Forensic psychology is a sub-discipline of psychology that is the intersection of psychology and the legal system. It has its own research journals, professional organizations, and educational and training programs; and professionals who work within the field must obtain highly specialized training and skills.
Forensic psychologists work with and represent a variety of people within the legal system (people working for the legal system and people using the legal system). One of their primary jobs is to provide psychological counsel to various people, groups, and entities and to then translate their diagnoses into information that can be used in a court of law. Therefore, forensic psychologists must be knowledgeable, skilled, and practiced in both psychology and law.
The History of Forensic Psychology
According to writer and educator Kendra Cherry, the field of forensic psychology started with the study of testimony. James McKeen Cattell, a researcher at Columbia University, proved through a study of students that eye-witness testimony lacked consistency and reliability[i]. Other researchers confirmed his findings, and their collective studies led to the systematic study of forensic psychology and the effects of mental processes and human behavior on legal processes and outcomes. The view that expert testimony from qualified psychologists was critical to the fair assessment of legal proceedings became more and more prevalent throughout the 1940s, 50s, and 60s. Forensic psychologists soon started conducting personality tests on police officers and criminals and used the results to train and classify them. Since its inception, the field of forensic psychology has grown and expanded to the extent that our modern-day legal system would not be the same without it.
How to Become a Forensic Psychologist: Pursuing a Career in Forensic Psychology
When considering the field of forensic psychology, it is important to keep in mind that it is may be incredibly competitive. Many practitioners have earned a PhD in clinical, counseling, or forensic psychology, and most have extensive training in both psychology and law. Some forensic psychologists even pursue dual degrees in the subjects. Also, forensic psychologists, just like other psychologists, must acquire state-level licensure or certification before they can practice.
If you are interested in how to become a forensic psychologist, consider doing the following:
Conduct research. Determine where you would like to work, what you would like to do (you might want to specialize in family or criminal law, for example), and how you might pursue your goal.
Determine how much education you will need (if, for example, you have a bachelor’s degree in sociology, but your forensic psychology master’s program requires you to have a degree in psychology, you might have to enroll in an appropriate undergraduate program) and calculate the amount of time and money you will need to earn the appropriate degrees, training, licenses, and certifications.
Consider—based on where you live, the saturation of forensic psychologists in your area, and other factors—whether or not you need to pursue a particular specialization and a dual degree in law. The competitiveness of the field in the area in which you want to live and work could help you make these decisions.
Discuss your goals and options with three people: a professional in the field, a mentor in the field, and an advisor in a graduate program that emphasizes forensic psychology. Ask questions about the job, the field, and the field’s educational and training necessities and options.
Make a decision and get to work! Engage readily and thoroughly with your program and consider joining professional associations, finding a mentor, and gaining practical experience.
According to the site, Everything Forensic Psychology, there are numerous famous psychologists in history who helped the field become what it is today[ii]:
James McKeen Cattell: Cattell conducted some of the first studies on testimony and stimulated the growth of legal psychology as a field.
Alfred Binet: Binet created a scale that helped identify the mental age of a person. His work eventually helped legal systems identify the mental ages of criminals and other people in the legal system.
William Stern: Stern used classroom experiments to help the legal community recognize the inaccuracy of witness recall.
Hugo Munsterberg: Munsterberg provided primary research that helped tie the rationality and science of psychology to legal practices, philosophies, and trials.
Elizabeth Loftus: Loftus currently does work to distinguish the effects of the malleable human mind on memory.