What is a Forensic Psychologist?

Forensic psychologists practice psychology within the criminal justice system and civil courts. Their interest lies in understanding why certain behaviors occur, and also in helping to minimize and prevent such behaviors.

Scientists and philosophers have long sought to figure out what makes people behave aggressively, engage in antisocial behaviors, or commit crimes. Forensic psychology is said to be the combination of both law and psychology, and plays a significant role in understanding behaviors and preventing crimes.

What does a Forensic Psychologist do?

Forensic psychology involves applying psychology to the field of criminal investigation and the law. Forensic psychologists are often involved in both criminal and civil matters such as civil lawsuits, custody disputes, and insurance claims.

They apply their knowledge of psychological principles and can use it to help narrow down a suspect list or provide a motive for a crime. In some cases, the testimony of a forensic psychologist might be the last piece of the puzzle when trying to convict a criminal.

A forensic psychologist conducting a session with a client.

When forensic psychologists work in family courts, they offer psychotherapy services, investigate reports of child abuse, perform child custody evaluations, and conduct visitation risk assessments. The forensic psychologists that work in the civil courts provide psychotherapy to crime victims, assess competency, and provide second opinions. Those working in the criminal courts provide an assessment of juvenile and adult offenders, conduct evaluations of mental competency, and work with child witnesses.

Forensic psychologists will often conduct their own research, as well as study and analyze research from other professionals. They may study criminals and their crimes to decipher what traits certain types of criminals have, which may involve interviewing criminals along with their loved ones and victims.

Forensic psychologists may also act as expert witnesses during criminal trials, and give testimonies about why a crime may have occurred. They may also express why they believe a defendant was likely to have committed the crimes in question. A forensic psychologist might also have an influence on a criminal's sentencing.

Consider a Specialty
The field of forensic psychology has given birth to several subspecialty disciplines, focused on consultation with criminal courts, consultation with juvenile courts, consultation with family courts, investigative psychology, correctional psychology, police psychology, and military psychology.

Criminal Subspecialty
Forensic psychologists consulting with criminal courts will be involved in numerous psycho-legal activities, including an array of forensic mental health assessments (FMHAs). The most common forensic health assessment involves the competency to stand trial or ‘adjudicative competency assessment.’ One area within this subspecialty which needs further research is the request of courts to forensic psychologists to assess the risk and danger of a particular offender to society, commonly referred to as risk assessment.

Juvenile Subspecialty
Common tasks for forensic psychologists consulting with juvenile courts include forensic mental health assessments to measure adjudicative competency, overall intellectual functioning, and cognitive ability to have rights waived during interview with law enforcement. Unlike adult criminal courts, which may be focused on incarceration and fines, juvenile courts give greater precedent to treatment options. This may require additional involvement of forensic psychologists for assessments and recommendations, as well as the facilitation of psychotherapeutic treatment methods.

Civil Subspecialty
Forensic psychologists consulting with civil courts will interact primarily with family, divorce, child custody, probate, and other non-criminal courts. Civil courts involved in lawsuits or torts may call upon forensic psychologists to assess emotional or psychological damage in personal injury, sexual harassment, and employment compensation claims.

Investigative Subspecialty
Investigative psychologists may be involved in psychological sketching to identify persons more likely to commit a particular offence; criminal profiling to identify traits and descriptors based on the characteristics of a crime; psychological autopsies in equivocal death cases; forensic hypnosis to help a witness recall information; developing and deploying methods of pre-trial identification of suspects by witnesses; and polygraph examinations and other functions where psychology benefits an investigative function.

Correctional Subspecialty
According to the American Association for Correction and Forensic Psychology, a wide spectrum of services is provided by forensic psychologists in correctional settings. These include administrative consultation; psychological screening, assessment, and training of prison employees; offender and initial inmate screening, assessment, and classification; treatment of prisoners with mental illnesses; crisis intervention; release assessment; and competency for treatment, rehabilitation, and execution.

Police Subspecialty
A police psychologist typically has five roles: Assist police departments in determining optimal shift schedules for their employees. Assist police in developing psychological profiles of serial offenders. Establish reliable and valid screening procedures for law enforcement positions. Train police officers on how to deal with mentally ill citizens. Provide counselling services to officers after shooting incidents.

Are you suited to be a forensic psychologist?

Forensic psychologists have distinct personalities. They tend to be investigative individuals, which means they’re intellectual, introspective, and inquisitive. They are curious, methodical, rational, analytical, and logical. Some of them are also artistic, meaning they’re creative, intuitive, sensitive, articulate, and expressive.

