What is a Forensic Psychologist? [2021 Guide]

What is a forensic psychologist? The forensic psychologists we see in the movies and on TV might help FBI agents profile serial killers.

What is a Forensic Psychologist

In reality, forensic psychologists also work in social services, schools, correction facilities, and research universities.

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While many forensic psychologists follow a similar course of study and often work for the federal government, an online degree in forensic psychology may open doors to highly diverse career pathways.

What Is a Forensic Psychologist?

Forensic Psychologist with a teenager during consultation

A forensic psychologist is someone who applies specialized psychology training to applications in the criminal justice sector. Some forensic psychologists, sometimes referred to as criminal psychologists, work with law enforcement agencies or the judicial system.

These forensic psychologists assist with criminal investigations and criminal profiling. They may also provide court-ordered evaluations of criminal defendants or serve as expert witnesses at the behest of a judge or as advisors for private law firms. Where else do forensic psychologists apply their skills?

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Some are researchers and university professors, and others work as licensed clinicians. Both licensed and unlicensed forensic psychology degree holders might also support or help supervise correctional facilities. They may also work in advocacy roles related to the incarcerated, counsel crime victims, or help implement public mental health programs.

5 Things You Can Do as a Forensic Psychologist

Forensic Psychologist with a patient

Here’s a sampling of just some of the many ways you might put an online graduate degree in forensic psychology to work, depending on your own professional interests.

1. Criminal Analysis and Profiling

In this role, forensic psychologists are most likely to be employed by law enforcement agencies to support criminal investigations.

As a crime analysis expert, you’ll most likely draw on knowledge from the fields of clinical psychology and criminal justice. Crime analysts support local police or federal agencies with criminal profiling, investigative research, and case analysis.

2. Victim Advocacy

Forensic Psychologist with mother and child during consultation

Some forensic psychologists use their knowledge of criminal psychology and criminal case management to advise and provide therapeutic support to victims of trauma or violence resulting from a crime.

As a victim advocate, you may be a court-appointed government employee, an independent clinical psychologist, or a worker for a nonprofit advocacy organization.

3. Correctional Counselor or Supervisor

While some forensic psychologists provide therapeutic and advocacy support to crime victims, others do the same for those charged with crimes.

As a correctional counselor, you may serve in prisons and detention centers and provide therapeutic support to prisoners. You may also apply your qualifications and experience to serve in supervisory roles, supervising correctional facilities.

4. Probation Officer or Forensic Social Worker

Forensic Psychologist comforting a patient during group therapy

Probation agencies and other social service providers who work with ex-convicts benefit from the services of forensic psychologists.

As a forensic psychologist in this field, you may help with case management, recidivism reduction interventions, assessment tools, and implementing direct therapeutic services for probation clients.

Probation agencies and related service providers constantly monitor and assess recidivism and criminality risks and try to support those exiting detention. So, their work is deeply aligned with the expertise you may offer as a forensic psychologist.

5. Court Expert or Trial Consultant

Many forensic psychologists work for or provide consulting services to criminal courts. In this role, you might provide court-ordered therapy, screening, or evaluation services.

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You may be called on to assess a defendant’s criminal intent or their fitness to stand trial. You might also work independently or for a law firm as a jury consultant, case consultant, or expert witness.

Forensic Psychology Specialty Areas

Forensic Psychologist with a patient during consultation

Given the range of pathways available to forensic psychologists, you might find it helpful to think in terms of these five specializations:

  • Criminal Investigations: Helping with criminal profiling, crime research, and law enforcement investigations is one area of specialization for forensic psychologists. This specialization is sometimes referred to as the field of criminal psychology.
  • Judicial Advisor: Many forensic psychologists use their training to provide judges and attorneys expert witness testimony, specialized legal research, or court-ordered assessments of criminal defendants.
  • Policy Consultant: As a forensic psychologist, you can specialize in policy and advocacy work related to a wide range of criminal justice and mental health reform efforts. You may be a university professor, an independent consultant, or even a worker for a government agency or nonprofit.
  • Community Health and Welfare: Training in forensic psychology can also be applied in administrative and supervisory roles in community health and services programs, in nonprofit organizations, or in government agencies at the local, state, or national level.
  • Probations and Corrections: Forensic psychologists may help administer, supervise, and design policies, programs, and interventions related to probation services and correctional facilities.

