What is Forensic Psychology?

Forensic psychology is a newer branch of psychology that is often times misconceived due to its portrayal in the media. A forensic psychologist’s role has many distinctions from other branches of psychology and is much more demanding than most may believe. The American Psychological Association depicts forensic psychology as the application of clinical specialties to the legal arena (Ward).

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The profession requires that forensic psychologists become familiar with all psychological concepts, the criminal justice system, and the laws applicable to that particular state. A simplified description of forensic psychology is the merger of law and psychology (Forensic Psychology Careers).

Before pursuing a career as a forensic psychologist, one must consider many factors about the field. There are several topics that will be covered in the document, beginning with the education requirements that individuals must meet before they can become licensed. Then, dependent upon one’s interest, there is a selection of settings that one can choose to work in. Concepts such as salary and job outlook will also be discussed as well as the misconceptions of the role of a forensic psychologist. All of these components are important to consider when deciding whether or not this is an acceptable profession.

While conducting research on this topic, an interview was conducted withDr. Louis Cerbo is a forensic psychologist working as the Clinical Director for the State of Rhode Island Department of Corrections. He is also an adjunct professor at Roger Williams University in the Psychology Department. His personal experience and expertise will be mentioned throughout this document. Dr. Cerbo, he explained that he decided to go into a career in forensic psychology because he had degrees in psychology and also had an interest in law, so he believed this would be a good career for him because it brought his two passions together.

Data Section

Education Requirements

There are many careers that individuals can pursue with a forensic psychology degree, but they can be limited depending on the level of the degree. The figure below, shows the possible careers for a forensic psychology degree at that particular level.

Bachelor’s Degree

  • Victim Advocate
  • Court Liaison
  • Law Enforcement Officer
  • Probation Officer

Master’s Degree

  • Jury Consultant
  • Licensed Professional Clinical Counselor
  • Juvenile Offenders Counselor
  • Research Assistant

Doctorate Degrees

  • Forensic Psychologist
  • Expert Witness
  • Psychology Professor/Instructor
  • Psychology Researcher

Figure 1: Careers with a Forensic Psychology Degree

Data from: What Can I Do

This document will focus specifically on a career as a forensic psychologist; however, there are a multitude of careers that someone can have with a degree in forensic psychology. Those with undergraduate degrees in forensic psychology are the most confined because they are not qualified to provide certain services. Despite not being eligible for particular roles, these careers are still important within the criminal justice system. Those who decide to obtain a master’s degree in forensic psychology are still not qualified to be licensed as a psychologist, but they would still be working directly with victims and offenders. Individuals who decide to complete a doctoral degree are eligible to receive a psychologist license. Having this degree along with the proper training hours, allows a person to perform examinations on clients in addition to providing treatment for them. There are more options in the field for people who have a doctoral degree in forensic psychology and among those choices, the most common would be a forensic psychologist (What Can I Do).

In order to be a qualified as a forensic psychologist, one must have a doctoral degree recognized by the American Psychological Association (Ward). A doctoral degree in psychology can be a PsyD or PhD degree, which both provide the ability to be accepted as a licensed psychologist. These degrees vary, so it is important for individuals to understand the differences between them because it can have an impact on the education one receives and the type of internship work they experience (What Can I Do). There are less PsyD programs offered, but they accept more into their programs. They have become more popular recently, because they give students the ability to graduate earlier than students in PhD programs. PsyD programs focus on using the skills and knowledge gained in their work to apply to practice whereas, PhD programs have an emphasis on research over practice (Pomerantz, p.14).

When Dr. Cerbo decided he wanted to become a forensic psychologist he had to decide on his educational track. He already had his undergraduate degree as well as two master’s degrees, one in clinical psychology and the other in personality and social psychology. His next decision was to decide if he wanted to pursue a PhD or PsyD degree. He applied to both programs; however, he chose a PhD program ultimately because there were few PsyD programs at the time. This was taking place during the 1980s and he was unsure of the future of a PsyD degree since some states would not license those with PsyD degrees. Another potential problem would have been that with a PsyD degree it would be hard to get internships, which could result in lack of training. Dr. Cerbo explains that PsyD programs today, are now much more accepted than they previously had been. Despite the fact that both programs recognized equally in today’s society, he still would have chosen a PhD degree because he wanted more of a research background.

