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How to Become a Forensic Psychologist

Learn how to become a forensic psychologist with these classic texts

The human mind is absolutely fascinating. It’s complex, mysterious, and diverse. It’s often confusing as well. The field of psychology, which seeks to explore and understand our minds, has been growing for decades; it’s now evolved into numerous sub-categories, including forensic psychology.

“Forensic” essentially means anything used in law enforcement and the legal system. The word actually comes from the Latin “forensis,” meaning “of the forum;” the “forum” was essentially the law courts of ancient Rome. Forensic scientists, for example, use their knowledge of science to solve crimes and provide evidence and explanation in court cases. Forensic pathologists, also called medical examiners, use their specialized training to examine people who have died and determine the cause of death; this information can then be used, if necessary, in court. So when you hear “forensic,” think “legal system.”

Read on to learn how to become a forensic psychologist and get started in this fascinating career!

What Does a Forensic Psychologist Do?

Forensic psychologist use their training, education, and experience with the human mind to provide insight for the legal system. They may advise law enforcement on potential suspects, serve as witnesses in court cases, or research new ways of understanding the human mind.

It’s an exciting, rewarding, and extremely challenging career, full of unique demands that test even the most dedicated and experienced professionals. If you think you have the right mentality to become a forensic psychologist, you first need the right education. Once you complete this education, you can then move to introductory roles, and eventually to the respected forensic psychology jobs.

How to Become a Forensic Psychologist

If you want to become a forensic psychologist, be prepared for a rigorous and extensive education. Forensic psychology programs will test your intelligence, diligence, and patience, but they will also mold you into one of the top professionals in this field.

Step 1: Bachelor’s Degree

The first step to a career in forensic psychology, after graduating from high school, is to earn your bachelor's degree. Of course, not just any bachelor’s degree will do, as you should select one that can, either directly or indirectly, apply to the field. The obvious option is simply a bachelor’s degree in psychology. This education will give you a solid foundation for the principles of psychology, helping you understand how the mind develops, how people make certain choices, and how to apply psychology to fields such as human services, counseling, and education. Other majors that may benefit aspiring forensic psychologists include criminology, criminal justice, child psychology, or (when available) a bachelor’s degree in forensic psychology. This phase will usually take four years to complete, assuming you have no other college credit, which could reduce the total time, and are taking full time courses, which would accelerate the education.

Step 2: Master’s Degree

Once you graduate with a bachelor’s degree in an appropriate field, you can move into a master's degree program. These programs will develop your knowledge in the human brain, focusing on the science and theory behind thought and decisions. Because forensic psychology is deeply tied to the court system, forensic psychology programs focus heavily on criminal issues related to psychology. These can include a variety of different topics, including domestic violence, substance abuse, child abuse, sexual abuse, and numerous mental conditions that can lead to criminal behavior. Master’s programs will often include the creation and defense of a master’s thesis project. After the traditional school work, there will be in-field experience and a comprehensive exam, which will ensure you are prepared, at least on paper, for the rigors of forensic psychology jobs.

Step 3: Earn Your Doctorate for Better Career Opportunities

While most psychologists, including forensic psychologists, can find work with a master’s degree, many will choose to advance their expertise through a doctorate program. In fact, it’s most common that psychologists will need their doctorate, and this is often considered a necessary step to working in this field. This will be an even more intense, detailed, and challenging education, but it will make you a true expert in forensic psychology and will prepare you for many of the exciting careers. This is a research-based degree that is awarded after you complete extensive exams and write a dissertation based on your original research.

Step 4: Earn Supervised Experience

Another important step in your education is supervised experience. Essentially, you will need to spend roughly 1,000 hours working with a trained and experienced professional who can guide you in the career field. This is achieved usually through an internship or another type of placement, and it will help you gain first-hand experience as a forensic psychologists.

Step 5: Licensing

Once you complete your education, either a doctorate or a master’s degree, you’ll need to have proper licensing and certifications to work as a forensic psychologist. Practicing psychology and even using the term “psychologist” requires licensing in most states. Licensing laws can vary widely depending on the state, as well as the type of work you are doing.

