Guide to Criminal & Forensic Psychology

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According to the American Psychological Association, forensic psychology is “the application of clinical specialties to the legal arena.” This very broad definition helps to explain why there are so many different opportunities and paths for someone who chooses to pursue forensic psychology. While all forensic psychologists will do work that involves psychology (or psychiatry) and the law, the spectrum of possible tasks and careers is actually quite broad. Some forensic specialists may, for instance, make a career for themselves as an expert witness in a certain type of mental illness while others will seek employment in correctional facilities, working closely with inmates to provide treatment and even assistance upon release from prison.

Keep reading to get a better idea of what paths are available for forensic psychologists as well as what type of education and training each career requires.

Forensic Psychologist

It should come as no surprise that a forensic psychologist can be a lot of different things. But even though a forensic psychologist might work in many different settings with different types of patients, they do have minimum educational requirements. Some universities offer master’s degrees in forensic psychology, but according to the APA, in order to use the descriptor Forensic Psychologist, students must earn either a PhD (Doctor of Philosophy) or a PsyD (Doctor of Psychology) from an APA-accredited doctoral program. In addition, forensic psychologists must complete at least two years of supervised professional experience, at least one of which is at a an APA-accredited predoctoral internship.

With the proper education, a forensic psychologist can go on to specialize in any of the various fields within forensic psychology and could even pursue a medical education to study forensic psychiatry, if desired.

The following links provide a thorough overview of what it means to study forensic psychology and begin a career in this increasingly popular field:

  • What is forensic psychology?: If you want to hear the answer to the question “What is forensic psychology?” from the experts, look no further than this concise write up from the APA.
  • American Academy of Forensic Psychology: Aspiring forensic psychologists should consider joining the American Academy of Forensic Psychology. The professional group can assist with internships, job searches, and provide ongoing educational and networking opportunities.
  • Specialty Guidelines for Forensic Psychologists: Ethical guidelines for all professional psychologists apply to forensic psychologists as well, but this guide covers those special circumstances that forensic clinicians might encounter.
  • Resource Directory of Forensic Psychology pre-Doctoral Internship Training Programs: All practicing forensic psychologists must complete an approved training program. Although this list is not necessarily exhaustive, the resource from the American Academy of Forensic Psychology is definitely a good starting point.
  • American Board of Professional Psychology: The American Board of Professional Psychology provides resources for all types of psychology specialties, including forensic psychologists.

Criminal Psychologist

In one specialization of forensic psychology, clinicians can work directly with criminals in either a correctional or rehabilitative environment. A criminal psychologist may also be called a correctional psychologist or a prison psychologist, depending on the employer and the scope of the job. Prison psychologists are involved not only in one-on-one and group treatment session in correctional facilities, but also in parole hearings, behavioral hearings, intake, substance abuse treatment, and may take on a variety of other roles.

In order to become a criminal psychologist, students should pursue a standard forensic psychology path. However, not all criminal psychologists necessarily have to study forensic psychology as a specialty. Rather, experience working in the criminal justice system and in particular in correctional facilities is ideal. Those who want to work as a correctional psychologist should certainly attempt to complete some of their supervised work experience in this type of environment.

To learn more about the criminal psychology career, take a look at the following links:

  • A prison psychologist: In a cover story from the APA newsletter, a prison psychologist gives insight into her job working for the Federal Bureau of Prisons.
  • How to Become a Correctional Psychologist: This overview from is a useful primer in how to start and continue down a proper professional path to becoming a correctional psychologist.
  • My work as a psychologist in prison: This article from Psychology Today gives special insight into the correctional psychologist career as it was written by an active prison psychologist. The article addresses some of the most difficult issues this particular professional faces on a day to day basis.
  • Clinical Psychologist Job Posting: According to this page from the Federal Bureau of Prisons, clinical psychologists are always in demand around the U.S. Review the BOP site for more details about apply as a correctional psychologist.

Clinical Forensic Psychologist

While a clinical forensic psychologist is a somewhat vague term, in this instance it is being used to describe those clinicians who earn their living as expert witnesses for court cases. Rather than treat patients, expert witnesses provide their well-informed opinion during trials to educate judges and juries about their particular subject matter as it applies to the case at hand.

In order to become a clinical forensic psychologist and ultimately an expert witness, clinicians must establish themselves as experts in their field, although there are no legal requirements for what this means. Before testifying, expert witness will usually be required to go through their own professional background, including education, research, publication, and experience. It would be rare for a brand new psychologist to be hired as an expert witness for this reason.

Clinical forensic psychologists can consult on court proceedings in other ways as well. Psychologists may be called upon by a legal team to evaluate a defendant, to help select jurors, or to otherwise weigh in on the trial off of the witness stand.

Review the following links for more information on becoming a clinical forensic psychologist and expert witness:


Criminal Profiler

A criminal profiler has a job that most people probably think of when they consider what a forensic psychologist is. Criminal profilers work with law enforcement agencies to create profiles of perpetrators in order to assist in tracking and apprehending these offenders. While profiling techniques go back to at least the time of Jack the Ripper, modern profiling is much newer. Criminal profilers today often have psychological training and expertise, but that was not always the case. Rather, profiling began as law enforcement agents working on investigative experience and physical evidence rather than psychological profiles. Today, both components come into play.

The highest profile job, so to speak, for a criminal profiler, is at the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Profilers at the FBI work on cases involving terrorism, serial killers, and other major crimes. While a psychology degree is not necessarily required, there are many other prerequisites for employment with the FBI, including law enforcement experience and a clean criminal record. It is also important that aspiring profilers have a thorough familiarity with proper research methodology as well as statistics. Criminal profilers may also work with local law enforcement on a case by case basis.

Consult the links below for more details about becoming a criminal profiler.

Forensic Psychiatrist

Unlike forensic psychologists, forensic psychiatrists are medical doctors. That means in order to become one, a student must graduate from medical school and pursue a residency in psychiatry. Although forensic psychiatrists have different training from psychologists, their career still addresses the intersection of mental health and law. Indeed, many of the common situations that a forensic psychologist may address are common for forensic psychiatrists as well, including mental health evaluations and expert witness testimony.

The main difference when it comes to what a forensic psychiatrist might do as opposed to a psychologist is that psychiatrists are trained and licensed to perform biological, medical testing as well as prescribe medication. For this reason, a criminal psychiatrist may often work in conjunction with a psychologist who is providing treatment services for incarcerated individuals or in other forensic capacities.

The links below should help you to sort out how a forensic psychiatrist differs from a forensic psychologist further: