What is Forensic Psychology?
There is a little bit of disagreement in the field about what, precisely, is the scope of forensic psychology, so I will explain that first. The broadest use of the term is to describe any area of psychological science or practice that has some relevance to the criminal justice system. The more specific use of the term describes only the application of psychological science to the criminal justice system, which would be a clinical psychologist who focuses their work in a way that involves the criminal justice system. For more on the difference between clinical psychology and general psychology, read about the different degrees here. In either case, forensic psychology, using either scope, is a sub-field of psychology, so I will now describe that in more detail.
Psychology, as a general field, is the study of mental processes and behavior. Most psychologists are interested in how mental processes interact with behavior. For example, a behavior is something that is objectively defined and relatively easy to observe, like a mouse solving a maze - you can tell whether the mouse made it to the end of the maze or not. The mental process behind that behavior is more difficult to observe, such as how motivated the mouse was, or how it was making decisions about which way to go in the maze, whether it was frightened or hungry, and so on.
The field of psychology has interest in any area with mental processes and behaviors. Forensic psychology, if you use the broad definition, is a sub-field of psychology that is interested specifically in behaviors and mental processes that have relevance to the criminal justice system. For example, committing a crime is a behavior. Understanding the mental processes related to committing a crime would be something a forensic psychologist studies.
A forensic psychologist may be interested in anything that reasonably is within the scope of the criminal justice system and also has some psychological relevance. For example, they may study how a jury makes a decision about guilt or non-guilt in a trial. The verdict is the behavior, and the psychologist is interested in how that verdict was reached. Forensic psychologists may also be interested in how a police officer copes with the challenges of their position, how mental health is affected by incarceration, how victims of crime react to the sentencing of the perpetrator, and thousands of other areas.
Those who use "forensic psychology" to refer to only the practice of psychology within criminal justice settings are talking about clinical forensic psychology. This sub-field focuses on doing things that a licensed psychologist can do, such as assessments and treatment of people, but specifically with individuals who are in some way involved in the criminal justice system. For example, therapy is a common thing that a clinical psychologist does. A forensic psychologist who is licensed (or seeking licensure) may do therapy with offenders in prison. They may also work with victims of sex crimes or domestic violence, and so on.
Clinical forensic psychologists may also evaluate or assess people in the criminal justice system. For example, a licensed clinical forensic psychologist may assess whether a defendant is competent to stand trial, or whether they were sane at the time of their alleged crime. Additionally, someone in this position may diagnose people in jail with mental health problems, or they may evaluate a police officer for their fitness for duty. There is a wide range of things that a clinical forensic psychologist could do.
Requirements to be a Forensic Psychologist
If you are interested in becoming a forensic psychologist, it is first important to determine which path fits you best. Here are some things to consider. You should also read this page.
Prepare to spend a lot of time in school.
To be a forensic psychologist, you will need to earn a doctorate degree. You'll need to finish your bachelor's degree, and then complete graduate school in a program that awards a Ph.D. or a Psy.D. Read about the differences in those degrees here. For either degree, you'll spend about 6 years in school after a bachelor's degree, although some programs vary in their length.
Would you prefer to do therapy and assess people, or focus more on conducting research?
In psychology, there are clinical routes, which aim toward licensure as a psychologist, and then there are the non-clinical routes that do not lead toward licensure. There's plenty you can do with either degree, but they have some key differences, so spend some time learning about them. I describe these more here. Specifically, in forensic psychology, a licensed clinical psychologist could assess defendants for insanity or competency to stand trial, and similar things. They could also work inside of a jail or prison, doing therapy with or assessments of inmates. Additionally, licensed forensic psychologists can screen applicants seeking to join a police department, assess officers for fitness-for-duty, clear officers to return to duty, and related things.
