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How To Become a Forensic Psychologist

Forensic psychology is an exciting and compelling career path where no two days will be the same. Becoming a forensic psychologist is not quick or easy but the field is open to students from any background, and it is never too late for a career change if you are interested in solving crime and learning how the mind works.

This guide is full of all the information you will need on the role of the forensic psychologist to help you decide if this is the career for you. The guide also outlines the qualifications you need to and the entry-level requirements for the study of forensic psychology. If you are thinking of this field as a potential career path, then this guide is a must-read.

What is a forensic psychologist?

Forensic psychology refers to the practice or study of psychology being applied to crime and the law. Psychological study and theory are applied to a criminal investigation to help better understand the actions of a criminal in order to help determine motives, find suspects and even help to prove or disprove guilt. Forensic psychology can also be used to help understand the problems that cause criminal behaviours, and it is also used in the treatment and rehabilitation of those who partake in criminal activity.

Forensic psychologists can find work in a variety of settings ranging from police stations and government agencies to jails and schools. Other job opportunities can be found training law enforcement officers and also working closely with the police and other agencies to provide criminal profiles to aid in criminal investigations. Other areas forensic psychologists may find work include law firms, rehabilitation centres and in private practice.

What are the different types of forensic psychology?

There are two main divisions of forensic psychology; clinical forensic psychology and social/experimental forensic psychology. Clinical forensic psychology tends to focus on applying psychological theories and methods to understand the mental processes and the behaviours exhibited in civil court and criminal justice arenas. Clinical psychologists primarily work with individuals and meet clients and patients face to face in order to help assess, treat or advise police or courts about the person they are working with.

Social/experimental forensic psychology tends to be more researched based as theories are applied to conduct research to help better understand the phenomenon which often occur in the criminal justice system and which also occur during criminal acts. Social and experiments forensic psychologists rarely work with patients. Instead, they focus on research and academia in order to further general understanding of why people commit crimes as well as how discrepancies in the investigation and trial of those crimes can affect the outcome.

What do forensic psychologists do?

Clinical forensic psychologists work closely with individuals in order to better understand why people commit crimes. Areas of popular interest in this field include the study of psychopathology and the likelihood of future violent behaviours, the role of mental illness in criminal behaviour and competency to stand trial, the study and treatment of sexual offenders and how mental illness affects the ability to understand right from wrong. Practitioners of clinical forensic psychology often become licenced practitioners who use their skills and knowledge in criminal or civil court cases or rehabilitation programmes.

Social/experimental forensic psychologists spend less time working with individual people but focus on furthering research and study into their chosen areas of criminal proceedings. Popular areas of study and research include eye-witness accuracy and false memories, line-up procedures, false confessions and police interrogation tactics. Other popular areas to focus on also include jury decision making and the psychology of deception and lying as well as deception detection.

What are the responsibilities of a forensic psychologist?

Forensic psychologists are often called as expert witnesses in criminal court proceedings, and so it is their responsibility to ensure that they fully understand the individual that they are testifying about. It is their responsibility to evaluate whether or not they are mentally fit to stand trial and also determine whether or not they understood their actions when the crime was committed.

Forensic psychologists may also be asked to give their professional opinion on sentencing, and so it is their responsibility to ensure that they omit no personal bias about the defendant or the crime and give an honest recommendation based upon the crime and the mental stability of the defendant.

It is also the responsibility of a forensic psychologist to understand the legal and justice system in the area in which they work. For example, in some states of the USA, the term "insanity" has different definitions. In order to interact appropriately with judges, lawyers, victims and defendants, and in order to be a credible witness, a forensic psychologist has a responsibility to study the law as well as their own profession.

How did forensic psychology start?

Some of what could be deemed the first forensic psychological study was conducted by James McKeen Cattell in 1893. He asked students from Columbia University to answer a series of questions and also rate their confidence levels at each answer. He found that confidence didn’t always mean the answer would be correct and similarly, some people were insecure about all of their answers, even when they were correct. His initial research inspired many more studies in this area.

