Most forensic psychologist careers require a doctoral degree, though there are some that may be available with just a master’s degree. Once the graduate degree is obtained, specialized training will be needed. Even in degree programs where forensic psychology classes are offered or even emphasized, post-graduate training will be essential to become a forensic psychologist. There is also the option of becoming board certified, which is often seen as a requirement in order to be deemed an expert in some courts.
Jennifer Weaver-Breitenbecher, LHNC, CRC, is the owner and clinician at Polaris Counseling and Consulting, LLC. She is a licensed psychotherapist in Rhode Island who specializes in criminality.
The path to a doctoral degree can be varied, with individuals starting with a bachelor’s degree (usually in psychology or a related field), proceeding to a master’s degree, and then finishing with a PhD or a PsyD. However, some schools may offer joint degrees, combining a doctorate with a master’s degree or a Juris Doctor (law degree). For more information on degree paths for becoming a forensic psychologist, check out the section below.
Psychology is an expansive professional scientific field focusing on the study of human behavior. Psychologists and mental health professionals work in a number of specialty areas, including the following:
On the Job: What Forensic Psychologists Do
Forensic psychologists are psychologists who bring their expertise to the legal system. A psychologist doesn’t become a forensic psychologist merely because she or he works in a courtroom setting. Instead, a psychologist must assist the legal process by providing information to any of the various parties in a courtroom. For example, court ordered counseling isn’t automatically forensic psychology simply because the therapy was mandated by a judge. However, a psychologist is practicing forensic psychology when she or he provides psychology-related expertise to judges or attorneys in a court case.
The primary job duties of a forensic psychologist will depend on the particular aspect of the legal system in which they choose to work. For example, a forensic psychologist may focus more on research rather than clinical work. Whatever the focus, many forensic psychologists will engage in the following job duties and tasks:
- Assess criminal defendants to provide the court with psychological evaluations concerning threat risk or recommended treatment.
- Assist attorneys with jury selection.
- Recommend case strategy concerning presentation of evidence and legal arguments.
- Serve as witnesses in order to provide expert opinion regarding an individual’s mental state.
- Conduct research regarding the emotions, behaviors and thought processes of various participants in a court case.
- Teach forensic psychology concepts to students or other legal professionals.
In Depth: Forensic Psychologists in the Legal System
There are several ways forensic psychologists assist the legal system, including:
- Conducting research
- Providing evaluations in order for attorneys, judges or juries to make legal decisions or verdicts
- Providing legal consulting advice based on empirical psychological data
Many forensic psychologists do all three, although they usually spend more time focusing on one area.
Forensic psychologists develop and administer research on topics that apply to the legal system. For example, they might conduct research regarding the reliability of eyewitness testimony or sources of misidentification of police lineups due to tainting of witnesses. This research can be done for think tanks, trial consulting firms or government agencies.
Evaluations can be done on behalf of the court or the litigants. Many criminal cases require psychological evaluation in order for a legal decision to be made. For example, whether a defendant convicted of a sexual crime must register under sex offender laws may depend on the assessment of whether the defendant is a sexual predator. In another example, child custody decisions cannot be made by a judge until a forensic psychologist has examined the child’s parents or determined the extent of abuse suffered by a child. In other instances, whether a criminal defendant is competent to stand trial must be decided not by the judge or jury, but by a forensic psychologist.
Legal consulting is a usually done on behalf of attorneys litigating a criminal or civil case. Job tasks can vary, but are done with the goal of helping the client (usually the attorney who has hired the trial consultant) achieve the desired outcome in their court case. Tasks can include recommending which opening statement is more likely to be accepted by a jury; which types of jurors should be rejected; administering mock trials to see how potential jurors will view a lawyer’s arguments, strategy and tactics; conducting community surveys and establishing focus groups to discuss how the parties in a case may be perceived at trial.
Interview with a Forensic Psychology Professional
Talking with someone who works in forensic psychology can enhance understanding of this field. Jennifer Weaver-Breitenbecher, LHNC, CRC, discusses her career in forensic psychology.
When I originally started working in mental health, I worked specifically with children. I worked on an autism unit of a children’s psychiatric hospital for 7 years providing behavior analysis to young children. Eventually, a position opened up in the prison system working with adult offenders—essentially, working on criminal behavior is still behavioral work so I took the position. I ended up loving it and realized I didn’t want to work with children any longer.
I am very interested in behaviorism and why people do what they do, think what they think, feel what they feel. Working with criminal offenders to identify their behavior patterns allows me to do this. In addition, I believe in behavior change. I believe that once people identify the reasons behind their behaviors, they can change them.
