Careers in Forensic Psychology Guide

Since the American Psychological Association (APA) first gave formal recognition to forensic psychology in 2001 owing to its unique subset of psychology — often defined as the point at which psychology and the law meet — has witnessed dramatic growth and has successfully achieved recognition as a respected specialized discipline throughout the world.

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The Role of the Forensic Psychologist

Because forensic psychology differs in several ways from more traditional areas of psychology, the APA developed and published the Specialty Guidelines for Forensic Psychologists.

Since then the APA has revised these guidelines to meet the forensic practitioner’s ongoing requirement for legal guidance in the profession.

The APA recognizes practitioners of forensic psychology as professionals working in those sub-disciplines that are related to the application of psychology to criminal law. Sub-disciplines may include clinical, developmental, social, and cognitive psychology. The APA also recognizes forensic psychology that pertains to forensic practitioners providing their specialized expertise on a psycho-legal issue.

According to the APA Guidelines, careers in forensic psychology can involve working in any number of roles and functions that fall under forensic psychology jobs including:

  • Researchers: Forensic psychologists as researchers participate in the collection and dissemination of data relevant to legal issues.
  • Advisors: Forensic psychologists as advisors provide an attorney with an informed understanding of the role psychology may play with the case at hand.
  • Consultants: Forensic psychologists as consultants explain the practical implications of relevant research, the opinions of other psycho-legal experts, and examination findings.
  • Examiners: Forensic psychologists as examiners assess an individual’s mental health/functioning and report their findings and opinions to an attorney, employer, insurer, or legal tribune.
  • Treatment Providers: Forensic psychologists as treatment providers provide therapeutic services related to the issues and context of a legal proceeding.
  • Mediators/Negotiators: Forensic psychologists as mediators/negotiators serve in a neutral role, assisting parties in resolving disputes.
  • Arbitrators/Case Managers: Forensic psychologists as arbitrators or case managers possess decision-making authority, serving parties, attorneys, and the courts.


Forensic Psychology Jobs in Research

Research is a big part of what defines the field of forensic psychology. Forensic psychologist researchers may be theoretical or applied in nature. There are diverse roles and jobs in the forensic psychology field; professionals often work with and for a number of industry and government partners and academic institutions.

In 2016, research in the field of psychology was allocated nearly 3.2 percent of the nation’s $66.2 billion in federal research funding (approximately $2.1 billion).

Forensic psychology research appears in peer-reviewed journals, while legal proceedings often cite it. Many changes in our court systems have resulted from the work of forensic psychology researchers.

The role of forensic psychologists in research may range from analyzing crimes to helping law enforcement identify patterns and trends to facilitate the study of the social causes and effects of domestic violence and sexual abuse. A forensic psychology major may focus their efforts on improving interrogation methods in the research team, while another team may be involved in the development of better tests to determine the mental capacity of individuals to stand trial.

A smaller sampling of the research topics in forensic psychology include:

  • Child maltreatment and family violence
  • Cell in-mate partner violence
  • Sexual offenders
  • Assessment and treatment of offenders
  • Jury decision-making
  • Eyewitness testimony
  • Public perceptions of crime
  • Crime scene behavior
  • Restorative justice approaches treatment
  • Treatment of offenders
  • False confessions and interrogations
  • Criminal profiling
  • Accuracy of eyewitness testimony
  • Violence risk assessment

Researchers in forensic psychology usually possess doctoral degrees in psychology, and many of these forensic psychologists also work in academia, teaching courses in forensic psychology at colleges and universities.

Psychology research funding has increased by about 2.5 percent from 2014 to 2015 and 1.7 percent from 2015 to 2016.

Forensic Psychology Jobs in Clinical Practice

Forensic psychologists are trained in the field of clinical psychology that makes up the largest segment of this profession. Clinical forensic psychologists apply basic clinical theories in forensic psychology to the understanding of behaviors and mental processes within criminal and civil court processes.

Most clinical forensic psychologists work as licensed practitioners who apply their knowledge to actual criminal and/or civil cases or within secure treatment facilities (mental hospitals, correctional facilities, etc.)

