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Forensic Psychology

Forensic psychology is a subset of applied psychology broadly defined as psychology pertaining to the legal system. Because the legal system and criminal motivation are both complex, forensic psychologists can be found across a wide set of activities, from analyzing crime scenes to administering treatment to incarcerated offenders.

Understanding Forensic Psychology

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Forensic psychology is a broad term and forensic psychologists take on a wide variety of roles. Some forensic psychologists, for instance, may engage in criminal profiling, in which they try to identify likely suspects using information collected from crime scenes. Others try to assess the possibility of a known or alleged offender committing additional crimes in the future. In addition, many forensic psychologists act as advisors and consultants to law enforcement throughout an investigation.

Perhaps the most significant role of forensic psychologists is what's known as forensic therapy. In this discipline, a psychologist may be called upon to try to ascertain whether or not an alleged offender suffers from a psychological disorder; such experts often testify in court for either the defense or the prosecution. After a conviction, forensic psychologists may also participate in the assessment and rehabilitation of offenders, determining what type of treatment can be recommended, and often supervising or performing it as well.

What does a forensic psychologist do?

A career in forensic psychology can manifest in many different ways, including: researching social science topics related to law and crime; conducting examinations of criminal defendants; assisting with jury selection; consulting with police departments and other law enforcement agencies; assessing the risk of violence in a community; and more.

What role do forensic psychologists play in criminal justice?

Forensic psychologists can play a significant role in almost any level of the legal system. They may consult with legal professionals on mental health, criminal motivation, or risk assessment; they may assess or treat accused criminals or prison inmates for mental health disorders. They may also work in jury selection, legal research, or crisis management.

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How to Become a Forensic Psychologist

There are multiple paths to becoming a practicing forensic psychologist. An individual likely needs to obtain a Ph.D. or Psy.D, most often with a clinical focus. Some individuals concurrently pursue a legal degree. Coursework may focus on criminology, abnormal psychology, the legal system, and related areas. After obtaining a doctoral degree, additional postdoctoral training will likely be required to obtain a license to practice independently.

Interest in the field has grown significantly in recent years, a development sometimes credited to the popularity of TV shows spotlighting the disparate ways in which forensic psychologists work within the legal system. While these programs don’t always portray the field accurately, they underscore the important role forensic psychologists play, as well as the wide variety of career paths available to aspiring forensic experts.

What degree do you need to become a forensic psychologist?

The majority of forensic psychologists have doctorate degrees—either a Ph.D. or a Psy.D.—and most experts continue to recommend such degrees for aspiring students. However, there are some Master’s programs that purport to train students for a career in criminal psychology, though the programs’ efficacy has been questioned by some in the field.

What skills are important for a career in forensic psychology?

Forensic psychologists are, above all, scientists—thus, they should be skilled at gathering and interpreting data, designing experiments, and/or researching complexities in the law. Because forensic psychologists regularly deal with law enforcement and criminals, however, they should also be strong clinicians, excel at public speaking, and have the ability to maintain composure under stress.

Understanding the Criminal Mind

Some forensic psychologists spend their careers researching various aspects of criminal behavior. Areas of interest include: why some people are motivated to commit crimes while others aren’t; whether criminals—particularly violent or chronic criminals—have diagnosable mental illnesses or personality disorders; and whether it is possible to accurately identify suspects based on behavioral patterns or clues left at crime scenes.

Many laypeople are themselves fascinated with the psychology of criminal behavior—indeed, hundreds of books, television shows, and podcasts examine horrific crimes and try to understand why they occurred. Because of this media attention, many people assume that all forensic psychologists assess criminal behavior; however, while criminal psychology is an important area of the field, it is not the only career path a forensic psychologist can take.

What are the psychological reasons that people commit crimes?

Rage, fear, or a sense of entitlement can all motivate criminal behavior. Some criminals are under the influence of drugs and thus behave irrationally; others have mental illnesses that distort their worldview, triggering illegal acts. Some violent, serial criminals may be driven by a lack of empathy, trauma or abandonment, and/or a thirst for revenge.

How does criminal profiling work?

Criminal profiling relies on a combination of crime scene analysis and behavioral psychology. Using physical clues from a crime scene, interviews with victims or witnesses, and information about psychopathology, similar past crimes, and human behavioral patterns, profilers offer an educated guess on who may have committed the crime and where they may be located.

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