In my early undergraduate years, the term “forensic psychology” always sounded so glamorous. Of course, this was just as television shows like CSI and NCIS started to become popular. Everyone thought that being a forensic psychologist meant you would be a criminal profiler or out in the field solving crimes.

Sure, the subspecialty was starting to get some much-needed notoriety, but it also left a vital cluster of questions largely unanswered for those who were interested in entering the field, such as:

  • What is forensic psychology?
  • What does a forensic psychologist actually do?
  • And how do you become a forensic psychologist?

Of course, the answers to these questions will evolve over time and some answers will also grow with you as you get further into the field. The information below is meant to assist those students who are considering a career in forensic work as well as those who are just a little curious as to what forensic psychology is all about.

What is Forensic Psychology?

A generic definition I often hear is that forensic psychology is essentially the intersection of psychology and the criminal justice system.

However, given that the definition is so broad, it can also encompass other areas such as police psychology and correctional psychology, which differ from forensic work.

So, what’s the distinction? If you meet someone who identifies himself or herself as a forensic psychologist, they are working to answer psycholegal questions by providing psychological and scientific information to the adversary system.

If you are thinking about becoming a forensic psychologist, be sure to check out the definition and specialization requirements of the state(s) in which you intend to practice. This will give you an idea of the kind of training and educational opportunities you will want to take on while still in graduate school.

What is the Role of a Forensic Psychologist?

As I said before, the job of a forensic psychologist is to answer psycholegal questions for the courts. However, this can take place in a number of contexts. Forensic psychologists might work in a prison/correctional facility, a courthouse/court clinic, a college or a university/research lab, or in private practice.

A few examples of the way that forensic psychology work might look in each of these capacities is:

  • Prison/Correctional Facility: This individual is likely to be known by the inmates or forensic patients as their “forensic evaluator.” The evaluations completed by the forensic psychologists often involve issues related to multiple forms of competency (e.g., to stand trial, to be executed, to be sentenced, etc.), criminal responsibility, violence risk assessment, civil commitments, and need for care and treatment.
  • Courthouse/Court Clinic: A forensic psychologist doing work in a courthouse may be involved in civil matters where they act as guardian ad litem for a child in a divorce proceeding. Court clinic forensic psychologists can be found performing other types of evaluations, some of which include cases involving substance use, injury compensation, conservatorships/guardianship, and more.
  • College or University/Research Lab: An individual may work as a professor and an experimental forensic psychologist, teaching classes and running a research lab in a university on issues involving DNA and other forensic identification evidence (e.g., ballistics, fingerprints, etc.). That individual is likely to be a prolific writer of research articles and may also act as an expert witness, testifying on issues in a given criminal case that involve their area of expertise.
  • Private Practice: A forensic psychologist can be found doing work in private practice. They can be hired by lawyers to do consultations and evaluations. This work might include doing risk assessment evaluations of sex offenders in the community, competency evaluations of minors, and more. They might also leave time for teaching forensic assessment courses as an adjunct faculty member.

Of course, this list and these examples are by no means exhaustive. This is just to give you an idea of what is out there. The possibilities are numerous.

How do you Become a Forensic Psychologist?

Now that we have an idea of what a forensic psychologist is, you might find yourself wondering how you can get on that career path.

While this is a great question, the first question to really ask yourself is: “Which forensic path is right for me?” Once you have answered that question, your training trajectory in the field will make itself clear to you.

If you are reading this, there is a high chance that you are already involved in a graduate program of some kind. You might be wondering if you should continue on to a doctoral program after your master’s degree. Maybe you are early in your doctoral level training and are considering taking on a forensic concentration.

Whatever your current educational status, consider the following paths:

1. Forensic Counseling

Programs that focus on providing an education on criminal justice topics and with criminal justice involved populations in mental health treatment might identify themselves as “forensic counseling programs.”

Are you interested in a career in which you provide counseling services in a correctional institution, counsel survivors of violent crimes, and/or do outreach and prevention work with offenders?

Then it seems that a master’s program that focuses on counseling within a forensic context is likely to be the right place for you. There are counseling psychology or clinical mental health programs that will fit your needs and prepare you to work with forensic populations.

Wondering if you should go on to a doctoral program after your master’s degree? If you do not see yourself performing research studies or doing a consistent amount of assessment work, then sticking to counseling may be your best bet. However, if you are interested in immersing yourself in research and assessment, then a doctoral program might be the right fit for you.

2. Research

Perhaps you find that your interests involve working in academia and spending time in a research lab. You might want to consider moving on to a PhD program in experimental or clinical psychology.

Since experimental psychology does not lead to becoming a licensed clinical psychologist, from this point forward when I refer to “PhD” I specifically mean PhD in Clinical Psychology.

If you are really ambitious and would like to also supplement your work with legal studies, you could also go the JD/PhD or JD/PsyD path.

So… which doctoral path should you choose?

Well, the PhD and JD/PhD paths spend a considerable amount of time doing research and coursework, while the PsyD path has a higher emphasis on clinical contact. In the PsyD and PhD in programs you’re working toward becoming a competent practitioner. In PhD programs you are also being taught to act as a competent scientist in the field. Both programs will either require or strongly recommend that their students complete additional training in a pre-doctoral internship prior to their graduation.

Both the PsyD and PhD doctoral programs can lead to an individual becoming a forensic psychologist. The career path can involve a mixture of working in private practice doing evaluations, educating students in the classes that you teach, and interacting with patients/clients in jails/prisons and court clinics. If you choose the JD path you can also add on the potential role of advising legal clients.

3. Assessment Work

Maybe you enjoy psychological assessment work and would like to engage in direct clinical work with clients. That means your interests align best with moving on to a doctoral program. A number of programs offer an experiential training model in which you are able to take your skills directly into the field and work with clients while you are also taking your classes.

Since there are currently no accredited forensic psychology doctoral programs, if your goal is to become a licensed psychologist, you will want to choose a clinical psychology program where you can also choose a concentration in either forensic psychology, legal psychology, or correctional psychology.

This can be a great benefit, as the solid clinical training you will receive at a clinical psychology program can offer you good clinical skills that will, in turn, make you a better forensic psychologist.

Conclusion

Overall, the definition of what constitutes a psychologist and psychology subspecialties is outlined by the state in which you plan to work and/or be licensed. The duties that you will be expected to carry out in any of these given paths will be determined by your state, your job/institution, and your own interests. Be sure to consult with your advisor about the laws and regulations in your state (and others if you plan to move after graduation).

Lastly, I realize that there are a number of areas touched upon in this entry that are just “surface explanations.” If you would like me to delve deeper into any particular topic or have any questions, leave a comment below and I will be sure to answer your question there or in a subsequent blog post.

Best of luck to you!

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Jessica R. Garcia, PsyD

Jessica R. Garcia, PsyD

Jessica R. Garcia, Psy.D., is a graduate of the Clinical PsyD program at William James College. She also completed concentrations in Forensic Psychology and Latino Mental Health. Her masters and doctoral clinical placements included a residential treatment facility, a middle school, a federal prison, a forensic state hospital, and a juvenile court clinic. She also completed an APA predoctoral internship at a Federal Bureau of Prisons facility. She continues to work in corrections, providing mental health services to criminally sentenced and civilly committed persons.
Jessica R. Garcia, PsyD

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