When police or the FBI need help tracking down a serial killer or to crack a difficult case, they often call on a forensic psychologist to study crime scene evidence, patterns and witness testimony to come up with a “profile” of the perpetrator.
Ever since two physicians were called in to help police put together a profile of Jack the Ripper in the 1880’s, psychiatrists and psychologists have been called in to understand and predict the actions and habits of criminals and to aid in their arrest. This type of investigative psychology is a growing field, a serious and demanding profession sensationalized in movies and television.
The Work of Forensic Psychologists
Often called the study of criminal minds, forensic psychologists are concerned with the behavior of criminals, their victims, witnesses, judges and juries. They work directly with these individuals and groups in court cases, criminal investigations, custody disputes, insurance claims and lawsuits. They conduct mental competency evaluations, work with child witness and victims of abuse.
They serve as expert witnesses and must be able to relate complicated forensic and psychological information in a clear and understandable way for the judge and jury. They assist in ongoing criminal investigations by analyzing evidence and drawing conclusions as to motivation, patterns and method of operation.
They also assist in a wide variety of legal matters, helping witnesses recover memory lost through traumatic experiences. They aid in jury selection and child custody and family law cases.
Forensic Psychology Education Requirements
Forensic psychologists are first licensed clinical psychologists, with a Ph.D. or Psy.D. degree and post-doctoral specialization in forensics. The demand for forensic psychologists is growing, and more graduate schools are offering tracks in forensics. Another track would include an undergraduate degree in forensics or criminal justice, continuing with a doctoral program in psychology.
Some students pursue a dual degree in psychology and law. The field is very competitive and requires four years as an undergraduate, five to seven years for a doctoral program and subsequent forensics specialization.
Forensic scientists also need strong oral and written communications skills, critical thinking and legal knowledge; a firm understanding of the scientific method, an analytical mind and great attention to detail. They have to be able to take the mental and emotional stress of dealing with criminals and victims and the intense atmosphere of courtroom interrogations.
Licensing of Forensic Psychologists
Forensic psychologists are required to complete the same state licensing requirements as clinical psychologists. Forensic psychologists can apply for certification from the American Board of Forensic Psychology as a Diplomat of Forensic Psychology.
Forensic psychologists work in private practice and spend time working on cases or with clients in courtrooms, law offices, the prison system or in the field with law enforcement investigation teams. They work with private clients or as consultants to law firms on a variety of cases and situations.
Forensic Psychologists – What do they earn?
The Bureau of Labor Statistics 2011 data reports the national median annual salary for the group of psychologists that include forensic psychologists at $69,000. Those in private practice with years of work experience and reputation in the field can command a higher salary. Salaries also vary by state, location and specialization.