Forensic Psychology Career Profile

forensic psychologist talking to criminal
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Forensic psychology has become one of the most popular subfields of psychology in recent years. Increasing numbers of students express interest in this field of study, yet many are not quite sure what they need to do to pursue a career in this area. If you have an interest in psychology as well as the law and criminal justice, then this is an area that certainly might interest you.

So how do you get started in forensic psychology? What topics do you need to study in school, how do you find a job in the field, and what do forensic psychologists do?

Let's start first by answering the most basic question of all:

What Is Forensic Psychology?

Division 41 of the American Psychological Association, known as the Executive Committee for the American Psychology-Law Society (AP-LS), formally defines forensic psychology as:

"...professional practice by any psychologist working within any sub-discipline of psychology (e.g., clinical, developmental, social, cognitive) when applying the scientific, technical, or specialized knowledge of psychology to the law to assist in addressing legal, contractual, and administrative matters."

Essentially, forensic psychology involves applying psychology to the field of criminal investigation and the law. Forensic psychologists utilize their knowledge of psychological principles and use it to understand different aspects of the legal system. This sometimes involves conducting evaluations of people in the court system, performing psychotherapy with victims of crimes, evaluating witnesses, and even providing testimony in civil and criminal trials.

It is also one of the fastest-growing disciplines in psychology. The AP-LS currently has more than 3,000 members and continues to grow each year. Forensic psychology is also one of the disciplines I am most frequently asked about by students interested in entering the profession as a career.

Why Is Forensic Psychology Such a Fast-Growing Career?

So what explains the rapid growth in this particular field? Forensic psychology has grown phenomenally in popularity in recent years, partly due to sensationalized portrayals of the field in movies and television, which unfortunately are not always accurate.

Forensic psychologists are often depicted as criminal profilers who are able to almost psychically deduce a killer's next move. In reality, these professionals practice psychology as a science within the criminal justice system and civil courts.

Few of these professionals work as hands-on criminal investigators in the field and even fewer are actually engaged in the process of hunting down criminals.

So exactly what do forensic psychologists do?

The Duties of a Forensic Psychologist

Forensic psychologists are often involved in both criminal and civil matters. A few examples include:

  • Custody disputes
  • Evaluate insurance claims
  • Offer testimony in civil lawsuits
  • Provide psychotherapy services in family courts
  • Perform child custody evaluations
  • Investigate reports of child abuse
  • Conduct visitation risk assessments.

Those working in the civil courts often assess competency, provide second opinions, and provide psychotherapy to crime victims. Professionals working in the criminal courts conduct evaluations of mental competency, work with child witnesses, and provide an assessment of juvenile and adult offenders.

Forensic Psychologist Job Description

You can learn a lot about what a forensic psychologist does by reading job postings for this position. Duties often mentioned in a forensic psychologist's job description include assessing individuals involved in the legal system, writing reports about their mental status, testifying in court, and providing treatment.

How Much Do Forensic Psychologists Typically Earn?

Salaries within forensic psychology can range greatly depending on the sector of employment although most entry-level positions for those with a doctorate start out between $60,000 and $70,000 annually. indicates that the median salary is approximately $69,500 with a low-end range of around $39,000 and a high-end range at around $102,000.

Individuals with a bachelor's or master's degree generally hold the title of psychological assistant or psychological associate. Starting level salaries for these positions generally start around $35,000 or $40,000. Those in private practice who offer consulting services typically earn more, often in the $85,000 to $95,000 range.

Type of Degree Forensic Psychologists Need

Currently, there is no single accepted training model for forensic psychologists. In most cases, however, forensic psychologists need a doctoral degree in psychology, usually in clinical or counseling psychology. In most cases, people interested in this field start by earning a Ph.D. or Psy.D. in clinical psychology before earning some type of postdoctoral training and specialization in forensic psychology.

