Psychology Major as a Foundation for Forensic Psychology Practice
Forensic psychology is a psychology sub-discipline. Students who are interested in the field should be aware that many positions require a doctoral degree and a license. However, there is some market for individuals with training at the master’s level. Those with bachelor’s degrees may work in forensic settings and carry out some duties associated with forensic psychology.
Grand Canyon University (GCU) offers an online Bachelor’s in Psychology modeled after the standards and recommendations set by the American Psychological Association with emphases in: Forensic Psychology and Performance and Sports Psychology. Several Master’s in Psychology programs are also offered. Click here to learn about GCU and their programs.
Southern New Hampshire University (SNHU) offers online Bachelor’s in Forensic Psychology and Master’s in Psychology programs with several emphases to select from as well as a CACREP accredited online Master’s in Counseling. Click here to learn about SNHU and their programs.
Forensic Psychology Duties and Skills
Forensic psychology frequently involves assessment. The psychologist may assess the mental condition of defendants, determining whether they are competent to stand trial or whether they pose a threat to society. Assessment also has a place in civil law. Elderly individuals may have court-ordered competency evaluations. Custody cases may involve evaluations of multiple family members.
Assessments are often the domain of doctoral level clinical psychologists. It takes a good deal of clinical training to determine whether a person has dissociative disorder or schizophrenia. However, assessment administration and diagnosis are separate steps – and court cases don’t always involve complex or severe mental illness. It is not uncommon for master’s level practitioners to administer and score assessments. Individuals with education below the master’s level may perform assessments in certain instances. In late 2014, Texas Health and Human Services posted for a candidate with a bachelor’s in psychology or a related field who could serve as psychological assistant in a forensic adolescent program; the individual would perform psychological assessment as well as carry out other duties like developing behavior modification plans.
Forensic psychologists can be called on to provide expert testimony. One purpose this may serve: to be a reality check for the arguments of prosecution and defense. Psychologists may offer informed opinions about the reliability of eyewitness accounts under varying circumstances. Psychologists can also help the decision makers understand whether there were mitigating circumstances. (How do people typically behave in deplorable or dangerous circumstances? When might a person perceive they were in mortal danger?)
Forensic psychologists may offer input in various legal matters, including jury selection. Forensic psychology often involves clinical practice, but it can also involve more abstract research activity.
Again, the educational expectations vary. Even undergraduate interns could find themselves performing research and administrative work for a forensic team – but they won’t be the expert witnesses.
Building the Foundation
Forensic psychology requires critical thinking and analytical ability, precise oral and written communication skills, and knowledge of ethical decision making. It also involves a discipline-specific body of knowledge. This includes solid grounding in psychology concepts (personality theory, psychopathology, social psychology, assessment and evaluation) as well as knowledge of law and court proceedings and their intersection with psychology. Another component of preparation is experience in a forensic setting; this may begin with university-supervised practicum or internship experiences.
Students can begin developing their skills and knowledge base at the undergraduate level. Some may opt to do an undergraduate specialty or concentration in forensic psychology. This can bring into reach entry-level positions in forensic settings. General psychology programs can also provide a foundation. Whatever option one selects, that ‘dream job’ may still be a degree or two away.
Prospective practitioners should be aware that the scope of duty will vary by location and hiring agency. They can take comfort in knowing that probation officers and forensic treatment providers often have lower levels of education than true forensic psychologists. Programs in forensic psychology may provide education and training applicable to both roles.
Students who know that they want to take their practice to the highest level do not technically have to major in psychology as undergraduates. However, doctoral programs –particularly those that award PhDs – typically like to see some foundation in psychology as well as some experience in research.