How Long Does it Take to Become a Forensic Psychologist?

From entering your first class as an undergraduate to finally completing your doctorate in forensic psychology, you can expect as many as eight years of education, possibly more depending on the programs you choose.

This field is such a complex, broad, and important area that extensive education is required; this is why you can expect almost a decade of education before your degree is complete. Eight years of education (or more) is obviously a long time, and many people are concerned with the time constraints this will create for their lives. How can they expect to get married and have a family when they spend a decade studying forensic psychology? It’s a reasonable question, but one of the solutions is online education, as it can increase the convenience and accessibility of forensic psychology programs, all while making it easier to study this fascinating field.

Now that you have completed the educational requirements, all that is left to do is get your licensing and certifications. Once complete, you’ll be on your way to one of the many fascinating forensic psychology jobs.

Forensic Psychology Licensing Requirements

If you are going into the forensic field, you can become certified by the American Board of Professional Psychology (ABPP). This certification is not always required by law, but it can establish your expertise and help you land some of the best jobs. Being certified in forensic psychology by the ABPP shows that you have met the standards for the profession, and this certificate is recognized by law as the standard for professional competence in forensic psychology.

To obtain the Board Certification in Forensic Psychology by the American Board of Professional Psychology, you need to complete the credential review process, as well as a written and oral examination. The organization’s board will then vote on your acceptance into the organization. The ABPP will also review your record to ensure there are no serious ethical misconducts or unlawful behavior.

Forensic Psychology Careers

So what’s it like to actually work in the field of forensic psychology? After all that reading, training, studying, and testing, will you have a lucrative and rewarding career? Is forensic psychology in demand? Will there actually be jobs available for people who have completed forensic psychology programs?

Pros & Cons of Being a Forensic Psychologist

The Downside to a Career in Forensic Psychology

This career is detailed and extensive, so you may have already realized that one of the significant downsides to working as a forensic psychologist is the prolonged education requirements. Even if you go with a masters degree, you are still looking at roughly six years of education, which means six years of studying, testing, and cramming information. It also means six years of tuition, and while this can be reduced by choosing affordable online programs, there will still be tens of thousands of dollars in total costs.

The time requirements for working in forensic psychology can also be frustrating. It’s not uncommon for forensic psychologists to work 18 hour days for multiple days in a row, leaving little time for a social life, family activities, or even sleep.

Forensic psychologist work in the legal system, which is a combative, competitive environment; an environment that is literally win-or-lose. This puts a lot of stress of people who simply wanted to contribute to our understanding of the human mind and are not naturally drawn to conflict. During court proceedings, opposing attorneys may attempt to undermine your expert testimony by attacking your experience, knowledge, or motivation. This is an unfortunate side effect that comes from this career, and it can’t be taken personally.

The Benefits of a Forensic Psychology Career

Excitement and interest are probably the biggest motivators for people going into forensic psychology. This is a diverse career with many different facets, and it keeps people interested by merging the high-stakes field of law-enforcement with the ever-evolving field of science. It also give you the chance to serve the community, which is a reward for many professionals.

Above, we stated that working in intensely competitive courtrooms can be a downside to this career. But for some people it can be a benefit. Some, quite frankly, thrive in a competitive environment, and enjoy the combative, winner-take-all stakes of court cases. While scientific fact should alway be your biggest motivator, there’s no doubt that some people will enjoy the us-against-them nature of the courtroom. Some also enjoy the thrill of working with dangerous criminals and leading-edge law enforcement officers, which is rarely a part of other psychology careers.

How Much Do Forensic Psychologists Earn?

As a forensic psychologist, you can expect a strong salary, especially if you work your way to the top of the field.

One of the most reliable sources for information on job earnings in the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), and while they don’t compile data on forensic scientists specifically, they do have information on psychologists in general, including forensic psychologist, which gives us a good starting point. The BLS says that in May of 2019 psychologists had a median salary of $80,370, which is more than double the national median salary of $39,810. The top 10%, however, had salaries over $132,000, so there is certainly a good chance for moving up in total earnings.

