. Bill O'Leary
"Get a variety of professional experiences in forensic settings. For students, this can be accomplished through completing practicum experiences in …probation or parole, correctional facilities, state hospitals, etc."
–Dr. David Stephens
Dr. O'Leary also gives the following suggestions on how to become a better-rounded job candidate:
- Develop and maintain professional relationships.
- Conduct yourself in a genuine and direct manner.
- Use logic instead of emotion when dealing with others.
- Stay informed in the area that you work.
Qualities and characteristics that employers typically look for in a forensic psychologist include:
- An understanding and familiarity about the intersection of law and psychology
- Demonstrating a life-long learning attitude
- A strong work ethic
- The ability to keep personal opinions and biases out of their work
- Strong critical-thinking skills, and the desire to 'go the extra mile' to research possible solutions
- Willingness to accept viewpoints from many different people and other professionals
- Staying well-informed on ever-changing social issues
- Excellent written and oral communication skills
- The ability to effectively explain and defend a position or theory numerous times
"Degrees get you into the interview; experience and character get you the job."
–Dr. Bill O'Leary
Ways for a Forensic Psychologist to Increase His/Her Salary
Forensic psychologists with a doctoral-level degree (PhD or PsyD) are qualified to offer part-time and full-time private practice or consulting services as a way to increase their income. The average hourly rate for services is between $150 and $450 an hour, and may consist of performing psychological evaluations; competency evaluations; as well as evaluating people involved in personal injury or class-action suits (and then give testimony in court about the harm their clients have experienced).
"Depending on the setting, most salary increases occur through annual performance reviews. Increasing the quality of work, being involved in extra duties or projects at the place of employment, and being promoted all contribute to increasing salary."
–Dr. David Stephens
"…one can take the collegiate route and teach at a college. I tend to do that as a supplement to income as opposed to a main source."
–Dr. Bill O'Leary
Read more about forensic psychology degrees online.
Forensic Psychology Networking Opportunities and Organizations
Forensic psychologists have the option to effectively network both online and onsite, especially when working with law enforcement or judicial agencies. Dr. O'Leary says going to law enforcement settings and 'case-conferencing' over lunch is a good way to network in the field – this type of interaction "helps streamline investigations and catch problems earlier on".
Another type of conference for forensic psychologists to participate in is the kind that takes place regionally, nationally and internationally, which creates opportunities to meet with academics, researchers, practitioners and students of psychology.
Attending a conference, such as the Forensic Expert Witness Annual Conference & Symposium, provides a means to engage with high-profile keynote speakers, participate in workshops, speak on individual papers, and enjoy social activities with other psychologists.
Joining a regional board helps forensic psychologists develop relationships throughout the state, and provides an excellent way to stay informed in the field. According to Dr. O'Leary, boards usually include established professionals, and provide an invaluable source to be able to talk about cases and practice.
"Attending and/or presenting at conferences, and joining professional listservs are among the best ways to network with colleagues."
–Dr. David Stephens
Organizations that provide networking opportunities for forensic psychologists include:
- American Board of Forensic Psychology (ABFP)
- American Academy of Forensic Psychology
- Society for Police and Criminal Psychology
- National Organization of Forensic Social Work
- American Psychological Association (APA)
- Forensic Expert Witness Association (FEWA)
Forensic Psychologist Continuing Education (CE) Sources
In addition to state-approved continuing education (CE) programs for psychologists, the APA also provides CE credit options for forensic psychologists. Opportunities for professional development include earning credits in topics related to forensic psychology, such as Forensic Assessment and the Standard of Care; Human Aggression and Violence: Causes, Manifestations, and Consequences; and Therapy with Coerced and Reluctant Clients.
2022 US Bureau of Labor Statistics salary figures and job growth projections for psychologists, all other, is based on national data, not school-specific information. Conditions in your area may vary. Data accessed June 2023.