What Is Forensic Psychology? Your Complete Career Guide

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Forensic psychologists contribute their knowledge of psychology and its interaction with the law to make legal and criminal justice proceedings as fair as possible.

Forensic psychologists impact the legal system in a variety of ways. Before you decide whether this is the right career for you, we need to understand what forensic psychology is—and what it is not.

In this Article

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What is forensic psychology?

It is often broadly defined as the intersection of psychology and the law. Forensic psychologists apply their psychological expertise to address legal concerns in civil or criminal proceedings. 

Having a psychological expert who understands the ways that our emotions and mental well-being affect a legal proceeding is invaluable. Forensic psychologists collect psychological data to draw relevant conclusions that inform legal arguments and decision-making. 

“There’s a lot of value in what we do,” said Dr. Breann Martin, licensed psychologist and certified forensic evaluator. “No matter what the outcome is, we’re affecting somebody’s life.” 

So what does this actually look like? Some of the job duties of a forensic psychologist often include:

  • Lead psychological evaluations to determine if a defendant is fit to stand trial
  • Provide counseling to suspects or victims
  • Assist on child custody cases by conducting custody evaluations
  • Study problems of crime prevention, rehabilitation programs in prisons or help select candidates for police work

Forensic psychologists are sometimes referred to as clinical psychologists. Forensic psychologists may work in a clinical capacity, but clinical psychologists focus more on counseling and helping individuals rather than apply that knowledge to the legal system.

Key differences between forensic psychology, criminal psychology, criminology

All three disciplines have a lot of overlap in what they mean and what they do. After all, they are all concerned with crime and psychology to various extents. However, these three terms are distinct.

Forensic psychologyCriminal psychologyCriminology
The study of how psychology can impact the legal system, and how we can use psychological knowledge to inform legal processes.The study of the psyche and why individual people commit crimes.The study of crime itself, why it occurs, and how it can be prevented. Criminal psychology is often a part of criminology studies.

Steps to become a forensic psychologist

Earn a bachelor’s degree.

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Before you can get an advanced degree in psychology, you need to build an educational foundation. Bachelor’s degrees in psychology, sociology, criminal justice, criminology and more would prepare you for an advanced degree.

Earn an advanced degree in psychology.

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After earning your bachelor’s degree, you can either move on to a master’s program or apply directly to doctorate programs. You will most likely want to get a doctorate eventually, because it is the minimum degree required by most states to become a licensed psychologist.

Get licensed to practice psychology in your state.

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Check your state’s requirements to earn your psychology license, then complete any remaining steps. Most states require you to work a certain number of supervised clinical hours and pass certain tests in addition to your doctorate degree. These hours may be accrued during your degree program within a clinical internship experience, but it is also common for states to require a certain number of post-doc hours as well.

Apply to forensic psychology jobs.

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With a doctorate degree and license to practice psychology in hand, you may be qualified for many forensic psychologist jobs.

Advance your credentials.

forensic psychologist testifies in witness stand by judge

You can bolster your credentials as a forensic psychologist by getting certified by the American Board of Professional Psychology in forensic psychology.

What degree do I need to become a forensic psychologist?

There is no exact degree that you need to be a forensic psychologist, but we can start by looking at what you need to become a licensed psychologist. 

Most states require that you have a doctorate degree in psychology in order to obtain licensure and practice. Also, having a doctorate in psychology is usually the minimum education to qualify for most forensic psychologist jobs.

At minimum you need a bachelor’s degree to apply for most doctorate programs, and possibly a master’s degree as well. There are some degrees in forensic psychology, but it is also common to have a degree in a similar field—such as clinical psychology or criminal justice—with a concentration or specialization in forensic psychology.  

Getting licensed

After getting an advanced degree in psychology, look into getting licensed to practice psychology in your state. The requirements to obtain licensure vary by state, but most require a doctorate degree and a certain number of clinical or internship hours working with a licensed psychologist to qualify.

You can advance your credentials even further by getting certified by the American Board of Professional Psychology in forensic psychology. This demonstrates your high level of skill as a forensic psychologist.

How much can I make as a forensic psychologist?

Although there is not as much data on how much forensic psychologists make specifically, psychologists in general can earn well above the median annual salary across all occupations. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics cites a median annual salary of $106,420 for psychologists, though your location, experience, and job type will all affect your salary as a forensic psychologist.

kendall upton

Written and reported by:

Kendall Upton

Staff Writer

With professional insight from:

Dr. Breann Martin, Psy.D.

Licensed psychologist and certified forensic evaluator