When you think of forensic psychology, you might immediately think of a criminal profiler who’s tracking a serial killer. And while some forensic psychologists do engage in that kind of work, by and large, it is rare.
Instead, forensic psychologists build careers that combine psychology and the law in much more “mundane” ways. For most, this field of work involves research, working in an office setting, and testifying before courts. Sometimes it might include preparing witnesses to provide court testimony, determining whether a defendant is competent to stand trial, and providing emergency counseling services to victims of crimes.
These are but a few examples of the type of work you might do in forensic psychology. In reality, this field is far more diverse.
Forensic Psychology Educational Requirements
Before we explore some of the career options that are available in this field, it’s important to note that there are some undergraduate programs in forensic psychology that could help you get an entry-level position in this field. But to work as a forensic psychologist, a master’s degree or doctorate is necessary.
In addition to having the proper educational credentials, you will also need to build work experience. This might mean taking a junior position to get that on-the-job experience, and then moving into a more senior role after you have some time on the job under your belt.
There is no magic number in terms of the years of experience you need to be considered an expert or qualified for a senior position. In some cases, it might be a year or two. In others, it might be double or triple that. But gaining experience on the job is a moot point if you don’t first have the necessary education to qualify for jobs in this field in the first place.
Common Job Duties for Forensic Psychologists
As noted earlier, there are a wide range of careers in the field of forensic psychology. However, the tie that binds is that the principles of psychology are applied in a legal setting. As such, there are some common job duties that most forensic psychologists perform at one time or another in their careers. These duties are explored below.
Support for Judges in Criminal Trials
In court, many judgments need to have the input of a forensic psychologist. One such area is with competency. Before a person can be put on trial for a crime, they must be judged competent to stand trial and have the ability to aid an attorney in their defense. Whether an individual is competent is a decision a judge often makes after reading the evaluation of a forensic psychologist.
A forensic psychologist also helps the court during the sentencing phase of a trial by making recommendations for punishment. For example, knowing the state of mind of the accused at the time of the crime is an important element in meting out justice. Judges take expert testimony on this matter from forensic psychologists very seriously as they weigh the sentence to hand down to the defendant.
A forensic psychologist is also important in evaluating those eligible for parole. A parole board must decide how probable it is that a person released from prison will commit the same crime again. An analysis from a forensic psychologist is invaluable in helping make this decision.
Testify in a Court of Law
As an expert in human behavior and how it relates to criminal activity, a forensic psychologist is valuable to both the prosecution and the defense.
Forensic psychologists offer expert testimony in many civil and criminal cases to help explain the pain and suffering of the plaintiff to a jury or the state of mind of the defendant when they allegedly committed the crime.
Helping in Child Custody Cases
Although the law tries to put what is in the best interest of the child first, the real question is how to determine what that best interest is. In many cases, the best information to use is the evaluation of a child by a forensic psychologist.
Forensic psychologists often evaluate parents as well. The purpose of parental evaluations is to determine whether the parent is fit to have children in their care. For example, if a parent has a past history of drug abuse, the other parent might try to use that against them in the custody proceedings. A forensic psychologist’s evaluation could help rebut (or support) the claim that parental rights should be withheld.
Evaluating Children in Criminal Cases
It is often a forensic psychologist that can help determine whether a child will be able to give testimony in a court of law. Some children are too young to provide testimony that will be useful to a judge or jury while others may be too traumatized by a violent event.
Often children who have been accused of a crime need to be evaluated to understand their state of mind at the time the crime was committed. Likewise, it must be determined if a child even understands what they are accused of, and if they have the ability to stand trial. A forensic psychologist has the skill to offer expert information in this area.
Types of Jobs for Forensic Psychologists
Now that we understand a little more about what forensic psychology is, what the educational requirements are, and what common job duties you might expect, we can explore some of the most common types of jobs in this field. Remember that this is not an all-inclusive list – there are many other career paths in forensic psychology that you can explore.
As the name indicates, a jury consultant works with prosecutors or defense attorneys to help mold and shape the composition of the jury. They are integral to the voir dire process, which is when the pool of potential jurors are questioned by the prosecution and defense. The questions that attorneys ask potential jurors are often crafted, or at least amended, by a forensic psychologist to help reveal potential biases that the juror might have that could affect the outcome of their jury vote.
Likewise, jury consultants often make recommendations about which jurors to oppose and which ones to agree to be on the jury. This is where a lot of the psychology training comes in – forensic psychologists want to explore the attitudes, beliefs, experiences, and personalities of potential jurors to ensure those characteristics are a good match for the prosecution’s or defense’s case.
