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What Is Forensic Psychology - and Should You Earn Your Degree in it?

Nov 23, 2012 Jennifer Williamson, Distance Columnist | 0 Comments

You’ve probably seen forensic psychologists on television. They use their knowledge of the human mind to solve crimes, track down killers, and understand the criminal mind. Real-life forensic psychologists do work with law enforcement—but the real job isn’t exactly like the movies.

The typical definition of forensic psychology involves individuals who apply their psychological expertise within the legal or criminal justice system. But many psychologists in this area don’t actually use the label “forensic psychologist.” As a psychologist, you can work with the law in many different capacities. Here are just a few.

Clinical psychologists

Clinical psychologists often work within the criminal justice system through assessment, diagnosis, and treatment. For instance, a plaintiff might be required to receive psychological treatment or diagnosis, or to undergo a psychological assessment as part of a case. Some clinical psychologists work to treat people suffering from substance abuse or addiction problems.

See Also: Online Criminal Justice Degrees

In most states, you must earn a Ph.D. or Psy.D. in psychology to be a clinical psychologist—as well as passing state licensure exams. While there are online degrees in psychology available, it’s important to note that the hands-on component is extremely important for licensure—you’ll likely also need to complete a certain amount of residency work under the supervision of a licensed psychologist. Usually this period lasts one or two years.

School psychologists

School psychologists mainly work with kids in elementary, middle school, or high school settings. However, a school psychologist could be called upon to work with the criminal justice system. Because they specialize in child psychology, a school psychologist might evaluate suspected cases of abuse, help children prepare to serve as witnesses in court, or offer expert testimony in legal disputes involving child custody.

School psychologists may follow the same path as clinical psychologists in terms of education. However, this position may not require more than a Master’s degree in counseling, child psychology, or school psychology. These programs often take about three years to complete, followed by a year-long internship period.

Some states require school psychologists to pass the Examination for Professional Practice in Psychology or the PRAXIS Series II, an exam for people working in public schools. There is also a national certification program for school psychologists administered by the National Association of School Psychologists. To earn it, you must earn a Master’s degree, complete a supervised internship, and pass the National School Psychology Examination. Some states require certification for school psychologists; see Practice Central for more information regarding requirements in your state.


Neurology is the study of the structure of the nervous system—whereas psychologists are mainly concerned with behavior. Like clinical psychologists, neurologists may evaluate and diagnose mental disorders for legal cases. They may also diagnose specific neurological disorders that could have contributed to the circumstances of a case. Neurologists frequently focus more on the physical and neurological contributors to mental disease than psychologists do, although there is some overlap. Neurologists, however, typically do not treat patients the same way psychologists do.

To become a neurologist, you’ll have to go to medical school and complete a medical residency in neurology, in addition to passing the Boards.


Counselors in many different areas of specialization may work within the criminal justice system—particularly to assist defendants who have been sentenced to a type of treatment. This may include anger management counselors, drug and alcohol counselors, mental health counselors, victim counseling, relationship counseling, and more. The type of education you need to become a counselor in these capacities can vary considerably by state, but they often require state-level certification.

Many different types of mental health professionals work within the criminal justice and legal system—playing an important role in sentencing, treatment, and diagnosis. Depending on where your interests lie, there are many opportunities to get involved in the legal system—and work on the side of justice.




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