How to Become a Forensic Psychologist
Featuring expert Q&A with Dr. Emin Gharibian, Licensed Psychologist
Forensic psychology is a rapidly growing discipline at the intersection of the fields of psychology and criminal justice. If the idea of applying clinical and theoretical understandings of human behaviors and mental health issues to challenges within the courts, corrections, or law enforcement systems appeals to you, forensic psychology may be a good career fit.
What is Forensic Psychology?
Forensic psychology is the application of psychology to our legal system. The word “forensic” comes from the Latin “forensis” or “of the forum,” with forums being Roman courts of law.
Experts typically recognize two definitions of forensic psychology: one that is narrowly applied to activity within the criminal justice system, and a broader definition that includes the body of knowledge surrounding these issues. The narrow definition deals with the application of clinical psychology skills such as assessment and treatment to those who encounter the legal system, such as suspected perpetrators, witnesses, or victims of crime. The broader definition emphasizes research and experimentation in other areas of psychology, such as cognitive and behavioral psychology, as they relate to issues in the legal arena.
What Does a Forensic Psychologist Do?
Forensic psychologists use research, clinical skills, and their knowledge of the legal system to evaluate and make recommendations about defendants, victims, and convicted offenders. As discussed above, there are two different focuses in forensic psychology: clinical and research.
Clinical-Focused Forensic Psychology
One of the most common jobs for forensic psychologists as clinicians is the assessment of various situations, locations, and people. This work includes:
Forensic psychologists communicate their findings to the appropriate legal professionals. They are frequently asked to testify in court proceedings.
The clinical aspect of forensic psychology also includes treatment and rehabilitation. Forensic psychologists might:
Research-Focused Forensic Psychology
In contrast to their clinically focused colleagues, forensic psychologists involved in research both analyze existing research and conduct new research. They often have expertise in areas of psychology like cognitive psychology, abnormal psychology, or behavioral psychology. Research-focused forensic psychologists typically work at colleges and universities and may both teach and conduct research. Forensic science researchers write their findings in reports, journals, or, in some cases, books.
Research studies abound in the area of forensic psychology and can include topics such as criminal behavior, criminal responsibility, divorce and child custody, eyewitness memory, mental health law, police psychology, and sentencing and incarceration.
Forensic Psychologist Salary
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the median wage for psychologists as a whole was $79,010 a year, or $37.99 an hour, in 2018. Practitioners in some settings—like state government, for instance, a common employer type for forensic psychologists—earned higher median salaries than those in other industries.
PayScale provides salary information that is specific to forensic psychologists:
|Early Career (1–4 years’ experience)
|Mid-Career (5–9 years’ experience)
|Late-Career (10+ years’ experience)
Salary data from Payscale
However, some forensic psychologists report much higher figures than those provided above. In the article American Psychological Association article “Postgrad growth area: Forensic psychology”, Mary Connell, a private practitioner in Fort Worth, Texas, put salary expectations at the low- to mid-six-figure range. She estimated that forensic psychologists typically earn anywhere from $200,000 to $400,000 annually, though that kind of earning potential may be reserved for forensic psychologists who have built high demand for their services from attorneys over multiple years in practice.
What are Some Forensic Psychology Jobs?
Careers in forensic psychology have rapidly grown in recent years thanks to an increased demand for skilled psychologists throughout the criminal and legal systems. Today, there are varying types of jobs in forensic psychology. While many provide direct services within the criminal justice and legal systems, including in jails or police departments, other forensic psychologists find jobs working in research centers, universities, hospitals, doctor’s offices, or forensic labs. Still others choose to be self-employed as independent consultants.
Forensic Psychologist Careers
Steps to Becoming a Forensic Psychologist
Becoming a forensic psychologist requires a postgraduate degree, experience, and often licensure. Here is the typical path you will follow.
1. Obtain a Bachelor’s Degree
While there is more than one path to becoming a forensic psychologist, the first step is always the same: earn a bachelor’s degree from a fully accredited college or university. You don’t necessarily have to major in psychology, though some graduate schools only accept students with undergraduate psychology degrees.
Choosing a Forensic Psychology Bachelor’s Program
Not many schools offer degrees specifically in forensic science. However, you have other options: major in psychology with a minor in criminal justice, major in psychology with a forensic psychology focus, or similar paths that provide relevant coursework.
You will take general courses in psychology, such as child psychology, human development, and cognitive psychology. Courses that focus on forensic psychology or criminal justice may include sociology of crime and deviant behavior, criminal psychology, and the legal system.
Most undergraduate psychology programs can be completed within four years of full-time study.
