Differences Between Clinical Psychology and Forensic Psychology

Clinical psychologists and forensic psychologists spend a lot of time in school learning about the human condition – common behavior, uncommon behavior, and what makes people behave the way they do.

Furthermore, clinical psychologists and forensic psychologists spend their professional careers using what they learn in college to help describe behavior, predict it, and control it (to the degree possible, anyway). However, how clinical psychologists and forensic psychologists go about their work can be very different.

This guide explores some of those differences so you can decide which of these applications of psychology is right for your future.

Clinical Psychology Vs. Forensic Psychology

Clinical Psychology Vs. Forensic Psychology

Clinical psychology focuses on diagnosing and treating mental health disorders, utilizing therapeutic interventions for individual well-being. Forensic psychology, on the other hand, combines psychology with the legal system, assessing individuals’ mental states for legal cases and offering expert testimony in court proceedings.

While clinical psychologists and forensic psychologists both study human behavior, often, the manner in which they do so is different. Clinical psychologists usually work directly with clients to provide guidance and feedback for changing their behavior.

On the other hand, forensic psychologists often do not work with clients and instead offer their expertise to attorneys, courts, law enforcement, and other entities in the criminal justice realm.

Differences in Scope of Practice

Clinical psychologists usually strive to help clients work through life difficulties, stressors, mental health disorders, and so forth. This is often done in a therapeutic setting by utilizing tools like cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), psychoanalysis, or humanistic therapy.

For example, as a clinical psychologist, you might have a client who has an anxiety disorder. Your treatment approach might involve using exposure therapy to help the client face the source of their anxiety in a supportive environment. In doing so, you can teach your client how to deal with their anxiety appropriately, give them the confidence to handle their anxiety independently, and equip them for improved functioning.

Beyond individual therapy, clinical psychologists also work with couples, families, and groups. For example, in cases of marital discord, couples therapy becomes a space for both partners to voice concerns and find collaborative solutions. Moreover, clinical psychologists often engage in psychological testing and research, seeking to understand human behavior, cognition, and emotion, and to develop new therapeutic strategies.

Forensic psychologists, on the other hand, mostly spend their time applying their knowledge in non-clinical settings. So, rather than meeting with a client who has anxiety, you might meet with a defendant in a criminal trial and conduct an assessment of their fitness to stand trial. In this instance, your function would not be to provide treatment for the individual. Rather, you would provide a professional service to the court to help guide legal proceedings.

For example, in a courtroom setting, a forensic psychologist might assess an individual’s competency to stand trial or provide expert testimony regarding a defendant’s state of mind at the time of a crime. Similarly, in cases involving juvenile offenders, the forensic psychologist could evaluate whether the young individual should be tried as an adult based on their psychological maturity and understanding of the consequences of their actions.

Furthermore, forensic psychologists play critical roles in settings beyond the courtroom. In prisons, they might assess inmates for parole, determining their risk of re-offending. They might also develop treatment plans for incarcerated individuals to aid in their rehabilitation. In child welfare cases, they might be tasked with assessing potential foster homes, ensuring the psychological safety and well-being of the child in question.

It’s important to mention that these are not the only ways in which clinical psychologists and forensic psychologists work. But these examples give you some insight into the general purposes of these fields.

Two other primary areas in which clinical psychology and forensic psychology differ are the work environment and the educational requirements. These differences are discussed in detail below.

Differences in Work Environment

The work environment might be the biggest difference between these two fields. In many cases, clinical psychologists work directly with clients in a client-based setting (e.g., private practice, community mental health, residential treatment centers). Clinical psychologists work with individuals, couples, families, and groups.

For example, as a clinical psychologist in private practice, you might have an hour-long session with an individual with depression. Then you might have an hour session with a family seeking help raising a child with ADHD. After that, you might lead a group session for people who have PTSD.

As a forensic psychologist, though, it’s far less likely that you would work directly with clients in a clinical setting. Instead, your work would focus on applications in the legal and judicial systems.

For example, you might work as a criminal profiler for a law enforcement agency. Or, you might work for a large law firm to vet potential jurors for a court case or help prepare clients to provide testimony in court.

While some forensic psychologists work in private practice, many do so on a contract basis. So, rather than providing clinical services to clients, you might be contracted by the local police department to provide training for officers on appropriate responses to suspects who exhibit mental health issues.

