A forensic psychologist, also sometimes called a criminal psychologist, is someone who studies the actions and motivations of people who have broken the law. Sometimes these professionals work directly with criminals to help rehabilitate them or help them identify patterns in their own behavior. Other times, they are members of law enforcement teams who use their knowledge to help identify or interrogate suspects. There are also jobs within the legal system, working with lawyers and judges to build up cases and provide expert testimony. Research, teaching, and community outreach can also come within a forensic psychologist’s job description. There are many different options, and as a result much of what a person with this training does is up to his or her own individual passions and interests.
Many of the most well-known criminal psychologists got their start profiling criminals — basically studying crime scenes for clues left by the perpetrator, then piecing together who he or she was and, often more importantly, why he or she committed the crime in question. This information is often invaluable to police and others looking to make an arrest. Profiling is what comes to mind for most people when they think of forensic psychology, and the ability to create a profile is a big part of this career for many people. In most cases it represents only one aspect of the job, however.
Jobs in Law Enforcement
Police often work closely with psychologists both to apprehend criminals and to get advice when it comes to interrogating and understanding them. A psychologist can help detectives anticipate how someone like a serial killer thinks, for instance, and can identify future targets and victims; he or she may also be able to help figure out how to question suspects so that they either make confessions or divulge needed information.
It is common for professionals in this capacity to start out as police officers, or at least spend some time working as investigators or detectives. This sort of experience gives them an understanding of how criminals operate on a day-to-day level as well as an appreciation for police protocol when it comes to evidence collection, questioning, and any filing and paperwork requirements.
A psychologist with a forensics background can often find plenty of work as a consultant, offering services to law enforcement on a case-by-case basis. This is particularly appealing to professionals who have expertise in specific areas. Someone who works a lot with youth offenders, for instance, might be called in to work on cases involving teen gangs or minors accused of serious crimes like murder. In these instances, the consulting psychologist could brief investigating officers about the state of mind of the suspects, victims, or both, and help the investigation team get the information they need to understand the situation.
Consulting work allows maximum flexibility, and in many ways ensures that the psychologist will only be working on cases that are within his or her realm of expertise. Getting to this point can be challenging, though, and often requires a strong reputation and a lot of experience. People who end up in these roles typically work to build a name for themselves through other, broader work over time.
Role Within the Justice System
The work that these professionals do is very important to the criminal justice system, as their analysis can often help explain why crimes were committed, or at the very least shed some light on the state of mind of the perpetrator. As a result, they are frequently called to testify as expert witnesses in trials. Lawyers who frequently work with criminals sometimes also hire mental health specialists to help build cases. Psychologists in these settings can prepare witnesses for cross-examination and can help anticipate certain lines of questioning.
People with expertise in the criminal mind can also frequently find work in prisons, half-way houses, and juvenile detention facilities. Here they are often able to work with convicts directly, helping to counsel and rehabilitate them. Sometimes the goal is reintegration into mainstream society, but it may also be more therapeutic, helping criminals come to terms with their pasts.
Particularly violent or disturbing crimes often leave victims and their families stunned, confused, or disoriented. Psychologists with criminal expertise sometimes build careers around helping these people accept and process the things they have seen or the people they have lost. While this work can sometimes be done by other professionals with more standard trauma training, those with expertise in crimes and the criminal mind are often able to provide more comfort and insight.
Jobs in Education and Academia
There are also a great many criminal psychologists who work as teachers and mentors. Many of the best college and university professors in this area have spent at least a few years working in the field, and in many cases this real-world experience makes them more valuable to their students. Teaching doesn’t have to be so formal, though. Forensic psychologists often partner with community outreach centers, public schools, and other similar institutions to provide general education to schoolteachers and leaders.
Importance of Research
Despite the interpersonal nature of this career, a person need not work directly with others. Many of the most important breakthroughs are made by researchers and professional analysts. These people work directly with criminals, but usually only in an academic capacity. Their goal is to discover trends, identify patterns, or make new discoveries, then publish their findings in scholarly journals. Many university professors conduct research, but in some cases it is also possible to make analysis a full-time job. The patterns and trends these professionals unearth in many ways shape the thinking of the people working in most every other sector.
Breaking Into the Field
Getting started with a career in forensic psychology almost always starts with education. A university degree is typically required, and graduate work is almost always an asset. Many of the best known and highest paid professionals hold doctorate degrees, usually in psychology with an emphasis on the criminal mind. As with so many things, though, there is no “right way” to break into the field. Passion for working with difficult clients, helping others, and discovering the truth are all essential pieces.