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How to Become a Forensic Psychiatrist

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Becoming a forensic psychiatrist is not easy, but the rewards can be significant. For those who have ever wondered how a criminal’s mind works or wanted to provide compassionate treatment to incarcerated offenders or victims of violent crime, this could be an interesting if challenging career path.

This career, which exists at the intersection of mental healthcare, medicine, and the law, has gained in popularity in recent decades. In fact, board certification for the specialty did not exist until 1992 but has since grown as a professional field in popular culture. However, it is essential to note that a forensic psychiatrist, a medical doctor, does not perform the same tasks or have the same responsibilities as a forensic psychologist or a criminal profiler.

What’s the difference between forensic psychiatry and forensic psychology? According to Dr. William H. Reid, MD, MPH, a forensic psychiatry consultant, “A forensic psychiatrist is a psychiatrist who has additional training and experience related to the various interfaces of mental health (or mental illness) with the law.” Compared to forensic psychologists, “Psychiatrists are physicians with specialty training in the understanding, diagnosis, and treatment of mental disorders. This includes biological evaluations and treatments (such as laboratory tests and medications), psychotherapy, and family & social issues.”

Remember that forensic psychologists with doctoral-level (such as PhD, PsyD, or EdD) degrees aren’t required to go to medical school, but may have particular expertise in such issues as psychological testing. By comparison, forensic psychiatrists follow career paths similar to medical doctors and can prescribe medications.

For those with the intelligence and focus to complete the steps to become a medical doctor and then complete residencies and fellowships, forensic psychiatry is a fascinating specialty career.

Keep reading to learn how one can become a forensic psychiatrist, including career outlook and a step-by-step career guide.

Outlook for the Forensic Psychiatrist Career

Because forensic psychiatrists are also medical doctors, they must understand complex scientific subjects, be able to think critically, and thrive in an academic environment. Students must be willing to dedicate many years of their lives, as outlined below, to studying, taking exams, and working in labs before they can even specialize in their chosen field. Perseverance and mental stamina are other essential skills.

The forensic psychiatry career is particularly specialized, so finding reliable information about its projected growth and salary can be a bit difficult compared to other fields. However, it is possible to extrapolate details to piece together the projected growth for this field.

For instance, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS 2021), the expected growth rate for all physicians and surgeons will be 3 percent between 2020 and 2030—a category that includes psychiatrists. While only a fraction of those new physician jobs is for psychiatrists, the reality is that there is a need for medical professionals to enter the field. As access to mental health care expands, the demand will likely increase. It is possible to infer from this varied data that there will continue to be a need for psychiatrists of every stripe, including those specializing in forensic work, for many years to come.

In terms of salary, the BLS reports that the mean annual wage for psychiatrists in 2021 was $249,760 (BLS May 2021). The same data indicates that the lowest-paid 10 percent in the position makes $64,600, with the 25th percentile coming in at $128,380. Data for the 50th, 75th, and 90th percentiles are not available because they exceed the amount the BLS reports: $208,000.

Despite not having data specific to forensic psychiatry, the outlook for forensic psychiatry looks promising for those willing to put in the time and effort.

Education & Licensing Requirements for a Forensic Psychiatrist

Forensic psychiatrists are medical doctors. This means that to become a forensic psychiatrist, one must not only study a relevant subject at the undergraduate level but also apply for and complete medical school. In addition, forensic psychiatrists must complete a residency in psychiatry and a fellowship in forensic psychiatry.

Forensic psychiatrists must be licensed as doctors in the state where they intend to practice, including passing all sections of the United States Medical Licensing Examination. The licensing process will vary from state to state but will undoubtedly include a background check and completion of an accredited medical program.

Forensic Psychiatry Certification

Forensic psychiatrists can also become board certified in their specialty. The American Board of Psychiatry and Neurology (ABPN) has a Forensic Psychiatry specialty certification. To qualify for the exam, applicants must first seek board certification in psychiatry from ABPN; then they are eligible to take the forensic psychiatry exam.

Applicants must pay a substantial testing fee ($1,345 as of 2022) and have completed at least one year of forensic psychiatry training (usually a fellowship) before taking the exam. While board certification is not strictly required to work as a forensic psychiatrist, it can undoubtedly open professional doors for doctors.

