Criminal Forensic Psychologist: Career Info, Duties and Requirements

Criminal forensic psychologists require significant formal education. Learn about the necessary education, job duties, career information and licensure and certification requirements to see if this is the right career for you.

Criminal forensic psychologists are highly trained professionals, typically holding a doctoral degree in their field, though a master's degree may be sufficient in some cases. They must be licensed, and certification is preferred. Criminal forensic psychologists are responsible for providing psychological expertise when required by the criminal justice system.

Essential Information

When the legal system needs psychological expertise, whether in evaluating prisoners, testifying in court or dealing with terrorist behavior, it turns to criminal forensic psychologists for assistance. These psychologists are specially trained in applying the principles and practices of psychology to issues dealing with laws and the legal system. Most forensic psychologists hold a professional doctoral degree, licensure and board certification in forensic psychology. In some cases, a master's degree and knowledge of the legal system may be acceptable.

Required Education Doctor of Psychology or Ph.D. in Psychology often required; master's degree sometimes acceptable
Other Requirements All clinical psychologists must be licensed; postdoctoral training program in forensic psychology and board certification preferred
Projected Job Growth (2014-2024)* 19% increase (all psychologists)
Median Salary (May 2015)* $72,580 (all psychologists)

Source: *United States Bureau of Labor Statistics

Criminal Forensic Psychologist Career Info

Criminal forensic psychology is a subfield of a specialized area of psychology called forensic psychology, which provides services to individuals and institutions involved in the legal system. Criminal forensic psychologists work primarily in the criminal justice system, whereas the civil justice and family court systems are occupied by psychologists in the other subfields of forensic psychology.

Criminal forensic psychologists may be self-employed, working as independent consultants to attorneys, courts, prisons, state hospitals, law-enforcement agencies, parole agencies or other elements of the criminal legal system. Some forensic psychologists are employed by the agency they serve. For example, they may be on the staff of prison hospitals or FBI units. Both federal and state law-enforcement agencies employ criminal forensic psychologists.

Salary and Job Growth Information

While the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) does not isolate job growth or salary data specifically for criminal forensic psychologists, it does note that the number of jobs for psychologists in general is expected to grow by 19% from 2014-2024. The BLS also reports that job prospects are expected to be best for those with doctoral degrees and specialty training in fields such as forensic psychology. May 2015 BLS salary data shows that all psychologists made a median salary of $72,580 that year.

Criminal Forensic Psychologist Duties

The job duties of criminal forensic psychologists cover a wide spectrum, depending on the case involved and the services requested. Psychologists may work with law-enforcement agencies to develop psychological profiles of suspects, negotiate in crises such as hostage situations, administer polygraph tests and evaluate the testimonies of eyewitnesses.

Both prosecutors and defense attorneys ask forensic psychologists to help assess potential jurors, evaluate jury behavior and provide expert testimony during criminal trial proceedings. In addition, the court uses forensic psychologists to evaluate the mental competency of suspects to determine whether they are fit to stand trial, as well as determine the mental health issues of convicted criminals that need to be addressed during sentencing.

To complete the work requested of them, forensic psychologists typically perform research, administer tests and evaluations, conduct interviews, observe witness/suspect behaviors, document their findings in writing and testify in court. They may also perform mediation and victim counseling tasks.

Criminal Forensic Psychologist Requirements

Psychologists working in the field of forensics need at least master's degrees in psychology with experience or training in the legal system. Criminal forensic psychologists need to understand how the legal system works as a whole and how to communicate via evaluation reports, legal briefs and expert testimonies. They also need to be familiar with laws relating to mental health issues.

Education Requirements

A growing number of universities offer master's degree programs specifically in forensic psychology. In addition to teaching general principles of psychology, research and clinical work, these specialized programs offer courses on issues such as insanity and incompetence, the psychology of criminal behavior, crisis intervention and domestic violence. These programs also typically provide fieldwork opportunities or internships in legal venues. Master's degree programs usually take two years of full-time education to complete.

Doctoral degree programs offer forensic psychologists a wider range of employment opportunities. In particular, self-employed consultants who provide expert testimony and work in crisis situations, such as hostage negotiations or terrorist evaluations, usually have doctorates in forensic psychology. Doctoral programs, which can take five or more years of full-time work to complete, typically involve both clinical practice and research experiences. Ph.D. programs typically place more emphasis on research and culminate in a dissertation, while Doctor of Psychology (Psy.D.) programs focus more on clinical experiences. After obtaining their doctoral degrees, graduates may enter 1-year postdoctoral training programs where they receive in-depth clinical and research training in forensic psychology.


All psychologists who provide direct patient care, such as by providing counseling or therapy services, must be licensed by the state in which they practice. Licensing requirements vary from state to state, but usually include either a master's or doctoral degree, completion of an internship, one to two years of professional experience and the passing of an examination. Some states require licensed psychologists to complete continuing education courses and periodically renew their licenses. Criminal forensic psychologists who perform research or consulting services for attorneys and law-enforcement agencies without providing patient care may not need to obtain state licensure.


Criminal forensic psychologists who wish to be noted for their expertise can seek optional board certification in forensic psychology from the American Board of Professional Psychology. Requirements for this certification include a doctoral degree from an approved program in forensic psychology, completion of an internship, a state license, completion of a postdoctoral training program, relevant work experience and continuing education. Candidates must pass both written and oral examinations.

Criminal forensic psychologists evaluate prisoners and their behavior. They may also help assess juries, deal with terrorist negotiations, advise law enforcement officials on likely behavioral responses from criminals, determine whether a suspect is fit to stand trial and may be called on to testify in court. A graduate degree and licensure is required, and board certification is preferred.

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