2. Earn an Advanced Degree (Culminating with a Doctorate)
A doctoral degree is the standard qualification needed to practice in the field. You’ll need to have either a Ph.D. (Doctor of Philosophy) or Psy.D. (Doctor of Psychology) degree to use the title of psychologist.
About Master’s Programs in Forensic Psychology
You don’t necessarily need to complete a master’s degree in psychology to apply for a doctoral program. Some candidates choose to pursue a separate master’s degree before applying to a doctoral program, to boost their chances of getting into the Ph.D. or Psy.D. program of their choice. A master’s may be particularly helpful for those who were unable to take specific forensic psychology and criminal justice courses at the bachelor’s level.
A master’s program curriculum will train you on how to effectively work with witnesses, victims, and criminals. It will also help you learn the ins and outs of the American legal system. Specialization tracks can permit you to develop extensive expertise in a specific area. Popular specialization tracks include forensic psychology in the legal system and forensic psychology for mental health workers.
Typical courses you might take include psychopathology, criminal assessment, domestic violence, and prison reform. Master’s programs can usually be completed within two years.
Selecting a Doctoral Program in Forensic Psychology
You’ll need to either earn a Ph.D. or Psy.D. degree to practice in the field as a psychologist. The former tends to focus on research and teaching, while the latter centers more on clinical work.
Typically, aspiring forensic psychologists will choose a doctoral degree in clinical psychology with a forensic psychology concentration, or a legal psychology doctorate—it is less common to find a dedicated forensic psychology doctoral program. (In checking program accreditation, note that the APA accredits doctoral programs in clinical psychology, among other fields, but not in forensic psychology specifically.)
In most doctoral-level programs, students learn about social psychology, human development, criminal justice and criminology, criminal psychology, and statistics. Coursework might include:
Programs generally take four to eight years to finish.
3. Gain Experience in Forensic Psychology
After earning a Ph.D. or Psy.D. degree from an accredited doctoral program, forensic psychologists will need “the equivalent of two years of organized, sequential, supervised professional experience, one year of which is an American Psychological Association (APA)- or Canadian Psychological Association (CPA)-accredited predoctoral internship,” according to the APA.
4. Obtain State Licensure
If you plan to become a clinician, you will need to become licensed. Each state has different requirements for licensure. Usually, applicants must obtain a doctoral degree, complete a set number of supervised training hours, and pass an oral or written exam.
According to the APA, graduates who expect to be employed “at a college or university, state or federal institution, research laboratory or a corporation may be exempt from having to be licensed in some states.”
Visit the Association of State and Provincial Psychology Boards (ASPPB) for more information about state licensing requirements.
5. Become Board Certified
Although not an absolute requirement for practice, professional certification can help boost your career. Board certification is a voluntary process that involves being evaluated by a recognized board—for forensic psychology, this is the American Board of Forensic Psychology (ABFP). Becoming certified shows that you have the necessary skills to work as a forensic psychologist.
The process typically involves a credential review and passing an oral and written exam. You will also undergo a background check to ensure there is nothing on your record that the Board would deem “serious ethical misconduct or unlawful behavior.”
Online Forensic Psychology Degrees
Online programs usually offer more flexibility than their on-campus counterparts, as you can take online coursework from anywhere. You may be able to take longer to complete a program or, in some cases, finish a program more quickly. You can get the same quality of education in an accredited online school that you would in a traditional brick-and-mortar school.
You can find many accredited bachelor’s and master’s degrees in psychology or criminal justice that are offered online. There are also online psychology doctoral degrees available.
For doctoral studies, note that the APA—the relevant accrediting body for psychology—doesn’t accredit any fully online doctoral programs. The APA does accredit some hybrid doctoral programs, which are a combination of online and in-person learning. However, there are online doctoral programs offered that do not have APA accreditation but are accredited by other agencies recognized by the U.S. Department of Education. Such programs may be perfectly acceptable by employers and state licensure boards. Make sure to check for accreditation and your state’s requirements when you are exploring schools.
Personality Traits of a Successful Forensic Psychologist
All good clinical psychologists possess certain strengths and skills. Psychologists across the board have talents and abilities that enable them to:
Forensic psychologists must have all the above traits as well as more specific abilities including:
Forensic Psychologist Resources
If forensic psychology is the field for you, it’s important to stay abreast of current trends. It’s also helpful to have access to resources that can expand your knowledge, guide you in areas such as accreditation, and provide you with information about career opportunities. Whether you are looking to enroll in a psychology degree or already working as a forensic psychologist, you may find the following resources useful.
