How to Become a Forensic Psychologist

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Over the last decades, the field of forensic psychology has evolved from a virtually non-existent field to one that has been sensationalized in countless movies, books and television programs. While the inner workings of the criminal mind have always been something that has fascinated detectives and civilians alike, only in this century has a profession been developed to explore criminal motives and work to treat offenders effectively: forensic psychology.

What do forensic psychologists do? As expected, it does not look exactly like the dramatic day to day of the profilers and serial killer hunters on television. Responsibilities may vary, but most psychologists in the field help police determine the motives for certain crimes, narrow down a suspect pool, and generally provide deeper insight into the criminal mind in order to assist investigators. Forensic psychologists also help the courts. They help determine whether a suspect is competent enough to stand trial, or whether an inmate is ready for parole. Forensic psychologists may work as part of a law enforcement team, in a jail or prison setting, or as independent consultants. As the understanding of the intersection of mental health and the law grows, so does the field of forensic psychology and demand for skilled forensic psychologists remains strong.

To become a forensic psychologist, significant training is required. To earn a psychologist license, educational requirements must be met and new psychologists must perform hundreds of hours of training under the supervision of an experienced psychologist. The path to one’s first job in the field involves dedication and hard work, but can ultimately lead a fulfilling and fascinating career. Keep reading to learn the details of how to become a forensic psychologist.

Career Outlook for Forensic Psychologists

The outlook for the forensic psychologist career is bright. While the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS 2017) does not specifically track growth data for the forensic specialty, they do predict that the demand for all psychologists will grow 14 percent between 2016 and 2026. That rate of growth is double the expected growth rate for all professions over the same span, which is just 7 percent.

According to Psychology Today, forensic psychology is a growing field. However, in order to take advantage of the increased demand, psychologists must be clinically competent with a practice based firmly in scientific theory.

The BLS also notes that the median salary for all psychologists is $77,030 per year with the lowest paid 10 percent earning less than $42,330 and the highest paid 10 percent earning more than $124,520.

Education and Professional Licensing Requirements for Forensic Psychologists

Becoming a clinical psychologist, whether in the forensic specialty or otherwise, requires a great deal of training as well as government licensure to practice. The requirements for licensure vary from state to state. Typically, psychologists must earn a minimum of a doctoral-level degree either in the form of a PhD or a PsyD and complete a set number of supervised training hours in practice before they are able to practice on their own.

Those pursuing the forensic specialty may ultimately choose to become board certified through the American Board of Professional Psychology (ABPP). Although not required by law, this certification is often essential in establishing expertise in order to testify in court.

For those seeking professional board certification in the field, the ABPP recommends seeking out a mentor who has gone through the process prior to beginning the application.

Steps to Become a Forensic Psychologist

In order to become a psychologist, a student must first earn a bachelor’s degree in psychology or another behavioral science, followed by a master’s or doctoral degree. Most forensic psychologists opt for a doctorate degree in forensic psychology, as that often affords them a wider range of potential employment possibilities. Following are the most common steps taken to begin this career. Note that the exact order of the following steps, as well as some specifics, such as how many hours of supervised practice, are necessary, will depend on where the psychologist intends to practice.

  • Step 1: Graduate high school – A high school diploma or GED are required to pursue the forensic psychology degree. If possible, students should take any psychology courses available and excel in life sciences such as biology and chemistry to improve their chances of admission to a strong psychology undergraduate program.
  • Step 2: Complete an undergraduate degree (4 years) – The rigorous coursework required in this profession begins in the undergraduate years. Most forensic psychologists will complete an undergraduate degree in psychology (typically a bachelor of science, or BS, degree), but that is not necessarily required. Students should ensure that they meet all prerequisites for their graduate program of choice during their undergraduate program. Common prerequisite courses include introductory level psychology classes as well as certain statistics classes. If available, students can use this time to take classes such as abnormal psychology and criminal psychology as well as to pursue any available internships in their chosen field.
  • Step 3: Pursue an advanced degree – (2 to 4 years) After completing an undergraduate degree, students will need to apply to a graduate program. This is where students will be able to specialize in forensic psychology. Students should look for doctoral programs that have been accredited by the APA to ensure themselves the best chance at becoming licensed. Although licensing requirements vary by state, most states require that practicing psychologists have earned a doctor of psychology (PsyD) or PhD in psychology in order to be licensed. Some therapists may be able to practice with a master of family therapy (MFT), master of social work (MSW) or other master’s level degree, but this is not true for forensic psychologists. During a doctoral program, students should expect to complete a thesis in the field of forensic psychology and to begin working under the supervision of licensed psychologists to start their professional field training.
  • Step 4: Study for and take the EPPP – The Examination for Professional Practice in Psychology (EPPP) is required in most states in order to become licensed. Students should take this exam as soon as they are eligible in their state, which is typically after they have completed the necessary educational work for their doctoral program (they do not necessarily have to have completed their thesis). The EPPP is offered by the Association of State and Provincial Psychology Boards (ASPPB).
  • Step 5: Complete required supervised practice hours (timeline varies) – Students will start practicing under supervision of a licensed psychologist during their doctoral program. Each state requires a different number of supervised hours with some requiring postdoctoral practice hours as well. It is essential that students be aware of the requirements for their state and plan their practice hours accordingly. For licensure requirements by state, students and graduates can visit the PsyBook as compiled by the ASPPB. According to the APA, the average number of internship plus postdoctoral hours required is 4000 prior to licensure. Students should seek out supervision from forensic psychologists specifically in order to build up their expertise in the area as well as to strengthen their professional network.
  • Step 6: Apply for professional licensure – When all the requirements for a specific state have been met, new psychologists can apply for state licensure from their local board of licensing. Applicants should be prepared to submit to a background check and fingerprinting as well as through review of professional credentials.
  • Step 7: Seek a job in forensic psychology – Once a psychologist has earned his or her license, they are able to seek out employment as an unsupervised forensic psychologist. Now is the time to reach out to other forensic psychologists, law enforcement agencies, prisons, and other contacts to look for a job.
  • Step 8: Maintain licensure – To maintain licensure as a forensic psychologist, most states require some form of continuing education in the field. Specific requirements as well as details about what courses and tasks can apply to continuing education credits should be available from the state licensing board.
  • Step 9: Become board certified – Although not legally required, earning board certification from the American Board of Forensic Psychology can be helpful in growing one’s career in the field. In order to qualify, applicants must have a doctoral degree, at least 100 hours of specialized training in forensic psychology, and 1000 hours of direct experience in forensic psychology over a minimum of five years OR a full-time (at least 2000 hour) formal postdoctoral training program in forensic psychology.

Understanably, the field of psychology is heavily regulated by the government. This means that in order to become a forensic psychologist, there is a long road of education and training that must be completed. A high school graduate can expect to spend at least six more years in school (usually eight) in addition to extensive supervised training hours, which may or may not be paid positions. This is truly a career for those who are dedicated.

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