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Forensic psychology careers
Forensic psychology is a vast discipline with numerous career paths. There isn’t a singular occupation forensic psychologists fit into, but there are many ways that psychology can be utilized within the legal system—that’s where forensic psychologists comes in.
What do they do?
Although there are several definitions of forensic psychology, forensic psychologists research and/or apply psychological knowledge within or in consultation with the legal system. They might determine a person’s competency to stand trial, provide counsel to victims of or witnesses to a crime, and consult attorneys on child custody cases. Depending on the legal situation, they are often asked to testify in a court themselves.
“We do a variety of forensic evaluations. That’s anything where the court or legal system and psychology meet,” said Dr. Breann Martin, a licensed psychologist and certified forensic evaluator in Oregon. Martin works at a private practice and a state hospital.
Are forensic psychologists the same as criminologists?
Forensic psychologists are mostly concerned with the aftermath of a crime or specific legal situation, rather than dissecting the “why” of a crime. Criminologists, on the other hand, study crime as a whole. They are not usually directly involved with the legal system. Often in research or academic settings, they are looking at macro crime trends, what affects those trends and how to disrupt them.
Types of forensic psychologist jobs and job duties
Since forensic psychology can encompass so many jobs, it is helpful to examine their typical areas of focus. In their book, “Introduction to Forensic Psychology: Research and Application, Sixth Edition,” authors Bartol & Bartol split forensic psychology into the five subspecialties below. None of these specialties work in isolation, and many forensic psychologists have duties in their particular job from multiple categories.
What you do as a forensic psychologist depends on where you work and in what capacity. This is not a comprehensive list of what forensic psychologists do, but exploring these different specialties could give you a better idea of what type of job you want to pursue.
Legal psychology is probably the most well-known specialization when it comes to forensic psychology. These people work directly within the judicial process and may:
- Perform evaluations of a defendant’s competency to stand trial
- Conduct competency evaluations for the civil court
- Assist attorneys in jury selection
- Conduct child custody and child abuse evaluations
- Provide consultation for custody decisions and conflict resolution
- Evaluate the efficacy and accuracy of psychological assessment procedures
Those who specialize in police psychology work with police departments to provide psychological training and support. They may:
- Help determine optimal shift schedules for law enforcement personnel
- Create reliable screening procedures for law enforcement officer positions
- Provide counseling and support services to officers and their families
- Train police on how to deal with the mentally ill
- Assist the police with developing psychological profiles of repeat offenders
Psychology of crime and delinquency
This specialty focuses on the development of criminal tendencies in children and adolescents. Forensic psychologists who work in this realm may:
- Conduct research on how psychopathy develops
- Develop tests for assessing risk among the mentally ill, especially in youth
- Evaluate the efficacy of intervention strategies meant to prevent violent behavior later in life, and develop those strategies further
- Work as a research policy advisor on the prevention of stalking
- Work with school personnel to identify and help troubled youth who may be dangerous
Victimology and victim services
These people research and provide services to victims or witnesses of crime. In their jobs they might:
- Support and treat victims and witnesses
- Conduct psychological assessments for personal injury matters
- Educate and train victim service providers on psychological reactions such as post-traumatic stress disorder, as well as how to maintain cultural awareness when victims seek support
- Support and counsel those who provide death notification services
Some forensic psychologists work with correctional personnel and inmates. They may:
- Create reliable screening procedures for correctional officer positions
- Develop stress management and mental health programs for correctional staff
- Assess inmates’ mental health needs and suitability for prison programs
- Provide individual and group treatment for inmates
- Assess the efficacy of various programs for offenders, such victim–offender reconciliation, sex offender treatment, or health education.
Martin says her job duties differ between her private practice and the state hospital she works at.
“We do competency evaluations, personal responsibility evaluations, psychodiagnostics… We also do a variety of risk assessments: violence, stalking, sex offending, partner violence, those sorts of things… so that’s a lot of what I do at the private practice,” Martin said. “At the state hospital I sit as the psychology member for our risk review, which is kind of like a parole board. We determine who out of our guilty (except for insane) clients are ready for additional privileges and we help to decide when they are actually ready to leave the hospital.”
