Forensic psychology can be challenging but if you are resilient and willing to help and understand offenders, it could be the career for you
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 also 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, and you'll give evidence in court and advise parole boards and mental health tribunals. Your work will help to rehabilitate prisoners and you'll get the chance to support and train other staff.
Types of forensic psychologist
You'll mainly work within HM Prison Service but may also find work in:
- higher education institutions;
- NHS and private hospitals;
- police service;
- probation services;
- social services.
The core part of working with offenders focuses on therapy in forensic settings where your tasks will involve:
- carrying 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) or of suicide, self-harm or other high-risk behaviour;
- developing, implementing and reviewing appropriate offender treatment and rehabilitation programmes, including anger management, treatment for drug and alcohol addiction, and social and cognitive skills training;
- undertaking research projects to evaluate situations affecting prisoners, e.g. investigating the impact of bullying in prisons or effectiveness of an anger management programme;
- undertaking statistical analysis for forensic client profiling;
- delivering 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;
- providing expert witness testimony at court, for parole boards and mental health tribunals;
- contributing to policy and strategy development to ensure continuous service improvement.
You may be involved in:
- working with victims of crime and the general public in relation to their fear around crime;
- conducting applied research;
- designing and delivering training;
- organisational consultancy.
- Trainee forensic psychologists in HM Prison Service start on salaries in the region of £24,000. As a new entrant you'd start at the bottom of this scale. An additional allowance may be payable for some locations depending on the category of prison.
- Fully-qualified, registered psychologists within the prison service earn between £30,000 and £45,000, while senior registered psychologists can earn up to £95,000 a year.
- 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 £26,302 to £35,225, while fully qualified psychologists (band 7) earn £31,383 to £41,373. With high levels of experience, salaries of more than £45,000 can be reached.
- Salaries in private healthcare vary depending on the organisation but newly qualified forensic psychologists may be offered up to £30,000 as a starting salary.
Additional benefits of working in the prison service and the NHS include competitive pensions, annual leave entitlement and good sickness support.
Income data from HM Prison Service (HMPS) and the National Health Service (NHS). Figures are intended as a guide only.
As a forensic psychologist you'll usually work a 37-hour week from 9am to 5.30pm, with some flexibility required. Evening and weekend work may occasionally be needed, for example if you're running groups at the weekend or in the evening.
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, it might be possible to become self-employed or carry out freelance work if you were to progress into consultancy.
What to expect
- This can be a stressful job as you'll be working in challenging 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.
- Jobs are available across the UK. Some locations are difficult to access without your own transport. Travel for work and nights away are occasionally needed. Overseas work or travel is uncommon.
To become a chartered forensic psychologist you will need:
- Graduate Basis for Chartered Membership (GBC), which you can get by completing a British Psychological Society (BPS) accredited degree or conversion course;
- 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, which involves a minimum of two years of 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, combining the Masters and supervised practice, which allows you to become a chartered member of the BPS. For a list of all accredited courses, see BPS Accredited Psychology Courses.
To be able to use the title 'forensic psychologist' you must register with the Health and Care Professions Council (HCPC). You need to successfully complete the BPS Qualification in Forensic Psychology (Stage 2) or an equivalent HCPC-approved qualification in order to be eligible for registration. Find out more about HCPC Registration.
To become a forensic psychologist you will need either an accredited psychology degree or, if your undergraduate degree is in a subject other than psychology, you will need to complete a postgraduate psychology conversion course. While you may be able to enter at an assistant level, your progression will be limited unless you carry out further study to achieve GBC.
Search for postgraduate courses in forensic psychology.
You will need to show:
- communication and listening skills;
- the ability to establish a relationship with the offender community;
- a systematic approach to work;
- teamworking and leadership skills;
- motivation and commitment;
- problem-solving ability and decision-making skills;
- planning and research skills and 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.
Competition is fierce for both 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. 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 will usually be given to those with experience of working in a forensic setting. This may include work within prisons, the probation service or social services, or as a psychological assistant or operational support grade (OSG).
You may also be able to gain 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.
Find out about potential work experience opportunities through:
You will work in the criminal and civil justice field, where the main employer of forensic psychologists is HM Prison Service. Other recruiters include:
- Home Office;
- NHS - in special hospitals and rehabilitation units, local forensic services and secure hospitals;
- private consultancy;
- Probation Service;
- social services;
- universities - in research and lecturing roles.
Look for job vacancies at:
- HM Prison Service
- NHS Jobs
- Northern Ireland Prison Service (NIPS)
- Psychologist Appointments
- Scottish Prison Service (SPS)
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 the BPS;
- attending appropriate courses provided by relevant organisations such as the BPS;
- self-directed learning through reading relevant 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.
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 further 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 level, with overall responsibility for the management and delivery of offending behaviour programmes.
There are also opportunities to move sideways to other employers, for example, from the prison service to the National Health Service (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. To succeed in this you need a lot of experience and skills in areas such as financial management, marketing and time management.