Figure 2: Education Track

Source: www.eLearners.com

The visual above shows an overview of the path it takes to become a forensic psychologist. The track begins with four years of undergraduate education to complete a bachelor’s degree, typically focused on psychology, criminology, and forensics (Forensic Psychology Careers). The next step can differ for individuals because some may choose to earn a master’s degree; however, it is not required and will add another two years to their educational track. The final step is completing a doctoral degree which has an average of three to seven years (How To Become a Psychologist). While in school for a doctorate, an individual must complete one year of a predoctoral internship certified by the American Psychological Association and then have an additional year of experience in the field. Throughout this process, students will learn clinical skills that will assist them in their work. Having clinical skills in clinical assessment, interviewing, report writing, strong verbal communication skills and case presentation will play an important role in becoming a successful forensic psychologist (Ward). Depending on the state, there may also be additional requirements to complete. Once all of the requirements are met, the aspiring forensic psychologist must pass the state exam in the state they would like to practice in, in order to get their state license to practice. Then they must take the national exam known as the Examination for Professional Practice in Psychology. Once the exams are passed, they are eligible to begin their career as a practicing forensic psychologist (Careers in Forensic Psychology).

Work Environments

After years of coursework and training, a forensic psychologist has to decide on the work environment they would like to work in. Forensic psychologists have a variety of locations they can work in such as police stations, courthouses, law firms, prisons, jails, and juvenile detention centers (Forensic Psychology Careers). Having an array of settings to work in is an attractive aspect to the field of forensic psychology because individuals can choose many different career paths with their degree. On a large scale, the most common work environments for forensic psychologists to have are careers in law enforcement, clinical, or research and teaching (Forensic Psychology Careers and Job Outlook).

Forensic psychologists that choose to work in law enforcement can work in small departments such as local or state where they could be hired as consultants to select, train, and evaluate police officers (Employment Outlook). Forensic psychologists could also work for large agencies such as the Federal Bureau of Investigation. The FBI employs forensic psychologists as criminal profilers to evaluate past criminal activity in order to to determine fact patterns and potential suspects (Employment Outlook). Although it may seem as if the FBI is the most prevalent place to have criminal profilers, criminal profilers are still strongly used in smaller law enforcement agencies (Forensic Psychology Careers and Job Outlook). Another environment a forensic psychologist can work in is a crime scene and laboratory setting which involves assessing crime scenes, evaluating evidence in a laboratory, and then presenting that evidence in court (Employment Outlook).

In addition to working in the law enforcement setting, forensic psychologists can work in the clinical setting. Rather than creating profiles of criminals to help catch them, forensic psychologists will provide services to criminals already in the criminal justice system who are suffering from psychological problems. Forensic psychologists will evaluate offenders and then implement treatment plans. Typically, these forensic psychologists will work in a prison or jail; however, they can also choose to work in psychiatric hospitals or mental health centers (Forensic Psychology Careers and Job Outlook).

The third most common work environment for forensic psychologists is in research and teaching. Research plays a critical role in the development of forensic psychology. Forensic psychologists will track the trends of crimes and then utilize this knowledge to help law enforcement (Forensic Psychology Careers and Job Outlook). Forensic psychologists may also teach which can entail a variety of roles. Some can be hired to educate the public on improving public safety and encouraging physical and mental wellness. An example of this, is teaching the public of how exposure to abuse can effect an individual. Forensic psychologists can speak in seminars and arrange clinics to educate law enforcement officers of the relevant information that could help them with understanding and dealing with criminals (Forensic Psychology Careers and Job Outlook). Another option they have is to teach at the undergraduate or graduate level. It is beneficial to share their own personal experiences in the field, so students can better understand relevant topics that would be discussed among the class.