Licensed clinical forensic psychologists may lend their expertise in a number of capacities by:

  • Performing psychological evaluations to clients referred by the courts or other legal organizations
  • Providing individual and group counseling to mandated clients
  • Providing treatment to sex offenders
  • Performing psychological assessments/evaluations of offenders, such as stalkers, violent offenders, and domestic abusers
  • Performing psychological assessments/evaluations to victims of violent crimes
  • Performing psychological assessments/evaluations to individuals in civil cases like employment discrimination and sexual harassment

Clinical forensic psychologists possess general training in clinical psychology at the doctoral level with a forensic psychology specialization or focus. Clinical forensic psychologists in practice must also complete a course of clinical training and pass state-specific board examinations to achieve state licensure as clinical psychologists.

Forensic Psychologist Jobs in Corrections and Mental Health Settings

  • In correctional and mental healthcare settings, forensic psychologists attend to the mental healthcare needs of inmates or patients of mental health facilities, both adults and juveniles. These psychology professionals therefore often provide the following services:
    • Screening
    • Psychological assessment
    • Individual therapy
    • Group therapy
    • Anger management
    • Crisis management
    • Court-ordered evaluations
    • Daily inpatient rounds

Forensic Psychologist Jobs in the Courtroom

In court settings, forensic psychologists often consult with prison staff, inmate attorneys, advocates, and the courts regarding recommendations resulting from psychological assessments. Forensic psychologists working for attorneys and other legal professionals provide services such as:

  • Psychological assessments
  • Court liaison services
  • Personality assessments
  • Assessments of mitigating factors
  • Assessments of sexual offenders
  • Competency evaluations
  • Recommendations for parental custody/visitation

Common areas of interest include:

  • Child custody evaluations
  • Study of psychological processes and the effect of mental illness on legal competencies (competency to be sentenced, competency to stand trial, competency to waive Miranda rights, etc.)
  • Mental illness and the ability to understand right from wrong (i.e., the insanity defense)

Forensic psychologists in court settings also act as expert witnesses, providing expert testimony and opinions in court cases. They interpret psychological testing results, which includes helping jury members and laymen understand the terminology used in psychological assessments.

Forensic Psychologists Working in Law Enforcement

Forensic psychologists working for police departments provide a wide array of services, including:

  • Providing counseling and crisis management services to departmental employees
  • Evaluating the mental health of law enforcement officers to determine employment or assignments
  • Working alongside detectives to solve crimes
  • Developing curriculum and training programs for law enforcement agencies
  • Serving as a consultant for the implementation of training programs

There are many professions that forensic psychologists under law enforcement work, such as:

Forensic psychologists as trial consultants work with legal professionals, such as attorneys, and help them in preparing cases, jury selection, development of case strategy, and witness preparation. Acting as trial consultants, forensic psychologists rely heavily on research to best advise the persons with whom they are working with.

As these consultants are often hired by one specific side in a trial, it’s the responsibility of the psychologists to be neutral while they are providing their consultancy services, remaining unbiased and ensuring they do not choose one side to support and consequently omit or create information that would be beneficial to one side or the other.

Working as law enforcement consultants, their work can include assisting with criminal profiling, determining the psychological fitness of officers, or providing their expertise on criminal behaviors. Criminal profiling is an appealing aspect of psychology to forensic psychologists and there are several methods and approaches related to criminal profiling.

Sometimes, their testimony in the court or justice department comes off as an expert testimony with their ability to testify more knowledge of a situation or topic.  Forensic psychologists are experts in certain topics and have specialized knowledge, unlike fact witnesses, who are limited only to testify about what they know or have observed.

Mostly when it comes to matters like mental health, expert witnesses in forensic psychology are called upon to testify. In years past, these expert witnesses primarily served their purpose at the court rather than providing their testimonies as litigants, but nowadays this does not happen and recruitment of expert witnesses is completed by trial attorneys.

Interested in becoming a Forensic Psychologist? View schools by state.

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