Whether you see yourself as a researcher, teacher, criminal investigator, policy analyst, or program administrator, specializing in forensic psychology may unlock doors to a wide range of roles and career options.

Forensic Psychology Careers & Salaries

Forensic Psychology Careers & Salaries

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, a graduate degree in forensic psychology can help equip you for a wide range of career options.

Careers Annual Median Salaries
Sociologist $86,110
Psychologist $82,180
Social and Community Service Manager $69,600
Police or Detective $67,290
Survey Researcher $59,870
Probation Officer or Correctional Treatment Specialist $55,690
Social Worker $51,760
Marriage and Family Therapist $51,340
Health Education Specialist or Community Health Worker $48,140
Substance Abuse, Behavior Disorder, or Mental Health Counselor $47,660

If you earn a doctoral degree and complete any professional licensing requirements, you’ll likely have more career options and increase your earnings potential.

What Is Forensic Psychology?

Forensic psychology is the application of psychological expertise in behavior and mental health to criminal law.

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You may research, assess, and provide therapeutic or programmatic interventions for a broad range of psychological or behavioral disorders that may contribute to criminal conduct. Your expert testimony or your assessments of offenders or victims may be applied to court proceedings.

What Does a Forensic Psychologist Do?

Many students may wonder exactly what a forensic psychologist does. Forensic psychologists are trained to do criminal justice research, provide investigative profiling and case analysis, or conduct screening and assessment of criminal defendants. They may also serve as court advisors or expert witnesses.

Some forensic psychologists support criminal justice agencies, such as law enforcement units, correctional centers, probation offices, and civil and criminal courts.

As a forensic psychologist, you might also perform support work at the intersection of mental health and criminal justice services. You may help crime victims or provide mental health or advocacy services for those who are incarcerated in detention facilities or out on probation.

Where Do Forensic Psychologists Work?

Forensic Psychology Professor teaching in a university

Forensic psychologists may work in courtroom settings. They may act as expert witnesses or evaluate the mental health of criminal defendants. Others provide support to inmates in detention centers or may serve in supervisory roles in correctional facilities.

Some forensic psychologists work alongside law enforcement investigators, providing criminal profiling, conducting criminal research, and helping with case administration or probations. Other jobs include mental health and social worker, university professor, researcher, and private clinical psychologist.

If you have a PhD and professional licensing in forensic psychology, you may be more likely to earn higher wages. You may conduct advanced research, work for a university or private law firm, or serve in supervisory roles in criminal justice or community health administration.

How Much Does a Forensic Psychologist Make?

Forensic Psychologist with a patient in his office

Earnings for forensic psychology careers are likely to vary widely, depending on your position and employer. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, psychologists earn an average salary of $82,180. With a specialization in forensics, you might earn even more.

Overall, earnings for forensic psychologists are likely to range from $46,270 to $137,590. As a licensed forensic psychologist, you may also work as a research consultant, private clinician, court expert, or law firm consultant.

Psychology researchers, also known as social scientists, may earn an average salary of $87,260 each year. Similarly, sociologists earn an average salary of $86,110 each year.

What Degree Do You Need to Be a Forensic Psychologist?

Forensic Psychology students studying in a university

Many students wonder what degree you need to be a forensic psychologist. Others may wonder what you can do with a master’s in forensic psychology. If you’re interested in working as a forensic psychologist, you may find some career paths to pursue with a master’s degree.

For most people, it will mean getting a doctorate degree as well as mandatory licensing, especially if you want to work as a high-level clinical practitioner.

