I do a fair share of speaking with high school students about jobs in forensic psychology and I still find that many have the mindset that it is a well paying career, no matter what you end up doing in the field. And why should they think any different? If you are a psychologist and go to 10 years of school, you are a doctor and doctors get compensated well, right? Not exactly and definitely not right away.
Fortunately most students or early career psychologists with whom I speak are primarily motivated by the need to have an interesting, fulfilling career in which they can help others and make a difference in the world. But let’s face it compensation is, and should be, important as well.
Specifically in the field of forensic psychology, the highest paying jobs are going to be in private practice or government work.
Private practice allows you to hustle as much as you want to take on private paying clients and/ or conduct evaluations for clients or the courts that usually take a lot of time and effort and therefore are compensated well. However (of course there is a however), you have to put in the work in the specific area you are practicing in order for attorneys, courts, or other psychologists to recognize you as someone to refer potential clients to. This is slow going and will rely on your networking skills and continued education in the concentrated area. Take into consideration that private practice comes with many expenses as well: office space, insurance, and paying into your own benefits.
As for government work, many psychologists love this option because it usually offers security and excellent benefits as well as opportunities to have your student loans paid off or at least forgiven after a set number of years. Government jobs may mean you are working in a prison, state hospital or in the community as part of some other entity like parole or probation departments. The biggest complaints from my friends that have taken these types of jobs have been that more seasoned government workers tend to do little work, leaving the new, eager psychologist feeling like he or she is pulling all of the weight. Also, the trend in recent years for some California departments has been to lay people off or shuffle them to other jobs when the state is in financial troubles or to give the psychologists’ jobs to other mental health professionals who cost less to compensate.
Of course, the reality is that you will need to take into consideration your individual needs when considering future careers. What do you need to live within your means? How much student loan debt do you have? What is your end goal? The lovely thing about forensic psychology is that you can do many things at once. This is what I found myself doing at first; I worked for a clinic in the community (a private company that contracted with probation and parole), taught graduate school, and conducted trainings for law enforcement. After licensure, I continued in the clinic and began a small private practice working specifically with individuals going to prison. After starting my professional life in government (law enforcement), I now find myself working as a psychologist for a city and I am very happy to be back in a secure position where I get to conduct clinical services, conduct training, and participate in criminal case consultation. It’s really the compilation of lots of hard work, sacrifice, and patience.
Sometimes I think about how I might be making more money if I stayed in law enforcement and didn’t rack up student loan debt. But that pay would be nothing in comparison to my current quality of life and happiness with where I am now.