According to the American Psychological Association (APA), forensic psychologists are typically licensed psychologists with a fundamental understanding of clinical, forensic, and legal systems.
They have a wealth of responsibilities such as interviewing patients; conducting psychological evaluations; diagnosing mental illnesses; deciding whether juvenile defendants should be tried as adults; evaluating people’s competency to stand trial; creating criminal profiles to assist law enforcement; helping in jury selection; consulting legal or administrative professionals; offering sentencing recommendations; establishing whether a person should be committed to a mental hospital; compiling official reports or amicus briefs for court; liaising with various legal and medical personnel; and serving as expert witnesses in trials.
They generally work in courts, prisons, mental hospitals, and government agencies and may be involved in criminal or civil cases. In sum, the APA reports that forensic psychologists apply “the scientific, technical, or specialized knowledge of psychology to the law to assist in addressing legal, contractual, and administrative matters.” Also, the American Board of Professional Psychology (ABPP)—the central certifying organization for forensic psychologists—details these professionals’ desired core competencies to achieve certification.
So why is the rigorous application of psychology to judicial matters important? First, the careful consideration of a forensic psychologist may be crucial in some legal cases, especially since the misuse of evidence, forced confessions, and corner-cutting measures to expedite trials or convict suspected criminals all still run rampant in the justice system.
For example, Aeon reports that some people get “framed by forensics,” such as Juan Rivera, who was imprisoned for 20 years after being wrongfully convicted for the rape and murder of an 11-year-old girl in Illinois. Rivera, a man with a low IQ and a history of emotional problems, was interrogated by police for several days and lied to about the results of his polygraph test.
Exhausted and under duress to sign a confession, he did so, and his fate was sealed. After 13 years, he was finally exonerated by DNA evidence. A forensic psychologist would have pointed out that such a man was highly suggestible and not in any condition to make a reliable confession after being questioned for more than 24 hours at the hands of nine officers. In cases like these, forensic psychologists can safeguard the fairness of the legal system and the administration of justice.
Read on to discover the bright career outlook and salary prospects in forensic psychology, and learn how to get started in the field.
According to the APA, forensic psychology is a growing field with opportunities in courtrooms and through police departments, hospitals, military bases, and universities. Furthermore, these professionals may be very well-compensated. For example, Mary Connell, EdD, a private practitioner from Fort Worth, estimated that forensic psychologists make between $200,000 and $400,000 annually.
It is important to note that while this is enticing, it’s difficult to substantiate those figures officially. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) does not differentiate between types of psychologists. Therefore, the following data for all psychologists is used as a proxy for the forensic subfield.
The BLS (2021) reports that psychology is a growing career and expects that job openings will increase by 8 percent between 2020 and 2030. This projected growth is the same as the average anticipated for all occupations during that decade. Although the future looks bright for this profession, working as a forensic psychologist can be stressful, requiring long hours and emotional fortitude. Those who decide to pursue this occupation should ensure that they have a robust support system in place.
The salary ranges for forensic psychologists can vary widely. For instance, Indeed (2021) estimates that forensic psychologists make an annual average salary of $95,374.
However, PayScale (2021), an aggregator of self-reported salary data, found a variety of salaries in this field among its 136 reporting forensic psychologists, ranging from $52,000 to $93,000. In more granular terms, Payscale reported the following salary percentiles:
Not surprisingly, Payscale also found that one of the most impactful factors on salary was experience. Here are the median annual salaries among different experience brackets of forensic psychologists:
Unfortunately, Payscale does not currently have data for late-career forensic psychologists. For comparative purposes, the BLS offers data on clinical, counseling, and school psychologists. As mentioned above, this general category of psychologists will be used as a proxy for forensic psychologists since reliably differentiated data is unavailable.
Interestingly, salary percentiles among psychologists as a whole were similar to those found among Payscale’s reporting forensic psychologists (BLS May 2020):
The BLS found that the top-paying industries for psychologists nationwide were:
Notably, only one of the top-paying industries (”Offices of Other Health Practitioners”) was also a top-employer of psychologists across the country:
As mentioned above, the salaries for psychologists also tended to vary widely based on region. According to the BLS, the top-paying states in this field were scattered all over the country:
Interestingly, the top employers in this profession were located through other areas of the United States in states with large populations:
In a stroke of good fortune for the Golden State, four of the top ten highest paying metropolitan areas for psychologists were located in California:
Finally, it’s no surprise that the top-employing metropolitan areas for psychologists tended to fall in the country’s large cities:
Step 1: Graduate from high school (four years). High school students aspiring to be forensic psychologists are advised to keep their grades high to gain admission into a reputable four-year bachelor’s degree program. In addition, taking as many courses as possible in math, sciences, and social science is recommended to prepare for undergraduate coursework.
Step 2: Enroll in an undergraduate program (four years). Before getting a graduate education, aspiring forensic psychologists are encouraged to pursue a bachelor’s degree in psychology, forensics, or another relevant field.
Step 3: Attend an accredited graduate program in forensic, legal, or clinical psychology (four to five years). To qualify for professional licensure through the ABPP, candidates must have a doctoral degree. To this end, there are various PhD and doctor of psychology (PsyD) programs available. As part of these programs, aspiring forensic psychologists will complete coursework and clinical practicums. Programs also typically include an internship or residency component as part of their degree plan.
The American Psychological Association, the leading accreditation body for graduate psychology programs, provides a list of approved forensic and legal psychology programs, including master’s, PsyD, PhD, and joint program options.
