Forensic psychologists use psychological principles in the legal and criminal justice system to help judges, attorneys, and other legal professionals understand psychological findings in a variety of settings, not only the courtroom. For instance, in prisons and forensic hospitals, they help determine which inmates are fit to stand trial, not guilty by reason or if they should seek an insanity defense or too dangerous to be released.
In the courtroom, forensic psychologists are usually designated as an “expert witness” and typically specialize in family, civil, or criminal court. In family court, they may perform child custody evaluations or investigate reports of child abuse. In civil court, they may assess mental competency, provide second opinions, and provide psychotherapy to crime victims. For instance, forensic psychologists may evaluate an individual involved in personal injury or class-action suits and then testify about the harm suffered. Criminal court forensic psychologists often conduct evaluations of mental competency to stand trial, work with child witnesses, and provide assessment of juvenile or adult offenders.
In academic settings, forensic psychologists also conduct research on jury behavior or eyewitness testimony. Social and experimental psychologists might also help attorneys select juries, hold focus groups to determine which arguments are most persuasive and survey communities to see if pretrial publicity has precluded a fair trial.
According to the U.S Department of Labor, employment of all psychologists, including clinical psychologists, is expected to grow 12 percent from 2008 to 2018, which is about as fast as the average for all occupations. Job prospects should be best for those with a doctoral degree from a leading university in an applied specialty. Additionally, psychologists with extensive training in quantitative research methods, statistics, and computer science may have a competitive edge over applicants without such background.
While it may not be as glamorous as TV portrayals like Criminal Minds make it out to be, forensic psychology can be an exciting, intellectually stimulating, and lucrative career. Many forensic psychologists note the pleasures of puzzling out cases, the variety of settings, and the constant evolution of the specialty. It also offers psychologists an opportunity to diversify their practices, as well as freedom from managed care and insurance hassles. At the same time, forensic work has its challenges. Forensic psychologists must work on the schedule of the court and be prepared for last-minute travel. Further, many forensic psychologists claim that “the thin-skinned do not survive.” The subject matter can be distressing at times, especially when the stakes are so high. It can be difficult not to become emotionally invested in cases or to feel discouraged by an opposing attorney. Ethical issues can also be particularly tricky in this area.