If you were a forensic psychologist who is not licensed to practice therapy, you would more likely spend your time doing research that is related to psychology and criminal justice, teaching about such things, or consulting on cases. For example, you might be hired by a state department of corrections and then help them set up and maintain databases to keep on their offender population, while also researching how well programs work, assessing for areas of need, and writing reports that may help get funding. A forensic psychologist might work at a university or community college, doing mostly teaching and/or research of topics related to psychology and criminal justice. Additionally, a forensic psychologist may consult with a defense attorney about things to keep in mind during jury selection, what evidence to emphasize, strategies for the defense, and so on. A forensic psychologist may also serve as an expert witness in court cases, explaining what the field has discovered about eyewitness reliability, the psychology of battered woman syndrome, and so on.
What Can I Do With a Bachelor's Degree?
I often get inquiries about what forensic psychology is, and what one can do within the field. I put together this page to help answer some of the most common questions, but please feel free to reach out to me with specific questions. These are also only my opinion, so please look into several other resources as you make decisions about your career. You may also appreciate this video with much of the same information.
If a total of 10 years of college does not sound feasible for your situation, there are still some possibilities to do things that are related to forensic psychology with just a 4-year degree. It is important that you understand the limitations of the degree as well. With a bachelor's degree, you will likely assist a psychologist or other sort of clinician. You may co-facilitate group therapy sessions, meaning that you are present and assist with discussion and the rules of the group, but follow the lead of the clinician. You might work in a facility as a mental health technician (the title may vary), and primarily work to support the treatment plans of offenders. That may involve encouraging compliance with taking medications, checking in with inmates about their current symptoms, and so on. However, you would not actually conduct therapy, but probably use psycho-educational techniques, such as teaching them how to calm themselves and similar things. You could possibly also assist in halfway houses or other places where parolees or other correctional populations are likely to be.
A few other positions may strike you as intriguing as well, as these share some components with psychology, but are not explicitly therapeutic. One possibility is to work as a probation or parole officer. This position usually requires only a 4-year degree, and often draws psychology majors. As a probation or parole officer, you work with a caseload of people who are on parole or probation, and you design individualized supervision plans to encourage them to avoid committing new offenses. This position involves a lot of psychology, because you need to understand what will motivate each person, assess their areas of need and risk, and hold productive conversations about what's going on for them. Just like a therapist, a probation or parole officer needs to form a trusting relationship, must be good at listening in a manner that is nonjudgmental, and must hold good interpersonal boundaries. However, this position also has some elements to it that resemble a law enforcement officer, in that you may need to report poor behaviors to judges, and those reports may lead to jail or prison time for the people on your caseload. Watching people fail, despite your efforts, comes with the territory.
Although they do not often require bachelor's degrees, you may consider doing work in correctional environments that serves clinical populations. For example, a certified addictions counselor (called by other names depending on the state) is someone who has some special training in facilitating addiction recovery classes or groups. These professionals do not do psychotherapy, but there are many similar elements in that you offer hope, encouragement, and focus on behavioral changes to help people make improvements in their lives. This sort of position usually requires some specific courses, but check your local licensing authority to see what is required in your area.
Another option with a bachelor's degree is to work as a correctional case manager. This sort of position offers a lot of technical support for criminal offenders. For example, an inmate may be nearing their release date from prison, and so a case manager helps them to formulate a plan for release. This plan includes establishing a place to live, job possibilities or educational pursuits, as well as personal work in committing to a crime-free lifestyle. This sort of position has lots of potential for making a meaningful and lasting impact on the life of an offender, if done in such a way that is warm and enthusiastic, but also holds appropriate boundaries in the relationship. Therefore, it may be an attractive alternative to graduate school if what you value is working with people in need, and feeling that you've made a difference. Still, beware that working with a correctional population comes with many challenges, as you will often see what an inmate needs to do to improve their life, you will put lots of work into their situation, and then still see them make poor choices and fail. For this reason, it can be a frustrating job. Many people in these sorts of positions experience burnout, which is where they lose motivation, resent those on their caseload, or become indifferent to their situations.
The Take-away Messages
Forensic psychology is a rich, diverse, and growing field. Because there is so much that one can do in the field, there is probably some area that would interest you. If you are interested in seeking the position of a forensic psychologist, plan to pursue a doctorate degree in psychology with some emphasis in forensic populations.
If you do not have plans to attend graduate school, start looking into career prospects for things that have overlap with forensic psychology.