How to Become a Forensic Psychologist
The path to become a forensic psychologist is varied; meaning, it is not the same for everyone. If you are an undergraduate student, then you will likely find benefit in this article. If you are a psychologist looking to re-specialize in the area of forensic psychology, then we would recommend checking out Eric Mart’s book How to Become a Forensic Psychologist. This blog is produced by undergraduate students aspiring to be forensic psychologists with the assistance of forensic psychologists providing them with mentorship. We have gathered the following information for other undergraduate students as we support each other in hopes of becoming forensic psychologists in the future. Here is what we found.
The first step to becoming a forensic psychologist is to become a psychologist. The path to becoming a psychologist is pretty straightforward. The first step in the path is to gain entry into a graduate program. Some undergraduate students pursue a master’s degree before going on to a doctoral program in psychology. Other students gain entry into a doctoral program in psychology right out of their undergraduate institution.
For students who feel unprepared for a doctoral program and the five- to six-year commitment it requires, then they may want to pursue a master’s degree before applying to doctoral programs in psychology. This path is also recommended for those students who completed their undergraduate studies with grade point averages that did not leave them in a competitive place to gain access directly into a doctoral program after their last year of college. Also, for those students who had competitive GPAs, but for one reason or the other were unsuccessful in applying to a doctoral program, then a master’s degree after undergrad would make sense. As implied by the above, there is no reason why students who believe they will be on the fence for doctoral admission should not simultaneously apply to master’s programs and doctoral programs. An important note here, school isn’t free so getting a Master’s and a doctoral degree will cost more.
You may be wondering what type of master’s degree you should pursue to keep you on the path to becoming a forensic psychologist. The best answer to this question is to search out doctoral programs in psychology and to make your way over to their admission’s requirements page on their websites. There you will find what their expectations are from you in order to get in. We have found that the same advice is also beneficial for undergraduate students who will be competitive for gaining access to doctoral programs right after their last year of college. In order for undergraduates to best position themselves to gain access to a doctoral program, then by their second year in their undergraduate studies, our mentors in forensic psychology suggest familiarizing ourselves with the application materials for doctoral psychology programs.
The requirements spell out what the GPA expectations are, the number of letters of recommendation required, the ranges of GRE scores that are competitive and other things that these programs are looking for such as research experience, volunteer experiences, writing experience etc. Hint–hint, by joining our team, we will provide you with some of these experiences to better position yourself for acceptance into a master’s or doctoral program directly out of undergrad. That’s why we created and participate in this blog.
Is it possible to study Spanish literature in your master’s degree program and then to gain entry into a doctoral program in psychology? The answer is yes. At the same time, would you be as competitive as someone who studied quantitative psychology in a two-year master’s program? The answer is unclear and depends on where you are applying to school, the competitiveness of the institution, sizes of the classes and the unique attributes of the applicant pool. However, logic would suggest for you to go with the quantitative psychology master’s degree or another psychology-related master’s degree.
From what we gathered, a forensic psychology master’s degree will not position yourself any better than another psychology related master’s degree. The reason why is because your specialization in forensic psychology would not be established during the next step after your master’s degree. In other words, when you are pursuing a doctoral degree, and after you have completed your doctoral degree, you still will not be a forensic psychologist. Therefore, having a forensic related degree before your doctoral program will not give you an edge in becoming a forensic psychologist. Rather, the experiences after you have completed your doctoral program and while you are completing your doctoral program will account for much more.
The exception to this general principle will be if you plan to seek a career in academia after earning your doctorate, but there is disagreement about whether psychologists engaged in teaching and research in forensic psychology as opposed to evaluation and testimony are actually forensic psychologists.
From what we have gathered, there is some benefit to applying to programs in forensic psychology at the doctoral level. There are not many; so, competition will be stiff. We suggest for you to review the requirements for licensure in professional psychology in your State as well as what the APA accredited predoctoral internship programs are requiring from you with respect to your doctoral studies. Once you familiarize yourself with these requirements, be sure that the doctoral program in forensic psychology you are applying to will actually provide you with the clinical and academic experiences you will need to become a full-fledged practicing licensed psychologist in your state that has completed an APA accredited internship. Some of these programs might prepare you to be a heck of a researcher in this area, but not to get license, hang out your shingle, and engage in the practice of forensic psychology.
Regardless of whether you began a doctoral program in forensic psychology, school psychology, clinical psychology or anything else, you can gain the necessary experiences to start developing a curriculum vitae (aka resume) that will establish your specialization in forensic psychology and your recognition amongst your peers as a forensic psychologist. Some of these experiences might be conducting clinical work in a correctional or prison setting, administering testing for a local forensic psychologist in private practice in your town (if permitted by the regulations in that state), and/or conducting research in forensic psychology; perhaps, for your dissertation. Also, your State Psychological Association and certainly the American Psychological Association will have opportunities for professional service as a student in their respective divisions of forensic psychology.
However, the most critical step short of board certification to qualify yourself as a forensic psychologist out of graduate school is gaining acceptance into an APA accredited pre-doctoral internship or postgraduate program with a specialized forensic track. Naturally, before you get to this milestone, you will have to do everything that is required to successfully complete a doctorate degree in psychology, which again is a five-year endeavor, even if you stopped along the way to complete a two years master’s degree before doing so.
As indicated earlier, the single best thing you can do to qualify as a forensic psychologist would be to seek and accomplish board certification through the American Board of Professional Psychology in this area. The ABPP now offers a path to get a head start on board certification depending on the forensic opportunities available at a postdoctoral program that you are attending.
Board certification involves providing the ABPP with your credentials, which must include a certain amount of hours in the field of forensic psychology. Once you have passed this step, you have a year to study, complete and pass a written examination in the area of forensic psychology. After that, you must submit two work samples, which must be passed according to the reviews of an independent board of forensic psychologists. After that, you must pass an oral examination based on the content of those work samples. Listen, if you complete all of that you are a forensic psychologist. However, it is important to note that most forensic psychologists do not have the ABPP in forensic psychology from what we have been told.
Forensic psychologists qualify themselves as such given the day-to-day activities they are doing at work and whether or not they have been qualified in a court of law to provide expert testimony as a psychologist on occasion. If you are primarily spending your workday as a psychologist conducting evaluations in order to assist the court in the judicial process and you are perhaps providing testimony as to your report findings, then it is acceptable to refer to yourself as a forensic psychologist from what we understand.
However, there is a debate about the above given that only a limited number of states offer a licensure status with a protected name representing your qualification as a forensic psychologist of any sort. If there is no licensure status in your state that protects the scope of practice associated with the title “forensic psychologist” then there is a legitimate argument to be made that it would be improper to refer to yourself as a forensic psychologist short of you earning board certification through the ABPP.
It is certainly a long road to becoming a forensic psychologist. Many undergraduate students do not fully understand how many years it takes to become a forensic psychologist and that you may actually take less time to become a primary care physician and certainly less time to become a lawyer. There are no master’s level psychologists as indicated above as a doctorate is required to be a psychologist. Likewise, there are no pre-licensure doctoral level forensic psychologists, as you must first be a psychologist that has earned postdoctoral experiences to justify in any legitimate way why it would not be improper to refer to yourself as a forensic psychologist if challenged.
However, the longest journey starts with a single step. A useful step for you to take is to get some support, or to connect with a mentor in the field of forensic psychology who can provide you with experiences and knowledge to give you an edge. We would be happy to help with that. Consider reaching out to us today.