Forensic Psychology

What it isn’t?
Because there are many stereotypes and misunderstandings, let’s start with what Forensic Psychology is not. According to this wonderfully informative and concise Eye on Psi Chi article, Forensic Psychology is not criminal profiling, crime-solving, or subject interrogation. This is not a career of gun-toting murderer-chasing adventures. If you pursue this field, you will not be joining the “Behavioral Analysis Unit” and tracking serial killers; you will not be showing up to active crime scenes in high heels or a freshly-pressed suit; you will not be predicting the next move of a ‘sociopath’ based on a string of clues they’ve left you whilst dodging explosions and jumping from moving vehicles. These are fictional fantasies perpetuated by the media’s wildly inaccurate portrayal of this important field. If you have been drawn to this career because you are a self-proclaimed “crime junkie,” you can now begin the perhaps disappointing but very crucial process of adjusting to reality.

A few more pointers about developing a realistic view:
-Criminal profiling is rarely conducted at all these days, as its validity has been questionable and scrutinized by research.
-Jobs at the FBI’s BAU are extremely competitive and extremely limited, such that you’d probably have a higher chance of becoming an NFL quarterback or a Hollywood star.
-Most jobs in this field involve immense attention to detail, lots of paperwork, and sophistication with ethics and writing; it’s effortful work with gradual payoff, not stunts and fast-paced discoveries.

What it is?
Forensic Psychology is the application of psychology to the broad arena of law. The APA describes it as “characterized by activities primarily intended to provide professional psychological expertise within the judicial and legal systems.” Common activities would include: conducting psychological services with incarcerated individuals (e.g., psychotherapy and group counseling in a prison or jail setting); working with people who have a history of incarceration to reduce recidivism rates; conducting assessments and evaluations for issues such as competency to stand trial; and making court appearances to testify in an area of expertise (e.g., child custody issues or workplace compensation pursuits). Further, this APA article emphasizes that Forensic Psychology is essentially the application of Clinical Psychology skillsets to the unique settings and processes of law. Forensic Psychology requires a strong background in psychological assessment and diagnostics/conceptualization, and frequently faced issues include personality disorders, complex parent-child dynamics, history of traumatic experiences, and substance abuse problems.

The sorts of people who are drawn to Forensic Psychology are those with a great interest in the intersections of legal matters and psychological inquiry. This may be because they have personal experience/exposure to the criminal justice system, because they wish to serve those who have been treated unjustly, or because they are intrigued by ethics. This APS article describes the overarching philosophy of Forensic Psychology as an “interdisciplinary collaboration of psychology and law” which takes a “problem-centered approach.” Forensic Psychologists spend much of their time in direct contact with incarcerated individuals, providing services ranging from psychotherapy to assessment and evaluation, and are generally focused on the promotion of wellness and rehabilitation for this important population. And given the history in the United States of how policing and incarceration have been implemented with structurally racist policies (see for instance Michelle Alexander’s book The New Jim Crow for a detailed account), many Forensic Psychologists also have a passion for racial justice and attempting to repair the damage done by decades of discriminatory practices.

While it is likely obvious that Forensic Psychologists often work in settings such as jails and prisons, it is also the case that their work can occur in many other locations. They can be found in private practice, government agencies, local community clinics, hospitals, and other places.

In order to become a Forensic Psychologist, one first needs to complete a Bachelor’s degree (B.A., B.S., or B.S.W.) in a relevant topic area (e.g., psychology, criminal justice, social work, sociology), and then pursue graduate-level training. The trajectory is essentially identical to Clinical Psychology and Counseling Psychology, insofar as there are some options at the master’s level (M.A. or M.S.) but more freedom and career flexibility once securing a doctorate (Ph.D. or Psy.D.). It is very important to note that the field of your graduate-level degree does not necessarily need to be called “Forensic Psychology,” in fact most psychologists practicing in the forensics context started by earning a clinical or counseling focused degree and then specialized in legal matters along the way. This*** consideration significantly broadens your options of graduate programs.
License: To be practicing as a Forensic Psychologist in the state of Michigan, one needs to be licensed. A doctoral level psychologist is eligible to pursue the status of “Licensed Psychologist” (LP) whereas a master’s level clinician can pursue a status of “Limited Licensed Psychologist” (LLP). Both the LP and LLP routes require a certain number of supervised hours in clinical practice, as well as a passing score on a standardized exam called the Examination for Professional Practice in Psychology (EPPP). To learn more about licensing options, check out LARA’s info for psychologists.
Training: As noted above, one can pursue graduate training in programs called “Clinical Psychology” or “Counseling Psychology” in addition to those labeled “Forensic Psychology.” [The forensic focus area is somewhat analogous to how physicians first earn their medical degree and then specialize in psychiatry.] However, there are also some programs specifically labeled “Forensic Psychology” master’s or doctoral programs, which would likely include many of the same courses and training components but with an earlier focus on legal contexts. Be careful and review your application materials closely, because some Forensic Psychology programs are geared toward training researchers/scientists and not clinicians–check out this page for more information about distinguishing between the two, and be sure to look for programs which are APA-accredited and put you on track toward licensure (if that’s what you want, of course). For a listing of current graduate programs in the forensic psych topic area, check out this resource from APA Division 41 which is updated every few years.

***Students sometimes react with disbelief to the notion that they can become a Forensic Psychologist without attending a graduate program specifically called “PhD in Forensic Psychology” or something similar. But it’s true! This is a great reason to plug in a reminder that, when it comes to licensure here in Michigan, there’s no such thing as a “forensic” or “counseling” or “school” or “clinical” psychologist, there is simply the label of “Licensed Psychologist” and that’s it. You might find it most advantageous to attend a Forensic Psychology program; or you might find that you fit better at a generalist Clinical Psychology program which happens to have a “Forensic Specialization” or even just one legal psych course; or perhaps you would fit best at a generalist Counseling Psychology program which happens to be located near a prison or jail, so that you could pursue external placement positions there while in training; or perhaps you will end up attending a Clinical Psychology program which has no specific forensics training but you conduct your dissertation project on incarcerated populations; or you might even spend all of graduate school focused on foundational general clinical skills and not specialize in work with forensic populations until years later–each of these routes are perfectly fine!***

Lastly, why would someone wish to become a Forensic Psychologist? Well, much like any other applied psychologist, these are folks whose skills blend scientific thinking with the desire to help and empathize–but specifically in the realm of the legal and incarceration systems. Helping someone rebuild life after prison, advocating for vulnerable populations including abused children, and working to ensure justice in court-based decisions are just a few of the rewarding and important social services provided by Forensic Psychologists and reasons why they love their work!

Relevant State-Level Organization
Michigan Psychological Association

Relevant National Organization
American Academy of Forensic Psychology
American Psychology-Law Society (APA Division 41)
The Association for Psychological Science