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Forensic Psychologist

What They Do

Insider Info

A forensic psychologist is an expert witness who is called on to testify about a defendant's behavior. Using interviews, psychological evidence and the person's background, the psychologist will give their opinion on the mental state and behaviors of the accused.

Forensic psychologists also work on cases involving child abuse, domestic violence and psychopathic disorders. This type of psychologist can also create criminal profiles of suspects based on crime scene evidence and provide direction for the interrogations of suspects, as well as offer expert testimony in court about a person's mental health.

"The amount of time you spend in the courtroom depends of the kind of work you do," says Bruce Danto, a forensic psychology professor at National University in San Diego. "Child custody and personal injury cases are often settled out of court. If you work in homicides, you'll be in court a lot."

In a nutshell, forensic psychologists work in many areas of the justice system. The title forensic means "having to do with the law." A psychologist studies human behavior and mental processes to understand, explain or even change people's behavior.

A specialized branch of forensic psychology is called forensic neuropsychology. In addition to studying mental processes, neuropsychologists also perform tests to see if a person has organic brain damage.

A forensic psychologist's workday depends on where they practice. "I work in a forensic hospital, and so I work 40 hours per week," says Kathy Ronan in Alabama. She spends extra time in court. Psychologists who run their own practices are free to work as few or as many hours as they wish.

Psychology isn't a physically demanding profession. However, some areas of forensic psychology can on rare occasions be dangerous. "You take a risk if you're profiling stalkers -- like I do," says Danto. "You are creating problems for these people, so on occasion, they will come after you."

Physically challenged people should be able to find a niche in this profession. However, one difficulty may be accommodating travel.

Forensic psychology is a demanding job. Because psychologists work with people who are traumatized or mentally ill, the job can be stressful. "Sometimes the people you're working with have a tendency to distort and misinterpret what is going on around them, and that can be stressful," says forensic psychologist Stuart Clayman. "After talking to these people all day, I often go home feeling drained."

"You have to explore whether or not you can put aside your own emotions and be objective," advises Ronan. If you're the type of person who will get personally involved in a lot of issues, consider a different career.

Before deciding on forensic psychology, you should also think about whether you're willing to go to court. "Some people find it stressful," says Ronan. "One thing you have to realize is that one side will always be against you."

Although this job can have potential stress points, if you're like Ronan, you will thrive on the fascinating cases that you will be called to work on. Stress is only high if you are ill-prepared for trial. Forensic psychologists get to meet fascinating people, and try to make sense of confusing information. "It's very rewarding," says Ronan.

Forensic psychiatrists, like forensic psychologists, study a person's mental processes. However, a forensic psychiatrist performs additional duties. "Psychiatrists are trained to deal with the medical side as well," says Danto. "For example, understanding the medical side, they can better understand the impact of a physical trauma."

Forensic psychologists can work for government departments, in prisons, at hospitals and can even own their own private clinics.

At a Glance

Be a psychologist working in the legal system

  • You can work for government departments, prisons, hospitals and private clinics
  • The job can be stressful
  • You'll need at least a postgraduate psychology degree