Forensic psychology can be challenging but if you're resilient and willing to help and understand offenders, it could be your ideal career

Your work as a forensic psychologist will mainly relate to the assessment and treatment of criminal behaviour. You'll work not only with prisoners and offenders, but with other professionals involved in the judicial and penal systems as well as with victims of crime.

While you will be involved in criminal profiling, your role will stretch far beyond this. You'll be heavily involved in providing research-based evidence to develop policy and working practices, as well as give evidence in court and advise parole boards and mental health tribunals. Your work will help to rehabilitate prisoners and you'll have the chance to support and train other staff.

Responsibilities

As a forensic psychologist, you'll need to:

  • carry out one-to-one assessments, often to assess the risk of re-offending (e.g. for lifers being released into the community or sex offenders after a treatment programme), suicide, self-harm or other high-risk behaviour
  • develop, implement and review appropriate offender treatment and rehabilitation programmes, including anger management, treatment for drug and alcohol addiction and social and cognitive skills training
  • undertake research projects to evaluate situations affecting prisoners, e.g. investigating the impact of bullying in prisons or effectiveness of an anger management programme
  • undertake statistical analysis for forensic offender profiling
  • deliver training to support forensic staff in areas such as stress management, or training on how to cope with understanding bullying and techniques for crisis (hostage) negotiation
  • provide expert witness testimony at court, for parole boards and mental health tribunals
  • contribute to policy and strategy development to ensure continuous service improvement.

You may also need to:

  • work with victims of crime and the general public in relation to their fear around crime
  • conduct applied research
  • design and deliver training
  • provide organisational consultancy.

Salary

  • Trainee forensic psychologists working for HM Prison Service (HMPS) can be paid a starting salary of between £26,438 and £29,957, depending on the location. Within five years, it's possible to earn up to £33,718.
  • Fully-qualified, registered psychologists within HMPS earn between £34,897 and £50,587, while senior registered psychologists can earn between £40,690 and £52,789. At the highest levels, your salary can be between £52,120 and £81,838.
  • Salaries for forensic psychologists within the NHS are at a similar level. Those in training are on Band 6 of the Agenda for Change (AfC) pay scale and earn £28,050 to £36,644, while fully-qualified psychologists (Band 7) earn between £33,222 and £43,041. With higher levels of experience, salaries of more than £49,969 can be reached.

Salaries in other areas of work may vary. Additional benefits may include a competitive pension, childcare vouchers, cycle to work scheme and travel loans.

Income data from HM Prison and Probation Service (HMPPS) and Health Careers. Figures are intended as a guide only.

Working hours

As a forensic psychologist you'll usually work a 37-hour week, 9am to 5.30pm from Monday to Friday, although there may be some flexibility required.

Job-share and part-time working options are possible and you may be able to take a career break depending on the employer. With experience, and if you'd like to progress with consultancy, it might be possible to become self-employed or carry out freelance work.

What to expect

  • This can be a challenging job as you'll be working in situations with prisoners or ex-offenders who may not want to be helped. There may be some personal risk and you'll need to be resilient.
  • Working environments vary. In prisons, for example, you'll need to acclimatise to noise and lock-up procedures. Category A institutions impose camera observation and entry searches, as can other forensic settings.
  • You may work in one location or across a number of sites, including prisons, secure hospitals, rehabilitation units and police stations. You may also have to travel to court to provide expert witness testimony.
  • Jobs are available across the UK. Some locations are difficult to access without your own transport.
  • You need to be prepared to work with a range of offenders including young people, violent or sexual offenders, and offenders with severe personality disorders. You'll also work closely with other staff groups, including prison officers, psychiatrists and senior managers.

Qualifications

To practise as a forensic psychologist in the UK you must be registered with the Health & Care Professions Council (HCPC), which involves training at postgraduate level.

To become a chartered forensic psychologist, you'll need:

  • Graduate Basis for Chartered Membership (GBC) - which you can get by completing a British Psychological Society (BPS)-accredited psychology degree, or an accredited postgraduate conversion course if your first degree is not BPS-accredited
  • a BPS-accredited Masters in Forensic Psychology - which may be available on a part-time or distance-learning basis
  • Stage 2 of the BPS Qualification in Forensic Psychology - QFP (Stage 2) - which involves a minimum of two years' supervised practice that requires you to provide evidence of applying psychology in forensic practice. It's possible to complete this stage while working as a trainee forensic psychologist.