A number of schools such as the University of Arizona and the University of Wyoming offer degrees specifically focused on forensic psychology that combines courses in both psychology and law. Such a degree typically takes 4 to 7 years of graduate study to complete and admission into doctoral programs is highly competitive.

After the appropriate education, training, and experience, a forensic psychologist can apply for board certification. The American Board of Forensic Psychology offers professionals the opportunity to be certified as a Forensic Psychology Specialist.

In an article for Psychology Today, forensic psychologist Dr. Karen Franklin tackled the thorny issue of the sudden rise of terminal online master's programs focusing on forensic psychology. Many of these programs require a mere two years of graduate study and have become an increasingly popular option for students interested in this field. Franklin suggests that many of these programs are what she refers to as 'false advertising.'

"Master's level clinicians will probably have trouble competing in a field dominated by professionals with more advanced degrees," Franklin suggests.

Is a Career In Forensic Psychology Right for You?

Before you decide on a career in forensic psychology, there are a few factors you should consider. Do you enjoy working with others? Forensic psychologists usually work with a team of other professionals in addition to working directly with clients or criminal offenders. Do you enjoy challenging problems? In most situations, people are experiencing problems that cannot be easily or quickly resolved.

In addition to these qualities, experts have suggested that forensic psychologists must have the solid legal knowledge, understand how psychology and the law intersect and interact, have specialized training in clinical forensic psychology, and a background in the ethical issues with forensic psychology.

Forensic psychologists need patience, creativity, and commitment. Are you interested in studying both law and psychology? Students who enjoy both subjects may find that forensic psychology is the perfect career choice.

Pros and Cons of a Career in Forensic Psychology

As with any career, there are both pluses and minuses to being a forensic psychologist. Before you commit to this career path, spend some time thinking about how these possible benefits and downsides might influence your life.

  • The opportunity to help others

  • Diverse career paths (i.e. criminal courts, consulting, government, education)

  • Can be a challenging and rewarding career

  • Requires a substantial time commitment (4-7 years of graduate study)

  • Pay is usually low in relation to the amount of education and work required

  • Frustration, stress, and burnout can occur

A Word From Verywell

"What does a forensic psychologist do?" is a common question for many people who are interested in this career choice. While the field might not be quite what is portrayed on television and in the movies, it is still a rewarding, challenging, and exciting option.

One of the most appealing aspects of being a forensic psychologist is that it always offers interesting new challenges and experiences. You might evaluate witnesses one day and offer testimony in court the next. If you have an interest in both psychology and the law, then a career in forensic psychology might be a great choice for you.

9 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. American Psychology-Law Society Division 41. Specialty Guidelines for Forensic Psychology.

  2. Krauss DA, Sales BD. Training in forensic psychology. In: Weiner I, Otto R, eds. The Handbook of Forensic Psychology. 2014:111-33.

  3. American Psychological Association. What is forensic psychology?

  4. Average Forensic Psychologist Salary.

  5. Average Psychology Assistant Salary.

  6. Packer IK, Borum R. Forensic training and practice. In: Handbook of Psychology (2nd ed.). Wiley; 2012. doi:10.1002/9781118133880.hop211002

  7. Alexander A. Guide to graduate programs in forensic and legal psychology: 2017-2018.

  8. American Board of Forensic Psychology. About Forensic Psychology.

  9. Franklin, K. Forensic psychology: Is it the right career for me? Psychology Today.

Additional Reading
  • Weiner, I. B., & Goldstein, A. M. Handbook of Psychology, Forensic Psychology. Hoboken, New Jersey: John Wiley and Sons; 2012.

By Kendra Cherry
Kendra Cherry, MS, is the author of the "Everything Psychology Book (2nd Edition)" and has written thousands of articles on diverse psychology topics. Kendra holds a Master of Science degree in education from Boise State University with a primary research interest in educational psychology and a Bachelor of Science in psychology from Idaho State University with additional coursework in substance use and case management.