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What is a Forensic Psychologist?

A forensic psychologist is a professional who sits at the juncture of the mental health field and criminal justice. Their primary function is to assess people who are in the legal system. They might be accused criminals awaiting trial, prisoners seeking release, or even parents seeking custody.

Forensic psychologists are primarily known for making determinations in cases involving alleged criminal insanity. Their determinations can impact a person's sentencing and even their guilt or innocence. For instance, persons deemed mentally incompetent might not be prosecuted or they may be sentenced to a mental health facility rather than a standard prison.

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Steps to Becoming a Forensic Psychologist

Forensic psychologists are highly skilled professionals that undergo rigorous academic and other training to achieve the credentials necessary to work in their field. Most commonly, forensic psychologists must achieve an PhD in psychology and then specialize in forensics in their post-doctoral work. Some forensic psychologists even pursue formal legal training, such as a legal studies degree.

To get started, however, you first need to make sure that psychology is the field for you. Once you make that determination, you will need to work through a bachelor’s degree, a master’s degree in forensic psychology, and graduate with a doctoral degree. As if that weren't enough, you'll then need to achieve a forensic psychology state licensure and likely complete some form of post-doctoral work.

This field is one that is very demanding but also very rewarding. You might be able to help facilitate justice in cases that involve the mentally ill, providing closure for victims as well as humane treatment for mentally ill perpetrators. You can even help children in divorce situations to either avoid mentally ill loved ones or to reunite with those falsely accused of illness.

  • Step 1: Is this the career for me?

  • Step 2: Bachelor's degree in psychology

  • Step 3: Graduate degrees with a Forensic focus

  • Step 4: Legal training

  • Step 5: Licensure


Step 1: Is this the career for me?

Before you get started in forensic psychology, it's first important to assess whether or not this is the career for you. You must have a passion for forensic psychology and a fascination with human behavior. Many forensic psychology majors have crossed paths with the forensic psychology field in some way, whether through personal experience in counseling or observing its impact on friends or family members. Since you will begin your forensic specialty in graduate school, you should first build a foundation in the field during your first four-year degree.

Step 2: Bachelor's degree in psychology

Currently, there are few programs that provide a specific bachelor's degree focus in forensic psychology. However, you should spend these first four years establishing your fundamental knowledge of the field. You will start out with Intro to Psychology and proceed through to courses such as Abnormal Psychology and Research Methods. There may be a few programs that offer one or two forensic courses, however, so please investigate them to see if they suit your needs.

Though your degree will most likely reflect a general study of psychology, you can take steps to focus your transcript on your eventual career. For instance, you could elect to do internships in forensic psychology or craft independent study courses in the field. Another option is to focus your research papers on criminal psychology. This way you can begin to prepare yourself for success in graduate school.

Another way to prepare for future success in forensic psychology is to take pre-law courses while you study for your bachelor’s degree. A minor focus in criminal justice or legal studies will look great on your graduate school application, as well as future professional applications. More importantly, your legal knowledge will inform how you operate in the professional world.

Step 3: Graduate degrees in Forensic Psychology

When you start looking at graduate schools, you should seek out programs that bestow specific degrees in forensic psychology. However, there are many programs that only offer degrees in clinical psychology. These programs will prepare you for your eventual career, but you may need to add a post-doctorate certification after you've completed your PhD. Some specific courses you might take in graduate school include courses such as:

  • Social Psychology
  • Psychology and Law
  • Behavior Pathology
  • Diversity Psychology

No matter which specific path you take, you will need to complete doctoral work in Clinical Psychology from an APA-accredited program. When your program is appropriately accredited you will find it easier to pursue state licensure.

Step 4: Legal Training

In addition to your psychological studies, it may be valuable to add coursework that addresses the law and criminal justice. Some forensic psychologists even complete additional master's degrees in Legal Studies. These programs are frequently online and can be a great way to flesh out your knowledge base. Your school's curriculum may include, but is not limited to:

  • Legal Research
  • Theories of Justice
  • Public Advocacy
  • Politics and Law

Another way to augment your psychological work is to minor in either criminal justice or pre-law while in your undergraduate years. You could also seek work in corrections or law enforcement to gain added insight to the world of a forensic psychologist.

