September 19, 2007

What's it take to become a forensic psychologist?

Profilers. Silence of the Lambs. The criminal mind. So eerie, so glamorous.


I get many emails and phone calls from students interested in pursuing forensic psychology as a career. So, by popular demand, here is a brief overview.

First, what is a forensic psychologist?

Forensic psychologists are licensed clinical psychologists who specialize in applying psychological knowledge to legal matters, both in the criminal and civil arenas. Forensic psychology is a subdiscipline of psychology, with its own professional organizations, training programs, and research journals. Forensic psychologists are found in academia, public service, and the private sector.

Forensic psychologists are called upon to assist in a wide variety of legal matters, including the mental state of criminal defendants (insanity, competency, etc.), jury selection, child custody/family law, violence risk prediction, mediation/dispute resolution, discrimination, civil damages, social science research (e.g., recovered memory), and civil commitment.

What is the state of the field?

Forensic psychology is a rapidly growing discipline. Currently, the American Psychology-Law Society has about 3,000 members, and the number continues to grow. Many experienced psychologists are seeking to respecialize into this field in order to escape the confines of managed care. Students are attracted to the field by our culture's growing absorption with all matters criminal, as well as fictional depictions such as TV's The Profiler and Criminal Minds.

The growth of forensic psychology is not without controversy. Some have accused forensic psychologists of being hired guns or even - less politely - "whores." Recent federal court decisions are causing increasing scientific scrutiny of psychological evidence. This in turn is leading to the development of increasingly rigorous training programs, instruments, and procedures that will allow us to withstand such adversarial scrutiny.

In the long run, well-trained forensic psychologists will likely fare well in the increasingly skeptical marketplace of the future.

What skills must a forensic psychologist have?

Forensic psychologists are psychological scientists. The investigatory component requires strong detective skills. We must compare data from multiple sources in order to test alternative hypotheses. The emphasis is on written reports and court testimony that are scientifically valid and can withstand scrutiny in the adversarial environment of the courtroom.

Becoming a successful forensic psychologist requires, at minimum, the following:
  • solid clinical psychology training and experience
  • firm grounding in scientific theory and empirical research (understanding of scientific validity, research design, statistics, and testing)
  • critical thinking
  • thorough knowledge of social and cultural issues
  • legal knowledge (including mental health law, case law, and courtroom procedures)
  • excellent writing skills
  • strong oral presentation skills (and ability to maintain composure in stressful circumstances)
So, how can I sign on?

At the present time, there is no single acceptable training model for forensic psychologists.

The dominant model continues to be one in which a student obtains a doctoral degree in clinical psychology, and subsequently pursues a postdoctoral specialization in forensics. However, more and more graduate schools are beginning to adopt forensic tracks. An online list of institutions offering various types of Ph.D./Psy.D. programs in forensic psychology is available here.

Some newer programs also offer terminal master's degrees in forensic psychology, although it is unclear how master's level clinicians will fare in a field dominated by professionals with more advanced degrees.

Only a handful of formal postdoctoral specialization programs exist nationwide, and these programs are quite small and selective, typically accepting only one to two candidates per year. These rigorous programs are aimed at training future leaders in the field.

Some people also pursue dual degrees in psychology and law. There are a few such joint degree programs, and some law schools offer a scaled-down, one-year Master of Legal Studies degree. Having a dual degree may make one more competitive, but for most practitioners it is not realistic or cost-effective.

A more thorough discussion of the pros and cons of different types of educational programs is available in the brand-new edition of Psychological Evaluations for the Courts.

The Journal of Forensic Psychology Practice has just (Vol. 7 #2, 2007) published a point-counterpoint pair of articles on whether forensic psychology should necessarily require a doctoral degree:
"Raising the bar: The case for doctoral training in forensic psychology," by Carl B. Clements, Ph.D., ABPP, and Emily E. Wakeman, MA

"The time is now: The emerging need for master's-level training in forensic psychology," by Matt Zaitchik, Ph.D., Garrett Berman, Ph.D., Don Whitworth, Ph.D., & Judith Platania, Ph.D.
What tips do you have for trainees?
  • Apply for forensic-related internships, such as at forensic hospitals, correctional facilities, and community mental health settings.
  • Tailor your doctoral dissertation to a psychology-law topic in your area of professional interests.
  • Become a student member of the American Psychology-Law Society, an interdisciplinary organization devoted to scholarship, practice, and public service in psychology and law.
  • Stay current by regularly reading the leading journals in the field, among them Law and Human Behavior, Behavioral Sciences and the Law, and Psychology, Public Policy, and Law.
Becoming successful in this field is an arduous endeavor. However, for those with the energy, stamina and critical thinking skills, it can be a rewarding occupation.

But what about criminal profiling?
Oh, yes. That question.

Unfortunately, one of students’ biggest misconceptions about forensic psychology is that we do criminal profiling. This mythology comes directly from movies and TV shows such as Silence of the Lambs, Criminal Minds, and The Profiler.

In reality, most law enforcement agencies do not regularly use criminal profiling methods. When they do, they typically employ profilers with extensive backgrounds in law enforcement rather than in psychology. Perhaps more importantly, many scholars dispute that profiling even qualifies as a scientific method meriting inclusion in the behavioral sciences.

So, if your primary interest is in criminal profiling, the field of forensic psychology may not be for you.



Maire said...

I think its just great that I found this blog entry of yours. I'm currently looking into pursuing a graduate degree in Forensic Psychology. Which is where my question comes into play.

