What does a forensic psychologist do?

Published on: April 28, 2015 | by Justin Boyle

In broad strokes, forensic psychology is the application of psychological principles within the workings of the justice system — but that's not quite all there is to it. Here's a list of a few specific areas within the discipline where professionals may choose to specialize:

          • Clinical-forensic psychology addresses the mental issues of clients with an eye toward the influence of           those issues on legal decisions

          • Developmental psychology in the forensic sense is called upon to inform the policymaking process as           it relates to juveniles and the elderly

          • Social/cognitive psychology can be used to analyze the decision-making processes of judges, juries           and other parties of interest in legal matters

          • Criminal investigative psychology is the segment of the field concerned with criminal profiling,           psychological autopsies and other investigative tasks

Forensic psychologists may also choose to specialize in a particular branch of legal activity, such as family law, civil law or criminal law, while some choose to focus on the academic side of the profession.

What forensic psychologists DON'T do

Forensic psychology has had a heyday in popular culture over the last several years, thanks to the popularity of television shows like Law and Order, CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, Forensic Files and others. In reality, though, the work of a forensic psychologist isn't all high-stakes flash and drama.

According to Dr. James R. Eisenberg, a private practice forensic psychologist and member of the American Board of Forensic Psychology, "There is simply no comparison [between real life and TV]. It would be like comparing professional World Wide Wrestling to college wrestling … and I was a college wrestler."

Unlike what you might see on TV, forensic psychologists don't just suddenly have dramatic insights that make everything fall into place ... "Intuitive results are replaced by objective testing."

  - Dr. James R. Eisenberg

The difference, according to Eisenberg, is that forensic psychologists rely on empirically validated instruments to assess and evaluate a defendant or plaintiff; they don't just suddenly have dramatic insights that make everything fall into place. "Intuitive results," he says, "are replaced by diligent objective testing."

Forensic psychologist duties and responsibilities

The duties of any individual forensic psychologist can vary, but here are some general responsibilities that a forensic psychology program can train you to handle:

1. Criminal profiling

According to the workflow developed by the Behavioral Science Unit of the FBI, criminal profilers analyze crime scene information, known criminal characteristics, and common traits of past victims to put together a composite personality sketch of a potential suspect. Law enforcement agencies then use that sketch as a guideline to help them zero in on the perpetrator of an unsolved crime.

2. Acting as an expert witness

Forensic psychologists have the sort of specialized knowledge that allows judges and juries to admit their professional opinions and interpretations as evidence in criminal and civil cases, provided that the opinion has a strong basis in precedent.

"There must be a legitimate reason for the things we say," said James Eisenberg, "supported by peer-reviewed publications, known error rates, acceptance among peers, whether or not a theory or test is falsifiable or verifiable, etc."

3. Rehabilitation counseling

In cases of personal injury litigation and other proceedings where physical or mental rehabilitation may be involved, a forensic psychologist may be called in to determine the amount of that rehabilitation for which a defendant may be liable.

The name "rehabilitation counseling" can be misleading, because forensic psychologists rarely, if ever, actually participate in the actual rehabilitation process. The counseling provided in matters like these takes the form of consultation with the legal experts who work to decide the case in court.

4. Research

Some forensic psychologists focus their work on enhancing the profession as a whole, according to Dr. Eisenberg. "The profession is highly self-critical," he says. "We are always looking for ways to improve our assessment ability."

Forensic psychologists use research to interrogate their own methods and determine if established practice is continuing to work at maximum effectiveness. Expertise devoted to research helps sustain the methodological credibility necessary for the profession to continue making meaningful contributions to the legal system.

Forensic psychologists use research to interrogate their own methods and determine if established practice is continuing to work at maximum effectiveness.

Job outlook and next steps

Careers for psychologists in the U.S. are on the rise, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), with around 12 percent growth in employment opportunities expected between 2012 and 2022. The BLS predicts that the expected growth will translate to almost 19,000 new jobs for trained psychologists, although clinical and counseling positions are likely to account for a large percentage of new openings.

The BLS lists a median annual salary of $69,280 for working psychologists in 2013, with the subcategory that contains forensic psychologists averaging $90,020 the same year. Depending on the particular cases they work, a forensic psychologist's fee can be pretty impressive — up to $500 per hour in some cases. The highest-paid positions in the field typically require a doctoral degree, although a master's degree may be enough for an entry-level or assistant's position.

If forensic psychology sounds like the right career for you, consider looking into the advanced psychological education necessary to legally practice as a member of the profession. Traditional and online psychology programs are a great way to get started down the path to a rewarding career at the intersection of psychology and criminal justice.

1. "Forensic Psychology on Television," Leandra Frye, University of Mary Washington, http://forensicpsych.umwblogs.org/media/television/
2. Forensic Services in Rehabilitation - An Overview, International Association of Rehabilitation Professionals, http://www.rehabpro.org/sections/forensic/focus/forensic-rehabilitation-what-is-it
3. Criminal Profiling and Forensic Psychology, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, http://homepages.rpi.edu/~kalshm/fs/week4.html
4. Roles and Responsibilities of Forensic Psychologists, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, http://homepages.rpi.edu/~kalshm/fs/week2.html
5. Forensic Psychology, University of Oregon, http://pages.uoregon.edu/psypeers/gradfiles/kind%20of%20graduate%20programs/Forensic%20Psychology.pdf
6. Psychologists, "Occupational Outlook Handbook 2014-15 Edition," Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, http://www.bls.gov/ooh/life-physical-and-social-science/psychologists.htm
7. Email interview, Dr. James R. Eisenberg, March 28, 2015