By Sarah Stevenson
Forensic psychology is a diverse and rapidly-growing specialty within psychological practice, one that offers challenges, rewards and excellent job opportunities—but how much do you really know about the field?
If TV shows like “CSI” or the classic British series “Cracker” are what come to mind when you think about forensic psychology, then prepare to have your preconceptions debunked. The reality is much more complicated, and in many ways, much more exciting.
1. Forensic psychology is the same as forensic science
Although many people with an interest in forensic psychology have a parallel interest in forensic science, the two terms are not synonymous.
- Forensic science has a foundation in the “hard” sciences and involves laboratory-based investigation of crime scene evidence, such as DNA collection and analysis, taking fingerprints, and examination of firearms and bullets.
- Forensic psychology, on the other hand, is defined by the American Board of Forensic Psychology as “the application of the science and profession of psychology to questions and issues relating to law and the legal system.” Essentially, forensic psychologists specialize in applying psychological knowledge to situations within a legal context.
2. The key component of forensic psychology is criminal profiling
A lot of laymen assume that the forensic psychology field predominantly involves criminal profiling. In reality, this is only one of many responsibilities that a forensic psychologist might have. Forensic psychologists help advise police departments on mental illness and criminal psychology, they consult with attorneys on mental health and other issues in the civil and criminal court system, and they help design correctional programs such as juvenile delinquency prevention, among numerous other roles.
3. Work takes place in jails or at crime scenes
This is another myth perpetuated by popular depictions of forensic psychology in the media, which tend to focus on the role of forensic psychologists in crime scene investigations. Clinical psychologists in the forensic field, for instance, may work in a mental health center, a hospital, a prison, or a private agency, to name only a few. Developmental psychologists are found in both medical and academic settings, as well as providing consultation in court regarding the behavior or testimony of children. Community psychologists work in government and non-profit settings as well as community-based advocacy groups.
4. You need a forensic psychology degree to work as a forensic psychologist
According to Matthew T. Huss, PhD, an assistant professor at Creighton University and coauthor of the chapter “Training in Forensic Psychology and the Law” published in Handbook of Forensic Psychology, “In order to become a competent and successful forensic psychologist, you do not have to enter a forensic psychology program, though it is preferred.” Provided you are able to do coursework in similar subjects, or undertake an internship in forensic psychology, a strong foundation in the study and practice of clinical psychology is generally regarded as the most important form of preparation.
5. A career in forensic psychology requires a law degree
It’s not uncommon for graduate forensic psychology programs to concurrently offer a joint law degree, such as a JD or MLS (Master of Legal Studies). However, a law degree is not compulsory in order to become a forensic psychologist.