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Everything you need to know about becoming a forensic psychologist

Forensics is without a doubt one of the most fascinating areas of psychology – in it, you deal with the association of psychological principles and crime. As the world becomes more aware of mental health problems and starts accepting them in a judicial setting, the demand for forensic psychologists has never been higher.

The potential impact you can make is immense – as with other fields of psychology, you have the chance to help individuals overcome their personal mental hurdles, and on a broader scale, you have the option to research criminal behavior so that others can apply your findings and make the world a safer place.


This is your quick guide to the field of forensic psychology – the specifics of the field and what the job entails, how much schooling is required, what the pay is, etc. If you have any interest in forensic psychology as a career, read this page from start to finish and you’ll be able to make an accurate assessment on if it’s the right choice for you.

What is forensic psychology?

Here’s the real definition

Look around the web and you’ll see complicated, drawn-out explanations of a forensic psychologist and the duties associated with the job. Allow us to simplify:

A forensic psychologist is anyone who deals with the association of psychology and the legal system.

So within the field, there are more than a few paths you can take – the legal system is complex, and forensic psychologists are needed at every turn. Your responsibilities will vary based on what part of forensic psychology you decide to focus on.

What does a forensic psychologist do?

It boils down to what you are interested in doing. You can do anything from assessing and counseling hardened criminals to researching their behaviors both inside and outside of jail/prison.

Applied forensic psychology

Assessments and expert testimony

If you’re involved in the public sector, you will be in courthouses and jails helping attorneys and judges make assessments on the people who have committed crimes.

Here are three examples of what you’d do:

  • Determine if someone is competent enough to stand trial
  • Determine if sex offenders are likely to commit more offenses
  • Determine whether someone is insane – or just pleading insanity

You play a major role in determining the fates of those with mental health problems, but you don’t necessarily get to help people in the traditional sense – instead, you make the world safer by ensuring all of the necessary precautions are taken with offenders. If you’d like a more direct approach, the next path may be for you.

Treatment for those in the legal system

Forensic psychologists can provide treatment for convicts who have been enrolled in counseling either voluntarily or involuntarily.

As you can imagine, this is one of the more “intense” ways to practice psychology. The people you are talking to may have committed serious crimes, and some of them may be mentally unstable on top of that. Your patients certainly won’t be teens in angst or couples who are having troubles in the bedroom.

For some people, trying to assist those who are in desperate need of help is the most rewarding thing one can do. On the other hand, it’s a demanding job, both mentally and physically – you have to be ready to interact with people who you probably wouldn’t in your normal life.


Research / Academia

Finally, there is the academic portion of forensic psychology. Here, you have the option to move into the private sector if you choose to do so. (We will cover pay and the difference between public and private sector jobs a bit further down this page.)

Academia is by far the most expansive way to practice forensic psychology. In applied psychology, you do the same things over and over – with research, you can expand your skill set and study almost anything related to the connection of psychology and crime.

Here are some examples:

  • Analyzing criminal trends, such as those for murder, drug trafficking, etc. and making connections based on what you observe
  • Seeing the effective ways to treat mental health patients who are “in the system” – and seeing which methods don’t work in the slightest
  • Determining the impact a divorce would have on a child and his/her potential for criminal activity based on statistics and other data

If either applied or academic forensic psychology sounds like something you could get into, continue below to learn how to get started and how much you’ll make.

This lecture by Dr. Jeffery Kieliszewski covers many details about application of forensic psychology in real world.

How to become a forensic psychologist

Schooling required

By and large, you need to get an undergraduate degree from a standard 4-year university and a doctorate in psychology past that. Most states require this as the bare minimum to be able to practice.

Luckily, though, in most cases, no forensic specialization is required. Some universities have begun offering specialization in forensics, but many of the top schools still do not. This is perfect for those of you who are definitely interested in psychology, and might be interested in forensic psychology specifically. You can always get a job in forensics, see how you like it, and if you decide it’s not for you, you can switch to any of the other psychology fields with relative ease.

Contact one of the schools below and the person who you talk to will guide you through the process. He or she will also explain the costs associated with obtaining the necessary degrees. Most of the time, you can get hefty grants on your tuition fees for the field of forensics – reach out to a school below to get started.

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Forensic psychologist career paths explained

Depending on the part of forensic psychology you want to pursue, you’ll have different hiring options available. Most jobs are in the public sector, but that’s not to say private companies aren’t hiring forensic psychologists, too.

Private Sector

Consulting firms and colleges/universities are the primary sources for jobs in the private sector.

At a college or university, you’ll of course be doing the academia part of forensic psychology – researching, putting out papers, and maybe even teaching students. (Not all researchers are professors and vice versa. It’s up to you whether that’s something you want to pursue.)