For example, Palo Alto University in California offers a PhD in clinical psychology with a forensic emphasis. In addition to clinical psychology coursework and practicum requirements, students take courses such as psychopathology and psychodiagnosis, ethics in clinical psychology, forensic psychology, and professional standards. In addition, forensic psychology internships are available to gain practical experience.
Additionally, Pacific University in Oregon provides a five-year PsyD in clinical psychology with a forensic track, combining rich didactic coursework with research experience and clinical training. Some of the required classes in this track include juvenile forensic psychology, correctional psychology, multicultural assessment, and adult forensic psychology. Students must also complete at least one practicum at a forensic site (e.g., Oregon Department of Corrections, Clark County Juvenile Department) and complete their dissertation in a subject relevant to forensics.
Step 4: Get experience in the field, preferably in forensics (timeline varies). After graduation, some candidates still won’t have enough professional hours to qualify for licensure and will have to get additional supervised experience. Many students need at least 2,000 internship hours (often as part of a doctoral program) and an extra 2,000 postdoctoral hours to qualify for licensure. The amount of required postdoctoral experience, specific coursework, and practicum requirements may vary by jurisdiction.
Students are encouraged to reach out to their local licensing board, a list of which is provided by the Association of State and Provincial Psychology Boards (ASPPB). At this stage, aspiring forensic psychologists are also urged to “bank their credentials” (i.e., gather all signatures, hour logs, and other materials) online through a service such as the National Psychologist Trainee Register.
Step 5: Get licensed as a clinical psychologist (timeline varies). State requirements for licensure vary but typically involve having a doctorate degree (including evidence of specific coursework); completing one to two years of postdoctoral professional experience; paying an application fee; and passing the Examination for Professional Practice in Psychology (EPPP). The EPPP is a 225-question multiple-choice exam. Passing scores vary by state, but it’s typically 70 percent.
Again, since requirements vary by jurisdiction, the ASPPB provides a list of contacts for each state’s professional board. Please note that psychologists must maintain these licenses following the completion of continuing education (CE) hours.
Step 6: Apply for certification through the American Board for Professional Psychology (ABPP). For more information on this step, please reference the “Certification” section below.
In most jobs related to the criminal justice system, it is difficult to nail down the definition of a typical day. However, there are specific tasks and responsibilities that a forensic psychologist will likely have to complete regularly, depending on the type of position they have. Some of these tasks include:
In addition to becoming a certified forensic psychologist, there are various related careers to consider at the intersection of psychology and the law.
A forensic psychology researcher, for instance, typically has an advanced degree in psychology (e.g., PhD) and conducts research on mental health law, public policies, legal proceedings, and niche fields such as the reliability of eyewitness testimony.
Trained forensic psychologists may also consider a career as a consultant, working with police departments to create criminal profiles, deal with crises, provide officers with sensitivity training, and assist with effective management techniques. In a courtroom setting, a consultant may be considered an evaluator or a person specializing in applying mental health analyses to a person’s fitness for trial, likeliness to commit future crimes, and other factors.
Another option is to become a correctional psychologist, a clinical specialist in the diagnosis and treatment of prisoners. Still, others may want to consider becoming a criminal profiler or criminal psychologist, an exciting subfield of investigative psychology that delves into the actions, motivations, and complex histories of criminal minds. These are just a few of the specialized possibilities available to those trained in forensic psychology.
Pursuing a doctoral-level degree may not be possible for everyone interested in this career. Bachelor’s degrees in forensic psychology are rare, but they are available. Those who can earn an undergraduate degree in forensic psychology may work in the field in some capacity. However, they will not be able to become a licensed psychologist.
The following careers are available to those with an undergraduate degree, although further training may still be required:
With a master of science (MS) or master of arts (MA) in forensic psychology, careers more focused on psychology become available. While a doctoral degree is necessary for board certification as a forensic psychologist, a master’s degree and proper licensure allow graduates to work in psychology in some capacities.
For instance, MS holders can consider jobs like:
Committing to any level of education is a big step, so it is essential to consider one’s ultimate career goals and which degree will lead there before taking the next step.
Finally, those seeking to become forensic psychologists should seriously consider becoming certified by the American Board for Professional Psychology. Certification can serve as proof of one’s competence and enhance a person’s salary prospects and candidacy for employment.
To become a certified forensic psychology specialist, candidates must first go through a credential review. In addition, they must have a doctoral degree in psychology from an accredited program. Acceptable accreditation entities include the American Psychological Association (APA) and the Canadian Psychological Association (CPA). Additionally, candidates must have completed an APA-approved internship (or the equivalent); show proof of current employment in the forensics specialty; send logs of relevant postdoctoral continuing education (CE); and submit a copy of their psychologist license.
As part of the educational requirement, candidates must have at least 100 hours of formal education, supervision, or CE in forensic psychology, in addition to 1,000 hours of experience in this subfield for at least five years. Additional education (e.g., JD) or postdoctoral training may be substituted instead of this five-year requirement.
Finally, candidates must successfully pass two exams: written and oral. The written exam comprises 197 multiple choice questions across seven categories of forensic psychology, including child forensic matters, landmark legal cases, and criminal legal issues. The oral examination is offered following the submission of two acceptable practice samples.
Jocelyn Blore is the chief content officer of Sechel Ventures and the co-author of the Women Breaking Barriers series. She graduated summa cum laude from UC Berkeley and traveled the world for five years. She also worked as an addiction specialist for two years in San Francisco. She’s interested in how culture shapes individuals and systems within societies—one of the many themes she writes about in her blog, Blore’s Razor (Instagram: @bloresrazor). She has served as managing editor for several healthcare websites since 2015.