If you currently hold a bachelor’s degree, you may start your journey to a Ph.D. in Forensic Psychology by looking into accredited forensic psychology programs that fit your career interests. Some doctoral programs may allow you to enroll with only an on-campus or online bachelor degree in psychology or a related field, while other programs will require you to get a masters degree first.

How Long Does It Take to Become a Forensic Psychologist?

Becoming a licensed forensic psychologist requires a doctoral degree in most states. So, you’ll likely want to obtain a PhD or PsyD in Forensic Psychology in order to increase your career options.

Although the time it takes can vary, a bachelor’s degree often takes about 4 years to finish. A master’s program takes about 1 to 2 years, and a doctoral degree may take another 3 to 5 years to complete.

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It can be difficult to estimate the time that may be needed for writing a thesis or completing a similar capstone project for graduate programs. If you’re interested in finishing in less time or want to keep working while studying, you may look for schools with accelerated or flexible programs suited to your needs.

What Skills Do You Need to Be a Forensic Psychologist?

Forensic Psychologist with a client

To become a forensic psychologist, it can help to have an interest applying your knowledge in criminal contexts that may be both troubling and technically complex from a psychological and legal perspective.

To work as a researcher, an expert witness, or a trial consultant, it can help to be highly objective and to be skilled in research methodology. It’s also beneficial to have strong communication skills for testifying in court or for writing legal determinations.

As a clinician, an evaluator, or a therapist, it’s necessary to listen in a non-judgmental fashion. You’ll likely have to conduct careful, objective, and evidence-based psychological evaluations.

If you have managerial aptitudes, you may wish to pursue a supervisory role in community mental health and welfare programs, in corrections facility supervision, or in probations work.

What Is the Difference Between a Forensic Psychiatrist vs. Forensic Psychologist?

Forensic Psychologist comforting a patient

Forensic psychology requires a wide range of psychological assessment work and includes pathways focused on providing counseling services and interventions.

As a forensic psychologist, you might use your insights to guide planning and policy in relation to educational intervention systems, correctional facilities’ planning and management, and the outcomes in courts and probation systems.

Forensic psychiatrists specialize in the medical diagnosis and treatment of criminal behaviors and related psychological or mental health disorders. As a forensic psychiatrist, you would learn specialized knowledge for diagnosing underlying medical conditions and for prescribing and monitoring psychotropic treatment options.

What Is the Difference Between Criminal Psychology vs. Forensic Psychology?

Forensic Psychologist interviewing a patient

Criminal psychology focuses on criminal behaviors and pathologies. This specialization is used for criminal investigation advising and case management as well as for trial consulting and criminal profiling.

Forensic psychology provides insights into a wider range of behaviors that intersect with both civil and criminal litigation. Forensic psychologists may work in universities, nonprofits, or government agencies, and they may help with broad community health and crime prevention intervention efforts.

Many forensic psychologists support detention programs, work in school settings, or advocate for prison reform. They may also work in probation services or help improve criminal justice policies and programs.

Earn Your Forensic Psychology Degree Online

Forensic Psychology Degree student studying online

Forensic psychology has a critical role to play in furthering academic research and policy reform. Getting a masters in forensic psychology online may open doors to a wide range of career options based on your professional interests.

You may work with criminal investigations, serve as a court expert, provide mental health services, or advocate for evidence-based criminal justice reforms. Careers for forensic psychologists can also be found in governmental, nonprofit, and social service organizations.

If you’re interested in this important field, you may check out accredited online forensic psychology degree programs to find the one that’s the best fit for both your schedule and career goals.

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Keith Nickolaus
WRITTEN BY
Keith Nickolaus
Keith has a Ph.D. and a M.A. in Comparative Literature from the University of California - Berkeley and a B.A. in Literature from the University of California - Santa Cruz. A retired educator, Keith lives in Berkeley and researches and writes about trends in education leadership, innovation, and policy.