What are the Differences Between Forensic Science and Forensic Psychology?

Last Updated: June 29, 2024

It’s easy to confuse forensic science and forensic psychology. These related, yet different careers are often portrayed on TV and in films, but their portrayal isn’t always accurate. Moreover, the way these careers are depicted in popular culture often blurs the lines that define them as unique fields.

There are similarities between forensic science and forensic psychology but far more differences. This guide explores these differences to give you a clearer picture regarding which career path is best for you.

What are the Differences Between Forensic Science and Forensic Psychology?

Forensic Science Vs. Forensic Psychology

The primary difference between forensic science and forensic psychology is their focus: Forensic science involves collecting and analyzing physical evidence from crime scenes, focusing on biology, chemistry, and physics applications. Forensic psychology, on the other hand, focuses on the psychological aspects of criminal behavior and the legal system, emphasizing understanding the mind and behavior of offenders and victims.

Forensic scientists use their expertise in biology, physiology, chemistry, and other sciences to investigate crime scenes, process evidence, and provide expert testimony in court, among many other things.

Forensic psychologists, on the other hand, explore the relationship between psychology and criminality. Rather than using skills related to chemistry, biology, and so forth, forensic psychologists rely on their training in abnormal behavior, legal psychology, psychopathology, and other psychology courses to try to explain and even predict criminal behavior.

So, for example, let’s say you work as a forensic scientist for a local law enforcement agency. A murder has occurred, and you are called to help process the scene. This might involve photographing the crime scene, collecting and bagging evidence, and processing evidence in the crime lab to look for fingerprints or DNA. In short, you’re working as a physical scientist, trying to unearth what happened based on the evidence left behind.

Now let’s assume you are a forensic psychologist who works as an independent contractor for the same law enforcement agency. In this role, you might be asked to develop a criminal profile based on the evidence from the crime scene. You might look at the crime scene photos, work through the physical evidence obtained at the scene, and consult with the forensic scientist regarding other evidence or clues they found at the scene to predict who might have committed the crime. In other words, you’re working as a social scientist, using physical evidence to develop a psychological profile of the potential assailant.

These careers don’t just differ in their central focus, though. As explored below, they also differ in job duties, work environment, and educational requirements.

Differences in Job Duties

Though the examples above illustrate how these careers are different in their focus, how these professionals go about their daily work lives is also different.

For example, as a forensic scientist, you might be asked to conduct DNA or blood analyses to pinpoint who perpetrated a crime. You might also be asked to conduct these analyses to eliminate potential suspects from the suspect pool in an investigation.

Forensic scientists don’t just work with physical evidence and examinations, though. For example, many forensic scientists are trained in digital criminal investigation as well. So, in a case in which someone is suspected of embezzling money from their employer, you would be asked to recover data from the suspect’s laptop and analyze the digital evidence for indications of the suspect’s guilt.

Again, this is just part of the job of a forensic scientist. Another crucial role is to present evidence and serve as an expert witness in court. Whether the evidence that was examined is physical or digital, you would testify under oath regarding your analysis and the conclusions you drew from the evidence.

In contrast, forensic psychologists go about their daily lives in a much different way. For example, you might be asked by a law enforcement agency to conduct an intake interview with a criminal suspect to assess their current mental state, such as if the suspect is suicidal and needs to have added supervision while in custody.

As another example, forensic psychologists spend a good deal of time in courts. Much like forensic scientists provide their expert testimony in legal settings, forensic psychologists provide their expertise. However, their expertise is much different – forensic psychologists speak to things like a defendant’s mental state when the crime occurred and their mental fitness to stand trial, as opposed to presenting and explaining physical evidence of the crime.

Many forensic psychologists also provide counseling services. This most frequently occurs with victims of crimes. For example, forensic psychologists might employ methods such as crisis counseling to provide victims with short-term emotional support in the immediate aftermath of their victimization, then offer long-term care in the form of trauma-informed therapy, which seeks to recognize the trauma the victim experienced and provide training for coping with that trauma.

One area where forensic science and forensic psychology are similar, though, is paperwork. Both professions require an incredible amount of note-taking and report writing. This is true of professional duties that occur in the day-to-day context of work as well as in academic pursuits, such as contributing to professional journals with original research.

Differences in Work Environment

Popular culture has portrayed forensic science and forensic psychology as being far more glamorous than they typically are. For example, forensic scientists most frequently work in sterile laboratories where they work independently; forensic psychologists often work in office settings, again, independently. These professionals aren’t armed with guns, nor do they go on manhunts with law enforcement agents.

As noted earlier, forensic scientists aren’t confined to working in a lab. They work in the field at crime scenes, have traditional office space to write reports and spend a good deal of time testifying in court. Some forensic scientists work in hospitals, too. For example, you might be asked to document physical evidence that a victim was physically assaulted by photographing cuts, scrapes, and bruises.

Forensic psychologists most frequently work in an office setting. This might be an office in their own private practice, at a police headquarters, or in an attorney’s office. When not in their office, forensic psychologists testify in court, interview suspects or victims, and offer their expertise to law enforcement personnel in briefings on active criminal cases.

Both forensic scientists and forensic psychologists also work in academic settings. With an appropriate level of education and experience, these professionals can transition their careers to teaching at the collegiate level, using their field experience to help the next generation of forensic scientists and psychologists to be even better equipped for their careers.

