How to Become a Forensic Psychologist

The Basics

The American Board of Forensic Psychology defines forensic psychology as “the application of the science and profession of psychology to questions and issues relating to law and the legal system.” Forensic psychologists work with a team of lawyers, judges, and police where scientific knowledge and expertise are needed. A forensic psychologist might be called upon to evaluate an individual whose mental status has been called into question to determine whether that individual were competent to testify in a court of law. He or she might be asked to examine a child to determine whether the child understood a lie from the truth or understood right from wrong.

Forensic psychologists can work with victims of crime to help them through deal with their trauma and help to prevent post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The more glamorous role forensic psychologists play on television and movies, solving crimes and finding criminals with psychology, is much less common in real life.

How Do Forensic Psychologists Help Police?

Police departments often employ forensic psychologists to help them better understand the psychological underpinnings of criminal behavior. Forensic psychologists might help police by conducting research into criminality. The research of forensic psychologists is generally used by police to improve their ability to predict criminal behavior and devise strategies for effectively addressing crime.

Likely the most well-known aspect of forensic psychology is the process of criminal profiling. Profiling involves investigations into criminal cases in order to create a picture of who the perpetrator of the crime might be, thereby assisting police in apprehending the individual. Forensic psychologists use facts from the case, including physical evidence, as well as their knowledge of human behavior, in order to create the profile of the criminal.

Most of the ways in which forensic psychologists help police have much more to do with everyday tasks than they do with profiling and other high-profile jobs. Forensic psychologists will conduct child custody evaluations and investigate reports of child or elder abuse. Many law enforcement agencies also employ forensic psychologists to train their staff to be more aware of common mental health issues and how they impact behavior. Conducting psychological screenings of potential law enforcement officers is another way that forensic psychologists help police. Their evaluations of potential officers help identify those who are fit for duty and those who are not.

What Education is Required to Become a Forensic Psychologist?

The first step in becoming a forensic scientist is to obtain an undergraduate degree. A bachelor’s degree in general psychology is highly recommended. The program is typically completed in four academic years. Most baccalaureate degree programs consist of about 120 hours, including general education and psychology courses. Individual schools set their own requirements, but 120 hours is usually required for a Bachelor of Arts, with 30 to 35 units completed in psychology.

After undergraduate school future forensic scientists need to obtain a Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.) or Doctor of Psychology (Psy.D.) degree. Individual graduate schools set their own requirements for admission, but a “B” average in undergraduate work is usually the minimal undergraduate achievement acceptable for entrance. Some schools may also require a master’s degree to secure a place in a psychology doctoral program.

To obtain a Ph.D. a student must plan and carry out original research to contribute new information to the body of psychological knowledge. Carrying out a research project can take three to five years. After performing research and writing a dissertation on his or her findings, the graduate student is required to read his or her paper and defend its thesis to a committee of forensic psychology professors. Some schools require that the graduate student’s paper be accepted for publication in a refereed psychology journal before he or she can graduate.

Related: How to Get a Graduate Degree in Forensic Psychology

How to Get and Keep a License?

Having obtained a graduate degree, the future forensic scientist needs to become licensed in order to practice. Each state has a Board of Psychology consisting of psychologists who regulate practice in their state. This is done to protect patients and other consumers from fraudulent or harmful practices. State boards require candidates for licensure to have supervised experience working in a clinical psychology facility and to pass at least one licensing examination. The Examination for Professional Practice in Psychology (EPPP)  consists of 225 multiple choice questions administered by computer. The EPPP is a tool of the Association of State and Provincial Psychology Boards.

Although all fifty states require candidates for licensure to pass the EPPP, individual states also enforce their own individual licensing requirements. In California, for example, candidates for licensure, in addition to the EPPP, must also pass the California Psychology Supplemental Exam (CPSE), consisting of 100 multiple choice question. The CPSE is taken after the candidate has pased the EPPP and performed 3000 hours of professional clinical work. The test was developed by the California State Board of Psychology along with the State Bureau of Consumer Affairs. The State of Texas also requires candidates to pass the Oral Examination and the Jurisprudence Examination, as well as completion of two years of professional clinical experience. Candidates in New York State are required to complete coursework in identifying and reporting child abuse as mandated by law, in addition to their PhD requirement. Candidates must complete 2 years of professional experience.

Requirements for license renewal also vary somewhat from state to state. Continuing education is required to keep licensed psychologists up to date in their education and practice. The number of hours of continuing education and what courses are acceptable are determined by the individual state boards. Future forensic psychologists should look up their states’ requirements for licensure and maintaining their licenses.

What Skills and Qualities are Required for a Forensic Psychologist?

The role of a forensic psychologist is primarily to assess and treat criminal behavior. It involves a lot of interaction with offenders as well as with police and prison services. Out-with the educational skills, such as a university degree, there are particular personality traits, skills and qualities needed to become an effective forensic psychologist.

For their interactions with criminal offenders they require:

  • Listening and communication skills
  • Genuine interest in the causes of criminal behaviors
  • A want to help others – particularly offenders
  • Patience and the ability to empathize, whilst they may not agree with an offenders viewpoint, they have to be able to try to understand it
  • Critical thinking skills and aptitude at problem solving
  • Awareness of cultural and social issues, particularly those impacting upon criminal behaviors
  • Ability to remain calm and composed, even under stressful situations
  • Well developed observational skills, they have to be able to interpret more than just the spoken content of their interviews with offenders
  • The ability to adapt their style of communication to different situations

For other aspects of their role they need to have:

  • Good verbal and written communication skills, especially an aptitude for explaining scientific and clinical data
  • Time management skills to manage their caseload effectively
  • Abilities in team working, the role often requires close working with other professionals across the criminal justice system
  • IT skills
  • Abilities in research
  • Aptitude for statistical analysis

The role of a forensic psychologist is a varied and often challenging one, suited to a very specific type of person.

What is the Salary of a Forensic Psychologist?

Forensic psychologists’ salaries vary depending upon whether they work for a court system or have private practices.  Geography matters too. Salaries in general tend to be higher in larger cities where prices are higher than in low population-dense areas. According to Payscale.com forensic psychologist earn between $36,842 – $122,206 per year. The average annual salary for forensic psychologist is $60,636 (March 2015). According to the BLS, the average salary for ‘Psychologists, All Other’, which includes forensic psychologist, was $89,810 in May 2014.

Where Does a Forensic Psychologist Work?

Forensic psychologists typically work in the following environments:

  • Courts
  • Correctional facilities
  • Law firms
  • Forensic hospitals
  • Academic institutions
  • Rehabilitation centers
  • Law enforcement agencies
  • Government and private hospitals
  • Youth programs facilities
  • Research firms
  • Private practice

Forensic Psychologist at Last

Once the forensic psychologist has his or her license in hand, he or she is ready either to go to work for the court system or to open a private practice, or both. County personnel departments can be contacted for openings and applications and forensic psychologists can open offices and announce their services in publications such as Psychology Today. Good luck!

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