What Does a Forensic Psychologist Do? Definitions and FAQs
Updated 6 March 2023
Forensic psychologists play an important role in the criminal justice system. Not only do they work to understand the psychological processes behind criminal behaviour, but they also work alongside legal professionals, crime victims and those who commit crimes to solve cases and provide therapeutic interventions. Learning more about the role of forensic psychologists and what it takes to become one might help you decide if this career is right for you. In this article, we answer the question "what does a forensic psychologist do?" and cover some frequently asked questions about this career.
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What does a forensic psychologist do?
Forensic psychologists work in a role that combines law and psychology. They perform various responsibilities in the criminal justice system, legal system and in psychology research and counselling. As their primary duties, forensic psychologists work to understand criminal behaviour, prevent crimes, counsel criminal offenders and victims and consult with law professionals like attorneys. Their responsibilities may include:
Conducting research in the criminal justice system and psychology
Providing therapy for crime victims and those who show criminal tendencies
Acting as witnesses in court
Performing psychological and risk assessments
Consulting with policymakers on prison reform, civil and criminal law
Interviewing offenders to understand motives and behaviours
How to become a forensic psychologist
Here are the steps for becoming a forensic psychologist:
1. Earn an undergraduate degree
The first step towards becoming a forensic psychologist is to complete a bachelor's degree in a relevant field. Students might choose to study psychology, sociology or criminal justice to gain a foundation of knowledge in the social sciences and legal system and prepare for advanced study in forensic psychology. A bachelor's degree takes three to six years on average to complete, with most students finishing in four years. Some relevant undergraduate coursework might include:
Introduction to sociology
Sociology of deviance
Introduction to law
Related: How to Become a Psychologist
2. Participate in research or an internship
In addition to completing your classroom work as an undergraduate student, you might consider taking an internship or research assistant position. Gaining practical work experience in the psychology, sociology or criminal justice fields is important for developing your skills and networking with industry professionals. Field experience may also differentiate you from other candidates when applying for a competitive graduate school program.
Depending on your career goals, you might choose to take a research assistant position, a clinical psychology internship or an internship within the criminal justice system such as with a law firm or juvenile justice program. While any of these positions can equip you with applicable field experience, choosing a position that best suits your career goals may help you gain specific skills in your area of interest.
3. Complete a master's or doctorate degree
Forensic psychologists require an advanced degree to practice. A master's degree takes two years on average to complete, and a doctorate can take up to five years. Some institutions may offer programs specifically in criminal or forensic psychology, while others may provide training in clinical psychology with an emphasis or concentration in forensics. Although forensic psychologists with a master's degree can work as therapists and researchers, the field generally prefers psychologists to hold a doctorate. Earning a doctorate in forensic psychology may provide you with more career options and opportunities for promotion.
Studying psychology at the graduate level usually involves attending classes, completing a clinical practicum and conducting your own research. Some programs may place more emphasis on clinical study and others may focus on research. However, most programs include training in both. As a master's student, you may complete either a thesis or a project as part of your degree requirements. Doctorate students typically write and present a dissertation to finish their degree.
4. Apply for endorsement
Finally, you can complete a supervised training period under an endorsed practitioner before you are eligible to practice independently. The length of this training period depends on your level of education. Those with a doctorate degree only need to train for one year, while those with a master's degree train for two.
After completing your training, you can apply for registration through the Psychology Board of Australia. The board is the regulatory body for psychologists, and it ensures that all practising psychologists meet a high standard of professionalism, therapeutic care and ethical practice. Registered practitioners can renew their registration annually.
What skills do forensic psychologists use?
Forensic psychologists use both technical and soft skills in their work. Some skills that professionals in this role use include:
Many forensic psychologists work as clinical practitioners. They have skills that allow them to evaluate the mental health conditions of their clients, develop treatment plans and work with clients by implementing therapeutic interventions. Clinical knowledge is essential to performing in this position, and psychologists spend many years studying and training in clinical practice before they can qualify for this role.
In addition to understanding mental health conditions, forensic psychologists often need to have a foundation of legal knowledge to perform their jobs. Some criminal psychologists work in courtrooms or advise law professionals like attorneys and police officers. Their legal knowledge may help them communicate and work effectively with legal professionals.
Some forensic psychologists may use public speaking skills in their role. Researchers may use public speaking skills when teaching lectures or presenting at conferences. Those who work in courtrooms may need to present evidence in front of a jury. Having the skills to present in front of a group of people with confidence and professionalism is important for engaging your audience and reinforcing your credibility.
A psychologist may work with diverse groups of people, so they might use flexible communication strategies to make connections with others. For example, a psychologist may use different communication styles when working with offenders, victims, child witnesses, attorneys or colleagues. They use verbal and non-verbal communication skills when working with others in person, and they might use written communication skills to take notes, maintain case files and patient records or write research articles for publication.
Commitment to learning
The field of psychology is always changing. Forensic psychologists must stay up to date on the most recent research in the field. They may study new techniques for working with clients, learn about the most recent assessment tools and stay knowledgeable about changing laws and legal policies. By committing to learning and professional development, forensic psychologists can ensure they follow best practices and deliver an exceptional quality of work.
Frequently asked questions about forensic psychologists
Here are some answers to a few commonly asked questions about this career:
Do forensic psychologists go to crime scenes?
Forensic psychologists are not likely to attend crime scenes in their role. Professionals who investigate crime scenes most often include police officers, detectives and crime scene examiners. By comparison, forensic psychologists more commonly work in courtrooms, hospitals, mental health clinics, research institutions, private offices and corrections facilities.
Related: How to Become a Police Officer
What is the work environment like for forensic psychologists like?
The work environment of a forensic psychologist varies by their area of speciality and employment setting. For example, some forensic psychologists work as researchers and instructors at higher education institutions. Psychologists in this role typically work standard business hours, or they may work flexible hours based on their class schedule. Forensic psychologists who focus on providing counselling or legal consultancy services usually work in an office or courtroom setting and often work standard business hours.
How much do forensic psychologists make?
The average salary for a psychologist is $90,839 per year. However, the salary may vary by your geographic location, place of employment, level of education and years of experience. For example, a forensic psychologist with a doctorate who owns a private consultancy may make more on average than a psychologist employed as a counsellor in a correctional facility.
Is forensic psychology a good career?
A career as a forensic psychologist can be intellectually challenging and rewarding. For those who enjoy learning about and understanding human behaviour, a career as a psychologist may be an excellent option. Those in this career enjoy a position where they get to make a difference in the lives of others. Criminal psychologists make a difference by counselling crime victims, revising policies to improve the effectiveness of the criminal justice system, working on cases that resolve injustices or supporting the rehabilitation of those with criminal tendencies.
However, this can also be an emotionally challenging career. Those working in this position use good self-care skills to look after their personal needs. For example, psychologists can take care of themselves by building strong social support networks, practising stress-management techniques and caring for their physical needs by eating well, exercising regularly and getting enough rest. By taking care of themselves, psychologists can ensure they have a long, fulfilling career.
Salary figures reflect data listed on Indeed Salaries at time of writing.
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