There is another positive sign for forensic psychologists. The BLS’s data shows that psychologists working for the government have a median salary over $96,000. It seems reasonable to assume that many forensic psychologist will be employed by government agencies, such as law enforcement offices, prisons, hospitals, and courts. Therefore, it’s also reasonable to assume that the salaries for forensic psychologists could also be higher.

Another useful source is PayScale, which says that forensic psychologists earn an average salary of $70,287. But as you build experience, you can obviously expect more pay. PayScale states that people with 10 to 19 years of experience earn an average of $85,000 annually, while those with over 20 years average $92,000 per year.

Is Forensic Psychology in Demand?

A good salary is useless if you can’t find a job, but it appears that the career of a forensic psychologist should be growing. According to the BLS, psychology careers will grow by 14% between 2018 and 2028. This is a large rise compared to job growth as a whole, which is expected to be 5%. But again, these numbers pertain to all psychologists, not forensic psychologist specifically.

An article written for the American Psychological Association seems to provide a positive outlook for the job prospects of forensic scientists. The article states that “the demand for forensic psychologists is outstripping the supply as the legal system thinks up more and more ways to put their expertise to use.” Basically the writer is saying that there is a high demand for forensic scientists, but there may not be enough to fill that demand. If true, this means that people with training in forensic psychology will likely have an easier time finding work.

Forensic Psychology Jobs

Can You Get a Job with Only a Bachelor’s Degree?

Many people would love to work in this fascinating field, but don’t want the extensive (and possibly expensive) education of a master’s and doctorate program. While most jobs require at least a master’s, there are positions available for people with only a bachelors degree in forensic psychology. A police officer, for one, would certainly benefit from the training of forensic psychology. Probation officers, social-service managers, and social-science research assistants can all put the knowledge of forensic psychology to work. So while you may not be able to call yourself a “psychologist,” you will have the chance to use a four-year bachelor’s degree.

Do You Need a Doctorate?

Many want to know if a doctorate is completely required. Once again, there are plenty of jobs available for someone who has only their master’s in forensic psychology. Possible careers include juvenile counselors, forensic social workers, and jury consultants. But once again, if you want to call yourself a “psychologist;” if you want to serve as an expert witness in high-stakes court cases, a doctorate will be required.

Careers Related to Forensic Psychology Jobs

If you decide to change your career, forensic psychology programs prepare your for a variety of related positions, including…

• Clinical Psychologist: This is the traditional psychologist. They assess, diagnose, and treat mental and emotional disorders. They are trained in a variety of strategies, but they usually interview patients, perform tests, and provide therapy; they may also create strategies for the patient to help modify and improve behavior.

• Developmental Psychologist: In this interesting field, experts study the mental processes that a person takes to develop psychologically. This discipline has obvious applications in the court room, as developmental issued could be used to explain criminal behavior and guide rehabilitation. The work may focus on children, but it can also include psychological issues related to adult life and aging.

Industrial-Organizational Psychologist: The workplace can be complex and confusing, but industrial psychologists focus on creating better results by using their knowledge of the human mind and applying it to issues like productivity, effective job placement, training, and policy planning.

Rehabilitation Psychologist: Physically or mentally disabled individuals often need extensive support, which can be provided by rehabilitation psychologists. They help improve quality of life, and usually work with physical therapists or teachers to improve health, learning, or overall wellbeing.

School Psychologist: These experts apply their training and experience to the school system. They are involved in the development of students, seeking to address learning and behavioral problems, improve school performance, and counsel students and families when needed.

As with all psychology specializations, these related careers require specific training. While your forensic psychology education would provide a solid foundation, you’ll likely need specific training in whichever related career you choose. You may also need certification and licensing through organizations like the American Board of Professional Psychology.

Find the Forensic Psychology Education You Deserve

Online learning has never been easier! Skip the busy traffic, avoid crowded classrooms, and choose an online forensic psychology program that will fit your schedule and budget. With information and resources on the top schools in the country, we can help you select the perfect bachelor’s, master’s, or doctorate program!

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