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.
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.
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:
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:
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:
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, just one of these lucrative states was among the top-employers in this profession, a factor which corresponded roughly with state population size:
In stroke of good fortune for the Golden State, seven 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:
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:
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:
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.
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:
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:
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.
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.