Complete Job Description of a Forensic Psychologist

The forensic psychologist job description varies between specialties. In the criminal justice field, forensic psychologists use their expertise to determine what happened during crimes. They interview witnesses, criminals, and victims. They also help lawyers select jury members. Forensic psychologists contribute to the criminal justice field by determining whether juries or judges should accept people’s testimonies as valid.

“To thrive in this field, professionals need strong analytical and research skills along with an interest in the law and criminal justice.”

In addition to law enforcement officers and lawyers, forensic psychologists collaborate with criminal psychologists and profilers. These professionals possess the same academic and professional background but specialize solely on accused and convicted criminals’ motivations and psychological state. Other specializations include civil law, wherein forensic psychologists interview disputing parties to determine fault.

Aspiring forensic psychologists often want to help others and positively impact their communities. To thrive in this field, professionals need strong analytical and research skills along with an interest in the law and criminal justice.

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What Does a Forensic Psychologist Do?

The forensic psychologist job description includes the core responsibilities of maintaining impartiality, avoiding conflicts of interest, and possessing integrity. Professionals who adhere to these tenets remain objective and ensure that the law treats victims and criminals fairly. Forensic psychologists who ignore these responsibilities can negatively impact people’s lives and the greater community.

Although job duties can change daily, forensic psychologists often develop and administer new psychological tests and interview people. They perform these tasks in hospitals, prisons, or other clinical settings. Experienced professionals may also observe less-experienced clinical psychologists, as observation plays an essential role in the licensure process. Additionally, some professionals start private practices and work as consultants.

Forensic psychologists often collaborate with other psychologists, police officers, and lawyers. Working with civil or criminal lawyers, they devise questions to ask potential jury members and witnesses. They may also give testimony in court regularly. On the stand, they use their professional expertise to comment on other witnesses’ testimony, why an event happened, and who or what deserves blame. This testimony gives jury members a clearer picture of why an event happened, helping them reach a decision during deliberation.

Unlike what some popular television shows portray, forensic psychologists do not solve crimes directly, as they do not possess the authority to arrest or try criminal suspects. That job rests with police officers, detectives, and lawyers. However, their work can help police officers and detectives make informed decisions regarding suspects’ motivation. Their insights assist law enforcement professionals in catching criminals or solving cases. Also, the research forensic psychologists perform can prevent future crime from occurring.


What do forensic psychologists do? How do they differ from criminal psychologists?Although similar professions, criminal psychologists deal solely with criminals and their motivations. Forensic psychologists specialize in criminals and other witnesses part of a criminal or civil trial.
What degree do you need to be a forensic psychologist?Professionals need a doctorate to become a forensic psychologist, as states require it for licensure. A Ph.D. program instills essential knowledge and skills that psychologists need for professional success.
Where can forensic psychologists work?Forensic psychologists work in a variety of settings, including hospitals, prisons, and government agencies. Some licensed professionals start private practices and work as consultants.
How long does it take to become a forensic psychologist?After finishing a doctoral program, forensic psychologists may need an additional 1-2 years to earn a license, depending on their state’s experience and testing requirements.

What Degree Do You Need to Become a Forensic Psychologist?

Fulfilling career opportunities exist for graduates with bachelor’s and master’s degrees in forensic psychology, but licensed forensic psychologists in all states must hold a doctorate. Although optional, a master’s can convey other skills that graduates use throughout their career. Additional requirements, such as clinical hours and tests, vary by state.

“Fulfilling career opportunities exist for graduates with bachelor’s and master’s degrees in forensic psychology, but licensed forensic psychologists in all states must hold a doctorate.”

Prospective students should look for regional accreditation when researching master’s and doctoral programs. The U.S. Department of Education charters six agencies to evaluate universities and colleges in different regions. Besides regional accreditation, ensure that psychology degrees advertise American Psychological Association (APA) programmatic accreditation. Many states require APA accreditation for licensure purposes.

Bachelor’s Degrees

Depending on the college or university, students can major in psychology or forensic psychology. A program lasts four years and requires approximately 120 credits, a third of which relate to the major and specialization. Major coursework can include criminal psychology, social psychology, and the sociology of crime and violence. Learners also gain an overview of other psychology subfields, allowing them to make an informed decision about what they want to study at the master’s and doctoral levels.

Some programs allow degree-seekers to choose between a BA and a BS in psychology. Although both prepare learners for graduate study, a BA includes more psychology courses and fewer math and science courses. As a result, BA students can explore the psychology field in greater detail.

Aspiring licensed forensic psychologists should consult their school’s academic and career advisors. These professionals can help learners understand a forensic psychologist’s job description and licensure’s educational and professional requirements.

Master’s Degrees

Although a master’s in forensic psychology does not qualify graduates for licensure in any state, the degree is a crucial stepping stone toward a doctorate. Master’s programs take 1-2 years to complete and require approximately 30 credits. Learners take a mix of core courses and electives. Through electives, degree-seekers can customize their academic interests and career goals. Additionally, the degree may offer specializations in different clinical psychology subfields.

