According to a 2016 FBI report, almost 1.2 million violent crimes were committed in the United States in 2015. Crime happens every day, and there are many different people responsible for helping to bring criminals to justice, such as law enforcement officers, detectives, criminal profilers and forensic psychologists.
Forensic psychology is a branch of applied psychology that merges psychology with knowledge of the law. It is a new, emerging field with potential for growth, as lawyers frequently use forensic psychologists as expert witnesses, and law enforcement officers consult with them as well.
Many shows on TV depict forensic psychologists, obviously in a more dramatic form than in real life for entertainment, but much of what they show a forensic psychologist doing is based on reality. Many work with police, while others spend time in therapy sessions with criminals to determine motivations behind their crimes. Others may find employment with larger law firms. Those who choose to work directly with criminals may find themselves working in a correctional facility or a mental institution. Additionally, others work as expert witnesses or consultants and testify in court cases. Some also help with jury selection, assess child custody cases, predict if someone is a violence risk and advise on civil damage cases. They may also be called upon to make determinations about the defendant’s state of mind in mens rea cases, or pleas of insanity.
Those who choose a research path have opportunities available to them as well, since this is still an emerging field. As Marshall Jones, Forensic Psychology Professor and Director of the College of Psychology and Liberal Arts Online Programs at Florida Tech, says “Relatively speaking, 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… As academic-practitioner partnerships become more commonplace, the advancements expand.”
The Bureau of Labor Statistics does not provide specific data on forensic psychologists, but psychology as a field is expected to grow 19% between 2014 and 2024. As of May 2016, the average annual salary for a psychologist was $75,230, but this can change based on experience and specialty. Salaries may also vary from city to city based on budgets and specific area.
A first step toward becoming a forensic psychologist is to earn a bachelor’s degree either in psychology, or in criminal justice with a focus on psychology. A four-year degree is generally not enough to pursue a career in forensic psychology, so a master’s degree followed by a PhD or PsyD degree are the next steps. Additionally, some experience in law and/or law enforcement is beneficial to this career. After obtaining a doctorate degree, postdoctoral training is required before you are able to apply for a license. Requirements vary by state, so verify with your state that you have everything needed.
Some also choose to obtain certification, and this is done through the American Board of Forensic Psychology.
Any psychologist needs excellent communication skills, but a forensic psychologist will need great presentation skills on top of that as they may be called to testify in court at any time. In that same vein, an ability to stay composed under stress is also important for this job. Testifying in court and working with criminals can at times be very stressful.
A forensic psychologist also needs to trust intuition, be logical and deduce from analyzing a situation. A strong stomach is also required, as you may encounter rough moments at crime scenes or from listening to a criminal describe his or her crimes.
Active and passive listening skills are also required for this career, and good writing skills are key, especially for those who choose to pursue the research track of forensic psychology. Critical thinking skills and a firm grasp of scientific theory is also vital.