Consulting firms are more broad – here, you will be hired to work for clients of all types that need your expertise. Usually, private companies like these are looking for forensic psychologists with at least a few years of experience under their belts, so you’ll most likely start your career the public sector below.

Public Sector

Government agencies

A forensic psychologist isn’t quite a secret agent, but if you have a vetted record and you’re interested in taking the leap, you have the opportunity to work for large government agencies on serious criminal investigations.

If you’ve always wanted to do something like that, it’s worth striving to get hired by one of the top government agencies.

Police departments, especially larger ones

If local law enforcement is more your style, you can find employment at a city or state police department. In general, you see larger police forces bringing in forensic psychologists – not necessarily your rural suburb where the worst crime on a Friday night is a drunk driver being pulled over.

Courthouses everywhere

The primary employer of forensic psychologists is courthouses. You’ll be paid on retainer to provide the expert assessment and testimony we described earlier on this page. All in all, this is the most “calm” option for forensic psychology, but you’re still directly in the system and making a big impact on important cases.

Forensic psychologist salary details

And now, the question everyone is wondering: How much do forensic psychologists make?

Average salary

A standard entry-level forensic psychology job will pay between $55,000 and $65,000 per year. Salaries generally do not dip below $50,000, but they do get above $100,000, especially for experienced psychologists in the private sector. These statistics were taken from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

However, according to Indeed, the average forensic psychologist makes right around $78,000.

On top of the pay, your benefits are usually fantastic. Government jobs always have attractive benefits packages, and even in the private sector, those benefits tend to continue. Employers are almost always looking for long-term forensic psychologist candidates, and benefits play a large part in attracting that long-term audience.

You should also consider the potential for a pension – if you stay in the public sector, you’re on the same pension schedule as every other government employee – usually 20 years.

Factors that will affect your salary

  1. Experience – The longer you practice, the higher chance you have of securing a prestigious position where you’re paid for the extra knowledge you have. If you work in the public sector, experience will be directly correlated with pay raise, assuming you stay with the same employer for an extended period of time.
  2. Location – Forensic psychologists in New York City will make more than those in Florida. However, these salaries are usually adjusted equally to the relative costs of living, so you don’t “make less” by not being in a big state.
  3. Type of work – If you have more responsibility and effect on an organization, you’ll get paid more. Forensic psychologists can often move up in an organization quickly because of the uniqueness of the field.

4 things to consider if you’re interested in this field

Can you do the schooling?

There are careers out there where you can “wing it” and get by without traditional schooling. For example, marketing, health/fitness, and some other industries all have pretty lax schooling requirements.

Forensic psychology is different – you must do the undergraduate and doctorate programs, and from there, you may be required to attain certain certifications for the state/county you wish to practice in. So it’s more work – but at the same time, because it’s a harder field to get into, there is less competition when looking for jobs.

Do you like the thrill?

Some areas of psychology can be monotonous (and even boring) at times. Forensic psychology is definitely not included in that group.

You’ll be in tense situations every day, and the people who you will talk to might be anywhere from a little “off” all the way to completely insane. Some forensic psychologists report receiving death threats (and worse) from their patients. But it comes with the reward of being able to help the people who are in desperate need of help, even if they don’t realize it yet.

If you like extremes and the adrenaline rush, go with forensic psychology. If you’re someone who’s more laid back, another field of psychology might suit you better.

What is your opinion on the law vs. what you feel is right?

When you work in the legal system, you’ll have some say over the outcome of what happens to those who have committed crimes, but overall, you’re a drop in the bucket. Ultimately, the decision will be made by someone other than you.

If you’re okay with being a little “out of control”, then forensic psychology is perfect for you. If you’d like to be more heavily involved with your patients, another field will be better for you.

Do you prefer job satisfaction over riches?

Forensic psychologists are paid pretty well overall, but in terms of positions you can hold with 8+ years of schooling, the field is on the lower end of the pay grade.

That being said, forensic psychologists report having extremely high levels of job satisfaction – higher than other general jobs, and even higher than other fields in psychology. Basically, your job matters, so you feel like you’ve accomplished something when you go home at the end of each day.

If accomplishment is important to you, forensic psychology will be a great fit. If you’re someone who wants to run his or her own practice and “chase the money”, another field may be more suitable.

How To Get Started

Think long and hard about whether this is a field you could see yourself in. If you’re sold on the idea, scroll back up to about halfway down the page. You’ll see a list of schools that offer degrees with a focus in forensic psychology.

Look through all of them, and if one catches your eye, reach out to learn more about the program and its specifics. Remember, because you have to work for it, being a forensic psychologist makes you in-demand – but you have to take the first step towards getting there.

Scroll up, contact a school, and get started today learning more about the specifics of your new career. Not tomorrow, not a month from now, not a year from now – today!

Good luck!