What Does a Career in Forensic Psychology Entail?
Forensic psychologists are typically licensed psychologists who specialize in applying their expertise specifically to legal matters. Most have a doctoral degree, often a PsyD or Ph.D. Forensic science and forensic psychology are highly specialized sub-disciplines of psychology that require in-depth knowledge of the legal field.
As such, prospective forensic psychologists should be prepared to spend a great deal of time in school; first completing a bachelor’s psychology degree program (or one in social psychology, abnormal psychology, or clinical psychology), then a master’s in psychology with a concentration in forensic psychology, and perhaps even a doctorate forensic psychology degree. Forensic psychologists aid in the full spectrum of the legal system, from examining criminal defendants and sharing research methods to sharing their opinion with law enforcement in child custody cases, family law, and even jury selection.
Many forensic psychologists work in the court system and with law enforcement in general in an advisory role or on a consulting basis. Others choose forensic psychology careers that allow them to work directly with criminal offenders to study human behavior in this context. A forensic psychologist with board certification and a doctorate may be able to serve as a jury consultant or expert witness, applying their human behavior or social psychology expertise to cases. In all, this field offers a great deal of variety, a range of work environments inside and outside law enforcement, and the ability to provide mental health support to a vulnerable population. Still, the road to success is not an easy one. Below, we’ll look at what it takes to become a forensic psychologist, from an associate degree to board-certified psychologist.
Components of A Successful Career in Forensic Psychology
Forensic psychologists do require a great deal of formal training to gain entry into this profession. For starters, a psychologist must have a master’s degree in psychology or a forensic psychology degree, as well as legal training or experience in the legal field and an understanding of law enforcement. Psychologists who earn a doctorate will have more employment opportunities and access to higher pay.
The path toward earning a doctoral degree can vary quite a bit. There aren’t many bachelor's in forensic psychology degree programs. So, students may start with a criminal justice or psychology program and start narrowing their focus with a concentration in forensic psychology as they progress.
Forensic psychologists need to complete their doctoral degree, as well as supervised work hours, an internship, and pass an exam before they are qualified to work as a board-certified psychologist. Becoming a board-certified psychologist isn’t the only end game, but it is recommended for many of the higher-level positions in this field.
How to Earn a Degree in Forensic Psychology
Typical Forensic Psychology Degree Requirements
Generally, forensic psychology degree programs should focus on psychology, forensics, and criminology. To start the process, students can earn a bachelor’s degree in psychology, criminology, or forensics. Aspiring forensic psychologists should consider taking as many courses as possible that fall at the intersection of these disciplines.
Typical Forensic Psychology Certifications Needed
Forensic psychologists can seek board certification from the American Board of Professional Psychology. To be eligible for this credential, you’ll need to have a Ph.D. from an accredited institution, have a state license, and have completed an internship and postdoctoral training. After meeting these requirements, candidates must pass both written and oral exams. This certification is optional. However, it signifies a high level of expertise. Forensic psychologists are often called upon to evaluate prisoner behavior and advise law enforcement on behavioral responses. As such, employers may prefer to work with a board-certified psychologist.
Academic Standards for Forensic Psychology Degrees
Because this profession requires a great deal of training, academic standards are quite high. Forensic psychology is the intersection of psychology and the law, so you’ll need to understand the legal system, as well as the range of issues that affect offenders.
To become a forensic psychologist, you’ll need to take courses that lay the foundation for a career in the field. So, this goes beyond receiving a traditional psychology or clinical psychology degree. Aim to take classes that cover the psychology of deviance, substance abuse, violent behavior, criminology, and criminal justice. While you might not have access to a bachelor’s degree in forensic psychology, opting to take electives that fill in the blanks will help you prepare for graduate school.
Because you’ll need to obtain a master’s or doctoral degree, your best chance of ending up at a graduate school with a good reputation will come from getting a high GPA and preparing for the GRE. Forensic psychology graduate programs may be entirely research-centric, so as you start wrapping up your undergraduate forensic psychology degree program, seek out advisors that can help you narrow down some potential thesis ideas.
