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Careers in Forensic Psychology – Salary, Job Descriptions, and Outlook

Forensic psychology—a high-growth subfield of forensics which has inspired countless TV shows such as Criminal Minds—represents the intersection of psychology and the justice system. These professionals must have an understanding of legal principles such as who is mentally fit to stand trial, whether expert witness testimony is valid, what kind of sentencing may be appropriate for a crime, and how the definition of insanity varies from state to state.

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 psychology refers to…applying 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 main certifying organization for forensic psychologists—details the desired core competencies of these professionals in order to achieve certification.

So why is the rigorous application of psychology to judicial matters important? 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 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.

Career Outlook for Forensic Psychology

According to the APA, forensic psychology is a growing field with opportunities not only in courtrooms, but also through police departments, hospitals, military bases, and universities. Furthermore, these professionals may be very well-compensated. 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 officially substantiate those figures. 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 (2017) reports that psychology is a high-growth career and expects that job openings will swell 14 percent between 2016 and 2026. This projected growth is much more robust than the average anticipated for all occupations during that time period (7 percent). Although the future looks bright for this profession, working as a forensic psychologist can be a stressful occupation, requiring long hours and emotional fortitude. Those who decide to pursue this occupation should ensure that they have a strong support system in place.

Forensic Psychologist Salary

As with other occupations, salaries for forensic psychologists vary by years of experience, region, and even source of data. As mentioned above, Dr. Connell estimated that forensic psychologists make between $200,000 and $400,000 annually. Two other sources of data, however, found substantially lower salary averages in this career.

For instance, Indeed (2018) estimates that forensic psychologists make an annual average salary of $83,460. Payscale (2018), an aggregator of self-reported salary data, found a variety of salaries in this field among its 293 reporting forensic psychologists, ranging from $38,801 to $102,531. In more granular terms, Payscale reported the following salary percentiles:

  • 10th percentile: $39,000
  • 25th percentile: $50,000
  • 50th percentile (median): $62,700
  • 75th percentile: $83,000
  • 90th percentile: $100,000

Not surprisingly, Payscale also found that one of the most impactful factors on salary for was experience. Here are the median annual salaries among different experience brackets of forensic psychologists:

  • Entry-level (0-5 years) – 225 individuals reporting: $60,740
  • Mid-career (5-10 years) – 52 individuals reporting: $72,000
  • Experienced (10-20 years) – 38 individuals reporting: $82,000

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.

Among the 108,060 psychologists employed across the country, the BLS (2017) found an annual average salary of $81,330. Interestingly, salary percentiles among psychologists as a whole were similar to those found among Payscale’s reporting forensic psychologists:

  • 10th percentile: $42,460
  • 25th percentile: $56,560
  • 50th percentile (median): $75,090
  • 75th percentile: $98,260
  • 90th percentile: $123,920

The BLS found that the top-paying industries for psychologists nationwide were:

  • Home Health Care Services (270 psychologists employed): $93,910 annual average salary
  • Specialty (except Psychiatric and Substance Abuse) Hospitals (520 employed): $93,710
  • Management Companies and Enterprises: (350 employed) $92,640
  • Offices of Other Health Practitioners (16,300 employed): $92,130
  • Local Government, excluding schools and hospitals (OES Designation) (3,270 employed): $90,450

Notably, only one of the top-paying industries—”Offices of Other Health Practitioners”—was also a top-employer of psychologists across the country:

  • Elementary and Secondary Schools (43,570 psychologists employed): $77,430 annual mean salary
  • Offices of Other Health Practitioners (16,300 employed): $92,130
  • Individual and Family Services (7,100 employed): $81,160
  • Outpatient Care Centers (5,840 employed): $82,700
  • General Medical and Surgical Hospitals (5,510 employed): $85,090

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:

  • New Jersey (3,500 psychologists employed): $97,790 annual average salary
  • Alaska (280 employed): $96,350
  • Hawaii (470 employed): $95,500
  • Califoria (18,250 employed): $94,910
  • Oregon (1,030 employed): $93,070

Interestingly, just one of these lucrative states was among the top-employers in this profession, a factor which corresponded roughly with state population size:

  • California (18,250 psychologists employed): $94,910 annual average salary
  • New York (11,380 employed): $91,180
  • Texas (6,250 employed): $70,060
  • Pennsylvania (4,800 employed): $79,280
  • Illinois (3,990 employed): $76,150

In stroke of good fortune for the Golden State, seven of the top ten highest paying metropolitan areas for psychologists were located in California:

