Forensic psychology bridges two complex worlds — psychology and the judicial system. Forensic psychologists work with both adults and children, assessing individuals’ mental states and providing guidance on competence to stand trial, as well as sentencing and parole decisions. They also perform vital research, analysis and consultation.
Forensic psychologists are often glamorized on TV on shows such as Criminal Minds. The actual work may not be as colorful as it is portrayed, but it can be very rewarding.
Pursuing Forensic Psychology
Many people begin their career in this field with a bachelor’s degree in forensic psychology. Students need to be hard workers, eager to study and able to do advanced research. They must know how to make decisions based on facts, evidence and statistics. It is possible to continue on to a master’s degree of even a doctor of philosophy (PhD) or doctor of psychology (PsyD, which is less common). Some may also pursue a law degree.
Coursework typically covers domestic violence, mental health policy, criminal assessment, and psychological treatment for children and adults.
A forensic psychologist must have the following skills:
- Active listening
- Critical thinking
- Understanding of court processes and procedures
Forensic psychologists should be prepared to deal with compassion fatigue, a situation where those providing care become overly stressed because of the emotions they experience with on a regular basis. This can lead to disengagement, which can affect job performance.
What Can You Do with a Forensic Psychology Degree?
People with a forensic psychology degree can excel in settings such as mental health centers and federal and local law enforcement agencies. The material offered in undergraduate forensic psychology programs is highly applicable to the real world and is continually growing.
“Forensic psychology is a new academic discipline. As the discipline evolves and becomes more multidisciplinary in its approaches, it offers the justice system an array of resources,” explains Marshall Jones, Director of Online Programs in Florida Tech’s College of Psychology and Liberal Arts.
“It depends on what your interest is. It’s really a study of human behavior in the context of the criminal justice system that really gives you some of the foundations that set someone apart from other candidates.”
Forensic Psychology Undergraduate Careers
The following are forensic psychology jobs that offer entry-level positions and generally do not require an advanced degree:
Child Custody Worker
A child custody worker assesses whether parents can take care of their children. They research, refer and advocate for specific community resources, such as childcare and healthcare that benefit a child’s wellbeing. Child custody workers must be ready to take on crisis interventions like child abuse and mental health emergencies.
They might be required to provide expert testimony in court and collaborate with law enforcement in providing information that can alter the outcomes of the case in favor of a victim. Other responsibilities include working with child welfare services or leading after-school activities.
Although a bachelor’s degree in social work is a common requirement for entry-level positions, employers can also hire employees who have a bachelor’s in psychology or sociology. The knowledge that students can gain from a forensic psychology program can help them navigate the seriousness of criminal environments and its effect on victims.
Victim advocacy is considered one of the most important career choices for an entry-level graduate in psychology. Victim advocates that work for law enforcement agencies are assigned to serve as contacts to investigators as they work in cases. Despite the schedule’s unpredictability and the variation by case, this role is meaningful to the victims, as well as the families involved in each situation. These professionals are trained to provide critical support and guidance to victims during the judicial stages of a case.
The moments between court visits can be confusing and stressful for those involved, and victim advocates are ready to provide sensitivity during a process that can overwhelm victims and affect their ability to communicate with law enforcers. Strong academic preparation in counseling or psychology is essential for graduates to succeed as victim advocates, as well as being mindful of the mental exhaustion it can cause to handle each case.
Probation officers work one-on-one with individuals waiting for sentencing for crimes or with those who are sentenced to probation. These officers’ main responsibility is to interview accused individuals and make sentencing recommendations based on the proper evaluation. The findings from these types of interviews can be valuable in court in order to update the offenders’ rights to rehabilitation and compliance with the terms of their sentences.
Probation officers can meet accused individuals weekly, monthly, or monitor an individual’s whereabouts via an electronic tracking device. The application of psychology can be especially crucial when probation officers advocate for substance-abuse treatment or job training for the accused. These professionals, like child custody workers, can understand human behavior and evaluate a person’s capacity to improve a specific aspect of their life.
Court liaisons are responsible for administrative tasks that allow for a successful interaction between law enforcement and the courts. They’ll usually have to process subpoenas, review paperwork, court filings before a hearing trial, and share information between police officers and the courts.
Forensic Case Manager
When former inmates are released from prison, forensic case managers are there to help them transition from the penal system into the community. These managers connect former inmates to networks of support that can help them achieve a foundational purpose in society. Case managers can also help these individuals receive mental health services, as well as other community resources like halfway houses or substance abuse support groups. These professionals typically work in a correctional setting alongside social services workers.
Another position like that of a forensic case manager is the psychology case manager position. People in this position specialize in helping individuals deal with mental health issues. Entry-level psychology case manager jobs generally require a bachelor’s degree.
Forensic Psychology Graduate Careers
After several years of relevant work experience, you may discover that you want to excel academically in the field of forensic psychology and decide to earn a master’s or doctoral degree. A few careers requiring an advanced education in this field include:
A trial consultant works with attorneys before a trial begins to develop defense or prosecution strategies. The consultant may help the lawyers with topics like jury selection and evidence presentation.
An expert witness takes the stand during a trial and provides testimony related to the case. This testimony is usually about an individual’s mental state and capabilities. An expert witness should be prepared to answer questions posed by the prosecution and the defense.
Prison psychologists work with offer treatment and support to prisoners through their substance abuse, anger management and psychological issues. They may work in asylums, jails, courthouses and prisons, assist inmates with poverty, abuse, trauma and drug addiction.
Regardless of where your path takes you, a degree in forensic psychology is applicable for graduate studies in psychology, sociology and other disciplines.