Exam/Experience Needed for Forensic Psychology Degrees
To earn a bachelor’s degree in psychology or criminal justice, you’ll need to meet the institution’s criteria—SAT scores, GPA minimums, etc. In this case, we recommend attending the most competitive school you can get into for your undergrad, as you’ll need to at least get a masters to find work in this field.
A Ph.D. is preferred and is a requirement for many positions in this field. After earning a doctorate, you’ll need to obtain a state license to start working in the court system. Each state oversees the licensing process and most require a doctorate and passing scores on the Examination for Professional Practice of Psychology, plus relevant experience (supervised hours).
Beyond state licensure, Forensic Psychologists may choose to become board-certified. Again, you must have a doctorate to sit for the exam, as well as a state license, 100 hours of formal education, and at least 1000 hours of work experience in the field.
Again, forensic psychology is a highly specialized field, so at the associate and bachelor’s level, students will be more focused on developing a general framework that they’ll build upon later in their educational career.
Some colleges do offer bachelor’s programs in forensic psychology but finding work in this field means obtaining a master’s at a minimum. Within the field, there’s some disagreement as to whether or not a master’s is enough to qualify a forensic psychologist as an expert though master’s should be sufficient if you plan to become a counselor within this field—working with people inside the criminal justice system or juvenile offenders.
At the associate level, you’re not necessarily going to find a forensic psychology program. You will, however, be able to knock out some of the required coursework for your bachelor’s degree and can choose a specialty in line with your career goals such as psychology or criminal justice. Some examples of courses you might take in an associate program include:
- Forensic Psychology
- Juvenile Law
Students studying forensic psychology at the bachelor’s level learn to apply the principles of psychology to the legal system. This field requires in-depth knowledge of both the criminal justice system and the practice of psychology. Few schools offer undergraduate degrees in forensic psychology, so you may need to earn a degree in general psychology and minor in criminal justice or consider a double major. It’s also worth mentioning that most jobs in forensic psychology require an advanced degree, so you should plan on getting a master’s or doctoral degree when you choose this major.
- Abnormal psychology
- Criminal psychology
- Counseling Theories
A master’s degree in forensic psychology is designed to prepare students for work in the criminal justice system. With a master’s degree, you can work as a licensed professional counselor, a jury consultant, juvenile offender counselor, or a research assistant, among other roles. It is important to note that you cannot become a board-certified, licensed forensic psychologist without a doctoral degree. As such, you’ll want to carefully weigh the pros and cons of each degree level as you consider applying to graduate school.
- Mental Health Law
- Criminal Behavior
- Research Methods
To become a licensed forensic psychologist, you will need a Ph.D. or a PsyD from an APA-accredited program. In some cases, you may be able to become a licensed counselor with a master’s degree alone, but your best chances of success will come from earning a doctoral degree. A Ph.D. is best for those who plan on focusing on research, while a PsyD is the best choice for those who plan on working directly with patients. After earning a doctorate, aspiring forensic psychologists will need to pass the Examination for Professional Practice of Psychology and obtain a certain number of supervised working hours. From there, psychologists may be qualified to work as a forensic psychologist inside the court system.
- Psychological Evaluation
- Clinical Treatment and Assessment
- Forensic Consultation
As with most professions, higher education levels correlate with higher pay rates. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), someone with a doctorate makes about $1,700 per week, compared to someone with a bachelor’s degree who earns roughly $1,100 per week. That said, there’s a massive range for earning potential at all degree levels in other industries—take marketing or computer programming for example, these fields depend more on competence than certifications or specific degree levels.
With forensic psychology, credentialing follows a particular set of guidelines, and there’s no “non-traditional” path toward becoming a licensed forensic psychologist. Someone with a bachelor’s degree in this field may have some opportunities to work in a related field, but it’s important to understand that career opportunities at this level are much more limited than you’ll find in other areas with less regulation.