Step 5: Licensure & Certification

Once you have graduated with a doctoral degree in Clinical Psychology, likely with a focus on Forensic Psychology, you will need to attain state licensure. Though each state is free to conduct its licensing processes in its own way, you'll find that there are many similarities from state to state. You will need to complete two years of supervised experience in APA-accredited internship programs. One of these years should be a pre-doctoral internship.

Not only is it vital to become licensed by your state, but forensic psychologists should also seek certification from the American Board of Forensic Psychology (ABFP). ABFP certification will prove to your colleagues and future clients that you have met the specific requirements generally accepted for the profession. This post-doctoral credential is sure to be vital to establishing a successful practice in forensic psychology.

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What Does a Forensic Psychologist Do?

Forensic psychologists apply their clinical knowledge to assess people in various stages of the legal system. They might interview mass murders or other violent criminals. They may be asked to assess these persons for the purposes of establishing a legal defense, or to bolster a prosecution against them. If you pursue forensic psychology, you could also work with divorce attorneys and assess the competency of parents who seek custody of their children.

One thing that forensic psychologists do not do, is work to profile criminals in support of an ongoing criminal investigation. This is a media generated falsehood that might drive students toward forensic psychology, but you should be aware that this sort of work is the sole domain of law enforcement professionals with deep investigative experience. If this is your driving passion, you might apply to work in that field once you have completed a degree in psychology.

Skills to Acquire

  • Compassion:
    Your psychological training will help you expand your compassionate qualities. As a forensic psychologist you will need to have boundless compassion for even the most heinous criminals. You must be able to see the humanity in people who may have committed the most awful crimes you've ever heard of. This will help you establish trust and elicit the most candor you can from your subjects.
  • Listening:
    No matter who you are assessing you must be able to sit and quietly listen to their story. The better listening skills you can cultivate, the better your assessments can be. Since some of your subjects might not communicate in the clearest fashion, you may need to become an active listener who checks in with a subject to clarify meaning and mutual understanding.
  • Observation:
    In forensic psychology, you must be a keen observer. Whether you notice key words a subject uses or their nonverbal cues, you must always pay close attention to every bit of information available. Sometimes the most subtle thing can open a case wide open.
  • Patience:
    Not every subject will be as forthcoming as you might like. Further, the legal system is often slow and cumbersome. You must therefore have endless patience for people and bureaucratic systems. If you are willing to wait for certain things you might find that you are able to learn more and even advance your career as a result.
  • Legal Skills:
    You won't need to file motions or briefs, but if you have a working knowledge of how the legal system works you will be better able to serve your clients. With a deeper understanding of the law, you can also protect yourself and avoid mistakes that might put you in jeopardy.

Alternative Paths

To become a forensic psychologist, there is no avoiding achieving a doctoral degree and a license. However, you don't necessarily have to proceed directly from high school clear to your doctoral thesis. Rather, you could take breaks along the way to practice with the skills you have. For instance, if you have an associate's degree in forensic psychology you could work in a correctional facility or as a law enforcement official. With a bachelor’s or master's degree you could do some counseling work for specific populations.

When you slowly build a body of experience, by the time you become a fully licensed forensic psychologist, your extensive knowledge base will make you a stand-out in the field. Not many psychologists will have intimate knowledge of criminality from the point of view of a prison guard or a police officer. Those experiences will provide deep insights and a very rich career life.

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Forensic Psychologist Career & Salary

Where Might You Work?


Forensic psychologists can work in many environments. Most, however, work in private practice and contract with lawyers or state attorneys. Your daily work might involve traveling throughout your state to visit inmates. Your visits will involve assessments for parole, pending court cases, or to determine whether they need a referral to a mental health facility.

If you are working a case where a defendant's sanity is in question, you will need deeper legal knowledge. That is, your professional opinion will determine whether or not the person was legally insane before, during, or after a crime. Since each state has its own standards, you must know whether those rules apply.

You might also spend a great deal of time writing up your assessments in forensic psychology. These documents might involve more than a simple written opinion, however, and can be comprised of many hundreds of pages that detail a prisoner's psychological profile.

In some cases, you might conduct assessments of many people involved in a case. If you are working on a custody case, for instance, you might interview both parents, grandparents, and the children before making your final assessment.

