Forensic Psychiatrist: Job Description, Duties and Requirements

Forensic psychiatry requires significant formal education. Learn about the education, job duties, licensure and certification requirements to see if this is the right career for you.

The path to become a forensic psychiatrist is a lengthy one. First, they must attend medical school and complete a residency in psychiatry and then go on to complete a fellowship in forensic psychiatry.

Essential Information

Forensic psychiatrists are medical doctors who have specialized in psychiatry and subspecialized in forensic psychiatry. This process typically takes around 13 years following completion of high school. Forensic psychiatrists work closely with the legal system to determine competency of defendants to stand trial, give expert witness testimony in court, help make recommendations for defense tactics and sentencing, help solve crimes, and treat mental illness in criminals.

Required Education Prerequisite pre-med college courses (4 years)
Medical school (4 years)
Psychiatry residency (4 years)
Forensic psychiatry fellowship (1-2 years)
Licensure & Certification State medical license required to practice medicine
Board certification available
Other Requirements Continuing Medical Education (CME) credit to maintain license and board certification after residency
DEA registration to prescribe controlled substances
Projected Job Growth (2014-2024)* 15% (for all psychiatrists)
Average Salary (2015)* $193,680 annually (for all types of psychiatrists)

Source: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics

Forensic Psychiatrist Job Description

Psychiatrists are physicians who specialize in mental health. Like psychologists, psychiatrists make assessments about patients' mental health, but psychiatrists have the additional qualifications of medical doctors. Forensic psychiatrists use their skills and knowledge for legal applications.

According to the American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law (AAPL), forensic psychiatry encompasses both clinical practice and research activities. While forensic psychiatrists specialize in the intersection of mental health and the law, psychiatrists in other specialties may also find themselves dealing with issues that relate to the law. The AAPL lists several areas in which forensic psychiatrists might become involved with legal issues, including:

  • Family law, including custody issues
  • Correctional psychiatry
  • Involuntary commitment
  • Determining mental competence to stand trial

Forensic Psychiatrist Job Duties

Forensic psychiatrists can be responsible for a range of duties related to legal proceedings. The AAPL indicates that these professionals may sometimes be responsible for conducting legal research. According to the Greater Long Island Psychiatric Society's (GLIPS) write-up on forensic psychiatry, forensic psychiatrists can be of use in both civil and criminal cases.

The GLIPS points out that since each of the 50 states in the U.S. has its own restrictions and legal procedures, there is no one way to approach the practice of forensic psychiatry in the U.S. However, the basic approach should be similar, starting with analysis of the legal issue at hand and how it stands in the jurisdiction in question. The GLIPS says that forensic psychiatrists should take a research-based approach to answering the legal question or problem posed to them. Though the approach should be based on fact and evidence, it isn't necessarily the case that all forensic psychiatrists will reach the same conclusions.

The American Board of Psychiatry and Neurology (ABPN) says that forensic psychiatrists can work with inmates in jails, prisons, and mental health facilities. The GLIPS lists some of the following duties as typical for these professionals:

  • Parental competency evaluations
  • Psychiatric disability evaluation for worker's compensation or personal injury cases
  • Psychiatric malpractice and negligence evaluation
  • Assessment of acquittal for insanity plea
  • Evaluation of individual mental fitness for conservatorships

Forensic Psychiatrist Requirements

Like all psychiatrists, forensic psychiatrists must be licensed medical doctors, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS, www.bls.gov). The first step in the process to becoming a licensed psychiatrist is to attend medical school, followed by a residency in psychiatry. To specialize in forensic psychiatry, an additional fellowship in that field will provide intensive education in the area of forensic psychiatry and the law. After completing a fellowship, forensic psychiatrists can join professional organizations like the AAPL, apply for voluntary certification from the ABPN and attend meetings for professionals in the field through organizations like the American College of Forensic Psychiatry.

Forensic psychiatry fellowships are offered from prestigious and accredited medical schools across the country. The AAPL lists institutions with these fellowships, and also provides guidelines for application to these programs. Typically, forensic psychiatry fellowship programs are full-time and a year in length. Topics covered in these programs can include forensic psychological assessment, correctional psychiatric treatment, ethics, and forensic psychiatric research. A law course is often part of the curriculum as well.

Salary Info and Job Outlook

The BLS projects that the employment of all types of physicians and surgeons, including psychiatrists, will grow by approximately 15% during the 2014-2024 decade. The Bureau reported that the average annual salary earned by psychiatrists in general, a group that includes forensic psychiatrists, was $193,680 in May 2015.

Forensic psychiatrists work with law enforcement to determine if suspects are able to stand trial and may provide expert testimony in court or treat criminals with mental illness. State licensure as a medical doctor is required, though certification is optional.


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