  • Salinas, CA (unknown number of psychologists employed): $118,360 annual mean salary
  • San Jose-Sunnyvale-Santa Clara, CA (660 employed): $111,540
  • San Francisco-Redwood City-South San Francisco, CA Metropolitan Division (750 employed): $111,190
  • Santa Maria-Santa Barbara, CA (230 employed): $109,690
  • Vallejo-Fairfield, CA (340 employed): $108,730
  • Bend-Redmond, OR (50 employed): $108,080
  • Greensboro-High Point, NC (170 employed): $107,530
  • Hanford-Corcoran, CA (150 employed): $105,910
  • Napa, CA (unknown number of employed): $105,100
  • Manchester, NH (100 employed): $102,310

Finally, it’s no surprise that the top-employing metropolitan areas for psychologists tended to fall in the country’s large cities:

  • New York-Jersey City-White Plains, NY-NJ Metropolitan Division (7,550 psychologists employed): $96,210 annual average salary
  • Los Angeles-Long Beach-Glendale, CA Metropolitan Division (4,370 employed): $91,000
  • Chicago-Naperville-Arlington Heights, IL Metropolitan Division (2,410 employed): $80,510
  • Minneapolis-St. Paul-Bloomington, MN-WI (2,290 employed): $84,790
  • Phoenix-Mesa-Scottsdale, AZ (1,950 employed): $66,080
  • Riverside-San Bernardino-Ontario, CA (1,840 employed): $93,640
  • Nassau County-Suffolk County, NY Metropolitan Division (1,770 employed): $97,640
  • Washington-Arlington-Alexandria, DC-VA-MD-WV Metropolitan Division (1,740): $96,830
  • San Diego-Carlsbad, CA (1,610 employed): $84,620
  • Denver-Aurora-Lakewood, CO (1,540 employed): $84,270

How to Become a Forensic Psychologist

There are varied paths to becoming a forensic psychologist. It’s a relatively new specialty within both forensics and psychology, and therefore not everyone who has performed the duties of a forensic psychologist has necessarily been a formal part of this growing profession. One way to distinguish forensic psychologist practitioners from other types of mental health professionals is through a specialty professional certification offered by the American Board for Professional Psychology (ABPP), which requires that candidates be licensed clinical psychologists with doctoral degrees.

Here is one common path to becoming a certified forensic psychologist:

  • Step 1: Graduate from high school.
  • Step 2: Enroll in an undergraduate program (4 years). Prior to 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 (4-5 years). In order 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, which is the main accreditation body for graduate psychology programs, provides a list of approved programs in forensic and legal psychology 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 & psychodiagnosis, ethics in clinical psychology, forensic psychology, and professional standards. Additionally, Pacific University of 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 therefore 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 additional 2,000 postdoctoral hours in order 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 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 these licenses must be maintained 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.

 

Forensic Psychologist Tasks and Responsibilities

In most jobs that relate to the criminal justice system, it is difficult to nail down the definition of a typical day. However, there are certain tasks and responsibilities that a forensic psychologist will likely have to complete on a regular basis, depending on the type of position they have. Some of these tasks include:

  • consulting with law enforcement officers and district attorneys
  • assessing offenders for mental fitness
  • writing thorough reports of mental competency assessments
  • completing continuing education credits
  • diagnosing and treating mentally ill offenders who are incarcerated
  • consulting with prison administration in regards to prisoner mental health
  • working with psychiatrists and physicians to ensure offenders are properly medicated
  • training court and prison staff on dealing with mentally ill offenders
  • interviewing and treating victims of crimes
  • giving expert testimony in court

 

Specialty Fields Related to Forensic Psychology

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 crisis situations, 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 the application of 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 which 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.

 

Graduates with a Bachelor’s Degree

Pursuing a doctoral level degree may not be possible for everyone who is interested in this career. Bachelor’s degrees in forensic psychology are rare, but they are available. Those who are able to earn an undergraduate degree in forensic psychology may be able to work in the field in some capacity, although 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:

  • law enforcement office
  • officer of the court
  • victim advocate
  • probation officer

 

Graduates with a Master’s Degree

With a master or science (MS) or master of arts (MA) in forensic psychology, careers that are more focused on psychology itself become available. While a doctoral degree is necessary for board certification as a forensic psychologist, a master’s degree and proper licensure does allow graduates to work in the field of psychology in some capacities. For instance, MS holders can consider jobs like:

  • substance abuse conselor
  • licensed professional counselor (LPC)
  • rehabilitation counseling for offenders
  • expert witness
  • jury consultant

Committing to any level of education is a big step, so it is important to consider one’s ultimate career goals and which degree will lead there before taking the next step.

Forensic Psychology Certification

Finally, those seeking to become a forensic psychologist will want to consider becoming professionally certified by the American Board for Professional Psychology. Certification can not only serve as proof of one’s competence, but also can 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. 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 over a period of at least five years. Some additional education (e.g., JD) or postdoctoral training may be substituted in lieu of this five year requirement. Finally, candidates must successfully pass a 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.

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