Where do they work?
Forensic psychology services can be incredibly useful in a variety of social, legal and educational settings. Some common employers of forensic psychologists include:
- Legal courts
- such as family courts, drug courts, mental health courts, domestic violence courts and more
- Victim services
- through various city, county, and state agencies that offer support resources
- Law enforcement agencies
- at the federal, state, or local level
- Correctional institutions
- Treatment programs
- for sex offenders, delinquent youth and more
- Psychiatric hospitals
- and other inpatient treatment centers for the mentally ill
- Governmental or private forensic mental health units
- Child protection agencies
- Colleges and universities
- where forensic psychologists may teach and/or research
Many forensic psychologists are also self-employed and have their own private practice. Some of the institutions listed above hire or contract with private psychologists to assist with specific cases. This option can provide more flexibility, as you get to choose which cases you accept. This option could also increase your earning potential as a forensic psychologist because you can set your own rate.
What qualities should a forensic psychologist have?
Since psychology itself is the study of people and the human mind, it’s important that you like to interact with others if you want to pursue a psychological profession. However, forensic psychology can have its own emotional complications, as with any job that works with criminals or high-stakes legal situations.
“We are also people, and there are cases that might impact us more so than other cases. It can be off-putting,” Martin said, “Sometimes you can’t predict those things—you might be reading a police report or something and get triggered and have to manage that.”
No matter what type of job you land, having strong interpersonal skills are a must for anyone considering a career in forensic psychology.
At the end of the day, your goal is to help people. To effectively help others, especially people who may have committed or been victim to a crime, it’s important to have empathy and compassion.
“Occasionally you might get somebody who’s just a bad seed, but that’s pretty rare,” Martin said. “For the most part you meet with people and think, ‘You’re just another human being who, through a variety of reasons, did this really terrible thing, and anybody could be in your position had certain circumstances come to fruition.’ That I think was what caught me most off guard, is that I was expecting to have less emotional connection and empathy for a lot of the defendants that we work with.”
Your job as a forensic psychologist is to conduct impartial evaluations—and leave judgement at the door.
“Being nonjudgmental and being willing to talk to people and listen to them about their experiences is super important… Most of what we do is ask questions, and so there’s a lot more listening than there is talking,” Martin said.
Be able to work as a team
Forensic psychologists rarely work in isolation. Although individual clinical evaluations may be conducted in private, you will likely work with a team of others regarding the situation at hand. In Martin’s case, she works on a risk review team for the hospital, and she works alongside attorneys on legal cases.
“You should have the skills to collaborate well with others because you’re working with attorneys a lot of the time and they have goals that are very different from yours, so being able to collaborate but also having good boundaries [is important].”
By cooperating successfully with the various groups of people you may work with, it is easier for everyone involved to achieve their individual goals.
A day in the life of a forensic psychologist
Since there is such a wide variety of forensic psychologist jobs, it’s challenging to paint a universal picture of an exact day in the life of a forensic psychologist. Everyone’s job will be a little different, but there are some common daily activities that may be shared by those who call themselves forensic psychologists.
Many jobs entail evaluating people involved with a legal situation. For example, this might include visiting a prison to interview and assess someone that is being held in custody while awaiting their trial for a serious violent offense. The psychologist may also use a series of psychometric tests to determine the person’s mental fitness to testify in court. A psychologist could also go to a police department and evaluate a detective that’s recently been involved in a shooting. They may want to make sure the detective has the resources they need to maintain their mental health in the aftermath of the trauma they’ve endured.
Since these evaluations are used in court, everything must be in writing. The psychologist will likely return to an office setting to write up their extensive reports, correspond with others about upcoming appointments and read up on cases they are being asked to assist on.
A forensic psychologist may have to appear in court as well, or even testify as an expert witness. Working hours can be long leading up to an important trial.