forensic psychologist
Psychological thrillers are entertaining, but they don't always depict the role of psychologists accurately. Source: Shutterstock

Names like Ted Bundy and Jeffrey Dahmer will forever live in infamy, thanks in part to the movies, documentaries and books that have brought these serial killers’ heinous crimes into the spotlight. This was thanks in part to the works of forensic psychologists who are involved in assessing crimes and bringing insights into the minds and motivations of criminals and their deplorable crimes. If you’re an aspiring forensic psychologist, you’ll need a postgraduate degree in the field.

Forensic psychologists and criminal psychologists are among the job roles that have burst into the mainstream thanks to the popularity of shows such as Criminal Minds and CSI, fueling interest in the field. But pop culture doesn’t always capture the reality of these roles accurately.

The American Psychological Association (APA) defines forensic psychology as “the application of clinical specialties to the legal arena.” They add that the most frequent duty of forensic psychologists is the psychological assessment of individuals who are involved with the legal system. Forensic psychologists require training in law and forensic psychology and must possess solid clinical skills like clinical assessment, interviewing, report writing, strong verbal communication skills (especially if an expert witness in court), and case presentation.

Roles and responsibilities of a forensic psychologist

It’s important to note the differences between criminal psychology and forensic psychology — Maryville University notes that criminal psychology focuses on criminal behaviour while forensic psychology includes criminal and civil law, work in prisons, at-risk youth counselling and academic research. “Forensic psychology requires the assessment of a wide array of people, including victims of crime, witnesses, attorneys, and law enforcement,” they said. Graduates of forensic psychology degree programmes can work in various settings, including becoming jury consultants, juvenile offenders counsellors, expert witnesses, among others. You can become a forensic psychologist or even forensic psychology professor with an advanced degree.

Carving out a career as a forensic psychologist

There are many options for those who want to train to become a forensic psychologist, especially in the UK and the US. Coventry University’s MSc Forensic Psychology programme, for instance, is ideal for those who are looking to pursue a career associated with forensic psychology in a range of settings, such as with victims, offenders, or criminal justice professionals, without specialising at this point, or for those who wish to undertake a postgraduate programme before determining their future career trajectory in forensic psychology. “You will have an opportunity to study a range of topics associated with forensic psychology, including offending behaviour and the criminal justice system. You will also explore the theories, research, and practice related to intervention with diverse client groups, with a specific focus on violence and sexual offending,” said the university.

In the US, Arizona State University offers an online MS Forensic Psychology programme which provides working professionals with an understanding of mental health issues and human behaviour with respect to crime and the legal system. It involves specialised coursework on criminal law, criminal behavior, the diagnosis and treatment of mental disorders, and legal decision making. Some of the required courses include advanced legal psychology, psychopathology, and advanced correctional psychology.