Additionally, jury consultants take notes during the trial itself on juror body language and behavior. This information helps lawyers prep their strategies for moving forward. For example, if it’s noted that the jury appears bored or uninterested, an attorney might develop a more engaging and interactive approach to making their case.
Another important aspect of being a jury consultant is preparing witnesses for testimony in court.
Some witnesses are naturally better than others at testifying, so a lot of time is spent helping weak witnesses gain more confidence. This is often done by doing mock trials to help the witness get used to being on the stand and being the subject of questioning. Helping witnesses speak more clearly, be more credible, and remain calm under intense questioning are further duties that pertain to preparing witnesses.
Another consulting option for forensic psychologists is to work directly with law enforcement agencies.
Rather than working with witnesses, attorneys, and the court systems, police consultants provide their services to police. In some instances, they might be part of the department as a paid employee and in other instances they might be contracted to provide their services.
In either case, police consultants typically provide psychological services to members of law enforcement, such as providing educational programs on dealing with people that are suicidal. Additionally, forensic psychologists might be asked to teach officers how to appropriately handle situations in which a mentally ill person is involved.
Other duties associated with this job include providing therapy to officers after a traumatic event, such as responding to an act of terrorism. Psychologists might also offer classes like anger management to officers that have exhibited a temper on the job.
In some cases, these types of consultants might also work with detectives to profile suspects, or at the very least, help detectives to better understand the motive of an alleged criminal that they are pursuing.
Police consultants might also be asked to testify in court if the need arises. An example of this might be to speak to the state of mind of an officer that was involved in the shooting of a suspect.
Some forensic psychologists specialize in providing their expert opinions in a court of law. While this is usually not a full-time job, with enough experience and education, you can become a highly regarded expert that is sought-after for civil and criminal trial testimony.
Obviously, an expert witness is someone with a wealth of experience. In forensic psychology, there’s no set amount of time or education you need to be considered an expert, though, it generally comes only after a substantial amount of work experience in this field. Having a terminal degree, like a Ph.D., is also helpful in establishing oneself as an expert.
In many cases, experts in forensic psychology have a research background (discussed below). With a solid background in psychological research, expert witnesses can speak to why people behave the way they do in both broad and narrow terms. Likewise, many expert witnesses in this field are also practicing psychologists. While they might have less research experience, practicing psychologists can rely on their work with clients to inform their expert opinions about the behavior of the accused.
Victim advocates are an important part of the criminal justice system because they help give a voice to people that might not otherwise have a voice in legal proceedings.
In many cases, victim advocates work with people that have been the victims of domestic violence, battery, or assault. They are disproportionately women and children as well.
The responsibilities of this role include organizing resources for victims, helping victims understand their legal rights, providing counseling and other practical support, and accompanying victims to court proceedings.
This job is much more about providing support than it is about employing psychological techniques. Victim advocates’ primary responsibility is to be a stabilizing force in a victim’s life such that they can begin the healing process.
Though testifying in court is not usually something that victim’s advocates do, it isn’t out of the realm of possibility. More often, they will speak with various stakeholders like attorneys, police, and other advocates to ensure their clients have all the support they need.
Law Enforcement, Probation and Parole, and Correctional Officer
Some people with training in forensic psychology choose to work in the law enforcement space, either as an officer or detective, a probation and parole agent, or a correctional officer.
Having a deep understanding of human behavior and the law is obviously a major benefit if you choose a career in law enforcement. Whether it’s a stressful situation you’re in as you patrol the streets, conducting an interview of a suspect, or helping offenders put their lives back together after their release from prison, a background in psychology can help you better handle yourself and better understand the people with which you work.
While law enforcement jobs don’t usually have salaries as large as those for psychologists, they can be highly rewarding careers in which you see people pick themselves up and emerge from the darkest days of their lives. Of course, your psychology training will be helpful in dealing with the negative things you see over the course of your career as well.
Psychology careers in law enforcement can also take the form of a crime analyst, or profiler, that works directly with investigators to help identify possible suspects. Additionally, you might find that there are ample research opportunities in forensic psychology if you work for a law enforcement agency. This is especially true if you work for a federal agency like the FBI.
At the end of the day, no matter what career path you choose, forensic psychology can be a satisfying career in which you can make a measurable difference in the lives of other people.
B.A. Social Studies Education | University of Wyoming
M.S. Counseling | University of Wyoming
B.S. Information Technology | University of Massachusetts