August 29, 2018, by Kate
Careers in Forensic Psychology
Careers in forensic psychology in the UK are both challenging and rewarding. I became a forensic psychologist because I believe that sometimes the people in the most distress will come to the criminal justice system before any other service. I’ve put together this post to explain a bit about what we do, and some of the routes into forensic psychology as a career. If you want to learn more, the British Psychological Society (BPS) has some great resources for aspiring forensic psychologists.
Careers in forensic psychology: What do forensic psychologists do and how do you become one?
Broadly speaking, forensic psychologists work with victims of crime, offenders and staff in forensic settings. This can include hospitals, prisons, offender management services, the courts, children’s services etc. It can be a varied career depending on the areas you chose to specialise in, however there are core competencies, defined by the BPS, which all forensic psychologists must demonstrate in order to be registered with the health and care professions council (HCPC). These are the four core roles:
Core Role 1: Conducting psychological applications and interventions
All forensic psychologists must be competent to deliver therapies and interventions to individuals and groups. In my practice, I have delivered therapies to people detained under the mental health act focussing on things like self-esteem, trauma, offending behaviours and managing distressing emotions. While training, forensic psychologists are exposed to a range of therapies. These will typically include cognitive behavioural approaches. Other commonly used therapies in forensic settings include: dialectical behavioural therapy; schema therapy; cognitive analytical therapy; eye-movement desensitisation and reprocessing; compassion focussed therapy; systemic therapy etc. Post-qualification, many forensic psychologists chose to have additional training in order to become chartered in a particular therapeutic approach.
Any intervention would typically include the following stages:
- Assessment – Using sources of information like file data, interviews with a person and possibly psychometric assessments to establish a person’s strengths and areas of difficulty. This helps us to understand which intervention(s) might help a person and to develop a formulation.
- Formulation – Forensic psychologists use formulations to develop working hypotheses about factors which may influence a person’s well-being or behaviour. This is a way of synthesising our assessment data, using psychological theory and published research, to try and understand what might be causing and maintaining distress for a person. This should be developed in collaboration with the client/service-user where possible.
- Intervention – A forensic psychologist must be skilled in delivering group and individual interventions, the nature of the intervention will be driven by the formulation. However, any therapy requires the psychologist to have skills including: developing and establishing a therapeutic rapport; responding empathically to the individual; managing distress and ensuring safety.
- Evaluation – Once an intervention is complete, it is very important to evaluate its impact and consider how this changes the person’s formulation. An individual in a forensic setting may complete several interventions, by re-formulating we can consider the impact of each intervention.
Core role 2 – Research
In my (subjective) experience, forensic psychology trainees either love or hate research! But the ability to contribute to the knowledge base surrounding forensic psychology is a core competency. Both service evaluation and applied research allow us to help to develop the field of forensic psychology. This might include evaluating specific interventions, identifying factors that protect against recidivism, considering the impact of service models on staff well-being, understanding the predictive validity of risk assessment tools etc. etc.
Conducting research in forensic settings requires fairly advanced skills in quantitative and qualitative methods, research design and data-analysis. But, it also gives forensic psychology trainees an opportunity to be creative and generate new knowledge about something they feel passionate about. At the centre for forensic and family psychology, our students have developed some fascinating research projects, including things like the impact of dog-walking groups on forensic psychiatric patients; the impact of attachment style on sub-clinical symptoms of psychosis and factors influencing the identification of child neglect. I enjoy research because it gives me the chance to make a wider contribution to forensic psychology, and (I believe) to answer fascinating and important questions about why people might behave in certain ways.
Core role 3 – Communicating psychological knowledge and advice to other professionals
Multi-disciplinary working is central to forensic psychology. If I see a patient in a forensic hospital for 1 hour per week, they will probably spend more than a hundred (waking) hours with staff on the ward and from other disciplines. This means that communicating psychological knowledge to other professionals is vital, and is rightly a core competency in forensic psychology.
