Frequently Asked Questions About Forensic Psychology
What is forensic psychology?
There is debate about the proper use of the term “forensic psychology.” Some people use a very broad definition, to refer to any application of psychological principles and methods to any area of the legal system. Others use the term to refer only to the application of clinical psychological techniques to the legal system. Some forensic psychologists are quite specialized, and are more properly called police psychologists (if they limit their practice to working with law enforcement agencies and officers) or correctional psychologists (if they limit their practice to working with correctional facilities, staff, and/or inmates).
What do forensic psychologists do?
If we use the broad definition of the term, they do a lot of different things:
Basic and applied research on the legal system itself and/or any of its participants (study of legal issues and practices, criminal behavior, police officers, jury behavior, eyewitness testimony, memory, perception, etc.)
Training/Education for participants in the legal system (police officers, correctional staff, lawyers and judges (rarely),
Clinical applications (these are the activities that are most well-known)
- Evaluations (Insanity, various competencies, civil commitment, custody, claims of psychological injury, psychological fitness for law enforcement work)
- Treatment (of offenders, inmates, police officers and their families, victims)
- to law enforcement (crisis intervention, hostage negotiation, critical incident debriefing, psychological autopsy, psychological profiling)
- to courts (expert testimony, amicus curiae briefs, alternative dispute resolution)
- to lawyers (evaluations of clients, preparation of witnesses, jury selection)
- to correctional institutions
How do I become a forensic psychologist?
Forensic psychology is one of the newer disciplines in psychology, and does not yet have one formal, structured path to the profession, but we can identify a path that most forensic psychologists have taken. The vast majority of psychologists who work regularly within the legal system have a doctoral degree and received their graduate training in clinical psychology or (less frequently) counseling psychology. This makes sense when you realize that many of the activities of forensic psychologists are clinical/applied in nature. They obtained their knowledge of forensic psychology through on-the-job training and experiences, post-graduate educational and training opportunities, and attendance at professional meetings conferences. Of the forensic psychologists who do only research, many are I/O or social psychologists.
Until recently, there were very few graduate programs that offered even one course in forensic psychology, let alone an entire “track.” Now we are beginning to see forensic tracks in some of the clinical training programs, and a few programs devoted to training psychologists to do forensic research, including some masters programs. Many of these programs can be found listed at the website of the Society for Police and Criminal Psychology
Until we have more training programs that offer a specialty track in forensic psychology, the most effective way to become a forensic psychologist is still to obtain comprehensive training as a clinical psychologist, if you intend to do applied forensic work. If your program happens to offer a course, practicum experience or supervision that is forensic in nature, all the better. If you can, do your internship in a forensic setting. You might also do some volunteer work in a forensic setting as part of your training.
If you intend to specialize in police psychology, it would be ideal to spend a few years as a police officer first. Of course, this does not appeal to everyone. At the very least, attend a citizens police academy, and do some citizen ride-alongs with police officers. If you plan to work mainly within the court system, it would be ideal to obtain a law degree along with your doctorate in psychology. There are a few graduate programs that offer this possibility.
If you intend to do research in the field, rather than applied work, attend a graduate training program that offers a thorough grounding in experimental methods and statistics, as you would for any of the other research oriented areas of psychology. Consider attending one of the graduate programs that specializes in training students to do forensic research.
How can I get started as an undergraduate?
As an undergraduate student to get exposure to both fields, you can major or minor in psychology and/or major or minor in criminal justice. Among your psychology courses, try to take personality, biopsychology, learning, abnormal psychology, forensic psychology, and/or police psychology. In addition to the fundamental criminal justice courses, take courses that address psychology-relevant topics, such as theories of crime and punishment.
Take advantage any internships or field placements that are available in forensic settings (for example, the forensic unit at a state mental hospital, a probation/parole office, a spouse abuse shelter, a court services center, a mediation center, etc.) Look for summer jobs or volunteer work in forensic settings. Attend a citizens police academy or go on a ride-along a local police department.
How do I become a criminal profiler?
Criminal profilers look at data derived from crime scenes to make predictions about the likely characteristics of unknown serial offenders. The FBI originally developed profiling techniques and were the primary people doing profiling. The FBI now also trains local and state police officers to do profiling. There are also a few private organizations, staffed primarily by retired FBI agents, that offer training in profiling. Although there are a few psychologists nationwide who are involved in providing profiling services to law enforcement, it is probably safe to say that the vast majority of profilers are police officers. All training is currently provided by law enforcement agencies, and is typically open only to law enforcement personnel. Even among police officers, very few receive training in profiling. This is a highly specialized activity, and is an unrealistic career goal for most people, even if you are fortunate enough to be able to join the FBI.