Different Paths and Steps to Becoming a Forensic Psychiatrist

Because forensic psychiatrists are medical doctors, there are few paths to take to become one. Prospective forensic psychiatrists may choose from various majors as undergraduates but will need to follow the standard medical school to residency to fellowship path to meet all legal academic requirements for this particular career.

Step 1: Earn an Undergraduate Degree (Four Years)
In the last years of high school, students should begin to research and apply to four-year institutions since medical school requires a minimum of a bachelor’s degree and admission can be quite competitive.

Several different undergraduate degrees are considered pre-med, but it is generally preferred that prospective medical school students have a background in life sciences. Common pre-med majors include biology and chemistry, and forensic science.

The Department of Forensic and Investigative Science at West Virginia University offers bachelor of science degrees in forensic biology, forensic chemistry, and forensic examination. These degree programs heavily emphasize courses in biology, chemistry, organic chemistry, physics, calculus, and statistics and prepare students for future forensic careers and advanced degree coursework. This degree program requires a forensic science internship or research experience.

  • Location: Morgantown, WV
  • Duration: Four years
  • Accreditation: Forensic Education Programs Accreditation Commission (FEPAC)
  • Tuition: $324 per credit (in-state); $1,019 per credit (out-of-state)

Regardless of the major a student chooses, it is essential that they complete the medical school prerequisite courses, including advanced courses in the sciences. Applicants should check the admissions requirements for the medical schools where they want to apply to ensure they are taking a course load with appropriate rigor expected from medical school admissions. Since medical school admissions are extremely competitive, applicants should excel in their courses and keep their GPAs as high as possible.

Lastly, students who are sure of their path early on may consider enrolling in a BS to MD program. These programs allow students to move directly from their undergraduate studies to medical school without the difficult medical school application process. Of course, admission to the MD program is contingent on performance at the undergraduate level.

Step 2: Apply to Medical School
Applying to medical school is a bit more involved than applying to undergraduate programs. Students will have to submit an application and recommendations, along with MCAT scores, and they will often have to complete in-person interviews. Upon entrance to medical school, students need not declare a specialty (such as psychiatry), as all medical students must undergo the same foundational training before applying to residency programs.

Step 3: Complete Medical School (Four Years)
By far the most arduous part of becoming a forensic psychiatrist is completing medical school. Typically, this process takes four years of full-time school. Part-time medical school or working while in medical school are virtually unheard of due to the strenuous coursework and time students must dedicate to studying.

The curriculum in medical school is balanced across different disciplines, allowing students to experience a range of branches of medicine. This means that even those who are confident in their desire to become forensic psychiatrists will gain experience in fields as diverse as gynecology and plastic surgery.

Students will begin the licensing process following the second year of medical school with the first part of the United States Medical Licensing Examination (USMLE), known colloquially as “the boards.” During year four, students will take part two of the exam.

Step 4: Apply for and Complete Residency in Psychiatry (Four Years)
To specialize in forensic psychiatry, graduating medical school students must first complete a psychiatry residency. This generally means working as an entry-level doctor in a hospital in a variety of capacities from emergency medicine to inpatient psychiatric care. Residents work alongside nurses and supervising physicians to begin to learn the reality of working in psychiatry.

Residencies, which last for another four years, are quite competitive. Students should expect to have a top choice and several backup programs to ensure they can complete a psychiatry residency. After the first year, doctors will complete Step 3 of the USMLE, which is the final part.

Step 5: Apply for and Complete Fellowship in Forensic Psychiatry (Two Years)
After completing a residency in psychiatry and getting a big-picture understanding of the field, doctors can apply to a forensic psychiatry fellowship. These fellowships are sponsored by universities and last for two years, during which doctors can expect to learn about forensic psychiatry in its many forms through clinical experience, research, and teaching.

Step 6: Apply for Board Certification
After a year of a forensic psychiatrist fellowship, doctors can sit for the forensic psychiatrist specialty exam from the American Board of Psychiatry and Neurology (ABPN). This certification is not legally required for working as a forensic psychiatrist, but having it can be a professional asset that leads to increased networking and career opportunities.

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Rachel Drummond

Rachel Drummond is a freelance writer, educator, and yogini from Oregon. She’s taught English to international university students in the United States and Japan for more than a decade and has a master’s degree in education from the University of Oregon. Rachel writes about meditation, yoga, coaching, and more on her blog (Instagram: @racheldrummondyoga).