William Stern, in 1901, asked students to give oral and written accounts of an argument, unbeknown to the student to be faked, that they had witnessed in their law class. The faked argument resulted in one student producing a replica revolver before the teacher stepped in to break it up. He found that every statement included between 4 and 12 errors. The results also showed that more mistakes were made surrounding the end of the argument when tension was highest, resulting in Cattell cautiously concluding that eye-witness statements became less reliable when high emotions were present.

The earliest example of a psychologist appearing as a witness in court proceedings was in 1896 when Albert von Schrenck-Notzing provided expert testimony in the case of a man being tried for the murder of three women where he outlined how witness testimony could be affected by suggestibility in the media coverage of the trial.

Following World War II, the field of forensic psychology began to blossom, and the courts ruled in 1940 that an expert witness could be called based upon their knowledge of their subject rather than whether or not they had a medical degree. In 1954, judges gave their support to psychologists serving as experts in mental illness during the case of Jenkins vs The United States.

What is forensic psychology used for?

Forensic psychology has many applications with the most well-known being in criminal court cases. Forensic psychologists may be called to testify to a defendant’s mental wellbeing and whether or not they have the capacity to stand trial or whether they knew right from wrong at the time that the crime was committed. Forensic psychology is also used to better understand the actions of criminals in order to help with any treatment and rehabilitation in an attempt to reduce the likelihood of reoffences.

Forensic psychology is also often used to help train police in methods of interrogation and also in investigative methods. Many forensic psychologists will also work as an advisor to the police in order to give expert advice and criminal profiles during live investigations to help police forces narrow down suspect pools or to determine where a criminal may offend next. Forensic psychologists may also help police in matters of hostage negotiations or in tactical operations. They may also offer counselling services to serving police officers and their families.

What skills are required to become a forensic psychologist?

One of the most critical skills for a forensic psychologist is the ability to communicate effectively with a range of people. You will be expected to build relationships with the police force, the courts and offenders so it is vital that you can communicate well and build rapport in short spaces of time. Forensic psychologists also need teamworking and leadership skills in order to be able to perform to the level required of them.

Other essential skills required include the ability to problem solve and make decisions. You must also be able to react quickly and think on your feet. A systematic approach to work and the ability to analyse and present statistical information are also necessary for this field of work. A forensic psychologist should also have a high level of self-awareness and a non-judgemental, non-discriminatory attitude. You will also have to have security awareness and be prepared to accept an element of personal risk when working with offenders, some of whom may be violent.

What are the working hours?

Most forensic psychologists can expect to work a full-time week of 37-40 hours. This is usually between the hours of 8.30am until 5.30pm. However, there may be some evening or weekend work if you are facilitating groups or working within rehabilitation.

If you progress your career to work on a freelance basis or run your own private firm, then there is more scope for flexibility with your working hours. Some placements may also offer part-time or job share opportunities, but as with many roles, it all depends on the employer or the facility in which you work.

Where does a forensic psychologist work?

There is a range of job opportunities for forensic psychologists in different job sectors. Most forensic psychologists will find employment in HM Prison Service where you may be based within the prison itself in order to work with offenders on a daily basis either evaluating their mental health, studying their behaviour or working with them towards their rehabilitation.

Forensic psychologists may also find work in other areas such as within the criminal justice system. You will be based in your own office and appear in court when summoned. You may also be working within the police service and probation services and so be based within their offices. Other job opportunities for forensic psychologist can be found within social services, so you would be based within their offices, or within NHS or private hospitals.

Forensic psychologists, especially those focused on the social and experimental psychology, can find employment in higher education institutions, either as a research role or as a teacher or lecturer.

What qualifications do you need to become a forensic psychologist?

In order to become a forensic psychologist, you will need certain basic qualifications and degrees, as well as membership to the Health and Care Professions Council (HCPC) and either further study or practical experience.