Coursework covers therapeutic jurisprudence and problem-solving, the assessment of psychological injury for legal cases, and understanding psychological reports and expert witness testimony. In the second year, students can sometimes choose between two capstone options. The first option can involve an advanced research project that requires degree-seekers to write a thesis based on original research. The second option may include a field experience wherein learners volunteer in a clinical setting, observe licensed clinical psychologists, and analyze how clinical systems operate.

Graduates can move on to a doctoral program, the final academic step toward becoming a licensed forensic psychologist.

Doctoral Degrees

Like master’s programs, Ph.D. in forensic psychology programs allow degree-seekers to specialize in a forensic psychology subfield, such as crisis response, legal issues, or crisis leadership management. Some degrees also offer a custom specialization. Core courses cover abnormal behavior, understanding forensic psychology research, and the teaching of psychology. The latter appeals to learners who plan to enter academia.

After completing the core curriculum, degree-seekers take at least one year to research and write their dissertation. Before earning the degree, learners must defend their dissertation in front of a dissertation committee.

Typical programs waive some graduation requirements if incoming learners possess a master’s in forensic psychology. This waiver can take up to one year of the time needed to earn the degree. Schools may give part-time learners up to eight years to finish the degree. An accelerated curriculum allows learners to graduate more quickly.

Licensure and Certification for Forensic Psychologists


Like many professionals, forensic psychologists need a state-issued license to practice. Satisfying licensure requirements starts with earning a psychology doctorate from an APA-accredited program. In school, students begin obtaining clinical experience under a licensed psychologist. In California, licensure candidates need 3,000 hours of supervised experience, 1,500 of which can occur during a doctoral program.

After gaining the required supervised experience, candidates in all states sit for the Examination for Professional Practice in Psychology exam. Candidates sign up for the exam by filing an initial licensure application. Some states use an additional written or oral exam covering state-specific laws. Additionally, candidates must pass a criminal background check and perform continuing education to keep their license active.

Once forensic psychologists earn a license, they may want to practice in another state. Fortunately, many states feature reciprocity agreements. However, even highly trained licensed psychologists may need to take an additional test, pay a fee, or attain extra supervised hours before practicing in a new state. As a result, licensure candidates should attempt to exceed their state’s licensure requirements to make relocating a more straightforward process.

Board Certification

The American Board of Professional Psychology (ABPP) awards the Specialty Board Certification in Forensic Psychology (SBCFP) to licensed psychologists who meet specific standards. Board certification requirements include passing an oral and written exam. Candidates must also possess 100 or more hours of supervised training and at least five years of experience that includes 1,000 hours of working with patients. The ABPP board votes on candidates after reviewing their professional conduct.

Additionally, candidates apply through the ABPP website, and once forensic psychologists receive board certification, they must renew it each year.

Forensic psychologists attain the SBCFP for career advancement. Law enforcement and judicial agencies regard board-certified forensic psychologists as experts who can provide objective opinions during criminal and civil court cases. As a result, board-certified psychologists can explore more job opportunities than their uncertified peers.

Salary and Employment Outlook for a Forensic Psychologist

The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects jobs for psychologists to grow by 3% between 2019 and 2029. This projection falls slightly below the average projected growth rate for all careers. The salaries in the table below represent the median annual salary for all psychologists, not just those specializing in forensic psychology.

Lowest 10%Median Annual SalaryHighest 10%
Less than $45,380$80,370More than $132,070

Source: BLS

According to PayScale, the average psychologist in the United States earns $77,683 per year. However, the average forensic psychologist makes approximately $7,000 less per year. Several factors influence salary, including a forensic psychologist position’s job description. Managers and those with additional responsibilities earn more than entry-level forensic psychologists.

Salary also depends on geographic location. Psychologists who work in rural areas may make less than their peers in large cities. However, they can still attain the same quality of life due to a lower cost of living.

Beyond salary, licensed forensic psychologists often receive free benefits such as health insurance, a retirement plan, and paid vacation time. Professionals who spend their career working for a local, state, or federal government agency may also qualify for a monthly pension that pays a set amount each month throughout retirement.

Where Does a Forensic Psychologist Find Work?

Licensed forensic psychologists work in numerous job settings, depending on their degree and specialization. Some professionals work in prisons, counseling prisoners to ensure that they do not pose a threat after release. Other forensic psychologists work in hospitals, conducting psychological evaluations, collaborating with medical personnel to create treatment plans, and determining patients’ risk to themselves or others.

Forensic psychologists also work at law firms or social services agencies. Some open private practices or work as consultants. Typical consultants possess professional experience and use contacts within the law enforcement and psychology communities to find work.

As licensed forensic psychologists can choose from multiple career paths, degree-seekers should start exploring job opportunities as soon as possible. The APA website features two excellent job boards: careers in psychology and APA psycCareers.

The History of Forensic Psychology

Forensic psychology dates back to the late 19th century, when American psychologist James McKeen Cattell discovered that a person’s confidence about their knowledge did not correlate with accuracy. In 1902, psychologist William Stern showed that witnesses to crimes often made mistakes in testimony due to heightened anxiety and stress.

In the 1920s, psychologists began collaborating with law enforcement agencies. They acted as expert witnesses during trials, providing testimony regarding a defendant or victim’s mental state. Other forensic psychologists developed personality assessments to gauge prisoners’ susceptibility to violence. These tasks continue to define what a forensic psychologist does.