How did you become a forensic psychologist? What is your education background and work experience?
Forensic psychology requires either a Psy.D. or Ph.D. in clinical psychology. All forensic psychologists start off as generalists and then specialize through their training. It’s like your MD going to medical school, then attending residency to specialize in a field.
Graduate school for psychology can range from four to seven years depending on the program. Some Ph.D. programs can be research-heavy and be as long as six to seven years, while others are more clinically oriented and typically last four to five years. Psy.D. programs are 100% clinically focused and are typically four years, although I’ve seen some that are five years.
I attended a Psy.D. program that was four years long. While I was in graduate school, I took classes the first three years and also worked in different settings to gain experience. My first year I was in a school district, my second year I was in a juvenile prison, and my third year I was in a psychiatric hospital. I provided individual and group treatment and also completed psychological testing batteries. The last year of graduate school is our internship year and it’s basically a full-time job. I worked in a state prison for that year and started to do more evaluations and treatment with a forensic population. I went back in 2018 and also completed two-year fellowship in Neuropsychology.
After I graduated, I changed jobs to another men’s prison for a year and half then moved over to the state hospital system. I currently work at Patton State Hospital, which is the largest state hospital in the country. This is a forensic hospital, meaning that the patients are there are different commitment codes. Some are there for competency restoration, while others are there because they were found “Not Guilty by Reason of Insanity” or are classified as “Offenders with a Mental Disability.” I’m in California but other states have similar commitment codes.
In addition to working at Patton, I also have a private practice where I complete forensic evaluations for criminal and civil cases and serve as an expert witness. I’m on the LA County Juvenile Expert Witness and Competency Panels.
How did you decide you wanted to become a forensic psychologist?
I decided to specialize in forensic psychology because it was the area that was most interesting to me. You have to not only know the mental health side but also the legal side. That aspect of the job was very intriguing for me. Depending on what side you are retained by (defense, prosecution, plaintiff, or court), you are there to provide your expert opinion on complex legal issues.
The field is challenging but also rewarding and fun. The evaluations I complete have a huge impact on the lives of those involved. For example, in a personal injury case, it can help the injured party get compensation or treatment. In a criminal case, the evaluation can help place the defendant in the correct treatment program or even catch defendants that are lying or exaggerating their mental illness for gaining special treatment. It’s also a specialization within psychology, so it allowed me a lot more opportunities once I left graduate school.
Describe some of the common tasks you perform as part of your job.
My job consists of completing evaluations, writing reports, and providing consultation to attorneys and the legal system as an expert witness. Evaluations consist of interviews, administering psychological or neuropsychological tests, reviewing records, writing the report, then testifying in court. In most cases, I don’t have to go to court. You usually end up in court if either side disagrees with your findings and wants to challenge them. In some cases, you have to go to court even if everyone agrees with what you said. It really depends on the specific case and the issues involved in that case.
What qualities and traits are necessary for someone who is successful in this job?
You have to have the right type of personality in this type of work. As a forensic psychologist, you’re going to be interviewing and interacting with people who have been accused of sometimes very heinous crimes (rape, murder, kidnapping, child abuse, sexual assault etc…) You might have to read very graphic police reports or look at graphic crime scenes. Not everyone can stomach or tolerate dealing with that type of content.
You need to have a high tolerance for stress but at the same time not allow your personal views to cloud your judgement. It’s important to always be objective in your work or else your credibility gets questioned and you’ll have a hard time being retained as an expert.
I think having a Type A personality is important in forensic work. Opposing counsel is always looking for a way to try to discredit your work and you need to be able to tolerate being criticized or called out. You also need to be ready to be a lifelong learner. The legal field changes constantly so you need to be willing to be up-to-date on case law, new rules/ procedures, and attend lots of continuing education classes throughout your career. The learning never stops.
You need to also be excellent with people skills, interviewing skills, and reading/report writing. It all comes down to how you write your reports. If you didn’t write it down, then it didn’t happen.
Why is the field of forensic psychology important/necessary?
This response is more catered to criminal forensic work. This field is important because our jails and prisons have become our mental health treatment facilities (at least in CA). Community mental health centers can’t keep up with the demand, so many individuals with mental illness end up not getting treatment and sometimes commit crimes that they would have never completed if they had proper treatment. Forensic psychologists help bridge that gap between the legal and mental health system. The work we do helps determine and influence who gets treatment and the type of treatment they should get. It also helps protect the public from individuals who have committed crimes and continue to pose a danger to society without appropriate treatment, monitoring, or supervision. The court system relies on our expert opinions to make their decisions.