What Is Forensic Psychology?

Updated January 10, 2023by BetterHelp Editorial Team

Hollywood often glamorizes the role of a forensic psychologist. With popular crime shows hitting prime-time television almost nightly, a lot of false information gets spread about this area of psychological expertise. While television may portray forensic psychologists as professional crimefighters who identify criminals by examining their personality and behaviors, real forensic psychologists simply apply clinical psychology practices in the legal world. If you are interested in pursuing a career in forensic psychology or simply want to understand what it means, read on to discover why it matters in today’s world. 

Interested In A Career In Forensic Psychology?

What Is Forensic Psychology?

According to the American Psychological Association (APA), forensic psychology is often described in broad and narrow terms. In the narrow sense, it can be defined as the application of clinical psychology practices into the legal field. These practices may be assessing, treating, and evaluating people or situations and applying these specialties to a legal setting. When the practice of forensic psychology reaches into the areas or research and experimentation, then the field is taken into the broad sense. 

Popular television shows typically portray a forensic psychologist as a complex, brooding genius. Someone whose mind is so advanced that they alone understand the thought processes and motivations of an unidentified serial killer. Someone, who, like the famous Sherlock Holmes, can pick up on the slightest of details to crack a difficult case.

While this image does a lot for storytelling, the career of a forensic psychologist is much broader and more administrative. Most forensic psychologists are not chasing criminals with secret-agent flair. They are sitting in treatment offices, conducting research, working at desks, or helping others in their community.

They spend much of their time treating patients, assessing a person's ability to stand trial, working with victims of crimes, and writing reports. They collaborate with the judicial system to reduce crime rates; help offenders re-enter society and advocate for children in the case of divorce or abuse. They also work with companies to identify or prevent fraud and come up with safety plans for schools. You will see them work with children and adults, criminals, and the innocent, as well as individuals and groups.

On occasion, an expert forensic psychologist will consult on a high-profile crime. For example, during the trial for the murder of Arizona resident Travis Alexander, his accused killer, ex-girlfriend Jodi Arias, underwent an extensive evaluation to determine whether she was mentally fit to stand trial. Likewise, you can find forensic psychologists like Dr. Reid Meloy step in during times of serious tragedies, (like the Las Vegas shooting) to offer insight into the minds of those who commit heinous acts.

While forensic psychologists may publish books, interviews, and articles, the knowledge they have stretches far beyond the most violent or even intriguing crimes of our century. A forensic psychologist is mostly active during every day legal situations. But there are a few exceptions to this rule.

Are They "Profilers?"

Sometimes, the term "criminal psychologist" or "profiler" is used interchangeably with "forensic psychologist." While the two roles are closely related, criminal psychologists are professionals who have dedicated their career to understanding the minds of criminals.

They work closely with offenders, study their behaviors, evaluate crime scenes, and give us insight into motives. The duties of a forensic psychologist and criminal psychologist do overlap in some ways, but someone who identifies strictly as a "criminal psychologist" is more likely to be employed with the police or FBI than with other agencies.

What Makes a Forensic Psychologist Different?

Forensic psychologists are first and foremost psychologists. They have the proper credentials to treat and work with patients. Clinical forensic psychology, the practice of treating patients directly, takes place in many facilities, but often the motivation for working with one is different than that of using a general practice psychologist.

A forensic psychologist uses their unique combination of skills and education to assess individuals who are involved with the legal system in one way or another. They might serve as an expert witness in a court case, conduct research studies, and evaluate people who are involved with the legal system such as police officers, crime victims, and people who have been arrested for a crime. A forensic psychologist is often called upon to assess an individual’s mental competency, to assess people for possible diagnoses of post-traumatic stress disorder, or to design rehabilitation programs for juvenile offenders.

When a forensic psychologist is needed, it is because the person they are working with requires legal assistance, representation, or needs to ensure they comply with certain legal parameters. There is a direct relationship with a court or a specific law. While they may help their patients work through mental illness or behavioral concerns like anger, anxiety, or depression, the primary reason for doing so stems from a specific legal need.

Where Does Forensic Psychology Come From?

