Becoming a forensic psychiatrist is not an easy path, but the rewards can be great. Those who have ever wondered how the mind of a criminal works or wanted to help 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, both in the professional growth sense and in the popular culture. In fact, board certification for the specialty did not exist until 1992. However, it is important to note that a forensic psychiatrist, who is a medical doctor, does not perform the same tasks or have the same responsibilities as either a forensic psychologist or a criminal profiler.
According to Dr. William H. Reid, MD, MPH, a forensic psychiatry consultant, “A forensic psychiatrist is a psychiatrist who has additional training and/or experience related to the various interfaces of mental health (or mental illness) with the law.” As 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. Doctoral-level (such as PhD, PsyD, or EdD) psychologists do not go to medical school, but are professionals in their own right, and may have special expertise in topics not usually studied in detail by psychiatrists (such as psychological testing).”
For those with the intelligence and focus to complete the steps to become a medical doctor and then complete residencies and fellowships that lead to the forensic psychiatrist specialty, this is a fascinating career. Keep reading to learn how one can become a forensic psychiatrist.
Because forensic psychiatrists are also medical doctors, a person’s ability to understand complex scientific subjects, to think critically, and to thrive in an academic environment are key. Students must be willing to dedicate many years of their lives, as outlined below, to studying, taking exams, and working in labs before they will even be able to specialize in their chosen field. Because of this, perseverance is another essential skill.
The forensic psychiatry career is particularly specialized, which means that finding reliable information about its projected growth and salary can be a bit difficult. However, it is possible to extrapolate some expected details.
For instance, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS 2019), the expected growth rate for all physicians and surgeons will be 7 percent between 2018 and 2028—a category that includes psychiatrists. While only a fraction of those new physician jobs are for psychiatrists, the reality is that there is a need for medical professionals to enter the field. As access to mental health care expands, this demand continues to grow. It is possible to infer from this varied data that there will continue to be a need for psychiatrists of every stripe, including those that specialize in forensic work, for many years to come.
In terms of salary, the BLS reports that the mean annual wage for psychiatrists in 2017 was $220,430 (BLS May 2019). The same data indicates that the lowest-paid 10 percent in the position makes $74,530 with the 25th percentile coming in at $149,440. Data for the 75th and 90th percentiles are not available because they exceed the amount at which the BLS reports: $208,000.
Despite not having data specific to forensic psychiatry, it is easy to see that the outlook for the field will be good for those that are willing to put in the time and effort.
Forensic psychiatrists are medical doctors. This means that in order 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 as well as a fellowship in forensic psychiatry.
Forensic psychiatrists must be licensed as doctors in the state where they intend to practice, which includes passing all sections of the United States Medical Licensing Examination. The licensing process will vary from state to state, but will certainly include a background check in addition to verification of completion of an accredited medical program.
Forensic psychiatrists can also choose to become board certified in their specialty. The American Board of Psychiatry and Neurology (ABPN) has a Forensic Psychiatry specialty certification. In order 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 2020) and have completed at least one year of forensic psychiatry training (usually a fellowship) prior to taking the exam. While board certification is not strictly required to work as a forensic psychiatrist, it can certainly open professional doors for doctors.
Because forensic psychiatrists are medical doctors, there are few options as to what path to take to become one. Prospective forensic psychiatrists may choose from a variety of majors as undergraduates but will need to follow the standard medical school to residency to fellowship path in order 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.
As far as undergraduate education, there are a number of different paths a student could take, though it is generally preferred that prospective medical school students have a background in life sciences. Common pre-med majors include biology and chemistry but a forensic science major may also be acceptable. Regardless of the major a student chooses, is it essential that he or she complete the medical school prerequisite courses, including advanced courses in the sciences. Students should be sure to check the admissions requirements for the medical schools where they want to apply to ensure they are taking a reasonable course load. Students should also be prepared to excel in all their courses since medical school admissions are extremely competitive.
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. Not only will students have to submit an application and recommendations, along with MCAT scores, but they will often have to complete in-person interviews as well. Students need not declare a specialty (such as psychiatry) upon entrance to medical school 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 that must be dedicated 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 certain of their desire to become a forensic psychiatrist will gain experience in fields as diverse as gynecology and plastic surgery. Following the second year of medical school, students will begin the licensing process 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)
In order 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 also quite competitive. Students should expect to have a top choice as well as several back up programs in order to ensure they are able to complete a psychiatry residency. After the first year, doctors will complete part 3 of the USMLE, which is the final part.
Step 5: Apply for and Complete Fellowship in Forensic Psychiatry (Two Years)
It is only after completing a residency in psychiatry and getting a big picture understanding of the field that doctors are able to apply to a forensic psychiatry fellowship. These fellowships are sponsored by universities and last for 2 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 are able to sit for the forensic psychiatrist specialty exam from the American Board of Psychiatry and Neurology (ABPN). This certification is not legally required for work as a forensic psychiatrist, but can be a professional asset.
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).