In my practice, this most often takes the form of reports and attendance at multi-disciplinary meetings. In this way, we ensure that decisions taken are informed by psychological knowledge. In other settings, this might include presenting evidence to the courts or the parole board. Alternatively, this may take the form of giving advice on policy and consultancy work. This core role also involves giving feedback to clients, agencies and staff members (for example assistant psychologists under supervision).
Whatever the setting, the core skill is communication. There is no point in my writing an assessment report to share with a client and a multi-disciplinary team if you need a masters in psychology to understand it (even if it might make me feel very clever!). All this would achieve is disempowering the client and possibly alienating a multi-disciplinary team. So part of our training is learning to communicate psychological principles effectively to people from various backgrounds and disciplines.
Core role 4 – Training other professionals in psychological skills and knowledge
As you develop as a forensic psychologist, you will learn skills and knowledge that can be valuable to others. In order to have a career in forensic psychology, you have to develop skills in identifying training needs, designing and delivering training and evaluating the impact of programmes. This can be a big challenge for people early in their careers, but can also be a chance to share your knowledge and experience and see its value to others. A trainee will develop these skills throughout their training, and post-qualification!
Other key skills for a forensic psychologist
In order to demonstrate you are competent as a forensic psychologist, you have to show that you are a reflective practitioner. This means that you think about your experiences, your own actions and emotions and the way you manage various challenges. By applying psychological theory to ourselves, we can continue to develop and grow as practitioners.
This was a personal challenge for me (I was quite happy avoiding my own emotions and hiding behind reports thank you very much!) but possibly the most important aspect of my own training. We have to have an understanding of ourselves, our own strengths and limitations and our role within a system in order to be able to practice safely. I found developing a self-formulation (with the support of supervisors) a really useful exercise, which helped me to understand my own emotional experience and I believe made me a better practitioner. You can develop your reflective practice skills via training, supervision and reflective reports.
When you are training, you will be supervised by a qualified forensic psychologist (and possibly other qualified psychologists) for a minimum of an hour per week. Using this time effectively is central to working towards qualification. This can be a space to develop therapeutic skills, reflect on your own experiences, receive feedback on your work or simply to explore your own ideas and thoughts. There are various models of supervision, usually you and your supervisor will agree what is helpful for both of you early in the relationship.
Once you are qualified you will begin supervising others, and supporting them in their own development. You will also continue to receive supervision yourself, as this is one of the safeguards of our profession. In this way you continue to develop while supporting others.
Careers in forensic psychology: How do I get there?
In order to become a forensic psychologist, you will first need a good (usually 2-1 or 1st class) undergraduate degree in psychology which is accredited by the BPS. Then you need to complete stage 1 and stage 2 training in forensic psychology:
Stage 1 – Masters in Forensic psychology
The first step is to complete a masters level (usually MSc) course in forensic psychology, again which is accredited by the BPS as stage 1 training. There are a wide variety of masters programmes available in the UK, the majority include both research and teaching in a variety of areas related to forensic psychology.
At the centre for forensic and family psychology, our masters programme incorporates an applied research project and teaching in: theories of criminal behaviour; forensic child psychology; forensic mental health; law and criminal justice; forensic organisational psychology and forensic practice interventions. We try to give students a realistic understanding of forensic psychology as a career, including inviting guest speakers from different disciplines, in order to support our students in developing research and practice skills.
I completed my MSc level training at Nottingham, for me the most important part was being exposed to practitioners from various disciplines and understanding the different aspects of forensic psychology as a career. It wasn’t until I completed my MSc level training that I was really sure I wanted to be a forensic psychologist. Some of our MSc students chose to go into different areas once they have graduated, including teaching and clinical psychology.
Gaining experience is a well-known challenge early in a forensic psychology career. Gaining an MSc can increase your chances of securing employment as an assistant psychologist, or a similar post in a forensic setting. Lots of our students complete voluntary experience or shadowing work while studying.