Forensic Psychology Salaries by Occupation
Forensic psychology is one field where education level determines your pay, almost without exception. You need a certain level of training to become legally eligible for most of the higher profile jobs within this area. There are a few occupations such as victim advocate or court liaison that only require a bachelor’s degree, but earnings are unlikely to reach the $40,000 threshold. If you plan on just getting a bachelor’s degree, forensic psychology might not offer the best return on investment. There’s also not a ton of information available about how much forensic psychologists make after completing their educational requirements. One resource on salaries found that the salary range for people with this title earn between $35,000 and $103,000, which is a pretty significant range. Forensic psychology is a relatively new specialty and it’s hard to get a sense of how much you can make as an expert witness or jury consultant. The Bureau of Labor Statistics doesn’t differentiate between forensic psychology and psychology in general.
Forensic Psychology Occupations:
- Victim Advocate:
Victim advocates are trained professionals that offer support to victims of crimes. Advocates work with criminal justice associations and contact organizations on behalf of victims. They aim to help victims gain access to resources like in-person counseling, support groups, or programs that can help them move past a traumatic event.
- Court Liaison:
Court liaisons are generally members of a local law enforcement agency like the city police department. While not uniformed members of a police force, court liaisons serve as administrators that support law enforcement in their work with the court system. Typical duties include scheduling witnesses and attorneys and making sure that all documentation is received for misdemeanor or felony cases. The court liaison might guide a police officer through the process of testifying in court and will write and issue a statement explaining the outcome of a case and any actions taken.
- Jury Consultant:
Jury consultants are human behavior experts who generally have a master’s or doctorate in behavioral science, forensic psychology, sociology, or criminology. Jury consultants are not legal experts and are hired based on their knowledge of human behavior, not the legal system. This person works as a consultant, providing insight into human behavior at trial, and often coaches witnesses and helps attorneys put together a compelling case
- Licensed Professional Clinical Counselor:
A licensed professional clinical counselor or LPCC is a counselor with a master’s degree, much like a general therapist. While the term applies to any counselor at this level, those with a specialization in forensic psychology often find work as a therapist to inmates, juvenile offenders, or victims, among others impacted by the criminal justice system/process.
- Forensic Psychologist:
Forensic psychologists are licensed psychologists with a concentration in forensics. Often, they will have a doctorate in forensic psychology or counseling, and they’ll need to have a deep understanding of criminal behavior and the law. Forensic psychologists work in a range of environments. Some are self-employed or work on a consulting basis. Others work within a criminal justice agency. Both prosecutors and defense attorneys ask forensic psychologists to help assess potential jurors and evaluate their behavior. They will also evaluate the competency of suspects, defendants, and convicted criminals.
- Expert Witness:
An expert witness may be called upon to assist the court in matters that are not widely understood by the general public. Clients and legal advisers pay for expert witnesses to share their opinion to strengthen a client’s case. However, the expert witness is legally obligated to tell the truth, whether it benefits the client or not. While this is a paid role, most expert witnesses are well-regarded in their field and will be called upon if there is a need for their particular expertise.
- Psychology Researcher:
Psychology researchers often work in labs or universities. They might teach university courses or work as part of a research team. Psychologists are considered research psychologists if they do not treat patients but spend their time instead of conducting scientific research. Within the forensics specialty, psychology researchers may conduct surveys, interviews, and analyze human behavior. In general, their job is to identify the motivations and other characteristics associated with criminal behavior.
Annual Salary by Occupation (Range)
|Occupation||Entry-Level Salary Range||Mid-Career Salary Range||Late-Career Salary Range|
|Licensed Clinical Professional Counselor||$40,600||$50,300||$59,100|
Important Questions to Ask (FAQ)
How long does it take to earn a Forensic Psychology bachelor's degree online?