I spend the first part of most of my days in the adult correctional institution here in Rhode Island. Depending on the day, I work in different security levels within either the men’s or women’s facilities. I run group sessions, as well as provide individual counseling to offenders.
After I leave the prisons, I head to my private practice. I see mostly clients referred by courts, probation and parole officers, or the prison itself. In an attempt to keep somewhat of a professional balance, I also see non-offenders for general mental health treatment on a self-referral basis.
Distancing myself from the crime or the victims of the crime. This job isn’t about my opinions or feelings about a crime—it’s about behavior change. The only way to truly help individuals is to approach them from a nonjudgmental standpoint. To work in this field, you have got to learn to check your opinions and feelings at the door—you owe it to your clients to be unbiased and able to listen.
You have to be able to see your clients for who they are as whole people, not just for the crimes they committed. They’re more than that.
Honestly, the recidivism rate in our country is really high. Most offenders will reoffend at some point. However, when they are able to maintain a positive behavior change for a substantial period of time, it’s so rewarding, particularly because it’s unfortunately the exception to the rule.
Know yourself. Know what personal biases you bring to the table and know whether or not you can check that at the door every day. Engage in supervision. Find a mentor who can help you process things you hear in treatment. You hear a lot of terrible stuff every day and it’s important that you can process that information in a healthy way.
Becoming a Forensic Psychologist
Depending on where an individual desires to practice, a license may not be required at the beginning of a career. However, many states will require it before the practice of forensic psychology can take place. For example, approximately 17 states require a license before forensic psychologists can provide competency assessments for legal proceedings. Most states require a doctoral degree, internship, several years of supervised work and passing the Examination for Professional Practice in Psychology (EPPP).
Additionally, a license is needed in order to become a board certified forensic psychologist. What board certification is and its advantages are discussed below.
Board Certification of Forensic Psychologists
Board certification is a professional designation that makes it clear a person has a requisite level of knowledge and skill within the claimed area of expertise. It includes several components, including a rigorous examination.
Board certification in forensic psychology is not required for most jobs, but is highly recommended for certain positions. For instance, when working as an expert witness, the level of credentials is directly related to whether someone is called as an expert witness. Overall, many forensic psychology jobs are dependent on credibility, whether it’s testimony from a witness stand in court or giving consulting advice to a trial attorney. Either way, board certification is very helpful.
The preeminent issuer of forensic psychology board certification is the American Board of Professional Psychology (ABPP). Certification requires a doctoral degree, internship, the current practice of forensic psychology, proof of continuing education following graduation with a doctorate, and a license. Additionally, the individual will need at least 100 hours of formal education or direct supervision relating to forensic psychology and 1,000 hours of forensic psychology experience.
Becoming board certified takes four steps. Step one involves completing the application and passing the initial screening process for determination of whether the individual meets the eligibility requirements. Step two is a written examination consisting of about 200 multiple choice questions on various areas of forensic psychology. Step three is the submission of two practice samples; these are often forensic reports prepared in the course of forensic psychology practice. Step four is an oral examination, which will revolve around the two practice samples provided in step three.
Forensic Psychology Specialties
Forensic psychology itself is a specialty, one that falls under the umbrella of clinical psychology. However, there are several career paths within the forensic psychology field that graduates might choose to pursue. Though these careers all focus on the legal system, they take psychologists to various areas of it, and allow them to specialize in ways that help their clients. Here are a few of the more popular areas of forensic psychology.
Description: Trial consultants (sometimes referred to as litigation consultants or jury consultants) work with attorneys for pre-trial preparation and courtroom strategy. Much of the information a trial consultant provides is based on quantitative research, with services ranging from how to select the best jury to the best method of presenting a case.
Fact: In general, becoming a trial consultant does not require a specific academic degree, such as a PhD or PsyD However, having one can significantly improve marketability and potential earnings. Additionally, a person can’t truly be considered a forensic psychologist until they get a PsyD or PhD.
Description: Expert witnesses provide expert testimony during court proceedings on certain psychology related topics, such as an individual’s mental state. Either the court or one of the parties in the litigation can call them on.
Fact: There is no academic requirement in order to become an expert witness. However, the success of an expert witness is largely dependent on her or his credibility and credibility is largely based on the credentials of the expert, including their terminal degree. Those who are board-certified forensic psychologists will have a definitive edge over the competition.
Description: A professor teaches forensic psychology and related academic disciplines, usually in a university or college setting. A professor may also conduct forensic psychology research.
Fact: If teaching at a college or university is desired, a doctoral degree (in particular, a PhD) will be needed. Those who hold a master’s degree might also be able to teach but at a lower academic level than their PhD counterparts.