This isn’t to say that there is no overlap between these two fields regarding the work environment. But, a general rule of thumb is that clinical psychologists usually work in a therapeutic setting, whereas forensic psychologists usually work in a legal setting.

Differences in Education

Advanced schooling is required to be a clinical psychologist or a forensic psychologist, though the level of advanced education differs between the two.

In most situations, to become a licensed clinical psychologist you need a doctoral degree. Most clinical psychology doctoral programs last about five to seven years, which is in addition to four years of undergraduate studies. Doctoral programs vary from one school to the next, but you can expect the program’s coursework and seminars to focus on critical clinical psychology topics, like:

  • Psychopathology
  • Evidence-Based Practice
  • Psychological Assessment
  • Child Therapy
  • Social and Developmental Aspects of Behavior

Additionally, clinical psychology programs include a great deal of fieldwork, like practicums and internships, which allow you to apply your classroom learning in a real-world setting with clients. These field experiences are supervised by a licensed clinical psychologist who provides feedback and guidance and helps you grow into your professional duties.

Once the requirements for a doctoral degree are met, you will need to be licensed in the state in which you intend to practice.

If you want to become a forensic psychologist, you will need to follow a slightly different educational path. In some situations, a master’s degree in forensic psychology is all you need. This is especially true in applications in which you don’t have direct contact with clients (e.g., working as a consultant for an attorney’s office).

A typical master’s program in forensic psychology takes two to three years to complete after you obtain a bachelor’s degree. Just like with clinical psychology programs, the requirements for a graduate degree in forensic psychology vary from one school to the next. However, you can expect to take courses like:

  • Criminal Investigation
  • Corrections Psychology
  • Courts and Sentencing
  • Legal Psychology
  • Psychopathology

In addition to traditional classroom learning, most forensic psychology programs also require field experiences or detailed forensic research as part of their graduation requirements.

For example, fieldwork might include a practicum in a criminal justice-related setting, like a local jail, court, or district attorney’s office. A research project might focus your attention on a specific area of forensic psychology, like child psychopathology or victimology.

Where clinical psychologists must have state licensure to practice, the same is only sometimes true for forensic psychologists. For example, if you don’t provide clinical services to clients (e.g., you work as a profiler for a law enforcement agency), licensure isn’t necessary.

However, some forensic psychologists work in private practice and provide therapeutic services to clients. In this case, you would need state licensure and would also need a doctorate in a field like clinical psychology with a specialization in forensic psychology.

The specific educational and licensure requirements vary widely, so check with the state in which you wish to work to ensure your educational path meets the requirements.

Can a Clinical Psychologist Work as a Forensic Psychologist?

Clinical psychologists can work as forensic psychologists. However, it requires additional education or specialization.

For example, suppose you have a master’s degree in clinical psychology and want to prepare for a career in forensic psychology. To do so, you might pursue a doctorate in forensic psychology. A doctoral program would build on your expertise in clinical psychology and help you build the specialized skills needed to become an expert in forensic psychology as well.

But let’s suppose instead that you already have a PhD/PsyD in clinical psychology. In that case, you might complete a postdoctoral program in forensic psychology to get the appropriate training. This path might require two to three years of training instead of another five to seven years for another doctorate.

Whatever the case, transitioning from clinical psychology to forensic psychology is possible. It just requires more time and training to do so.

Which is Best? Clinical Psychology or Forensic Psychology?

Evaluating which of these fields is best is extremely difficult because the best fit for your skills and professional aspirations differs from the next psychologist-in-training. So, the short answer to this question is that it just depends.

If your passion is working with clients who need professional guidance or treatment to live a better life, then clinical psychology is the better option. But, if you have a passion for psychology and criminal justice, forensic psychology is clearly the more appropriate path.

Fortunately, both of these fields give you opportunities to have a significant, positive impact on the world around you. As a clinical psychologist, your professional skills can facilitate your client’s personal growth and development and enable them to live happier lives.

As a forensic psychologist, your professional skills can help make your community safer by apprehending criminals, training law enforcement officers to better understand how mental health issues impact criminal behavior, and helping victims of crime have the confidence needed to testify in court.

Whichever path you choose, you will need to complete formal education and training. Your hard work and dedication are certainly worth it, though, when you begin to see the positive impact your work has on others.

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