Forensic Psychology vs. Clinical Psychology

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For as long as humans have been self-aware, we’ve been curious about what makes us tick. Today, psychology has grown into a field of more than 150,000 practicing psychologists in the United States alone and thousands more who apply tenets of psychology to their daily work in other professions. Millions of Americans go to psychologists for clinical therapy, relying on their expertise to help them better navigate their lives and the world around them, but the applications of psychology are broad. Graduates with a bachelor’s degree in psychology go on to apply their research, critical thinking, and communication skills in marketing, social services, human relations, and corrections.

A clinical psychologist working with a couple.

While the majority of psychology students in the U.S. study clinical psychology, there are subfields and specializations. One such field is forensic psychology, which combines psychology and the legal system. Forensic psychology and clinical psychology graduates both work in fields that typically require years of education and job training — though entry-level jobs do exist. In fact, according to the American Psychological Association, 57% of all students with a bachelor’s degree in psychology enter the workforce upon graduation. While both forensic and clinical psychology graduates possess a deep understanding of human psychology, they have distinct ways of approaching mental health, often work in different environments, and receive different on-the-job training.

Forensic Psychology Overview

Forensic psychology focuses on psychology as it relates to the criminal justice system. Those who work in this field help law enforcement officials, judges, lawyers, and social workers, for example, in capacities such as advocating for victims of crime, conducting mental health evaluations for potential jurors, and assisting with research. Forensic psychology graduates may work as victim advocates, who offer emotional support to victims of crime, connect them to resources, and help them navigate the legal system. They may also work as parole officers or in corrections or social service, applying their knowledge of mental health law, courtroom procedures, and sensitivity to cultural issues to benefit their clients and community.

Those who wish to work as forensic psychologists will need to earn a Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) or Doctor of Psychology (PsyD), followed by on-the-job training. However, following an undergraduate degree, such as Maryville University’s online Bachelor of Arts in Forensic Psychology, there are many entry-level career options. A forensic psychology bachelor’s degree incorporates courses in psychology and criminal justice, giving graduates an understanding of both sides of the career. With this degree, graduates are well equipped to step into jobs as victim advocates, corrections specialists, or probation officers.

Forensic Psychology Job Outlook

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reported that, as of 2018, there were 166,600 psychologists in the country. The BLS does not keep specific data for forensic psychologists, but as of 2016, there were 8,200 psychologists working for the government outside of education and hospitals, including 4,800 working for state governments and 3,300 for the federal government. The BLS projects the government will employ 8,600 psychologists by 2026, a 5% increase. Jobs such as probation and correctional treatment specialists are seeing steady growth (at 6% according to the BLS), while jobs in social and human service assistance, which includes titles like victim advocate, are growing well above average at 16%.

Clinical Psychology Overview

According to the American Psychological Association, clinical psychology involves providing ongoing and in-depth mental health care for patients. Clinical psychologists integrate theory and clinical knowledge to prevent, diagnose, and treat mental illness. They serve their clients; train, educate, and supervise new psychologists; and conduct research. Beyond the formal role of clinical psychologist, graduates with a clinical psychology degree may choose to work in social services, marketing, education (perhaps as a financial aid advisor or career counselor), or in human resources. In any of these professions, graduates use research, communication, and teamwork skills, as well as knowledge of human behavior, in their work.

While all clinical psychologists need to earn a doctorate to practice, an undergraduate degree in psychology offers great opportunities whether students go on to earn graduate degrees or enter the workforce. Maryville University’s online Bachelor of Arts in Psychology includes courses on abnormal psychology, social psychology, human cognition, and research, as well as a two-semester senior project. It’s the perfect launching pad for future study and creates a solid foundation for entry-level work in a variety of fields.

Clinical Psychology Job Outlook

In 2016, there were 147,500 psychologists in the “clinical, counseling, and other school psychologists” category, according to the BLS. The median annual salary for psychologists in that category was $76,990, as of May 2018. The BLS projects the field for clinical psychologists will add 21,100 jobs between 2016 and 2026, which represents a 14% growth rate — double the national average of all jobs during that span. In addition, graduates may pursue work as counselors, such as substance abuse, behavioral disorder, and mental health counselors — professions the BLS projects to be climbing at a rate of 23% over the same 10-year period between 2016 and 2026. Human resource specialists, another viable entry-level job for many clinical psychology graduates, are growing at a steady rate of 7%.