Would it be better for me to pursue a MA in Forensic Psych. or the PhD/PsyD.?


Karen Franklin, Ph.D. said...

I tried to discuss this issue in my blog essay, but I cannot tell you what is right for you. I would suggest you read the pair of point-counterpoint essays I referenced from the Journal of Forensic Psychology Practice. Then talk with career planners, investigate programs available in your area, and work up a balance sheet on the pros and cons of your various options.
Best of luck to you.

Anonymous said...

Hi I am South Africa and I am curently doing my postgraduate degree in psychology I have plans to become a forensic psychologist I was just wondering if you can tell me if my degrees that I earn here will it be accredited abroad.


Karen Franklin, Ph.D. said...

Sorry, I cannot provide answers to a specific situation such as yours. I'm not sure what you mean by having your degrees "accredited" abroad, but I would recommend that you seek answers from the administrators at your school as well as those at any school abroad that you intend to transfer credits to. Good luck to you.

Czarina M. said...

It is very fortunate that I found your blog about forensic psychology. I will be finishing my undergraduate program in May, and planned to find a job relating to forensic psychology. I noticed that you work in the San Francisco Bay Area, which is where I also reside. How would I go about finding entry level job/internships in the Bay Area relating to forensic psychology? I am unsure as to what to do right after graduation (since I am not immediately entering graduate school).

Thank you.

Karen Franklin, Ph.D. said...


I don't know of any jobs or internships in forensic psychology for individuals entering the field with only a bachelor's degree. Traditionally, one first obtains a PsyD or PhD in clinical psychology, and then specializes in forensic psychology at the postdoctoral level. Feel free to browse my other blog entries and my web page essay for more information on training and education in forensic psychology.

Anonymous said...

My name is Keci and I am in the Master's program at Argosy University. Dr. Franklin, I think that it is a great idea that you have posted this information for us students that are needing to conduct interviews. I hate that it has to be this way because I am feeling that I am intruding when I am asking for interviews. I know that all of the forensic psychologist that I have contacted have been very reluctant and one of them was very rude. I especially have to agree that universities should consider that doctors, such as yourself, and therapists and other specialist in the field should consider an alternative way to complete this type of assignment. Thank you for all of the information. Unfortunately, it doesn't assist me with this assignment like it did with my last assignment. This assignment is asking more questions that require types of mental illnesses and the individuals that are arrested with the illness. Nonetheless, I can still say that I can appreciate the time you took to provide this information. Thank you.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for being so informative with me Dr. Franklin. I only have my Bachelor's degree right now; however, I am working on my Master's degree in Forensic Psychology. I agree with you that it is very pertinent that I obtain my Psy.D. as well so that I can be and become most useful in my chosen field of study. Keci

Anonymous said...

Hi Dr.Franklin i wanted to know how many years it takes to become a forensic psychologist and how does this job affect your personal life. i ask this because im curious if this job will effect my time with my family.

Anonymous said...

How hard would it be to get into one of these jobs?

Anonymous said...

im a high school senior and i changed my career from law (i wanted to be that since 4th grade) with a minor in psychology and when my mom saw this i knew it was for me but for a bachelor's degree do i just get it in psychology because i want to do the criminal law part or should i switch my minor and major

Saira Naomi said...

Your blog is super! I'm also a Franklin (but over here in the UK so probably no relation :P) and having completed a FdSc in Forensic Science, I'm in my final year of a BSc (Hons) in Psychology with Criminology, hoping to do exactly what you do! It's hard to find forensic related postgraduate courses but hey, no one said success was easy! Keep at it!

Tianna Nikkole said...

I am only a junior still attending high school, but I hold high expectations for myself when it comes to my future being successful. I am very very interested in Forensic Psychology,and I strongly believe it is the career I am meant to do. Now I do know I am young, and there is a possibility I may change my mind. But I am very strong willed, so I doubt it will. I appreciated this blog. It has me now even more stoked and impowered that this is the career I MUST pursue.

AVV said...

Dear Dr. Franklin,

Interesting post! I just wanted to add that another good resource for students interested in studying forensic psychology outside of the United States is the website of the European Association for Psychology and Law - Student Society ( It has posts on studying psychology & law, graduate schools, and country-specific posts with graduate programs and researchers in the field for 15 countries in- and outside of Europe, in addition to fact sheets and controversy discussions on forensic psychology topics.

Best wishes,

Unknown said...

Dr. Franklin,

I am interested in forensic psychology, and my question is would me interning as an undergraduate at a rape crisis center give me a feel for forensic psychology? This is what I am currently doing now as a junior in my psychology program. I also go to domestic violence and no contact court every week too to observe victims. I shadow the therapists where I intern too.

Will this help me in the long run for a taste of forensic psychology?

Christopher Marelli

Anonymous said...

Dear Dr. Franklin,
I am in my second year of college at the University of New Haven. I just switched to forensic psychology this year after realizing forensic science was not for me. I was wondering if you can inform me on the best area to live to pursue this career after college, willing to move anywhere, along with what jobs are related to this major. All I know is I want to try and find a job focusing more on children than adults. Sorry for so many questions I can not find many websites describing my major and jobs available with this major which is really worrying me if I should even go into this major at all.

Thank You

Karen Franklin, Ph.D. said...

I would recommend checking out this overview page:

and then reaching out to your academic advisors for assistance, as well as to forensic psychologists in New Haven who might be able to speak with you personally about your situation.

Best of luck!