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Legal, criminological and forensic

The reality of work as a forensic psychologist

Carol A. Ireland looks beyond the TV and media portrayals at a difficult but rewarding career.

27 September 2009

The profession of forensic psychology continues to evolve and develop. Without doubt this is a reflection of the importance of psychology as a whole. It also highlights the particular wide-ranging benefits forensic psychology brings to society, not only when working with the perpetrators of offending, but when engaging with forensic organisations, victims, the public and government. A range of other applied psychologies work with offenders: clinical, occupational, health and counselling psychologists. This piece will focus on the work of chartered forensic psychologists.

One of forensic psychology's continuing challenges is to explain what it really does as a branch of applied psychology, as opposed to the more 'glamourised' media and journalistic portrayals. Forensic psychology is an engaging profession and one which forensic psychologists can be passionate about. Yet the need to ensure an accurate image of forensic psychology must inform this. Programmes such as Cracker starring Robbie Coltrane, or more recently Wire in the Blood starring Robson Green (which portrays a clinical psychologist working in the forensic arena), are popular and entertaining but far removed from actual forensic psychology work. Not only are forensic psychologists passionate about their work but it seems there is a fervent interest in our profession from the general public, which is supplied largely through the filter of the media.

Programmes such as Cracker focus on what the producers feel are the more intriguing and exhilarating elements of the role. They are often somewhat distant from real life applied psychology. There are a large number of forensic psychologists who may shudder at being referred to as Cracker in any context, and prefer the scientist-practitioner role to be our defining feature.

It is therefore both crucial and timely to clarify what forensic psychologists can and do contribute in their work, including how they qualify, and the range of roles that a forensic psychologist undertakes. 


Qualifying to become a chartered forensic psychologist is by no means a stress-free and uncomplicated process, but this is a profession for which standards are of vital importance. The initial steps are to get an undergraduate psychology degree and/or the equivalent GBR recognition. This is followed by the completion of stage 1, which is usually an accredited postgraduate qualification in forensic psychology (usually a one year full-time, two years part-time master's degree), providing academic and theoretical knowledge. Finally, stage 2 requires a minimum of 320 days spent equally across four areas: conducting interventions, assessments and evaluations with clients; applied research; supporting and advising other professionals; and training. All of these activities are coordinated by a chartered forensic psychologist. This leads to the completion of eight pieces of work, two within each of the four areas, taking a minimum of two years to complete (although more realistically they'll take closer to three years). These pieces of work are then submitted and examined by the British Psychological Society's Board of Assessors. Successful submission leads to qualification as a forensic psychologist. Practitioner doctorates in forensic psychology are coming online (not to be confused with PhDs), which merge stage 1 and stage 2 under one academic programme. Currently the 'apprentice' model (stage 1 – university assessed and BPS accredited; stage 2 – field work assessed by the BPS) remains the most accessible and commonly used one.

Work environments

Forensic psychologists work in varied environments: NHS hospitals, private hospitals, the National Offender Management Service (NOMS), the Scottish and Irish prison system and private prisons, the police, universities and private practice.

The work of forensic psychologists is far more diverse than is depicted in the media. We are not, for example, advocates for those on trial; nor are we support workers for those undergoing prosecution. There are other professions within whose remit this falls.

Whilst forensic psychologists will clearly have engagement with the perpetrators of offences, they may also, or alternatively be involved in working with victims, conducting applied research, designing and delivering training, contributing to policy and organisational consultancy. It's a varied career – I can only give a few examples here.

Forensic psychologists often work with or in relation to suspected or convicted offenders: assisting in investigations and court decisions; assessment of their treatment areas; the design, delivery and evaluation of treatment interventions such as sex offender therapy, and interventions targeting propensities for violence, emotional regulation, adaptive thinking, and the development of healthy beliefs that support an offence-free lifestyle.

A particular area of specialisation is assisting an organisation or court in the completion of assessments that explore the risk presented by the individual to the general public, as well as in family cases involving children. Work with victims includes supporting their recovery, apprehension of offenders and informing local police and government policy on victim support issues.

Forensic psychologists also engage in a variety of forms of qualitative and quantitative applied research, such as the exploration of individual factors related to offending, therapy evaluations and protective factors around offending.

A number of forensic psychologists are involved in the development, implementation and evaluation of training initiatives. The remit of such training can be varied, and based on the needs of both staff and other clients. It may include: staff development of awareness and the application of knowledge and skills for working with offenders, such as interpersonal skills and motivational approaches; organisational issues such as awareness and management of bullying, management of self-harm and the utilisation of diagnostic tools, such as psychopathy assessments.

The consultancy role is varied and wide-ranging. It can include working with management on the assessment, initiation and evaluation of change within an organisation, leading on or supporting policy development, the alleviation of stress, consulting on critical incidents within an organisation, consulting and advising on government projects, as well as assisting in the auditing of government initiatives, in agencies such as Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Prisons.

Not to be taken lightly

This is not a career that should be considered lightly. It can take a long time to reach the requirements, and it involves continual development. More importantly, the views and decisions made by a forensic psychologist can have substantial implications for clients, particularly offenders: their expertise can be crucial in decisions made regarding their incarceration and/or restrictions on their freedom.

It is also not a career for those seeking a '9 to 5' job or whose sole focus is to make individuals 'better'. Rather, the focus of some psychological interventions with forensic clients is on managing risk rather than its complete removal. 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. Personally, I find forensic psychology intensely rewarding, and I feel fortunate to have found myself within a profession that I find both engaging and valuable.