Although many people associate popular TV shows such as Criminal Minds or Law and Order as an example of what it's like to become a Forensic Psychiatrist, the reality is that this career path is not as glamorous as Hollywood might portray. Forensic Psychiatry is an art form; filled by hard working and passionate individuals that strive for discovery of the truth in solving complex problems. And for those that choose to embark on the journey of learning how to become a Forensic Psychiatrist – following a structured educational and career path can yield in a very lucrative and rewarding vocation.
What is a Forensic Psychiatrist?
Forensic psychiatrists are the physicians and medical experts that society turns to for aid in navigating the complex waters that link medicine, mental health and the law. Typically forensic psychiatrists are consulted for evaluations regarding inmates or defendants and their mental health. The US National Library of Medicine (USLM) National Institutes of Health (NIH) explains defendants or inmates in the legal system may need to be evaluated for whether they are:
This responsibility falls on Forensic Psychiatrists. A forensic evaluation completed by a Forensic Psychiatrist will generally contain:
Other evaluations commonly performed by forensic psychiatrists in criminal, civil, employment or insurance-related situations include assessments in cases of custody, child abuse, whether one is fit for duty, if an individual can face capital punishment, risk assessment, disability, competency to enter a contract and more.
Understanding the Educational Path to Become a Forensic Psychiatrist
A medical doctorate degree and specialized fellowship are the educational requirements in order to become a Forensic Psychiatrist. However, the educational path begins by receiving a Bachelor's Degree from an accredited college or university. Forensic Psychiatry is a very complex field of study; as such, a successful candidate for this profession will possess exceptionally strong skills in the math and science, written and verbal communications.
Strong interpersonal skills, an understanding of emotions and specialized training in the social, psychological and medical aspects of the human mind are also requirements for becoming a successful Forensic Psychiatrist. This skill set is often the focus of core educational course study while in college.
Additionally, since a Forensic Psychiatrist needs to develop an expertise in treatment options, theories of therapy and the prescription/administration of medications, course study in psychology, medical science, law and physical sciences is also recommended for primary education.
Educational Path of a Forensic Psychiatrist
Earn a bachelor's degree.
A bachelor’s degree is the first higher-education step toward becoming a Forensic Psychiatrist. Although Forensic Psychiatrists complete a broad range of undergraduate majors, students should complete the courses the American Association of Medical Colleges found most medical schools require as prerequisites: biology, physics, and chemistry, along with written and oral communication course study.
During their undergraduate degree, students wanting to gain an edge in the competitive medical school application pool would benefit from taking career and advanced education oriented steps like joining pre-medical organizations, completing community service at mental health centers, shadowing physicians and studying for the MCAT (Medical College Admissions Test). Before graduating, a candidate should apply to medical school. Medical school is a four-year process, leading to an advanced degree in the medical field, either a M.D. or D.O.
Complete a medical school program
During medical school, future Forensic Psychiatrists will spend their first year primarily in the classroom absorbing knowledge in areas like anatomy, histology, pathology, biochemistry, psychology, ethics and preparing for Objective Structured Clinical Exams. The second year, while still in the classroom, is more clinically focused. Third and fourth year students move into clinical rotations and are exposed to a wide range of potential specializations, including psychiatry.
Complete Residency in Forensic Psychiatry
Following medical school, graduates pursuing psychiatry should elect to complete their four-year residency in the specialty. Psychiatry residents need to complete 36 months of additional training after the first year of general residency, as required by the American Psychiatric Association. These three years focus on specific training areas, such as psychopharmacology, substance abuse and cognitive behavioral therapy.
Complete a Fellowship in Forensic Psychiatry
A one-year, post-residency fellowship in the subspecialty of Forensic Psychiatry is crucial for doctors aiming to enter the field. When searching for a fellowship, physicians should ensure the program they are pursuing is certified by the American Board of Psychiatry and Neurology and will both qualify and prepare them to sit for the subspecialty examination. Solid fellowships will include instruction and experience in court-based evaluation, testimony, correctional treatment setting and report writing (New York University 2015).
Pass Sub Specialty Exam in Forensic Psychiatry
Upon successful completion of a Forensic Psychiatry fellowship, all psychiatrists must submit an application for examination. Once reviewed by the American Board of Psychiatry and Neurology credentials department, candidates are permitted to take the exam. After passing the exam, candidates become diplomats and start the “Maintenance of Certification” process, adhering to the Board's requirements for continued education.
Understanding the Career Path of Becoming a Forensic Psychiatrist
Job opportunities for Forensic Psychiatrists often straddle the line between the public and private sectors. While many Forensic Psychiatrists are sought out for evaluations by public institutions, such as courts, prisons or hospitals, they enter in as private consultants. When consulting with an insurance company, which is also common, Forensic Psychiatrists enter a private industry as a private consultant. As a result of a need for objectivity, Forensic Psychiatrists are typically not directly employed by public entities or other groups for which they consult.
Forensic psychiatrists may also run part or full-time clinical practices, teach courses to future doctors, the local community or physicians in other specialties, present research at conferences, write case studies and/or books, consult with the military and serve as evaluators for professional societies and boards.
Forensic Psychiatrists looking to grow or advance in the field would benefit from involvement in niche professional groups, which can be used as a means for networking, community service, think tanks, research, continued education and specialized learning. Successful candidates should consider joining the following professional organizations:
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics does not track income for the Forensic Psychiatry specialty. However, the mean annual wage for psychiatrists is $182,660. As an entire profession, psychiatry is expected to grow 16 percent between 2012 and 2022.
While general psychiatrists may be paid by the hour or receive a salary, Forensic Psychiatrists are paid hourly. They typically make between $250 and $800 each hour, and most within the range of $300-$500 per hour (Reid Psychiatry 2015).
According to research by AMN Healthcare company Merritt Hawkins, psychiatry is one of the most in demand medical professions. The subspecialty of Forensic Psychiatry is also rapidly growing. The National Library of Medicine attributes this growth to a number of factors; the increased understanding and appreciation of the relationship between mental health and criminal action, the improvement of tests used to define legal insanity, new treatment methods for mental disorders, and a change in the overall public perception in regards to mental illness.