Rachel Drummond, MEd
If a person is not of a sound mental state, how can they be convicted of a crime and sentenced? The field of forensic psychology determines fault and explains how mental health factors into criminal behavior.
According to Psychology Today, forensic psychologists are involved in roles ranging from assessing whether or not an inmate is legally insane to crisis management in communities in the wake of violent crime. Ultimately forensic psychologists serve in many roles ranging from clinicians, data scientists, behavioral therapists, and legal consultants.
Forensic psychology has evolved from a virtually non-existent area 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 to assist investigators.
Forensic psychologists provide key testimonies in legal proceedings. 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 the demand for skilled forensic psychologists remains strong. To become a forensic psychologist, significant training is required.
To earn a psychologist license, candidates must meet educational requirements, 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 to a fulfilling and fascinating career.
Keep reading to learn the details of how to become a forensic psychologist.
The outlook for the forensic psychologist career is bright. While the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) does not specifically track forensic specialty growth data, they predict that the demand for all psychologists will grow 6 percent between 2021 and 2031. That growth rate is roughly the same expected growth among all occupations nationally during the same period and translates to 11,300 new positions in the coming decade.
According to Psychology Today, forensic psychology is a growing field. However, to take advantage of the increased demand, psychologists must be clinically competent with a practice based firmly in scientific theory.
The BLS (May 2022) also notes that the median salary for all clinical and counseling psychologists is $81,080 per year, with the lowest-paid 10 percent earning less than $47,850 and the highest-paid 10 percent earning more than $133,890.
Becoming a clinical psychologist, whether in the forensic specialty or otherwise, requires a great deal of training and 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 a PhD or a PsyD, and complete a set number of supervised training hours in practice before practicing independently.
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 to testify in court.
Please see our guide to Forensic Psychology Degree and Certificate Programs for a detailed guide to forensic psychology programs.
|Featured Forensic Psychology Programs
|Grand Canyon University
|BS in Psychology - Forensic Psychology
|Grand Canyon University
|MS in Psychology - Forensic Psychology
|Arizona State University
|Forensic Psychology (MS)
|Arizona State University
|Psychology - Forensic Psychology (BS)
|Southern New Hampshire University
|BA in Psychology - Forensic Psychology
|MS - Clinical Psychology: Forensic Psychology
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 in forensic psychology, as that often affords them a wider range of potential employment possibilities. The following are the most common steps taken to begin this career. Note that the exact order of the following steps and some specifics, such as how many hours of supervised practice, will depend on where the psychologist intends to practice.
Step 1: Graduate high school – A high school diploma or GED is required to pursue a 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 (four 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), but that is not necessarily required.
Students should meet all prerequisites for their graduate program of choice during their undergraduate program. Common prerequisite courses include introductory-level psychology classes and certain statistics classes. If available, students can use this time to take classes such as abnormal psychology and criminal psychology and pursue any available internships in their chosen field.
An example undergraduate program is Southern New Hampshire University’s (SNHU) online bachelor of arts in psychology with a concentration in forensic psychology. This program prepares students with research and critical thinking skills and skills such as psychological assessment in criminal justice. Courses in the 12-credit forensic psychology concentration include counseling process and techniques, sociology of crime and violence, and sociology of deviant behavior.
Step 3: Pursue an advanced degree – (two to four 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 the APA has accredited to ensure the best chance of 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 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 degrees, but this is not true for forensic psychologists. During a doctoral program, students should expect to complete a thesis in forensic psychology and begin working under the supervision of licensed psychologists to start their professional field training.
For example, Arizona State University (ASU) offers an online master of science in forensic psychology. This 33-credit program requires 11 courses offered in 7.5-week terms. Courses include advanced psychology in criminal investigation, legal psychology, forensic psychology, and correctional psychology. This program prepares graduates for doctoral programs in forensic psychology and clinical roles in mental health and the judicial system. To apply, candidates must have a bachelor’s degree in psychology, criminal justice, social science, or a related field from an accredited college or university.
Step 4: Study for and take the EPPP – The Examination for Professional Practice in Psychology (EPPP) is required in most states to become licensed. Students should take this exam as soon as they are eligible in their state, 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 the supervision of a licensed psychologist during their doctoral program. Each state requires several supervised hours, with some requiring postdoctoral practice hours. Students must 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 4,000 before licensure. Students should seek out supervision from forensic psychologists specifically to build up their expertise in the area and strengthen their professional network.
Step 6: Apply for professional licensure – New psychologists can apply for state licensure from their local licensing board when all the requirements for a specific state have been met. Applicants should be prepared to submit to a background check and fingerprinting and a review of professional credentials.
Step 7: Seek a job in forensic psychology – Once a psychologist has earned their license, they can seek 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. The state licensing board should provide specific requirements and details about what courses and tasks can apply to continuing education credits.
Step 9: Become board certified – Although not legally required, earning board certification from the American Board of Forensic Psychology can help grow one’s career in the field. To qualify, applicants must have a doctoral degree, at least 100 hours of specialized training in forensic psychology, and 1,000 hours of direct experience in forensic psychology over a minimum of five years OR a full-time (at least 2,000-hour) formal postdoctoral training program in forensic psychology.
Understandably, the field of psychology is heavily regulated by the government. A long road of education and training must be completed to become a forensic psychologist. A high school graduate can expect to spend at least six more years in school (usually eight) and extensive supervised training hours, which may or may not be paid. For these reasons, forensic psychology is truly a career for those who are tenacious and dedicated to advancing knowledge and the field of criminal justice.
Rachel Drummond, MEd
Rachel Drummond has given her writing expertise to ForensicsColleges.com since 2019, where she provides a unique perspective on the intersection of education, mindfulness, and the forensic sciences. Her work encourages those in the field to consider the role of mental and physical well-being in their professional success.
Rachel is a writer, educator, and coach from Oregon. She has a master’s degree in education (MEd) and has over 15 years of experience teaching English, public speaking, and mindfulness to international audiences in the United States, Japan, and Spain. She writes about the mind-body benefits of contemplative movement practices like yoga on her blog, inviting people to prioritize their unique version of well-being and empowering everyone to live healthier and more balanced lives.