Similarities Between Forensic Psychology and Clinical Psychology

Forensic psychology is a subset of clinical psychology. Both forensic psychology and clinical psychology require a deep understanding of how the human brain works. Clinical and forensic psychology graduates have in-depth knowledge of mental health challenges, their causes and treatments, and more. These skills can serve professionals in a wide array of fields. Those who go on to become practicing psychologists can learn, through advanced degree work and hands-on experience, how to diagnose patients.

Differences Between Forensic Psychology and Clinical Psychology

Despite their similarities, forensic psychology and clinical psychology differ in their objectives, work environments, and career paths.

Job Purpose

Clinical psychology’s approach is therapeutic, focused on diagnosing and treating mental health challenges by working with patients in one-on-one or group sessions. For those with a bachelor’s degree, the work may involve supporting licensed psychologists, working in community centers, or entering education. Clinical psychologists can expect to spend sessions with patients, discussing the issues they are facing and developing strategies to help them improve their well-being and mental health.

Forensic psychology’s approach, on the other hand, is medico-legal, seeking to apply the principles of psychology to criminal justice. For those with a bachelor’s degree, this may mean assisting with documentation leading up to trial, helping support crime victims, or helping those involved in a criminal act to navigate the legal system. Aspiring forensic psychologists who earn a PhD and licensure are responsible for determining an individual’s mental fitness from a legal perspective. While patients seek out private practice clinical psychologists for help, state or government bodies hire forensic psychologists to evaluate people or families. Their findings may come to light in court or affect sentencing at trial.

Work Environment

Clinical psychology professionals may work in community centers, schools, private offices, or businesses. Licensed clinical psychologists may operate out of private offices, which are sometimes located in their homes, or in a shared office setting with a group of other psychologists or therapists. Large corporations may keep clinical psychologists on call for employees who need therapy. Thanks to modern technology, some operate online through web-based therapy platforms or private video calls.

Forensic psychology professionals often find work in prisons, jailhouses, courthouses, law firms, and social services organizations. They may work for the government or private organizations involved in criminal justice. Licensed forensic psychologists may testify in court, providing their specific area of expertise for judges and juries to help them make legal determinations.

Professional Path

Upon graduation, those with undergraduate degrees in clinical psychology may begin their careers with entry-level work as psychiatric technicians, school counselors, or community service specialists. To become clinical psychologists, they must go on to earn at least a master’s degree, though most positions require a PhD. During their advanced studies, aspiring clinical psychologists see patients in supervised settings under the eye of experienced doctors. After completing their clinical training, they must become licensed, a process that varies from state to state.

After earning a bachelor’s degree, forensic psychology graduates typically step into very different entry-level positions. Postgraduate opportunities may include work in social service as a victim advocate or with some additional training, work in law enforcement or corrections, often as a probation or corrections officer. Aspiring forensic psychologists must also earn an advanced degree and become licensed in their states.

Forensic Psychology vs. Clinical Psychology: Which Is Right for You?

Jobs in forensic psychology and clinical psychology fields are challenging, but have a substantial impact on society. To decide which path best suits you, consider whether you prefer the more holistic study of mental health or its more specific application to crime and justice. In both cases, a bachelor’s degree can establish a strong foundation and lead to a rewarding career. See how Maryville University’s online Bachelor of Arts in Psychology and online Bachelor of Arts in Forensic Psychology can put you on the path toward a fascinating role exploring the human mind.

Sources
American Psychological Association, “A Career in Clinical or Counseling Psychology”
American Psychological Association, “What Can You Do With a Bachelor’s Degree in Psychology?
Like This Title, the Actual Answer Is Complicated”

Annenberg Learner, “History of Psychology”
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Maryville, Online Forensic Psychology Bachelor’s Degree
Maryville, Online Psychology Bachelor’s Degree
PayScale, Average Forensic Psychologist Salary
Pearson, “A Day in the Life of a Forensic Psychologist”
Psych Central, “How Forensic Psychology Began and Flourished”

Psychology Today, “Forensic Psychology: Is It the Career for Me?”
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Simply Psychology, “What Is Psychology?”
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U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Human Resources Specialists
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U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Psychologists