Forensic Psychology

Forensic psychology is becoming an increasingly popular field of study thanks in large part to depictions of the profession on television and in film.

This recent popularity, however, has sensationalized and painted a less-than-accurate picture of a rewarding profession. Life seldom imitates cop dramas, and the same holds true for the lives of forensic psychologists.

Let’s get some clarity, then, on what the field of forensic psychology entails, what a forensic psychologist does and whether this growing field could be a good fit for you.

What Is Forensic Psychology?

Forensic psychology builds a necessary bridge between the legal system and our understanding of psychology.

This comes straight from the source: “Forensic psychology is the application of the science and profession of psychology to questions and issues relating to law and the legal system,” reads the American Board of Forensic Psychology’s website.

Psychological evidence is an important component to many legal arguments, and courts need psychologists who can apply their expertise and translate that knowledge into something judges and juries can understand.

An example of where forensic psychology comes into play is when a criminal defendant pleads insanity. A forensic psychologist is then called upon by the court to assess this plea and testify as to whether that defendant is in fact sane.

A real-world example of forensic psychology in action is the 2012 trial of Anders Breivik, the Norwegian terrorist whose case spent a great deal of time assessing his sanity and whether he could actually be held criminally responsible for mass murder.

Forensic psychology takes on many other circumstances. An expert in the field can also offer an assessment of the risk a defendant may present, evaluate cases of child custody or read polygraph data.

It is important to note that forensic psychology has clearly different goals than other areas of psychology. Where a clinical psychologist may work with a patient for the patient’s own sake, the forensic psychologist will deal with a client mainly in order to gain information. The client’s participation is often not of his or her own free will, and the information collected does not necessarily serve the client’s benefit.

What Do Forensic Psychologists Do?

Already, we see that a major role for forensic psychologists is testifying in court and translating science into the language of the courtroom.

It’s useful to break these roles down for now into criminal and civil courts. In criminal courts, a forensic psychologist may be called upon to assess a defendant’s competence, work with young children who are called as witnesses, assess juvenile offenders or weigh in on sentencing recommendations. In civil courts, a forensic psychologist may testify in child custody cases, lawsuits claiming emotional damage or workers’ compensation cases.

Furthermore, a forensic psychologist could be employed by a school to assess issues of abuse, or even a prison as a proactive measure to prevent repeat offenses.

The profession requires that the professional wear many hats. However, one common thread runs through all of these roles: Getting inside the mind of another person. At the most fundamental level, a good forensic psychologist is a good clinical psychologist. Therefore, a career in forensic psychology is built upon a solid clinical psychology education.

Becoming A Forensic Psychologist

A practicing forensic psychologist likely must have a doctorate degree in psychology. This can be either in clinical or counseling psychology. Some universities are beginning to offer forensic-specific doctoral programs.

There are multiple education paths you can choose, but each requires an investment of many years of study, as much as five to seven years at the graduate level. Because the field is quite popular, competition for the doctoral programs is intense.

Forensic Psychology Employment Statistics

For those who remain focused during their studies and make the cut into the doctoral programs, the employment outlook looks good. The US Bureau of Labor Statistics does not list a specific category for forensic psychologists, but employment among all psychologists is expected to grow 22% between 2010 and 2020. That certainly exceeds the national average across all careers.

As a practicing forensic psychologist, you can expect a comfortable salary. Among all professional psychologists, 90% earned at least $39,200 per year, and the median wage was $68,640. Bear in mind, though, that such a salary does come at a high investment cost of both time and tuition.

Important Skills to Develop as a Forensic Psychologist

Again, a good forensic psychologist must first develop clinical skills. This means you have to want to work with people, and you must absolutely learn to be patient. Additionally, you will be exposed to emotional trauma, mental illnesses and a great deal of suffering; all the while, your primary goal will be information, not necessarily helping those who suffer.

The inherent challenges are both the draw and the cause of much professional stress. That’s not to dissuade anyone, though. Forensic psychology is a fascinating field that is growing quickly and offers rewarding employment for the right students.

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