How to Become a Forensic Psychologist: A Complete Guide
Updated 26 January 2023
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Forensic psychology is a specialised field within the judicial system that combines concepts of psychology with legal methodologies. These professionals play an essential role as experts in criminal and civil cases. Understanding this profession and the career opportunities available in this domain can help you decide if this career path is suitable for you. In this article, we discuss what a forensic psychologist does, explore their skills and list how to become one.
How to become a forensic psychologist
Becoming a forensic psychologist requires a long and intensive journey of obtaining academic qualifications and completing degrees. A forensic psychologist is proficient in psychology and applying those principles in judicial proceedings. They work closely with lawyers and police officers to understand the psychological impacts of a case. They interview accused criminals, inmates and victims to understand their behaviours and mental health.
A forensic psychologist identifies behavioural traits that lead to a particular crime. They also understand the impact caused by traumatic experiences. They often appear in court as experts after assessing the mental health of the defendants. However, their findings may not be admissible in court as evidence and their primary duty is to support investigations. Thus, a forensic psychologist helps bring a scientific approach to criminology and work on civil and criminal cases.
The following steps can help you become a forensic psychologist:
1. Complete your education
The minimum requirement to become a forensic psychologist is to complete your bachelor's degree. It can be in psychology, criminal justice or forensic psychology. These are arts degrees and typically take three to four years to complete, depending on the institution. The eligibility for these courses is to complete your high school with subjects in science or arts.
2. Get a master's degree
A master's degree in forensic psychology provides a comprehensive outlook on psychology and criminal justice. It trains professionals in criminal psychopathology, psychological assessment and profiling. Many treatment centres prefer candidates with a master's degree in forensic psychology, and the programme is more focused and specialised.
3. Gain relevant work experience
You can gain experience in the judicial system, rehabilitation centres or a law firm. It helps provide exposure to the legal practices and the challenges of this field. Scout for internships and employment opportunities in non-governmental organisations. You may also gain general psychological work experience before working exclusively in forensic psychology. Additionally, to pursue a doctorate, you require relevant work experience.
4. Earn a doctoral degree
A doctorate degree helps you specialise in a particular field of forensic psychology like the psychology of child abuse, law and ethics and undertake unique research. Pursuing a Ph.D. requires you to complete a research project and may up to three years to complete. In matters of the judiciary, most forensic psychologists consulted have a doctorate.
Related: How To Become a Counselling Psychologist
What does a forensic psychologist do?
Forensic psychologists work with different departments of the justice system. They understand certain behaviours that can help police officers and courts resolve a case. In some cases, they may also counsel victims. While the job role of a forensic psychologist varies with the case, they may deliver one or more of the following duties:
act as an expert witness during court proceedings
provide consultation to victims to cope with traumatic stress
profile criminals to identify triggers and potential for causing harm
evaluate the defendant's competency to stand in court
counsel children in cases of child abuse or child custody
work with courts and rehabilitation centres to develop a curriculum for treatment
evaluate convicted criminals and work with police officers on their rehabilitation plans
evaluate witnesses to assess truthfulness in their statements
The work environment of a forensic psychologist
Forensic psychologists work in challenging environments and usually do not have fixed working hours. The legal system hires them to assist in civil and criminal cases. A forensic psychologist may spend most of their time interviewing victims and prisoners to plan rehabilitation. They may meet offenders individually or in groups. They also attend courtroom proceedings, file the reports of their findings and may act as an expert witness. The job role is mentally and physically exhausting, and the work environment is challenging.
Skills required to be a forensic psychologist
The role of a forensic psychologist is complex and dynamic. Their job requires them to be competent in legal and psychological matters. Depending on the demands of a case, a forensic psychologist may require one or more of the following skills:
A forensic psychologist evaluates the scenario, witnesses and suspects from a scientific and legal perspective. They may play a crucial role in cases that require an expert witness. They analyse behavioural data and provide their unbiased opinions.
Related: Critical Thinking Skills: Definitions and Examples
Forensic psychologists communicate with psychologists, lawyers, civil servants, victims, criminals and offenders. A forensic psychologist requires strong people and communication skills to be able to forge a connection with their audience, listen carefully and speak empathetically. They must be able to establish trust and gather evidence through their communication.
A background in psychology makes forensic psychologists competent in understanding the scientific approach to human behaviour and mental health. This knowledge aids their process of probing and documenting observations. Since it is a very complex subject, they have to stay updated with the latest studies and research about human behaviour.
Attention to detail
A forensic psychologist observes both verbal and non-verbal cues in their subjects. Their job relies on observing the littlest of things and inconsistencies that may affect the case. These details could be physical objects, behaviour or body language, and being attentive is important to identify them.
In many cases, a forensic psychologist helps children, criminals and police officers to deal with traumatic stress, mental health and abuse. Since they work on sensitive topics, a forensic psychologist requires the expertise to handle a situation well. In such scenarios, they have to remain calm, compassionate, trustworthy and objective.
The situations dealt with by forensic psychologists often make them privy to sensitive personal information. It is important for them to follow ethical practices and protocols to protect the identity of their subjects or not let information leak. They are not at liberty to discuss the case details with anyone who may influence the case.
Related: What Is a Code of Ethics and What Are Its Principles?
Despite the highly emotional nature of the job, forensic psychologists have to approach each case without their biases and prejudices. It is important for them to provide fact-based, objective and scientific information to the police and courts. This requires a high degree of self-awareness and objectivity, particularly when handling cases related to abuse or crimes related to children.
Frequently asked questions about forensic psychologists
Since the role of a forensic psychologist is not very well-known, there is a lack of correct and reliable information regarding some of its basic aspects. Here are some frequently asked questions about forensic psychologists and their answers:
How are forensic psychologists different from general psychologists?
Psychologists primarily focus on general public patients and work with varied patients. However, forensic psychologists work mostly in the judicial system. Their work revolves around observing the behaviour of the people in a civil or criminal case. They also provide counselling and assist rehabilitation of inmates.
How long does it take to become a forensic psychologist?
Most job opportunities in this field require a doctorate. Therefore, you may have to put in a minimum of six to 10 years of education, with an additional one to two years of work experience, to become a forensic psychologist. Alternatively, you may begin with entry-level jobs in the field right after your bachelor's to gain work experience.
What are some other career options related to forensic psychology?
Once you have the required education and qualifications, many career options are available. Some fields include criminal psychology, rehabilitation counselling, military psychology and criminal profiling. You can also foray into investigative journalism or child psychology. All these disciplines combine the principles of psychology with subjects relating to law enforcement, judiciary and crime.
Related: A Guide to Forensic Science Careers (With Salary Information)
How much does a forensic psychologist earn?
The average base salary of a forensic psychologist in India is ₹565,000 per year. Like other professions, gaining more practical experience in the field may improve job opportunities and pay. The salary of forensic psychologists also depends on their area of expertise, geographical location and organisation.
Salary figures reflect data listed on the quoted websites at time of writing. Salaries may vary depending on the hiring organisation and a candidate's experience, academic background and location.
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