Like their on-campus counterparts, online bachelor’s degrees generally take about four years to complete. In some cases, online students may be able to enroll in an accelerated program designed to cater to working adults with busy schedules. However, you’ll need to do your due diligence before entering a program. Forensic Psychology requires a great deal of credentialing, and that’s after you earn a bachelor’s degree and a doctorate. You’ll want to be 100% certain that the American Psychological Association accredits the degree program you sign up for. In general, the best online options come from public or private universities better known for their traditional academics.
It's also worth pointing out that this field of study does not lend itself easily to the online learning format. There are several courses one can take online but becoming a psychologist of any kind requires an in-depth knowledge of human behavior. As such, expect to spend a great deal of time both in the lab and later, completing supervised practice hours.
How much does a Forensic Psychology bachelor’s degree cost?
It depends on where you live and what type of school you choose. If you attend an in-state public university, costs will be much lower than attending an out-of-state school or a private university. According to College Calc, there aren’t too many four-year colleges that offer this major. Of those that they mention, the average cost ranges between $23,000 for in-state students, to $56,000 for out-of-state students. That said, a more accurate estimation might be to consider the average price of a psychology degree in the US. The average annual out-of-state cost is about $33,000, while the median cost of an in-state program is $8,000 annually. So, the numbers can vary wildly depending on where you live and what type of school you’re looking at.
Does the school have the major(s) you’re considering?
Forensic psychology is a specialized field, so it may be somewhat challenging to find a bachelor’s program near you. Look for schools that have a strong psychology program and review the program’s course catalog. General psychology classes are available at just about any institution, but you’ll want to study subjects like abnormal psychology, criminology, and psychology and the law as well.
How many students graduate “on time,” in four years?
Graduation rates aren’t the only way to measure quality, but they do offer some indication that a program is high-quality and provides the resources and support that students need to be able to complete their coursework and take their education to the next level. A school with a below average graduation rate could indicate that there is little in the way of help or guidance from professors.
Or, maybe the school doesn’t offer the required courses, or the program is low-quality. While students drop out of programs for all sorts of reasons, graduation rates are a helpful barometer when considered as part of the full picture. Factors like faculty reputation, school ranking, courses offered, financial aid packages, and more all come into play.
What kind of accreditation does the program hold? How is it regarded in the field?
Reputation matters more in a competitive field with stringent guidelines such as forensic psychology. You’ll want to make sure you select a program that sets you up for success within the field. Failing to do your research could mean that you enroll in a program that doesn’t live up to the standards required to attend a graduate school or find work in your field.
The government tightly regulates psychology. When looking for a bachelor’s program, you’ll want to find a program with American Psychological Association accreditation. Without this designation, your degree might not be sufficient for gaining entry into a reputable graduate program, and there are few options for work unless you go into an unrelated field.
Software, Technology and Skills Needed
Forensic psychologists compare data from several sources and test hypotheses. This research serves as the basis for the advice given in a courtroom setting, which must be as unbiased as possible, given the circumstances. As such, forensic psychologists must be able to objectively analyze data, write reports based on their own findings, as well as courtroom observations. They also must have the ability to provide scientifically valid testimony when called upon in court.
American Academy of Forensic Psychology (AAFP) Dissertation Research Grants
Deadline: March 31
The AAFP offers dissertation research grants to doctoral students enrolled in a forensic psychology program in the US. The $5,000 scholarship is awarded to outstanding students who submit a winning dissertation proposal, a current CV, and a letter of recommendation. Students must also demonstrate an interest in the intersection of psychology and law and intend to pursue a career in the field. The AAFP will award the grant based on several factors—budgetary needs, experimental design, and potential contribution to the field.
Ellis R. Kerley Forensics Scholarship
Deadline: May 30
Offered to graduate students pursuing a degree in forensics in general, this scholarship is awarded to students based on their application. There’s no set amount. Instead, the award is dependent on need, merit, and other individual considerations. To apply candidates must be enrolled in a program affiliated with the AAFS or ABFA. Students must write a personal essay and submit a letter of recommendation along with their application.
