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Forensic psychologists work within, or aid, the legal system. They may have many roles. The job can entail evaluating competency to stand trial and offering expert witness. The testimony of a psychologist may be given weight in determining what level of crime a person actually committed and what sentencing is appropriate. Evaluation and testimony are not confined solely to criminal trial, however; forensic psychologists may also offer expertise in issues of personal injury, liability, disability, or guardianship.
Forensic psychologists may work in cases that involve families accused of abuse or neglect or in custody cases where no accusations have been made. They may evaluate children or victims as well as potential offenders.
Forensic psychologists also work with the incarcerated, providing treatment that will lower the risk of relapse. They may specialize in work with particular populations, for example, sex offenders.
Criminal profiling – assisting the police with investigations by providing information about the type of individual likely to have committed a series of crimes – has garnered a good deal of media attention. However, prospective psychologists should be aware that this is not the typical role of the forensic psychologist.
Forensic psychology has been listed as a “growth field” (http://www.apa.org/gradpsych/2009/11/postgrad.aspx). Salaries are generally on a par with those of other psychologists, but forensic psychologists who are in private practice sometimes drive their earnings higher.
In most cases, forensic psychologists have doctoral degrees. This level of education is necessary if one seeks to be licensed as a clinical psychologist and provide psychological services directly to individuals.
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Forensic psychology is often offered as a track within clinical psychology. As such, it may be accredited by the American Psychological Association or designated by the National Register – this is a license requirement in some states. The doctoral student takes courses in human behavior and in psychological methods (statistics, research methodologies, psychometrics or psychological measurement). Practicum and internship experiences provide experiences with a varied clientele, and are not limited to (for example) individuals who are incarcerated. This broad education is necessary for licensure in many jurisdictions.
At some point after graduation, the psychologist candidate takes the Examination for Professional Practice in Psychology (EPPP). Most states require a year of postdoctoral practice; at this point, it is acceptable that the work be narrow or specialized.
It is an option to do a general program in clinical or counseling psychology and specialize in forensics later.
It is also possible to take a nonclinical track and focus more on research. Social psychologists sometimes have roles in jury selection.
Some schools also offer master’s degrees in forensic psychology. Master’s level psychology programs do not qualify professionals as clinical psychologists. However, the forensic psychology master’s may qualify them for other credentials – for example, treating sex offenders.
A psychologist may seek board certification as a forensic psychologist. This is a voluntary credential that does not bestow the right to practice as a psychologist. However, it is a testament to one’s training and expertise and may look good to employers, among others.
Credentialing is granted by the American Board of Forensic Psychology, Inc., which is under the banner of the American Board of Professional Psychology. The first step is credential review. The psychologist must meet general criteria for becoming a diplomate of the ABPP and must also have education and training relevant to forensic psychology.
After eligibility has been determined, the candidate takes a written examination. It covers knowledge in seven broad categories (http://www.abfp.com/pdfs/certification/WrittenExamination.pdf). The candidate will need a scientific understanding of the variables that affect assessment in a legal environment – for example, the reliability of memory and the various factors influencing confession. The certification test also assesses knowledge of legal matters and of professional ethics.
The successful candidate will submit work samples and go through an oral examination process.
The American Psychological Association has put together guidelines for the practice of forensic psychology (http://www.apa.org/practice/guidelines/forensic-psychology.aspx). These complement the general ethical guidelines that psychologists work under.
The American College of Forensic Psychologists is an additional professional resource (http://www.forensicpsychology.org/college.html)