Description: A forensic psychologist who focuses on research designs and conducts psychological research on topics that relate to the judicial realm.
Fact: A doctorate, specifically a PhD, is strongly recommended, due to the degree’s slightly stronger emphasis in research and science.
Working in Forensic Psychology: Skills
Forensic psychologists need a particular set of skills in order to succeed and thrive in their chosen profession. Most students will build these skills up during the rigorous work of pursuing the graduate degree, and then will hone those skills after graduation, as they move into internships and long-term work experience. Here are some of the most common skills and traits necessary for success as a forensic psychologist:
Over time, forensic psychologists gain a great deal of experience in the court system, giving them a reputation for being great at what they do.
Many forensic psychologists will find themselves on the stand, where they might have to explain complicated issues in layman’s terms. They will also often meet with attorneys, judges and other members of the court, requiring excellent communication skills.
Understanding of the court system
Those who work in the court system might be surprised by its complexity. Forensic psychologists must understand the basic laws, rules and regulations that govern the legal and court system, and know how to stay within those guidelines.
Reports are a key component of the job, and since these reports might become public record, so they must be treated with the gravity they deserve.
Paying close attention to everything and everyone in the court case or legal situation makes a world of difference when it is time to compile reports, speak to judges or address juries with the information gathered.
Often forensic psychologists work with those who are incarcerated, victims of crime, children who have been abused, and those who have been traumatized. It is important to be able to read between the lines and understand what certain individuals are thinking and feeling, but are unable to articulate.
Forensic psychologists are often asked to present their findings in a very neutral way, but in some cases, they are asked to advocate for a certain person, group of people or client. In that case, they need to be willing and able to go the extra mile.
The ability to leave it behind
The nature of the work often means seeing and hearing things that might be disturbing. Learning how to leave the job behind and go home to a private life that is free of those issues is a very important skill that forensic psychologists need to learn very early on in their career.
In addition to honing the proper skills in order to present the best work possible in their career, many forensic psychologists will find that certain skills translate into higher pay.
The single largest factor in higher pay is experience; according to Payscale.com, the national average pay for a forensic psychologist is $62,000 per year, but that goes up by a whopping 89% for those who have at least 20 years of experience. Those who have been on the job for 10-20 years will see a 36% increase, while those who have at least 5-10 years under their belt will see wages increase by about 23%.
Forensic Psychology Salary
Salary is impacted by skills and by the length of time a person has been a forensic psychologist; however, there are other factors at play as well. One of these is geographic location. Some areas have a higher demand for forensic psychologists, and often those areas offer more competitive rates for those who are highly qualified.
The chosen job for forensic psychologists can determine their ultimate salary levels. In addition to the amount of experience they have, their level of supervisory power tends to also be a factor. The following salaries were reported for jobs in the forensic psychology field, according to Indeed.com:
- Psychiatric Examiner: $80,000
- Regional Clinical Coordinator: $78,000
- Principal Psychologist: $77,000
- Psychologist Clinical Supervisor: $92,000
- Psychiatry Forensic Physician: $170,000
- Behavioral Health Psychiatric Nurse: $50,000
Keep in mind that median salaries include everyone in the profession, but do not necessarily speak to the highest levels of pay that are possible for those with excellent credentials and experience. Those who are highly qualified in a particular area, such as those who work solely with children or closely with social workers and the family courts, might see a different salary than those with the same skill set who work with attorneys in criminal cases. The ultimate determination of salary is based on geographical location, supervisory power, skills, amount of experience, area of the court system in which the forensic psychologist is based, and more.
Forensic Psychology: Related Careers
Forensic psychology is just one career under the umbrella of clinical psychology that might interest graduates; however, there are other careers that fall just outside the realm of forensics that could capture the attention of qualified applicants. Here are some of the most popular jobs that are related to the forensic psychology field, but not necessarily in the court system. Median salary information is May 2014 from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, and job growth information is 2012-2022 from Projections Central.
Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist
Median salary: $48,040
Job growth: 31%
Median salary: $34,380
Job growth: 20%
Substance Abuse and Behavioral Disorder Counselor
Median salary: $39,270
Job growth: 31%
Mental Health Counselor
Median salary: $40,850
Job growth: 29%
Licensed Clinical Social Worker
Median salary: $49,150
Job growth: 19%
Median salary: $74,030
Job growth: 12%
Postsecondary Professor(law and social work)
Median salary: $87,900
Job growth: 19%
Median salary: $133,470
Job growth: 10%
Those who are seeking more information about forensic psychology, including related careers, salary information, potential jobs (including job boards and searches) and more can find it in the following list of pertinent resources.