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What is Forensic Psychology

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Where Psychology and the Law Come Together

On television shows, the excitement grows when forensic psychologists are called upon to testify in court, either for the defense or the prosecution. But if you're thinking of becoming a forensic psychologist because of what you've seen on TV, hit the pause button on your remote. Working in this field requires a lot of "behind-the-scenes" work, such as conducting subject interviews, collaborating with colleagues and performing additional research before you ever set foot on the witness stand. Yet, if you work in private practice, you could set your own hours to work around your children's and family's schedules. And with its potential to change lives, a career in forensic psychology can be very rewarding.

Job Description

A forensic psychologist applies psychological principles to help lawyers, judges and juries understand the psychology behind certain cases. She may assess someone accused of a crime, for example, to understand his state of mind at the time of the crime. Or, she might evaluate a child who may have been the victim of a crime.

Forensic psychologists are trained to assess and evaluate a person's mindset, sometimes currently, but often in the past. She's not that interested in how he feels or acts now, but what was he thinking when he committed the crime. Or, in interviewing a child, she attempts to determine the accuracy of his memory or if he's been coached to reply a certain way.

Part of someone's defense―or prosecution―is motive, and state of mind is another. Whether someone planned an act in advance or flew into a rage and wasn't thinking clearly at the moment the crime was committed can mean the difference between first- and second-degree murder.

Just asking the person, "What were you thinking at that moment?" isn't necessarily going to get the right answer. People lie, and sometimes they forget. And in emotional situations or when a child is involved, he may not understand himself why he did it.

Forensic psychologists are trained to conduct unbiased interviews without posing questions that might lead the person in one direction or another. In addition to testifying in court, they interview children and/or parents in child custody and abuse cases; conduct competency assessments for the elderly; assess "mens rea," a person's intent, for possible insanity pleas; evaluate for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD); interview and counsel crime victims; screen law enforcement applicants; and assess threats made on schools.

Education Requirements

Forensic psychologists must hold a doctoral degree, either a doctor of psychology, Psy.D., or a doctor of philosophy, Ph.D., degree. Choose an accredited program, because some jobs require you to have graduated from an accredited school. Some states also require the Ph.D. for licensure.

The Ph.D. focuses more on research, especially original research. It also requires a written dissertation about the research and your findings. The Psy.D. focuses more on practical clinical work and testing. It's more for someone who wants to become a practicing therapist and doesn't intend to conduct research.

Psychologists are required to be licensed by their state. Though requirements vary, you will typically need to have completed an internship and a minimum of one to two years of supervised professional experience, along with the doctoral degree.

The median salary for all psychologists was $75,230 in May 2016, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Median is the midpoint in a list of salaries, which means that half earned more, and half earned less. The lowest 10 percent earned $41,890, while the highest 10 percent earned $121,610.

About the Industry

Some forensic psychologists work for institutions such as the FBI or other government agencies, law enforcement agencies, prison systems, or at universities in a research role. Others have a private counseling practice or work as consultants for courts, police, schools or prisons in situations that call for an unbiased expert capable of evaluating a person's state of mind.

As a forensic psychologist, you might be consulted to design a training program for a police department or corrections agency, be an adviser on crime to legislators, or counsel criminals in prisons, patients in mental hospitals or at-risk youth. Or you could even become a criminal profiler like the ones on television.

Years of Experience

Forensic psychologists enter the field with the work experience acquired during their internship, typically two years under the supervision of a licensed psychologist. Once they are working on their own, they can expect annual performance reviews with salary increases dependent on the industry and economy. Those who work as consultants or in private practice usually bill by the hour and can increase their rate as they accumulate additional years of experience. Anyone who wants to hire a forensic psychologist to render an expert opinion will likely be swayed by the expert's level of experience, too, so an expert can expect more jobs and, therefore, a higher overall salary.

Job Growth Trend

The need for all types of psychologists is expected to grow 14 percent between 2016 and 2026, which is faster than overall job growth. The need for forensic psychologists, who are trained to reliably assess someone's state of mind, motive and accuracy, will continue to expand.