Some universities offer a Doctorate programme in forensic psychology, which is the equivalent of both an accredited Masters in Forensic Psychology and the QFP (Stage 2). For a list of all accredited courses, see BPS Accredited Psychology Courses.

On successful completion of either the QFP (Stage 2) or the Doctorate in Forensic Psychology, you're entitled to chartered status and full membership of the BPS Division of Forensic Psychology. You'll also be eligible for entry onto the HCPC register, which entitles you to use the title 'forensic psychologist'. Find out more about HCPC registration.

Entry without a degree may be possible at assistant level or as an interventions facilitator working for HMPS, but your progression will be limited unless you carry out further study to achieve GBC.

Skills

You'll need to show:

  • communication and listening skills in order to establish a relationship with the offender community and build trust
  • a systematic approach to work
  • teamworking and leadership skills
  • motivation and commitment
  • problem-solving ability and decision-making skills
  • planning and research skills
  • the ability to analyse and present statistical information
  • self-awareness and a high level of security awareness
  • a non-discriminatory, non-judgemental approach
  • resilience and the capacity to cope with an element of personal risk.

Work experience

Competition is fierce for both BPS-accredited Masters degrees and entry-level forensic psychologist jobs. To succeed in both, it's crucial that you build up as much work experience as possible. This can be either paid or voluntary. You'll have an advantage if you can show course tutors that you have mentored young offenders or done voluntary work with organisations such as the Witness Service or Victim Support.

Preference for jobs is usually given to those with experience of working in a forensic setting. This may include work within prisons, probation services or social services, or as a psychological assistant or operational support grade.

You may also get valuable experience in a range of settings such as:

  • bail hostels and refuges
  • drug or alcohol treatment centres
  • secure hospitals and rehabilitation units
  • young people's services, such as a regional youth offending service.

Employers

The main employer of forensic psychologists is HMPS, which is an executive agency, sponsored by HMPPS. However, there are also opportunities in the broader criminal justice field and you may be employed by:

  • the Home Office
  • the NHS - in special hospitals and rehabilitation units, local forensic services and secure hospitals
  • the police
  • social services
  • universities - in research and lecturing roles.

There may also be opportunities for experienced forensic psychologists to work in private consultancy.

Look for job vacancies at:

Professional development

Once you've qualified as a forensic psychologist, you must carry out continuing professional development (CPD) in order to stay registered with the HCPC. CPD helps to keep your skills and knowledge up to date and relevant activities can include:

  • work-based learning, such as the maintenance of a log of cases
  • professional activity, e.g. mentoring, teaching or involvement in a professional body such as BPS
  • attending appropriate courses, provided by organisations such as BPS
  • self-directed learning, through reading literature and professional journals.

You must keep a record of all CPD activities and be able to provide a written profile, which explains how you've met the standards for CPD if requested. Find out more at HCPC Continuing professional development.

You may be encouraged by your employer to develop skills in teaching, training or supervising others and will receive regular clinical and professional supervision from experienced colleagues. It's possible to carry out further research at PhD level or to specialise in a particular area of forensic psychology, e.g. the assessment and treatment of sexual offenders.

Career prospects

Progression within HM Prison Service is based on ability and experience. More opportunities may be available if you're willing to relocate. As a qualified psychologist you'll be able to progress into a number of roles, including developing policy, management or delivery of services.

With experience you may be appointed to a senior psychologist post, for example, in the management of a sex offender treatment programme, or to a principal/lead level, with overall responsibility for the management and delivery of offending behaviour programmes. Regional leads will oversee teams and will collaborate with prison directors and other senior stakeholders.

There are also opportunities to move sideways to other employers, for example, from the prison service to the NHS. There are a range of job opportunities in the NHS, including treatment leads for therapy initiatives and supporting the forensic wards. You can also progress to very senior management levels, such as head of services.

Freelance work and self-employment is sometimes possible. For example, you could move into consultancy in a forensic context.