Forensic psychology is a relatively new subfield of psychology, yet it can be argued that it gets more attention than most specialties. That’s because television shows like Criminal Minds have glamorized forensic psychology. While many situations depicted in popular TV shows and movies are exaggerated and not realistic of the everyday duties of a forensic psychologist, this is nevertheless an exciting area in which to work.
But, it isn’t just the excitement of this field that draws people to it. There are many other benefits you can derive from a career as a forensic psychologist. But, like any career, there are also some downsides to this job.
To help you determine whether this is the right career field for you, let’s learn more about this field, what to watch out for in terms of disadvantages, and explore the primary benefits of being a forensic psychologist.
What is a Forensic Psychologist?
While some forensic psychologists work for law enforcement agencies like the FBI, they are not typically special agents. This means they aren’t the ones knocking down doors, tackling suspects, and handling firearms.
Instead, forensic psychologists concentrate on applying the principles of psychology to the field of criminal investigation and law. They usually work within the court system, though some forensic psychologists work in the business sector or in private practice as consultants.
Some of the responsibilities of forensic psychologists include:
- Working within family courts to help resolve child custody issues, investigate abuse, provide psychotherapy, and assess visitation risks
- Assessing the mental competency of defendants and their fitness to stand trial within criminal courts
- Providing opinions about a defendant’s mental health, serving as an expert witness, and sometimes offering psychotherapy services to the victims of crime
- Working as a consultant for the defense or for the prosecution in a criminal case
- Conduct research and review previous research on topics related to forensic psychology
- Study criminology to gain a better understanding of why people break the law
Of course, the specific job duties that you might have as a forensic psychologist depends heavily on your specific employment situation. For example, if you’re a consultant, your duties might be much more varied than if you work for the Department of Family Services.
What are the Pros to Becoming a Forensic Psychologist
Generally speaking, one of the biggest advantages of becoming a psychologist of any kind is having the opportunity to learn more about the human condition – why people do the things they do.
In some cases, this might be in a research setting where your work can be of benefit for the greater good. An example of this might be conducting forensic research on the underpinnings of criminal behavior. You might ask questions like, “Why do people break the law?” or “What makes someone more likely to break the law?” and then set about trying to answer that question.
Obviously, being able to contribute to the body of knowledge regarding criminal behavior is of benefit to potential victims of crime, but it’s also a benefit to people that have a criminal history. Conducting psychological research in this field could help offenders identify the reasons why they’ve offended, which could help them take corrective measures to ensure they never offend again.
In other cases, your work as a forensic psychologist might have a more direct benefit to the people you serve. For example, some forensic psychologists assist in preparing witnesses to provide testimony in a court of law. So, you might train an expert witness on ways to most effectively present their findings and opinions in court. As a result, their testimony might be more powerful, have a greater impact on the jury, and could help the prosecution or defense in winning the case.
Of course, the field of forensic psychology offers many other benefits apart from making a positive difference in individuals’ lives or on society as a whole.
Forensic psychologists often cite that one of the best parts of their job is that it’s challenging. This isn’t your typical 9-5 desk job. Instead, you might find yourself working on extremely exciting cases, stimulating research, teaching others about forensic psychology, or providing your consulting services to any number of clients.
Another benefit of this job is that you have so many career options to consider. You can work for the public or private sector, for yourself, or in an administrative or research role. This career can lead to employment in which you advocate for victims of crimes, help law enforcement track criminals, or examine evidence from a crime scene.
In addition to the many different applications of forensic psychology, you might also look forward to the varied tasks that fill up your day. Again, you might spend time working with someone that’s in the criminal justice system, the victim of a crime, law enforcement officers, attorneys, or judges. Part of your day might involve research while other parts of the day might include writing, therapy sessions, teaching or training, and advocacy. No two days are alike as a forensic psychologist, which lends to its reputation as an exciting field of work.
Another benefit of this line of work is that, unlike other types of psychologists, you don’t necessarily have to worry about things like insurance reimbursements. This is especially true if your work as a forensic psychologist doesn’t involve counseling or applying therapeutic techniques. But, if you elect to work in private practice and provide therapy to clients, you’ll likely need to work with insurance companies like other psychologists do.