Although it is a commonplace today and a thriving career choice, the history of forensic psychology had a slow beginning. While crime has existed presumably all throughout human history, an appreciation for the relationship between the law and the mind did not come about until the 1900's.

At the beginning of the 20th century, Hugo Munsterberg was the director of Harvard's Psychological Laboratory. In 1908 he wrote, "On the Witness Stand," a book which explored topics like eyewitness testimony and crime prevention. While his ideas were controversial, even his opponents could not ignore the potential value of introducing psychology into the courtroom. But it took several practical cases to support that need.

One of those cases took place that same year. Louis Brandeis, a lawyer from Boston, worked on the case of Mueller v. Oregon. He presented empirical research which showed that long working hours impacted the health of women. This was the first time in history that social science was used as part of a brief. This opened the door for legal acceptance of social and psychological research, but it would still be a long while until it became a common practice.

From the early 1900's to roughly the late 1960's a formal path for forensic psychology was still evolving. While some cases such as Jenkins v. the United States did promote the use of psychology in the courtroom, many experts were hesitant to replace medical doctors with those who had degrees in psychology instead.

In 1968, psychologists Jay Ziskin and Eric Dreikurs formed the first forensic psychology professional association. Their efforts led to the formation of the American-Psychology Law Society (APLS) which today, has over 3,000. Thus, the relationship between the mind and the law as we know it gained credibility and acceptance.

Today, forensic psychology spans all over the legal spectrum. Current research explores hot topics like false allegations, threat management, and the rights of terrorists. Some professionals expand their knowledge to other fields, like forensic neuropsychology, to offer a medical and psychological perspective to their clients. They work hard to defend victims in any situations including class action lawsuits and military court-marshal cases. Lastly, the rising interest in the career field has paved the way for some individuals to become university professors.

How Do I Become A Forensic Psychologist?

Interested In A Career In Forensic Psychology?

Forensic psychology requires an advanced degree. Most professionals recommend that students who are interested in pursuing this career path, start with getting a Bachelor of Science degree (instead of a Bachelor of Arts), to ensure meeting the prerequisites for further education. Many students pursue their degree in Psychology with a minor or dual major in Criminology or Law, but it is best advised to tailor one's academic path to what best fits their future career goals.

Upon earning a bachelor’s degree, alumni then pursue a graduate degree, such as a master’s degree or doctorate. Instead of learning the basics about psychology, law, health, and science, graduate students will study theoretical and research-based practices. Their classes may include topics like personality assessment, crisis counseling, ethics, and the practice of psychology. Once getting a master's degree, it is often advised to pursue a degree in law, unless classes have already been taken as part of the concentration, or otherwise, go on to earn a doctorate if interested in treating patients or conducting research.

While many academic qualifications get someone ready for a career in forensic psychology, it is important to make sure their personality and skills are a good fit too. The most basic skills needed for this role are strong communication, attention to detail, and critical thinking. Likewise, a good forensic psychologist must also be able to remain objective in difficult situations. Moral or ethical views cannot sway their opinion about a patient or legal process.

The role also calls for strong resilience. A forensic psychologist may deal with difficult topics like child abuse, domestic violence, substance abuse, and death, on a regular basis. 

Reaching Out For Career Guidance

There is more to forensic psychology than meets the eye and these professionals are found anywhere legal processes are followed. While the FBI does have its fair part, and a select few do have roles similar to what you would see on television, you are just as likely to find a forensic psychologist in a hospital, school, business, or outpatient treatment center. Becoming a forensic psychologist is a long and difficult process, but it is incredibly rewarding to help and defend others and make a difference in the lives of those who need it most.

If you are interested in pursuing a new career or are unsure of what you want to be, consider reaching out to a career counselor for guidance. You may live in a remote location or simply feel most comfortable in meeting with a therapist in the comfort of your own home. Online therapy may be an ideal option for you. Research supports virtual therapy to be just as beneficial as in-person therapy, with the added benefits of convenience and cost-effectiveness. BetterHelp has several licensed professionals for you choose from to help you discover your path to a career that fits. Talking to a counselor about your career goals and career aspirations may give you the strength and resolve to continue your job-seeking journey. 

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