What is a Forensic Psychologist?

forensic psychology

If you’re fascinated with studying the human mind but wish to work in law enforcement rather than clinical practice, then becoming a forensic psychologist could be ideal. Thanks to TV series like Criminal Minds, forensic psychology has rapidly become more popular since its founding in the 1940s, according to Psychology Today. Forensic psychologists are now revered as expert court witnesses who apply their psychological training to legal matters. At the intersection of psychology and criminal justice, forensic psychologists devote their careers to better understanding why people commit crimes and how crime can be prevented. There are currently around 3,000 forensic psychologists in the American Psychology-Law Society (AP-LS), but this number grows every year. In this article, we’ll take a closer look at the job description of a forensic psychologist.

What is Forensic Psychology?

Forensic psychology is fairly young as a discipline. In 1962, a landmark case laid down the foundations for the career of a forensic psychologist, and in 2001, the American Psychological Association (APA) officially approved forensic psychology as a specialty. Despite being established as a bonafide branch of psychology, the profession still comes with its share of difficulties. As Psychology Today points out, the position of this criminal justice professional is controversial sometimes. As the site points out, some courts have begun to look at the work of the forensic psychologist with more scrutiny.

What Forensic Psychologists Do

Forensic psychologists assist in providing mental health assessments to offenders in both criminal and civil court hearings. Depending on their assigned cases, forensic psychologists may provide mental state examinations for insanity pleas, assess the risk for violence on parole, evaluate the validity of personal injury claims, perform child custody evaluations, select a proper jury, or offer psychotherapy services to crime victims. Some work directly with attorneys to prepare criminal cases and testify in court under oath. Forensic psychologists may be involved in criminal profiling to help bring justice in unsolved investigations. Other forensic psychologists focus on research to enhance science’s knowledge of criminal offenders’ traits and behaviors

Where Forensic Psychologists Work

There are several different work settings that aspiring forensic psychology professionals can choose from to impact the criminal justice field. Forensic psychologists are most commonly seen working in police stations, law enforcement agencies, law firms, and courthouses. Yet, forensic psychologists can work in jails, prisons, and juvenile detention centers to provide inmates with rehabilitative treatment before their release. Forensic psychologists may be hired by government agencies or private laboratories to conduct their criminal research. Some work at universities or colleges to research crimes while teaching coursework on forensic psychology. It’s also possible for forensic psychologists to be self-employed as consultants to give their expert opinion on certain criminal cases.

How to Become a Forensic Psychologist

After earning a bachelor’s degree in psychology, criminal justice, criminology, law enforcement, or a closely related field, future forensic psychologists will need to attend graduate school. In most cases, forensic psychologists must possess a doctoral degree to become licensed and respected in the court system. Earning a master’s degree may be required first, but a Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.) and Doctor of Psychology (Psy.D.) is your goal. It’s best to choose a university with a forensic psychology specialization to make certain your internship will be in a criminal justice setting. After graduation, forensic psychologists must obtain state licensing and should consider board certification. The American Board of Forensic Psychology (ABFP) offers a Diploma in Forensic Psychology for those with 1,000 hours of practical field experience.

The psychologists who best withstand this scrutiny have undergone rigorous training. Their degree programs, including their doctorates, help. However, they must also combine their theoretical knowledge with real-world experience.  They must also have a good understanding of the law. Their jobs require them to straddle both the world of psychology and the world of law. To this end, there are some working in the field who hold both degrees in psychology and in law.

Additionally, some colleges have begun to offer a new type of forensic psychology degree. These degrees allow people to earn a terminal master’s degree in forensic psychology. That being said, it’s uncertain if these degree holders can find jobs in a field that’s dominated by people who have earned doctorates in psychology. These doctoral students have often taken postdoctoral studies in forensic science as well.

Salary Potential and Demand for Forensic Psychologists

As the legal system has begun to adopt forensic psychology as a key part of the legal equation, the demand for these professionals has increased. This is due to the fact that, more and more, those working in the legal professions see where the forensic psychologist’s expertise might be useful.

However, forensic psychologists don’t only find work in the criminal justice system. They also find positions in academia, and often they straddle both worlds, depending on their specialties. Regardless of where they work, the work of the forensic psychologist often becomes intense and long. Some will spend 10 to 12 hours a day or more pouring over case documents.

Featured Programs

Fortunately, the long hours do come with handsome compensation for many, according to the APA. It is estimated that some in the field earn between $200,000 and $400,000 per year. This isn’t to say that all who work in forensic psychology earn that kind of salary right away. Many of these professionals must establish themselves in the field. They may work several years in the field before their income grows.

Other Considerations for Forensic Psychologists

People become forensic psychologists because they love how intellectually interesting the work is. Each case the forensic psychologist works on has the potential to become an interesting legal puzzle, the likes of which would attract even Sherlock Holmes himself.

That being said, many forensic psychologists must learn to have thick skins. They often get emotionally involved in cases they work on and can become disappointed when a court sees the outcome of the case differently than they do.  These professionals also build relationships with the lawyers they work with. These relationships do have their advantages. However, there is a danger in that the relationship with the attorney can make the forensic psychologist less objective when they evaluate people or case facts.

The average salary for a forensic psychologist is $69,514


Overall, forensic psychologists apply psychological science to resolving questions and issues related to the legal system. Forensic psychology is an applied branch focused on providing key testimony, assessment, analysis, and recommendations within criminal or civil cases. There’s a long pathway towards a career in forensic psychology, but it’s worth it to many who are fascinated by the criminal mind. You’ll need to fine-tune your legal knowledge, communication abilities, and critical thinking skills to successfully work as a forensic psychologist.

Related Resources:

Top 10 Online Master’s in Forensic Psychology

5 Characteristics of a Forensic Psychologist

5 Forensic Psychology Capstone Project Ideas

5 Forensic Psychology Podcasts