Potential Career Paths

If you are considering becoming a forensic psychologist, but aren't quite sure, it's valuable to consider your other options. The path to becoming a forensic psychologist offers many options along the way, so you will not waste any time if you suddenly decide that you'd rather treat drug addicts, or sick family systems. Keep in mind that forensic psychology is a social science that entails research and quantitative analysis. Both of those skills are imminently applicable to a wide range of careers.

Marriage and Family Counselors:
In this profession, you will work to help family structures heal and move forward from trauma and dysfunction. You might work with each family member on an individual basis and then as a group.

Drug and Alcohol Counselors:
This field is experiencing a peak in demand due to the opioid epidemic. Your job will be to work with addicts and alcoholics as they strive to attain a better life. In some states you can work in this field with an associate degree, but a master's degree is often considered the standard.

Social Workers:
This is a versatile profession that will allow you to work with state agencies, non-profit organizations, and as an independent counselor. Thus, your career could entail work with patients in hospice care, prisoners, homeless individuals, and professional people who need psychotherapy to overcome certain difficulties.

If you pursue a graduate degree in Sociology, you can pursue the field as a career. Sociologists study the behavior of human groups so you might work for city planners, the federal government, or the military, among other employers. Most sociologists work in academia and primarily teach undergraduate students, but they may also receive grants for special research projects.

School Counselors:
With a master's degree in clinical psychology or school counseling, you can work in schools and help students cope with the stress of growing up, going to school, and functioning in a family unit. You could also work as a career counselor and help high school students determine their best career path.

Law Enforcement:
Depending on your academic background you could work as a community police officer, a corrections official, or a detective, among other jobs. If you are considering becoming a forensic psychologist, this work can offer great insights into both criminals and the legal system they find themselves wrapped up in.

Psychologist Salaries

Occupation Entry-Level Mid-Career Late-Career
Psychologist $66,000 $82,000 $91,000
School Psychologist $55,000 $64,000 $78,000
Clinical Psychologist $70,000 $82,000 $100,000
Neuropsychologist $73,000 $94,000 $126,000
Clinical Therapist $62,000 $49,000 $65,000
Forensic Psychologist $51,000 $79,000 $94,000
Industrial-Organizational Psychologist $51,000 $78,000 $132,000
Clinical Services Director $62,000 $89,000 $133,000
Behavioral Health Director $58,000 $85,000 $135,000
Mental Health Counselor $33,000 $43,000 $61,000
Licensed Professional Counselor $41,000 $50,000 $59,000
Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist $49,000 $58,000 $65,000
Substance Abuse Counselor $31,000 $40,000 $53,000

**Salary info provided by PayScale

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Career Outlook

Psychologists and counselors are experiencing a period of healthy growth. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) shows that the field of forensic psychology will grow by 14% through 2026, an expansion that the agency considers much faster than average. Though the BLS does not yet track forensic psychologists specifically, the American Psychological Association has noted that the field is surging. Thus, the specific area of forensics may be experiencing greater growth. Regardless, professionals in psychological counseling earned a median salary of $77,000 in 2017. As the importance of forensic psychology continues to expand, salaries and job opportunities are sure to follow suit.

Advancing From Here

Forensic psychologists must achieve the highest academic degrees to practice their profession, so there is not much advancement in terms of skills or responsibilities. However, you could expand your career with a private practice that employs other psychologists that conduct psychotherapy, family counseling, and more. In the meantime, you could work on state or private contracts to write assessments on inmates or criminal defendants.

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Frequently Asked Questions

What can I do with a degree in forensic psychology?

With a degree in forensic psychology, you can work in a number of different places. With a forensic psychology degree you could work as a:

  • Jail supervisor
  • Correctional counselor
  • Jury consultant
  • Victim advocate
  • Police consultant
  • Licensed professional counselor
  • Probational officer

What skills do you need for forensic psychology?

To work in forensic psychology you will need strong communication skills, critical thinking, attention to detail, ability to maintain objective, and compassion.

How much do make in forensic psychology?

According to Payscale, you can make between $51,000 and $94,000 working in forensic psychology.

Where do forensic psychologists work?

Forensic psychologists work in research centers, medical examiners' offices, universities, hospitals, police departments, forensic laboratories, and as independent consultants.

What is the job outlook for forensic psychology?

The projected growth rate for forensic psychology is 8% from 2020 to 2030 according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

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