What Does a Forensic Psychologist Do?

Learn About the Salary, Required Skills, & More

Image by Theresa Chiechi © The Balance 2019 

The term "forensic psychologist" likely brings to mind thoughts of fast-paced crime solving as seen on many popular television shows and movies. From CSI and The Profiler to even Hannibal Lecter, it is tempting to believe the field of forensic psychology is full of action and adrenaline, helping police to bring down a new criminal every week.

In actuality, the job of a forensic psychologist may be far less glamorous or exciting, but it is by no means less interesting or rewarding. If you have a passion for studying how the mind works, especially how it relates to criminal justice, you may find a career in forensic psychology to be both challenging and satisfying.

A career in forensic psychology offers many opportunities to help others, and as with other careers in criminology, it can be extremely fulfilling. The subject matter, however, may prove to be disturbing at times, depending on your own tolerance level.

Forensic psychologists use the principles of psychology to work with attorneys, judges, and other legal specialists to analyze and understand the psychological details of various cases. They typically specialize in areas such as civil, criminal or family cases, and often testify as an expert witness in court.

Additionally, forensic psychologists often work with those who are demonstrating extreme emotional states. As a result, the job can sometimes prove to be both physically and mentally demanding.

Forensic Psychologist Duties & Responsibilities

As is the case with the criminology industry as a whole, the job functions of a forensic psychologist are many and diverse. Instead of being a singular occupation with clearly defined duties and job description, the job title refers to any number of specializations within the field of psychology. The term Forensic Psychology simply refers to the practice of psychology in association with the law and the civil or criminal justice system.

The American Board of Forensic Psychology defines it like this: Forensic psychology is the application of the science and profession of psychology to questions and issues relating to law and the legal system.

In layman's terms, a forensic psychologist is simply any psychologist who works for or with the legal system. As such, any number of job functions could be involved in a forensic psychologist's work day. As a forensic psychologist, duties and responsibilities may include:

  • Criminal profiling services
  • Child custody evaluations
  • Investigate reports of child abuse
  • Expert witness/​courtroom testimony regarding psychological questions before the court
  • Evaluating suspected criminals for mental competency and their ability to stand trial
  • Evaluating convicted criminals to aid in creating plans for rehabilitation
  • Evaluating potential jurors and consulting with prosecuting defense, and plaintiff's attorneys with regards to selecting juries
  • Evaluating witnesses, such as children, to verify the truthfulness and/or ability to recall key facts and circumstances
  • Consulting with, and providing training and curriculum development for, law enforcement and corrections agencies
  • Teaching undergraduate and graduate programs, as well as at law schools for juris doctorate candidates
  • Evaluating potential police officers for employment through psychological screenings

Forensic Psychologist Salary

A forensic psychologist's salary varies based on the area of expertise, level of experience, education, certifications, and other factors. Practicing clinical psychologists who work in forensics as consultants typically bill an hourly rate, which can be as high as several hundred dollars per hour for their services.

A psychologist who works in the prison system will earn a significantly lower salary. Forensic psychologists who worked for state governments were among the lower wage earners. According to the u.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the salary range for all psychologists, including those who work in forensics, is as follows:

Education, Training & Certification

This profession typically requires an advanced degree and licensing, as follows:

Education: To interact with and evaluate clients or patients, a doctoral degree is required. Many post-graduate programs require a bachelor's degree in psychology as a prerequisite. However, some programs may simply require a certain number of semester hours in psychology combined with courses in other sciences.

Those who hold a master's degree in psychology may perform work on a research level. It is generally understood that an advanced degree is required to be able to practice as a forensic psychologist.

Licensing: In addition to educational requirements, every state has licensing requirements. The specific qualifications vary from state to state but include combinations of education and work experience requirements. Additionally, taking and passing a standardized test is required to obtain licensure.

Forensic Psychologist Skills & Competencies

In addition to specific education and other requirements for the job, forensic psychologists must possess the following skills in order to perform their jobs successfully:

  • Communication skills: These individuals need to communicate regularly with judges, inmates, crime victims, and attorneys. They need to adjust their communication style depending on the situation and have strong speaking and listening skills as well.
  • Objectivity: The work can become taxing and emotional, and individuals must maintain objectivity regardless of who they work with, whether a criminal, victim, attorney, or other parties. Forensic psychologists must also avoid getting emotionally attached to any of the parties they interact with.
  • Critical thinking: Forensic psychologists must be able to make critical observations of various parties, interpret research data, and make timely, informed decisions.
  • Attention to detail: The job relies on perceptive observation and analysis of factors such as body language.
  • Compassion: Forensic psychology brings a human element to a government system, and it's important to have compassion for involved parties while maintaining objectivity.

Job Outlook

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the outlook for certain niches within psychology and forensic psychology are expected to grow by 14% through 2026. The most opportunities will be for those who specialize in industrial psychology, particularly in testing and evaluating criminal justice job applicants. This growth rate compares to the projected 7% growth for all occupations.

Work Environment

A licensed forensic psychologist may be employed directly by the state, or a local, or federal government. In most cases, however, they mainly work in private practice and provide consulting services to the courts or police agencies on a contractual basis.

Work Schedule

Forensic psychologists often choose their own working hours and may work part-time as consultants while maintaining their own private practice. Depending on the setting in which they work, these individuals may need to accommodate clients during weekend or evening shifts.

Those employed by clinics, hospitals, schools, government organizations, and other employers typically full-time during regular working hours, although jobs in hospitals and other healthcare facilities may require weekend or evening shifts.

How to Get the Job

INTERN

As part of a Ph.D. program, psychology students typically work as interns. These jobs can often be found through your school's career center, through professor connections, or by locating internship opportunities through online job search sites.


NETWORK

Attend events put on by industry organizations such as the American Psychological Association (APA )and mingle with others in the profession to connect with potential hiring managers and people who can refer you to open positions.


APPLY

Take advantage of contacts made through internships and networking, and look at job-search resources like Indeed.com, Monster.com, and Glassdoor.com for available positions. You can also visit industry-specific sites such as the APA's online career center for job openings.

Comparing Similar Jobs

People interested in a forensic psychologist career also consider the following career paths, listed with their median annual salaries: