Forensic psychology is a relatively new discipline, combining elements of psychological analysis and criminal investigation. Psychologists working in this field do everything from determining if a suspect is competent to stand trial to interviewing traumatized victims. There’s no set path to becoming a forensic psychologist, though a combination of psychology and law enforcement training is essential.
Most forensic psychologists have doctoral degrees in clinical psychology or counseling psychology. They often receive their forensic training on the job or by attending lectures, seminars, workshops, and other short-term training. Though there aren’t many degree programs specifically for forensic psychology, a few universities do offer undergraduate and graduate-level programs. Southern New Hampshire University, for example, offers a bachelor of arts in forensic psychology, and The George Washington University offers a master of arts in forensic psychology.
Forensic psychologists must be licensed clinical psychologists. They often begin their careers in traditional counseling psychology, where they see patients suffering from everything from mild depression to severe mental illness. Through this they hone their counseling skills, crucial to forensic psychology because they often interview frightened witnesses, traumatized victims, and hostile or defensive suspects. They might also start out working at juvenile detention centers or mental facilities where they can gain insight into criminal behavior and mental illness. Some forensic psychologists, however, start out as police officers where they develop their knowledge of investigative procedures.
Even though forensic psychologists focus on the mental state of a suspect, victim or witness, they must understand also basic criminal investigation and legal principles. With this knowledge, they can direct their line of questioning so they obtain information that is admissible in court or that leads police to a motive, suspect, or other key piece of evidence. They work closely with detectives, prosecutors and other members of investigative teams and must know what it takes to build a case against a suspect or determine which information can shed light on the crime.
Strong verbal and written communication skills are essential. Forensic psychologists must be adept in interacting with victims or witnesses who are reluctant to talk to authorities, as well as suspects attempting to conceal the truth from investigators. In addition, they frequently testify as expert witnesses in criminal trials and must know how to communicate with a lay audience. They must also explain their findings in detailed written reports that become part of the case file and might be used years later during follow-up investigations or court proceedings.