Differences in Education

Another key difference between forensic scientists and forensic psychologists is the required education. Forensic scientists need at least a bachelor’s degree in forensic science or a closely related field. Sometimes, forensic scientists have a background in biology, chemistry, or biochemistry and complete additional training after completing their bachelor’s degree.

A typical undergraduate program in forensic science requires around 120 credits to graduate, which requires about four years of full-time studies to complete. These programs include coursework such as the following:

  • Genetics
  • Biostatistics
  • Organic Chemistry
  • Environmental and Chemical Analysis
  • Forensic Biology

To have the best job prospects, it’s beneficial to have either a master’s degree in forensic science or at least one professional certification. For example, you might complete a bachelor’s degree in forensic science and then complete a certification from the American Board of Forensic Toxicology to add a specific set of skills to your resume.

Alternatively, you might pursue a master’s degree in forensic science, which provides advanced training in collecting biological evidence, applied statistics and data analysis, and criminalistics. Master’s degrees in this field also typically explore the following:

  • Crime Scene Investigation
  • Forensic Analysis of DNA
  • Biosecurity
  • Bloodstain Pattern Analysis
  • Forensic Toxicology.

A typical master’s degree in forensic science is anywhere from 30 to 45 credits and takes around two years of full-time studies to complete.

Forensic psychologists require a different educational path. First, you must complete an undergraduate program in psychology or forensic psychology. These programs are typically four years in length and require about 120 credits to graduate. However, unlike forensic scientists, forensic psychologists need a master’s degree at the least to begin their careers in earnest.

Forensic psychology master’s programs vary in length from around 30 credits to 60 credits, depending on the program. This translates to anywhere from two to three years to complete the degree. Most forensic psychology graduate degrees include studies in the following areas:

  • Projective Personality Assessments
  • Intellectual and Cognitive Assessments
  • Clinical Interviewing Techniques
  • Psychopathology
  • Criminal Forensic Assessment

And while some forensic psychology careers might be available with a master’s degree, you will need a doctorate to be a licensed psychologist. Ph.D. and PsyD programs in forensic psychology typically require about five years of full-time, residential studies at a college or university. Coursework includes advanced work in the following areas:

  • Advanced Methods in Neuroscience
  • Advanced Methods in Qualitative Research
  • Risk Assessment
  • Deception Detection
  • Investigative Psychology

Doctoral programs in forensic psychology also heavily emphasize research. You will most assuredly complete a dissertation, which you must defend before your degree is conferred. You will also complete practicum and/or internship experiences that give you real-world experience working in a supervised forensic psychology setting.

How Crime Science Investigation is Different From Forensic Psychology?

As noted earlier, crime science investigations involve physical sciences like biology and chemistry, and their application to investigating the physical evidence left behind by perpetrators and victims of crime. Blood spatter analysis, tire tread analysis, and toxicology examinations are common tasks a forensic scientist might complete.

Conversely, forensic psychology examines psychological, not physical, data. Forensic psychologists conduct personality assessments, observe the behavior of suspects and victims, and engage in one-on-one interviews to develop a well-informed picture of the person’s mental and emotional state.

These different approaches speak to the different focuses of these professions. Crime science investigation explores what already happened as a means of punishing those responsible. Forensic psychology has a different dual purpose – understanding the behavior related to the crime and seeking to prevent it from happening again.

Is It Hard to be a Forensic Psychologist?

Forensic psychology can be an incredibly rewarding profession, but it can also be emotionally and mentally draining. On the one hand, forensic psychologists have the tools and training necessary to help victims of crime work through their trauma and get back to normal functioning. On the other hand, the expertise of forensic psychologists can help make communities safer by identifying risk factors for criminality.

If you decide to become a forensic psychologist, you will be privy to very heavy, traumatic details about people’s lives. It’s hard to hear stories of abuse, assault, and loss of loved ones. The emotional damage events like these take on people will take a toll on you as you work with them to unpack what’s happened. Maintaining a good work-life balance, consulting with other forensic psychologists, and being candid about your emotional and mental well-being with loved ones will all help you deal more effectively with the stress of the job.

Do Forensic Psychologists Go to Crime Scenes?

Forensic psychologists aren’t typically involved at the scenes of crimes. If they work for law enforcement, their involvement is mostly at the police station where they conduct interviews and psychological assessments, write reports, and consult with detectives about the potential characteristics of suspects.

Does the FBI Hire Forensic Psychologists?

Forensic psychologists can work in many settings for the FBI. The Behavioral Analysis Units at the FBI employ psychologists of many types who are tasked with investigating criminal behavior, interviewing suspects, consulting with law enforcement about investigative strategies, and contributing to threat assessments.

Which is Better? Forensic Science or Forensic Psychology

Whether forensic science or forensic psychology is better depends on the information required or the tasks that need to be completed. If physical crime scene evidence needs to be documented, processed, and analyzed, a forensic scientist is the one to call. But a forensic psychologist is the more appropriate professional if a criminal suspect needs to be interviewed and assessed.

Ultimately, though, forensic scientists and forensic psychologists frequently work together as a larger team of experts. This is especially true if both are employed by a law enforcement agency. But even if they aren’t employed at the same location, forensic scientists and forensic psychologists have complementary areas of expertise that bring them together for work in academics, research, and criminal court cases, to name a few.

Related Reading

Copyright © 2024 PsychologySchoolGuide.net. All Rights Reserved. Program outcomes can vary according to each institution's curriculum and job opportunities are not guaranteed. This site is for informational purposes and is not a substitute for professional help.