When it comes down to it, the salary you might earn is also a benefit of this job. According to PayScale, the average salary for a forensic psychologist is $72,057 per year. The pay range extends from the high $30,000s up to about $100,000 per year. How much you make depends on many factors, not the least of which is your level of education. Your experience level, where you work, and the geographic location where you are employed are also primary factors in determining your salary.
Demand for forensic psychologists is present in many different areas of the country, too. You might find a job in an urban or a rural setting on the coast or the interior of the country. If you’re highly qualified with a good reputation for the work you do, the chances are good that you can land a job in just about any location you desire.
What are the Downsides of Becoming a Forensic Psychologist?
For starters, according to the American Psychological Association, practitioners of forensic need a doctorate in psychology to get the most lucrative jobs. That means five to seven years of post-graduate education before the certification process begins.
You can get the appropriate education in a variety of ways, though. You might major in forensic psychology at the doctoral level or you might pursue a doctorate in psychology and law, as there are a number of schools that offer that option. Alternatively, you might get a doctorate in a more mainstream field of psychology, like clinical or counseling psychology, and then do post-doctoral work specifically in the field of forensics. But, any way you do it, you will be in school for a long time, which also means a significant expense to get your degree.
Entry-level positions in this field can be had with a lower degree, though. For example, you might be able to find an associate or assistant-level position with an undergraduate degree in psychology or a master’s degree in psychology. As you work in the field of forensics and gain additional knowledge and skills, your job outlook will improve as will the pay and benefits. It can still be a long road to your ideal job, though.
One of the most commonly-cited downsides of working in this field is the potential for very long workdays.
As noted earlier, this isn’t a typical 9-5 job, which, while exciting, can often mean that you’re called upon to work nights, weekends, holidays, or all of the above. You might have to work very long days, too – 12 or more hours – or even be on-call in case of emergencies.
In some cases, you might be asked to travel at the last minute, which can be stressful, even if arrangements like hotel, airfare, and rental car are taken care of for you. Being away from home, your friends, and your family for long periods of time is a further detriment of working in this field.
Of course, a significant downside to this job is the emotional toll it can take. Working on criminal cases, custody cases, and the like often means that you are privy to the details of very unfortunate instances of human suffering. While helping reunite a family or helping win a case in court can be almost euphoric, there are often very sad or unsettling things that you will see and hear along the way that can really bring you down from an emotional standpoint.
There is something to be said of the physical toll, too. Long days, working nights and weekends, and the potential of having to travel a lot can really put your body through the wringer. You might develop the inability to sleep, body aches and pains, and even experience bouts of depression and anxiety as a result of this very difficult and challenging line of work.
This is not work for the faint of heart, either. Many forensic psychologists work on court cases and appear as expert witnesses. Being cross-examined by the opposing counsel can be a brutal experience. Having the wherewithal to be calm and professional on the stand in the face of rigorous questioning takes a certain kind of person, to be sure.
One has to consider potential ethical considerations as well. On the one hand, it might be difficult to resist the temptation to “take sides” in a case. For example, if you’re hired by the prosecution as an expert witness, you might set yourself up to examine the details of the case from the prosecution’s perspective, which may or may not be accurate.
Likewise, if you live and work in a rural area, you might find yourself being asked to work on cases in which you have some sort of connection to the parties involved. Even if you just casually know someone as a friend of a friend, that could be enough of a relationship to skew how you view the facts of a case. In such situations, you might need to recuse yourself to prevent ethical questions from arising.
Forensic Psychology is a Growing Field – Will You Join It?
As you lay out your future career plans, it’s important to consider both the pros and the cons of the jobs you think you might like. As we’ve done here, considering the good and the bad can help you develop a better understanding of what a career is really like – not what it appears to be on TV.
Ultimately, no job is perfect. Instead, any career path you choose to take will have its benefits and detriments. The key is to pursue something about which you are passionate, and be willing to accept that not every single aspect of your chosen career will be something you will enjoy.
You’ve made a good first step in searching for information about this career. Now it’s time to take it a step further! Speak with your guidance counselor to see if they have more information about this career field or continue to research it on your own. Better yet, see if a local forensic psychologist would be willing to talk to you about their job – you might find that they have additional insights that make this job more attractive (or less attractive, for that matter).
Of course, also take courses like careers in psychology and introduction to forensic psychology in college. These classes will give you a good introduction to this field and can help you further your understanding of what to expect should you become a forensic psychologist.
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Updated July 2021