Forensic psychologists are highly trained mental health professionals who provide invaluable insight into the inner workings of the criminal mind. They work to determine whether a defendant is mentally sound enough to stand trial, whether they may be at risk of future offenses, and other facets of their psychological profile.
Forensic psychologists apply their training to the legal system by serving as expert witnesses in court cases or providing support services to people involved in law enforcement or social justice.
Read on to learn more about what it’s like to be a forensic psychologist and what it takes to become one yourself.
Forensic Psychologist Job Duties
Forensic psychologists are involved in a wide range of duties, including:
- Conducting evaluations of criminals to determine whether they should be held criminally responsible for their actions and to assess their risks for recidivism
- Counseling individuals charged with a crime, including children and juveniles, to develop awareness of legal procedures and help them cope with feelings related to being charged or convicted of a crime
- Conducting psychological assessments for child custody cases in order to identify parents’ parenting abilities and meet other factors that must be considered in making decisions about child custody
- Researching topics related to their field of study, such as childhood development or psychotherapy techniques
- Training law enforcement personnel in psychological techniques used in investigations such as interviewing techniques, interrogation methods, memory enhancement techniques, use of polygraphs, and post-trauma intervention strategies
- Analyzing case evidence using psychological principles in order to provide courtroom testimony regarding guilt or innocence at criminal trials
Forensic Psychologist Salary & Outlook
The median annual wage for forensic psychologists is $82,624. Those earning higher wages tend to work in the government sector, and the highest earners are making over $180,000 per year.
The demand for forensic psychologists is expected to grow at a slower rate than average over the next decade. This is due to expected budget limitations in government agencies.
Forensic Psychologist Job Requirements
The requirements for forensic psychologists are as follows:
Education: Forensic psychologists generally hold a doctoral degree in clinical or counseling psychology, although some may have a PhD in the field of law. Some states may accept a master’s degree in psychology or a related field as an alternative to a doctoral degree.
Training: Forensic psychologists receive training through graduate school. They must complete coursework in areas like psychology, criminology, victimology, sociology and statistics. Students are also required to complete fieldwork or internships to prepare them for working in this field.
Certifications & Licenses: Because of the complex nature of their work, forensic psychologists must be licensed. Most states require applicants to have earned a doctoral degree from an accredited program, completed supervised clinical work, and complete a national examination.
Forensic Psychologist Skills
Forensic psychologists must possess the following skills:
Strong interpersonal skills: Forensic psychologists must be able to communicate effectively with their clients, judges, attorneys, and other court personnel.
Ability to multitask: Forensic psychologists must be able to manage several cases at once while maintaining a high level of accuracy and attention to detail.
Ability to remain calm under pressure: Forensic psychologists must have the ability to remain calm in stressful situations, especially when being cross-examined by an attorney.
Ability to think quickly on your feet: In addition to writing reports and testifying in court, forensic psychologists may be called upon to offer opinions during trial proceedings. They must be able to think quickly and clearly in order to respond appropriately.
Research skills: The ability to conduct research and review scientific literature is necessary for developing and validating new psychological tests and theories.
Observation skills: It is important for forensic psychologists to be able to observe others’ behavior in order to help them make their diagnoses.
Forensic Psychologist Work Environment
Forensic psychologists have a variety of work environments. This can be within private practices, the legal system, hospitals, prisons, universities, police departments, etc.
The work can be highly stressful and emotionally demanding especially for those working directly with criminals or having to assess complex situations. However, the position can be deeply rewarding for those suitable and dedicated. The hours are generally not long, but forensic psychologists may be required to regularly travel to different facilities, courts, etc.
Forensic Psychologist Career Advancement
Forensic psychologists can advance to positions within the court system. They might be appointed as expert witnesses to testify about an individual’s mental health or behavior during a trial. If they are very successful, they may even be asked to run their own forensic unit within the department.
Other forensic psychologists choose to work with prison inmates to rehabilitate them and prepare them to re-enter society. Some forensic psychologists choose to teach at the college level to share their expertise with the next generation of psychologists. If you do decide to pursue this option, you’ll probably need to maintain an active presence in the field to maintain your credibility.
Forensic Psychologist Trends
Here are three trends influencing how forensic psychologists work. Forensic psychologists will need to stay up-to-date on these developments to keep their skills relevant and maintain a competitive advantage in the workplace.
Importance of Technology
Many forensic psychologists use technology in their work today, which is often needed to identify the motivation behind criminal behavior. For example, research on adolescent delinquency has shown that risk factors for delinquency can be identified by analyzing patterns of online activity.
The Internet also provides opportunities for training, networking and professional development within the field of forensic psychology.
Importance of Cross-Cultural Competency
Forensic psychologists are increasingly focusing on cross-cultural competency, especially in the context of immigration.
Immigrants are one of the fastest-growing demographic groups in the United States, with this trend likely to continue as the country becomes more diverse and globalized.
This growth will lead to increased demand for cross-cultural competency among forensic psychologists as they work with immigrant populations on a daily basis. For example, many immigrants may struggle with cultural differences or language barriers that can negatively impact their mental health and overall well-being, which is why it is important for these professionals to understand the unique needs of this group and how to address them.
Increased Use of Electronic Data
Digital and social media data has become an increasingly important component of psychological evaluations, especially in the area of criminal investigations.
As such, forensic psychologists must be familiar with current technologies so that they can assess these forms of evidence and give clients the best possible advice.
How to Become a Forensic Psychologist
1. Planning Your Career Path
If you’re thinking about a career as a forensic psychologist, it’s important to be honest with yourself about your true motivations. While the work is challenging and interesting, this career choice requires a significant time commitment in order to stay up-to-date on legal changes and develop strong communication skills. The field also has specific legal requirements that are not applicable to other professions, so you should familiarize yourself with these requirements before pursuing this career path.
Aspiring forensic psychologists should also have a passion for science and law enforcement. It can be hard to get hired without relevant education or experience, so it’s best to take advantage of opportunities that will allow you to build a solid foundation for your future career.
2. Writing a Resume
The best resumes for forensic psychologists should demonstrate their ability to work with a variety of people and their skill in conducting research. They should also highlight their knowledge of assessment and therapy techniques, as well as past experience working with people who have a criminal background. A great resume for this position will also demonstrate the candidate’s ability to make quick decisions in high-pressure situations.
Included in your work history should be a list of all the professional organizations you belong to where you can demonstrate your commitment to continuing education, any publications that you have written for, and any research studies that you have been involved in.
3. Applying for Jobs
Forensic Psychologists are highly specialized, so there are relatively fewer jobs available to new graduates. You can reach out to the relevant institutions in your area or check their careers webpage. While most forensic psychologists work in criminal justice, others may be employed by universities, hospitals, law offices, social service agencies, or other organizations. You can also apply for jobs with federal agencies like the FBI or CIA.
As a forensic psychologist, if you’re starting out, you may need to obtain an internship or work-study program that will allow you to gain some experience in the field.
4. Ace the Interview
A job interview for this type of position is often focused on the candidate’s communication skills, ability to handle high-pressure situations, and knowledge of relevant research.
As part of your preparation, think about how you would explain the different challenging situations you’ve faced in past roles, and how you handled these. Practice answering behavioral questions. Also, reflect on the types of people you expect to encounter in this potential position to prepare yourself to answer job-specific situations.