Set aside what you think you know about forensic psychology from popular media. The deep and dramatic analysis of criminal suspects and the profile-making process found in TV shows might have their place in some roles, but the application of forensic psychology in the real world is much broader and entirely more complicated.
It’s also layered in the sense that it’s rewarding in a way that is diverse. Forensic psychologists are experts in both the practice of psychology and an understanding of the law — and, crucially, how these two fields interact with one another.
Read on for an explanation of what forensic psychology really is, plus a look at some of the skills that jobs in the field require.
What is Forensic Psychology?
Forensic psychology is best considered as an applied field. Forensic psychologists take the practice of psychology — the theory, the interviewing skills, the communication methods — and apply it to the legal system.
So, what does that mean?
The frustrating, ambiguous truth is that it varies depending on the case. Forensic psychologists are sometimes used to verify the competency of criminal defendants, assess threats made against schools, evaluate child custody arrangements, select police officers through psychological screenings, and treat both juvenile delinquents and adult offenders. But this is just a sampling of what they might do.
They could also serve as victim advocates or counselors, jury advisors, and collaborators with legal teams. They can also fill the role of expert witness in court.
To work as a forensic psychologist, therefore, simply means working within or adjacent to the criminal justice system. How it is applied is up to the individual’s area of interest.
What does a forensic psychologist do, in terms of career roles? Among the many paths:
- Correctional Counselor — These are psychologists who provide counseling to inmates and ex-convicts. They perform psychological evaluations and work with caseworkers and lawyers, as well as provide insights during parole hearings.
- Jury Consultant — Forensic psychologists consult with lawyers to offer recommendations on potential jurors. They also note-take during trials on jury body language.
- Police Consultant — In addition to participating in the screening process for potential law enforcement officers, forensic psychologists may provide training on how law enforcement should interact with people living with disabilities and people who are mentally ill. They also consult to provide communication strategies for community policing efforts.
- Forensic Research Psychologists — These researchers study criminal behavior and history. They also seek broader patterns about crimes; as one example, this might include age groups most closely associated with a particular crime.
- Forensic Social Worker — This is a common application of a forensic psychology background. These are workers who evaluate the mental states of a defendant, testify during trials, and make judgment calls on the appropriate therapy for criminal defendants.
At large, this will always be a job where a diagnosis or expert opinion has implications that extend beyond a client’s personal scenarios and into the legal realm. In this sense, it differs greatly from clinical psychology which tends to be more client-focused.
Which is all to say that while criminal profiling services may be rendered, just like in the TV shows and films that portray forensic psychologists, it’s just one of many possibilities of what they may do in their work.
What Skills Are Needed to Be a Forensic Psychologist
To be sure, one of the prominent skills for forensic psychologists is having some familiarity with the law. More importantly — and distinguishing the forensic niche from other areas of psychology — there needs to be a degree of objectivity.
Because these psychologists work with lawyers, judges, criminals, and victims, it is critical not to become personally attached in any situation and to set aside emotions. All while still maintaining the psychologist-coveted sense of compassion and empathy so necessary for anyone entering the field.
Skills needed to be a forensic psychologist: the ability to observe body language, the tools to manage crises with conflict resolution techniques, and the ability to be flexible in communication styles. (For example, working in a juvenile treatment facility and hosting a group seminar will require a different communication style than presenting expert witness testimony in a courtroom.)
These are also people who have exceptional critical thinking skills and are able to interpret research data and complex cases involving multiple people. Forensic psychologists’ skills and qualities are manyfold and are constantly evolving alongside the burgeoning field.
What Qualifications Are Needed to be a Forensic Psychologist
Despite its youth, the field of forensic psychology has grown immensely in the past two decades.
Forensic psychology became an APA-approved specialty only in 2001. It has grown exponentially in that time as the criminal justice system finds more and more ways to apply their skills and practitioners realize the benefits of diversifying their income to not strictly be client- and insurance-based. Payment may come from private law firms, various government agencies, the military, or clients themselves.
All this reward comes with a heavy time investment: forensic psychologists must have a Ph.D. or PsyD from an APA-accredited doctoral program and must also have two years of supervised professional experience, with a one-year predoctoral internship. Licensure requirements vary by state, but an oral or written exam is required as part of the process. Moreover, some forensic psychologists opt to have joint Ph.D. and law degrees. While the skills to be a forensic psychologist may appear more fundamental, the honing of those skills will require extensive education and in-the-field training experience.
Forensic psychologists who wish to work specifically in research may do so with a master’s degree.
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics projects jobs in psychology may grow by as much as 14 percent through 2026, with potential for additional growth in fields like forensic psychology that require a doctoral-level degree.
Bachelor of Arts in Psychology at National University
National University’s Bachelor of Arts in Psychology program sets the foundation for entering the field of forensic psychology, introducing core concepts of psychology that lend well to an eventual advanced degree in the specialty.
The program at National University offers aspiring forensic psychologists the tools to start their journey on an inspiring, interdisciplinary, and intellectually challenging career field where psychology intersects with the law.