Forensic psychologists serve at the intersection of the legal system and mental health. The word “forensic” in Latin means “from the open court,” and the root word “psyche” comes from the Greek word meaning “breath, soul, mind.”
The American Board of Forensic Psychology (ABFP) defines forensic psychology as “the application of scientific principles and practices to the adversary process where scientists with specialized knowledge play a role.”
Forensic psychologists share one goal through research and clinical practices: to understand what motivates people to commit crimes and use this knowledge to prevent future crimes. Forensic psychology work involves studying past crimes, questioning suspects and convicted criminals, and conducting clinical outcomes to become legal evidence. By analyzing and interpreting the minds and habits of people committing crimes, forensic psychologists can more accurately and compassionately serve justice in the future by using documentation to drive crime prevention.
This specialized field of psychology is available to undergraduate and graduate-level degree holders. While clinical and research positions require a master’s degree and a license to practice, there are forensic psychology positions for undergraduate degree holders to pursue and determine if this blended disciplinary profession is the right career field for them.
As violent crime rates continue to increase, forensic psychology careers are predicted to be in high demand. The US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) shows that in the coming decade, psychologists will grow as fast as the national rate for all occupations (8 percent) and create 13,500 jobs between 2020 and 2030 (BLS 2021).
In addition, the pay for forensic psychologists is well above the national average for all occupations at $56,310 per year (BLS May 2020), and PayScale shows the average forensic psychologist salary is $71,945 based on 144 self-reported salaries. Unfortunately, the BLS doesn’t keep specific forensic psychology occupational data but shows the average annual salary for psychologists is $89,290 (BLS May 2020).
Keep reading to learn about career opportunities for forensic psychologists with undergraduate, graduate, and doctoral degrees.
An undergraduate degree in forensic psychology can open many career doors. Still, it is essential to recognize that more education may be required for positions that provide professional counseling services or evaluations. For example, counselors and psychologists who see patients in clinical and research-based settings must have a graduate-level degree. In addition, a certain number of supervised clinical hours are required to obtain and maintain licensure.
That being said, there are still relevant careers for students who have earned a bachelor of science (BS) in forensic psychology.
A victim advocate can play an essential role in the criminal justice process. These individuals work closely with crime victims to help shepherd them through the legal system with a minimal amount of trauma. The exact duties of a victim advocate will depend on what type of crime the victim has experienced but may include such things as:
Generally speaking, victim advocates do not need to be certified. Still, certification through the National Organization for Victim Assistance is an option for those who wish to advance in their career. According to Indeed.com (2021), the average annual base salary for victim advocates is $41,867.
Working as a court liaison officer is another way graduates of a bachelor’s degree program in forensic psychology can participate in the criminal justice system. Court liaisons play an essential role by acting as a go-between for criminal courts and local police departments. Court liaisons are not sworn police officers but do work closely with law enforcement. These officers may perform any number of administrative tasks for the court, including reviewing paperwork or registering sex offenders.
According to data from Salary.com (2021), court liaisons earn anywhere from $41,496 to $53,814 per year.
A bachelor’s degree in forensic psychology can be an important stepping stone to a career as a law enforcement officer. Although most police departments do not require a bachelor’s degree to apply to the police academy, the foundation that a forensic psychology degree can provide may be beneficial during the application and initial training process and may assist new officers in more quickly ascending to more higher-ranked positions such as a detective.
According to ZipRecruiter.com (2021), salaries for law enforcement officers vary by state, but the national average is $48,418 per year.
Being a probation officer is another exciting career path for those who do not want to go to the police academy and start walking a beat. Instead, these individuals work with offenders recently released from jail to ensure that they are adequately employed and housed to not re-offend. The knowledge of both criminal justice and psychology can be beneficial in dealing with these potentially volatile situations.
According to the BLS (2021), probation officers and correctional treatment specialists earned a median salary of $55,690 per year.
While many social worker positions require a master’s degree, some social worker positions are accessible for those with undergraduate degrees in social work, psychology, or sociology. Social workers with undergraduate degrees work in direct-service positions, otherwise known as caseworkers or mental health assistants. Social workers identify people and community needs by assessing, researching, and providing various support services such as addiction recovery, domestic violence support, or career transition services.
In 2021, the BLS shows the median annual salary for social workers is $51,760.
