Flip on the television on any given night of the week and you’re probably going to find some show that deals with criminal investigations – and the court cases that inevitably follow. From “Criminal Minds” to “Bones” to “The Mentalist” and everything in between, chances are you’ve seen an episode in which a forensic psychologist is called in to be a part of the investigation or the trial.
And while the life of the forensic psychologist – at least as portrayed on TV and in the movies – appears to be an endless loop of dramatic courtroom confessions and sticky situations (Clarice Starling in the classic thriller “Silence of the Lambs" was a forensic psychologist), in reality the field is significantly less dramatic. That doesn’t mean it’s boring though, by a long shot.
Simply put, forensic psychology is a combination of psychology and the law. Forensic psychologists work with the legal system to determine mental competency of defendants and the psychological effects of personal injury cases, for example, or determine the likelihood that a defender will repeat his or her offense and whether that person is a danger to others. Psychologists in this specialty also work with family courts, providing counseling and assessments in cases of child abuse, child custody disputes and divorce proceedings.
Forensic Psychology is Not Clinical Psychology
While both forensic and clinical psychologists must have a solid understanding of psychological principles and diagnostic tools, there are some major differences between the two fundamental types of practice.
Forensic psychology is not therapeutic in nature; in other words, forensic psychologists do not work with patients toward healing, but instead focus almost entirely on assessment. They analyze a patient’s behavior in terms of the law. For example, when someone commits multiple murders, a forensic psychologist will likely be called in to determine whether that person is sane, and competent to stand trial for his or her crime – competence and sanity as defined by the law.
As a result, forensic psychologists are forced to work under conditions that are very different from those of a clinical practitioner. Clinical psychologists often work with patients who are willing and eager to discuss their issues and are seeking help, where the patients who work with forensic psychologists are often there as part of a court order and may be unwilling (or even unable) to provide the information that the psychologist needs to make a complete assessment.
The fact that forensic psychologists work with the court system also means that they often have limited time to spend with their patients. These professionals don’t spend months, or even years, working through the issues that their patients have. They often need to make a diagnosis or recommendation after meeting with a patient for just a few hours. In that time, instead of addressing a broad range of issues, the forensic psychologist is focused only on a defined set of incidents or interactions, generally related to a particular crime or series of crimes.
Not only do forensic psychologists need to understand the law for the purposes of providing and expert opinion, but in many cases, they are called to testify in the trial. Not only must you be able to make a confident assessment of someone’s mental state, but also be able to defend that assessment in a way that the attorneys, judge and jury can understand.
Becoming a Forensic Psychologist
While forensic psychology is vastly different from clinical psychology, most people in this field actually start as clinical psychologists, working in hospitals or criminal justice facilities. In general, although it’s possible to land a job with just a master’s degree, most forensic psychologists have a doctoral degree in clinical psychology, although some universities have introduced programs specifically in the field of forensics. With several years of experience, though, you can apply for board certification from the American Board of Forensic Psychology, which helps increases forensic psychology salary and employment options.
Thanks to TV and movies, you might think that a career in forensic psychology is just an exciting and sometimes scary thrill ride, where you’re constantly staying one step ahead of a criminal as you try to predict his next move. As with most everything though, reality is far different, but you can still have an exciting and fulfilling career in forensic psychology.
This article was written by Jason Peterson a Chicago native who is currently pursuing his psychology degree online. Jason plans on using his degree to help those in his community.