Salary

The salary for a forensic psychologist can vary based on their degree, work environment, and specialties. There is limited data on the salaries of forensic psychologists, so it is difficult to determine the most accurate mean salary (Careers in Forensic Psychology). According to Payscale, the national average salary for a forensic psychologist is $63,258; however, their salaries have a wide range from around $38,000 to $112,000. The more experience a forensic psychologist has, the higher salary they will receive. The following visual provides the average annual salaries for a forensic psychologist based upon experience level (Average Forensic Psychologist Salary).

Figure 3:

Data from: www.payscale.com

As shown in Figure 3, an entry level forensic psychologist would be making around $50,000 a year in comparison to someone working over 20 years in the field would be making over $100,000 (Average Forensic Psychologist Salary). Other sources also suggest that with more experience and education, forensic psychologists can exceed well over $120,000 annually. Larger departments and cities typically have a higher salary as well (Forensic Psychology Careers and Job Outlook).

Some forensic psychologists will choose to provide services in consultation in private practice in order to gain an additional income. Those who choose to do this, on average, can make from $150 to $450 hourly. The earning potential for forensic psychologists continues to grow because of the increased need for expertise on criminal behavior and problems relating to mental health (Employment Outlook). The salaries of forensic psychologists, in general, are similar if not somewhat above the average salary for other careers. Some forensic psychologists believe their decision to go into the field goes beyond the salary of their work. They think that the work they do is making a difference to benefit society; therefore, their salary is not the most influential reason for going in the field of forensic psychology (Forensic Psychology Careers and Job Outlook).

Job Outlook

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, there is a very positive job outlook for a career as a forensic psychologist. It also stated that forensic psychologists will most likely experience more than a 10% increase from 2014 to 2024. The projections of job availability for this career may vary based on specializations within the field (Forensic Psychology Careers and Job Outlook).The American Psychological Association explains how forensic psychologists have opportunity to grow within the field in a variety of settings (Careers in Forensic Psychology). In addition to forensic psychologists having a strong job outlook, it also has great job security. There are not many concerns that this job will fade out in the upcoming years because there will always be a need for forensic psychologists (Forensic Psychology Careers and Job Outlook). Despite efforts to prevent or reduce crime, it is inevitable that people will be committing crimes and for those reasons there is a need for forensic psychologists in order to properly evaluate and treat offenders

Misconceptions

Forensic psychology is a relatively recent branch of psychology, therefore there are often misconceptions about the role of a forensic psychologist. Television shows and movies portray forensic psychologists as having exciting jobs where they are easily able to understand an offender. This however is not the case, forensic psychologists that profile offenders need a considerable amount of time in order to assess the crime and interpret the offender’s motives to predict the type of person that would be committing a particular crime (Ward). A career as a forensic psychologist is much more challenging than many people may recognize. The job can be mentally and physically draining that it may deter some individuals from wanting to work in the career (Forensic Psychology Careers and Job Outlook). It is important for forensic psychologists to have people in their life and activities they enjoy in order to separate their emotionally difficult cases from their life at home.

Conclusion

Summary of Findings

The career of a forensic psychologist requires an extensive amount of education by completing a doctorate degree. The education track requires time and money which may not be available to all individuals. Skills such as in interviewing and case presentation that a forensic psychologist will be obtained throughout their education that will be important for them to succeed in the profession. Forensic psychologists have an array of opportunities to work in different environments including law enforcement, clinical, or research and teaching. The latitude of work settings, as well as a median average salary of $63,258, makes this profession very appealing. Another influential factor of pursuing this career is that it has a positive job outlook providing more job opportunities for those interested in the field.

Recommendations

Based on the research provided in this document, it can be concluded that a career as a forensic psychologist is feasible. Dr. Cerbo highly recommends this profession for current criminal justice or psychology students. He advises students who are interested in forensic psychology to take both criminal justice and psychology courses in their undergraduate years because it will give students the perspective they will need as a forensic psychologist. Despite a few drawbacks to the job including extensive education and that it can sometimes be draining, the career is becoming more well-known and desirable. The profession of a forensic psychologist is practical for many people because it incorporates aspects from both psychology and the criminal justice system which is what many students are wanting to find. A favorable aspect of this career is that is has so many settings that one can work in, so individuals can decide to specialize in a particular area that most interests them. The career of a forensic psychologist is feasible and should be further investigated.

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