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What is the workplace of a Forensic Psychologist like?

Television shows like ‘Criminal Minds’ have glamorized forensic psychology by depicting often exaggerated situations and cases. However, the field is undeniably exciting, with huge job growth potential. Qualified forensic psychologists apply their expertise in the areas of criminal investigation and law.

Opportunities exist in the court system, law firms, police departments, prisons, jails, juvenile detention centres, and in business.

Individuals pursuing forensic psychology careers might also have opportunities to be self-employed. Some may work as consultants, or they may choose to receive compensation for testifying as expert witnesses.

Frequently Asked Questions

Should I become a Forensic Psychologist?

Aspiring forensic psychologists need to look beyond the glamorous image of the career presented by the entertainment industry. The field is a demanding one which requires a strong science background combined with substantial investigatory skills.

At minimum, successful forensic psychologists possess clinical psychology training and experience; firm grounding in scientific theory and empirical research, including understanding of scientific validity, research design, statistics, and testing; critical thinking abilities; familiarity with social and cultural issues; legal knowledge in the areas of mental health, case law, and courtroom procedures; exemplary oral presentation and writing talents; and an ability to remain composed in stressful circumstances.

Before committing to the pursuit of a career in forensic psychology, there are some pros and cons to consider.

Cons of a forensic psychology career may include:

Stringent education requirements
Even many entry level jobs require a doctorate. Five to seven years of postgraduate education is, of course, expensive.

Long work days
Eighteen-hour days are not uncommon when in the middle of a pressing court case. In many positions, you must be on call at least some of the time and be available to travel with short notice.

Low starting salary
When starting out, your annual salary will be in the $60,000 range.

Ethical considerations
As a consultant for hire, you may be required to take sides in a case, much like a lawyer does, which can produce stress and frustration. This aspect of the job, in particular, leads to a high rate of burnout.

Pros of employment as a forensic psychologist may include:
- Diversity offered by a cutting edge field where law enforcement and science intersect
- Opportunities in both the private and public sectors
- The chance to be of service to the community and to help people in need
- The challenge – and sometimes, the thrill – of working in the criminal justice field
- High job satisfaction, especially with the successful conclusion to a case
- Freedom from insurance and managed care concerns which confront other kinds of psychologists
- High salaries for psychologists with experience and an established reputation

How long does it take to become a Forensic Psychologist?

Because forensic psychology is essentially the intersection of two disciplines, most practitioners in the field complete a double major in psychology and criminal justice or criminology.

The duality of the occupation and the fact that even some entry-level positions require a doctorate generally necessitate a longer education than many other fields.

Typically, therefore, most forensic psychologists study for seven or eight years and earn a Ph.D.

What are Forensic Psychologists like?

Just as the career of forensic psychology resides at the intersection of law enforcement and science, the profile of a forensic psychologist is also dual in nature: it integrates sciences and humanities.

In other words, the most accomplished psychologists in this field are comfortable dealing with objective, systematic, testable explanations and predictions, as well as aspects of human society and culture.

This is not the career for either the pure scientist or the pure artist. It calls for professionals with the rare capacity to function in both spheres.

Are Forensic Psychologists happy?

One of forensic psychology’s main draws is the stimulation it offers. Professionals in the field often refer to the intellectual challenge it offers; they cite the pleasures of puzzling out cases, the variety of settings, and the constant evolution of this relatively young and vibrant occupation.

On the downside are the ethical issues faced by forensic psychologists. What has been described as the ‘pull to affiliate’ with the attorneys who hire you is among the major issues. Naturally, friendships often develop and can potentially compromise needed objectivity.

In addition, practitioners in the field need to have a thick skin to survive sometimes fierce challenges by opposing attorneys. If they become frustrated or discouraged, they will be ineffective. Some forensic psychologists may become emotionally invested in cases and become unable to ‘let go’ when courts do not do what they think is right.

Forensic work can also present a logistical toll. What this means is that courts do not work on your schedule; they work on theirs. This can result in last-minute demands and last-minute travel.

Of course, the subject matter confronted by forensic psychologists can also be distressing. Child custody and abuse cases, for example, exert particular stress on all those involved.

The career’s high stakes are another potential stressor: a person’s access to their children, their freedom to move around in the world, their whole life can change because of your opinion. On the other hand, such high stakes are exciting and may, in fact, be among the reasons that some forensic psychologists love what they do.