With graduate-level education in forensic psychology, more career options open up. However, it is important to note that even with a master’s degree, graduates are not eligible for licensing as psychologists and therefore cannot treat patients in a clinical setting. Following are some career options available to those holding a master of science (MS) degree in forensic psychology.
A jury consultant works with legal teams to determine how to seat the best jury for that team’s desired outcome and how to proceed with the case when the jury has been chosen. Forensic psychologists can use their knowledge of criminal justice and human behavior to help select desirable jurors based on the available information.
According to Glassdoor.com (2021), the average base pay for jury consultants is $83,325 per year.
Although a master’s degree alone does not qualify graduates to become licensed counselors and psychologists, most states have counseling licensure processes for graduates from accredited counseling master’s degree programs. Licensed counselors can provide counseling in various outpatient clinical environments, including group homes, substance abuse treatment centers, and correctional facilities.
According to the BLS (2021), mental counselors earn median annual salaries of $47,660 per year.
Juveniles who enter the criminal justice system are at extremely high risk for recidivism and have often been the victims of crimes — from neglect to physical and sexual abuse — themselves. This makes them prime for counseling services from a licensed counselor to avoid self-destructive behaviors and learn coping skills to help them thrive as they navigate teenage years and approach adulthood.
According to Salary.com (2021), juvenile court counselors earn anywhere from $48,903 to $62,347, depending on responsibilities and the cost of living in a particular area.
Many master’s level programs in forensic psychology include a research element, allowing students to conduct forensic psychological research and analyze data. Master’s graduates can assist licensed psychologists in research in the forensic field or use this experience to prepare them for doctoral work in forensic psychology.
According to the BLS (2020), social science research assistants earn a median annual salary of $53,560.
With a doctoral degree and the training hours required for state licensure, graduates from psychology doctoral programs are eligible for licensing. This opens up many more career possibilities involving clinical psychology examination and treatment and careers in academia and research. It is important to note that students may pursue either a doctor of psychology (PsyD) or a doctor of philosophy (PhD) degree. Both allow graduates to become licensed psychologists with PsyD programs focused on clinical treatment while PhD programs focus on research and teaching.
Many students who pursue a graduate degree in forensic psychology do so with the ultimate goal of becoming a forensic psychologist. While forensic psychologists can fill several roles, they often work as consultants for law enforcement agencies. For example, those that work with the FBI may profile criminals, while for other agencies, they may evaluate offenders or even work with the officers themselves.
Forensic psychologists can also work directly in a jail setting, counseling offenders for release or as a way to help them cope with the stress of incarceration, as well as treating any underlying mental health issues. As previously stated, PayScale.com (2021) shows the average annual base salary for forensic psychologists is $71,945, not including bonuses.
Forensic psychologists are often called on as expert witnesses in criminal trials, and indeed some make this process an entire career. An expert witness in this context can answer speculative questions about the accused’s state of mind, can refer to professional psychological literature and studies, and may be able to give juries a better picture of how psychology plays a role in a particular crime. Expert witness salaries vary widely depending on job responsibilities, level of education, and years of experience.
For those that graduate with an advanced degree in forensic psychology, academia is another option. This career is more suited to those that earn a PhD rather than a PsyD. Professors may teach undergraduate or graduate-level courses while also maintaining a research practice, depending on the university. Teaching can be a great way to spread a passion for forensic psychology and influence the next generation of practitioners.
According to the BLS (2021), postsecondary teachers earn a median annual salary of $80,560 per year.
Those with doctoral degrees who want to expand the world’s understanding of criminal minds may choose to focus their careers on research, conducting clinical studies, and writing papers for publication. This career can go hand-in-hand with a teaching career or can be a separate pursuit. Clinical research is best suited to those with a PhD in forensic psychology.
According to Glassdoor.com (2021), the national average salary for research psychologists is $96,374.
|Featured Forensic Psychology Programs|
|Purdue University Global||BSCJ - Forensic Psychology||Visit Site|
|Maryville University||Online BA - Forensic Psychology||Visit Site|
|Arizona State University||Forensic Psychology (MS)||Visit Site|
|Arizona State University||Psychology - Forensic Psychology (BS)||Visit Site|
|Southern New Hampshire University||BA in Psychology - Forensic Psychology||Visit Site|
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).