How to Become a Forensic Psychologist

If you enjoy working with people and have an interest in psychology and the legal system, you may be wondering how to become a forensic psychologist.

A forensic psychologist is a trained psychologist who, instead of counseling clients in a clinical setting or performing psychological research, applies his or her professional knowledge to legal matters. Fictional depictions of forensic psychologists in movies and television shows have helped popularize the career, but the real-life responsibilities of forensic psychologists cover a wide range of duties. Forensic psychologists evaluate the psychological state of those involved in a particular family court, civil court or criminal court case. Forensic psychologists use these evaluations to determine whether an accused individual is competent enough to stand trial or to testify in a case and whether an individual’s mental state may qualify him or her to plead insanity to a charge. In criminal or civil cases, forensic psychologists evaluate the likelihood that an individual is “malingering,” or feigning an impaired mental state. In family law cases, forensic psychologists may assess the psychological impact of child custody options.

Forensic psychologists must have a strong background in both psychology and law, which they develop through many years of education and through work experience. In addition, a solid understanding of science and research methods is important for success as a forensic psychologist, as are analytical critical-thinking and decision-making skills. Forensic psychologists should be good communicators, orally and in writing. Like other types of psychologists, they should be comfortable working with people, since their career requires them to interact with other professionals in the psychology and legal fields and with witnesses, defendants and other participants in court cases. Good forensic psychologists are good listeners and are able to balance compassion with the ability to make unbiased decisions.

Aspiring forensic psychologists should be prepared to invest a significant amount of time on their education, as the career requires an advanced degree. Some students major in counseling psychology or clinical psychology as undergraduates and graduate students and then undertake postdoctoral programs in forensics or forensic psychology. Other students choose to study criminal justice or dual-major in psychology and law or legal studies degrees as undergraduates. Regardless of the exact major, students who intend to pursue forensic psychology should study psychology and law as much as possible during their undergraduate education. Graduate-level studies take an estimated five to seven additional years. Supervised clinical experience is usually required during the education process.

Following completion of a doctoral or postdoctoral program, aspiring forensic psychologists can take an examination to earn board certification by the American Board of Forensic Psychology or a Diploma in Forensic Psychology from the American Board of Professional Psychology. Licensure requirements for forensic psychologists vary by state but typically include education and work experience requirements.

Forensic psychology is a popular, growing field. If you like working with people and have an interest in psychology and law, knowing how to become a forensic psychologist can help you get started on an exciting and rewarding career.

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