North Wales Management School - Wrexham University

Forensic psychology: understanding the criminal mind to help people live better lives

Posted on: March 19, 2024
Forensic Psychologist Showing Position Clinician And Shrink

What is forensic psychology, in a nutshell?

Forensic psychology is a relatively new area of psychology which explores human behaviour in relation to the law. It applies tools, research and ideas from psychology to legal situations. Forensic psychologists work with attorneys, judges and other law professionals to understand and explain the psychological elements in legal cases, taking part in criminal investigations, carrying out psychological research and designing intervention programmes.

What exactly does a forensic psychologist do?

If you’re a fan of TV shows like CSI you could be forgiven for thinking that forensic psychologists spend much of their time sifting through evidence at crime scenes, reading the minds of serial killers or giving a stirring expert testimony in the courtroom.

The reality is somewhat different, though no less interesting. Forensic psychologists work with all aspects of the criminal justice system. Most of their work is done in association with the police, probation services, prison services, young offender institutions, or secure mental health hospitals.

Some forensic psychologists do serve as advisors and expert witnesses during trials, and they analyse evidence from crime scenes in order to develop criminal profiling. They can provide insight on client competency, sentencing, and treatment. Depending on their employers and specialisations, they might also carry out research remotely, helping to improve interrogation techniques, criminal rehabilitation and the design of prisons and correctional facilities. Other aspects of the work can include reducing stress for staff and offenders in secure settings and advising parole boards and mental health tribunals.

“It’s about people, it’s about evidence, risk, personality assessments, developmental and cognitive psychology, statistical research – and there’s practical application, you can really see how the knowledge is being applied and how it makes a difference,” says Elizabeth Gilchrist, Professor of Forensic Psychology at the University of Edinburgh.

What is the main goal of a forensic psychologist?

At its core, the field of forensic psychology is about people, which makes it both challenging and rewarding in equal measure.

“Forensic psychology is about understanding people, understanding why they’ve offended and working towards a way for that person to lead a better life,” says Veronica Warn, a chartered Forensic Psychologist and British Psychological Society (BPS)-registered psychologist.

What qualifications do I need to be a forensic psychologist?

In the UK, the starting point on a career path towards forensic psychology is to complete an accredited undergraduate degree in psychology. The next step is to complete a Master’s degree in forensic psychology approved by the Health and Care Professions Council (HCPC). Finally, forensic psychologists will need:

  • three years or more of evidence-supervised practice where the trainee can provide evidence of applying psychology appropriately in forensic practice; or
  • an HCPC-accredited doctoral programme that includes practice placements and a third year research thesis.

It is critical to get experience – paid or voluntary – when applying to forensic psychology programmes. Those with direct experience of working in a forensic setting, for example prisons, probation services or a youth offending service, will be the most likely to succeed.

In terms of personal attributes, a forensic psychologist must be compassionate and very much a ‘people person’. They need to have strong forensic skills in order to psychologically assess individuals in the legal system, and they must also have great verbal communication skills for psychological assessment, interviewing, report writing, and case presentation.

What are some of the challenges?

“Some of the challenges include listening to extremely distressing material and helping others to process the emotions associated with them. It can be emotionally draining but extremely rewarding,” says Dr Geraldine Akerman, a Forensic psychologist at Barnet, Enfield & Haringey Mental Health NHS Trust.

“It can be difficult working in settings such as prisons, where there are limited funds and which are often looked at unfavourably by the general public,” she adds.

Forensic Psychology is not for those who seek an easy 9 to 5 desk job, or whose sole focus is to ‘fix’ people. When working on interventions with forensic clients, it can be hard to accept that risk can often only be reduced rather than completely removed.

Carol A Ireland from the BPS explains: “Decreasing risk can increase a client’s chances of returning to the community and may enhance their quality of life. But these improvements need to be balanced with ensuring the public is kept safe. This can be one of the hardest lessons learned by those new to the profession. You either accept the reality of how difficult the work can be or become disillusioned with it and seek a career elsewhere.”

What are the high points of working as a forensic psychologist?

There are many career opportunities for a forensic psychologist, both in the public sector and in the corporate world. But whether you’re working with the criminals or the victims of crime, the work always concerns helping someone and improving their life, which brings with it huge career satisfaction. What is more, it’s an exciting job with a degree of risk and intrigue. Once qualified, you’ll be much in demand because there is little competition for forensic psychology roles, coupled with a growing need for this type of psychologist.

An example of how rewarding the job can be is described by Professor Elizabeth Gilchrist. She has worked on a parenting intervention for men who had been convicted of intimate partner abuse. They wanted to break the generational cycle and change their behaviour to be good dads, and not do what their dads had done to them.  Speaking to the BPS, she says:

“Five years down the line we had fantastic feedback: the kids were able to cry and be noisy around their dad without being scared. Fifty-five families came through that project, that’s 55 people who are safer, with better experiences, and more importantly 55 children who probably don’t have the risk factors to go on to perpetrate. There’s always good in everybody and if you can pick that out and work with that and take steps forward, it really does make a difference.”

What sort of careers do forensic psychologists pursue?

A forensic psychology graduate with a Master’s degree and the requisite experience may go on to:

  • run a prison’s psychology department
  • move into a policy, strategy or management role
  • move into consultant work, for example as an expert witness.

Other possible career routes for forensic psychologists include:

Prison officer: these ensure the safety of all prisoners, communicate with prisoners and other officers clearly and calmly, testify in court and enforce prison rules, including maintaining order within a prison.

Forensic social worker: working alongside traditional social workers, forensic social workers serve as a link between the justice system and victims. They make therapy recommendations appropriate to a given situation; evaluate defendants’ mental state, testify as expert witnesses and identifies criminal behaviour.

Crime analyst: these develop criminal profiles to help apprehend criminals; study crimes to understand the perpetrator’s motivations; and study geographic spread of crimes to establish crime statistics.

Forensic research psychologist: often specialising in one area such as financial crime or white collar crime, Forensic research psychologists question suspects and victims and identify areas that other law enforcement officers may have missed in their investigation.

Jury Consultant: These advise and assist litigators throughout legal proceedings, carrying out tasks such as: researching each potential member of the jury to gather information on them and their likely attitude to the case in question; creating juror profiles; providing suggestions on how the attorney should present their argument to the jury; and creating post-trial interviews with jurors to learn what went wrong.

Forensic case manager: people in this role are responsible for the screening, treatment and case management of criminals with mental illness and/or substance abuse. The most common route to becoming a forensic case manager is to achieve a bachelor’s degree in psychology and then a master’s degree in forensic psychology or criminal justice.

Hone your skills to become an exceptional educator

From forensic psychology to child and adolescent development, join the MSc Educational Psychology at North Wales Management School and you’ll develop the skills to both understand what makes people tick and become an outstanding educator. The 100% online master’s programme has been created to equip educational professionals – teachers, head teachers, school managers, support staff and others – with a comprehensive understanding of the role of educational psychologists, and the core psychological knowledge and concepts that underpin practice in the psychology of education. 

You will develop knowledge in key subject areas associated with the work of educational psychologists, including child and adolescent development, behavioural disorders, resilience, and special needs and giftedness.

What is more, you can study this programme from literally anywhere in the world, on any device. The flexible programme design ensures that you can fit your studies around full-time work and family life and continue to earn in your current role.