The Forensic Mental Health Association of California Scholarship
Amount: Tuition and Lodging for Conference Duration
Deadline: January 15, 2021
This scholarship is offered on an annual basis to forensic psychology students. The award covers tuition and lodging during the FMHAC conference and students must submit a resume and a personal recommendation to apply. Additionally, students must submit a short essay detailing how they plan to help out at the conference.
Professional Forensic Psychology Organizations
Forensic psychology organizations help to ensure that professionals stay up to date on the latest policy changes and research in the field. They also provide access to networking opportunities, professional certifications, and continuing education resources. Here are a few notable examples:
American Psychological Association
The APA is a scientific association that represents psychologists of all kinds in the United States. The APA is responsible for offering accreditation to colleges and university psychology programs and are in charge of administering the forensic psychology licensing exam.
American Academy of Forensic Psychology
The American Academy of Forensic Psychology is a non-profit organization comprised of board-certified forensic psychologists. Their mission is to advance the specialty by contributing high-quality research and practice to the community at large. The organization offers continuing education workshops, discussion forums, and more. They also provide information about becoming a board-certified psychologist through the American Board of Professional Psychology (ABPP).
American Psychology-Law Society
This interdisciplinary organization brings together psychology and legal professionals to discuss public service, practice, and law as they relate to the field of psychology. This organization aims to provide professional development opportunities, and functions as a place to share the latest thinking on forensic psychology and related fields. Here, you’ll find networking opportunities and gain access to papers, events, and more.
International Association for Correctional and Forensic Psychology
The IACFP is an organization for behavioral scientists and practitioners primarily concerned with delivering high-quality mental health services to criminal offenders and promoting effective treatment for individuals in the criminal justice system. Most members have advanced degrees in this practice, though not all are active psychologists. Students are welcome to join the association as well—it’s $25 a year and offers access to many online resources like digital journals and discounts on professional events.
Choosing an Accredited College
As we’ve mentioned, accreditation matters a ton in this discipline. Psychology programs and licensing requirements must meet a strict set of standards so that patients can expect a certain level of expertise when they seek help for mental health issues. Because so much responsibility falls onto the lap of the psychologist, they need to prepare for their work with the public adequately. A program without accreditation might not give students the foundational knowledge required to go onto a graduate program, or eventually, work in the field. It takes a long time to become a practicing clinical psychologist, and as such, you’ll want to do significant research before enrolling in a program, otherwise, you risk wasting a lot of time and money.
Online vs. On-Campus vs. Hybrid
Choosing the “format” for your degree is a significant consideration for those considering a degree, particularly for low-income or older students. Early on, you may be able to earn an associate degree or a bachelor’s degree online, but keep in mind, becoming a practicing psychologist requires a lot of in-person, practical experience before you can enter the field.
Those seeking a bachelor’s degree will benefit from the in-person connections they make with professors in this field, as it’s incredibly competitive. Therefore, it’s smart to take courses toward your major in-person, and to pursue mentorship opportunities, internships, and participate in campus activity. Still, many required general education classes may be completed online, allowing for some flexibility in your schedule. As you go on to a master’s program or a doctoral program, on-campus programs will offer you a leg up in your career.
We will mention that there are a lot of online master’s programs in forensic psychology, but you’ll need to do significant research before enrolling. Some of these come from legitimate institutions and are accredited by the APA, while others are not, and won’t help you land a job in the field.
Does the College Have Post Graduate Job Placement Help & Assistance?
Becoming successful in this field is much harder than most other professions. The specialization is relatively new, and according to Psychology Today, there’s still no consensus on what the best educational path looks like. With that in mind, aspiring forensic psychologists should seek out a program that offers as much support as possible. Look for small class sizes, assistance with internships and employment, and networking opportunities.
Why You Need to Consider the Rating/Accreditation Can Affect Your Salary
When you’re embarking on a career path that requires multiple degrees, rating and accreditation is a major consideration. You don’t want to earn a bachelor’s degree from a school with a poor reputation, as this can impact your chances of admittance into a reputable master’s or doctoral program, which changes the entire trajectory of your career path.
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