Stage 2 – Qualification in forensic psychology
There are several different routes to becoming a qualified forensic psychologist, and it is important that you think carefully about the right one for you. All involve supervised practice and demonstrating competency in the core roles. You will need some experience in forensic settings as well as an MSc (at Nottingham, we ask for a minimum of 100 days supervised practice to begin our doctorate courses).
The doctorate routes confer a professional doctorate degree from a University as well as eligibility for registration with the HCPC and chartership with the BPS as a forensic psychologist. This means that they have a strong research element in addition to supervised practice. At Nottingham, our doctorate programme (the top-up DForenPsy) includes supervised practice in a minimum of three placements across two years (we support students in finding placements); trainees develop a ‘practice portfolio’ which demonstrates their competency to practice. Our trainees also develop a research portfolio (with the support of supervisors from the University of Nottingham), and are examined on both portfolios at the end of the course. We also run a full programme that includes both the stage 1 (MSc) and stage 2 (supervised practice and research) elements of training (the full DForenPsy)
The BPS qualification in forensic psychology also requires trainees to demonstrate their competencies in the core roles via written exemplars (which are assessed). This also confers eligibility to register with the HCPC and chartership with the BPS as a forensic psychologist. This is an independent route to becoming a qualified forensic psychologist, suitable for those who are working in an area where they can gain the required competencies.
Some Universities are now offering practitioner programmes in forensic psychology (post-graduate diplomas) which allow trainees to demonstrate their competency to practice (and achieve HCPC registration) via a University without completing a doctorate. Some education providers also allow people who are already qualified as forensic psychologists to complete a research project in an area of specialism to achieve a doctorate degree.
Choosing the right route for you can be confusing, possibly the best advice I can offer is speak to people who have qualified through various routes and think about whether or not they suit your needs. This decision may also depend on your circumstances. I chose to complete the doctorate at Nottingham because I wanted to develop my applied research skills (and have the option of an academic career) and to increase my breadth of experience via placements. I have some very talented colleagues who chose to qualify via the BPS and other routes as it suited their current needs, interests and employment. While I am a strong advocate for the Nottingham programmes, being a trainee is a significant personal and professional challenge, and I believe it is important that everyone makes an informed choice before beginning their stage 2 training.
Careers in forensic psychology: Post-qualification jobs
In the UK, one of the biggest employers of forensic psychologists is the prison service. However, graduates from our DForenPsy courses at Nottingham are most frequently employed in NHS and private hospitals. At our last survey, 100% of our graduates were employed as forensic psychologists, practicing in areas including:
- Secure hospitals (both NHS and private)
- Child and adolescent mental health services
- Probation services
- Medico-legal services
- Academic institutions
Throughout training, forensic psychologists tend to find areas that they enjoy and want to develop post-qualification. Some may find that they love assessment work, and so go in to private practice completing assessments for the courts. Others find that they value delivering therapies, and go on to complete specialist training (and even chartership) and practice as private therapists or in hospitals and the NHS. Some of our graduates (including our very own Kate and Lydia) have taken on academic posts to allow them to continue to develop research and teaching skills in addition to applied practice. It can be a very varied profession!
People do not generally get into psychology for the money, but being a trainee can be a substantial financial commitment among other things, and you need to know if it is going to be worth it in terms of career progression. At the time of writing, a newly qualified psychologist in the NHS would have a starting salary of £33,222, with good opportunities for progression over the first five years of qualification. A similar role in HM prison service would be paid approximate £35,000 per year. Working for private companies can pay substantially more, although may not have such favourable arrangements for things like pension and sick pay.
I can say with absolute honesty that qualifying as a forensic psychologist has changed my life and has given me a vocation as well as a job. While there are substantial challenges, my work is varied, interesting and rewarding. If it is something you are considering, I would strongly advise you find out more!