The first set of qualification you will need to obtain are:

    • A British Psychological Society (BPS) accredited degree in psychology, leading to Graduate Basis for Chartered Membership (GBC)

    • HCPC approved programme of learning, leading to registration as a forensic psychologist

If you have a degree but not in psychology, you may be able to become eligible for Graduate Basis for Chartered Membership by taking a psychology conversion course.

Once you have your BPS accredited psychology degree, then you will need to study a postgraduate qualification in forensic psychology. You will need to register with the Health and Care Professions Council at this point. You do this by:

    • Obtaining a BPS accredited Masters in Forensic Psychology, followed by a BPS Qualification in Forensic Psychology Stage 2 (which requires a minimum of 2 years supervised practice in which you need to show evidence of applying psychology in forensic practice)

    • Obtaining a doctorate

You will need to be able to show robust research skills and experience of working in the field in areas such as within a prison or mental health services. Many students before they take the big step of committing to a psychology degree will often study courses such as level 3 or forensic psychology level 4 training courses. These qualifications give an insight into the subject, as well as beginning to develop the research skills that are so important.

For those interested specifically in forensic psychology, the diploma in forensic psychology is a great place to start.

A step by step guide to becoming a forensic psychologist

    1. Obtain a psychology degree -      you must obtain a British Psychological Society accredited degree in psychology as your first step. Many universities offer psychology courses which also include studies in law, criminology and criminal justice which may be beneficial.

    1. Get a Master’s degree in psychology-  a Master's degree will increase your knowledge of forensic psychology as there are not many Bachelor’s degrees focus on this area.

    1. Earn a Doctorate forensic psychology degree-     if you are going to focus your forensic psychology career on research and study, then a PhD degree is the better option. However, if you hope to work more with individuals on a face-to-face basis, a PsyD is your better option as it has a stronger focus on treatment.

  1. Register with the Health and Care Professions Council- you cannot use the title of a forensic psychologist if you do not have HCPC registration.

How much do forensic psychologists earn

As with any profession, the more experienced a forensic psychologist you are, the more you are likely to earn. The wages you can expect also vary depending on the area and institutions in which you work.

Level of experience

HM Prison Service

NHS

Private/Consultancy

Trainee

Starting salary £24,000

£26,300 - £35,225

£30,000

Fully Qualified

£30,000 - £45,000

£31,300 - £41,400

£33,000 - £45,000

Experienced

£45,000 - £95,000

£45,000 +

£70,000 +

 

These figures are a rough guide, but they give an idea of the pay scale you can expect to see as you become more experienced in your field.

Career advancement opportunities

Career advancement for forensic psychologists is often experienced based; the longer you work at your craft and the more experience you gain, the more opportunities you will be able to apply for. If you work within the prison system then you may be given the opportunity to further your career into management roles, policy making roles and treatment leads. You may be offered a senior psychologist post which will allow you to manage entire treatment programmes or be responsible for the creation and delivery of rehabilitation programmes.

You may also decide to further your career by changing the area in which you work, switching from the prison service to the NHS for example. Here you may be offered roles leading therapy initiatives or supporting forensic wards. You may also be offered positions at management levels such as heads of service.

For very experienced forensic psychologists, the option to work on a freelance basis opens up, and you may decide to start your own consultancy firm. This requires years of experience and wealth of knowledge, but it can offer flexible hours and a higher salary.

Related careers

Other job roles which may interest you include:

    • Family liaison officer

    • Probation officer

    • Juvenile offender’s counsellor

    • Court liaison

    • Criminal intelligence analyst

    • Mental health nurse

Summary

This guide has looked at the role of a forensic psychologist and explained all the requirements needed in order to work in that role. Forensic psychology is a fascinating area to study and work in, and while the job may be demanding, it is also rewarding. No two days will be the same, and you will be working towards a better society for everyone, every day. If you would like to receive a 10% discount on our forensic psychology courses, then please feel free to use the discount code:- FORENSIC10

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