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How to Become a Forensic Counselor: Step-by-Step Career Guide

Learn how to become a forensic counselor. Research the job description and the education and licensing requirements and find out how to start a career in the mental health field.

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Do I Want to Be a Forensic Counselor?

Also known as forensic psychologists, these professionals often work with patients who are inmates at correctional facilities or former inmates currently on probation. They analyze their patients and report their findings to members of the criminal justice system. They might conduct individual and group therapy sessions, document patient behavior and make recommendations on further patient treatments. Additional stress may occur when these professionals are required to appear in court to testify about the mental health status of patients on trial.

Job Requirements

Some employers preferred job applicants who hold master's degrees and have related experience, whereas other employers want applicants who hold doctorate degrees and are licensed psychologists. Forensic psychologists who work in clinical settings are often required to have doctorate degrees, but this varies by employer.

The following table shows basic career qualifications for forensic counselors:

Common Requirements
Degree Level Master's degree** or doctoral degree*
Degree Field Forensic counseling** or psychology*
Licensure and/or Certification State mental health practitioner license required, additional industry certifications recommended*
Experience 2-3 years' experience providing therapy and treatment to forensic populations, mentally ill patients, patients with drug addictions and/or at-risk families**
Key Skills Capable of collecting information efficiently, able to review information objectively, comfortable working with the mentally ill, knowledge of the criminal justice system, able to communicate with people from various backgrounds, possess problem-solving skills, capable of keeping information confidential* and possess knowledge of clinical counseling techniques**
Additional Requirements Able to sit and stand for extended periods, comfortable working odd hours, willing to travel, possess state driver's license (if required) and comfortable making in-home visits to patients**

Sources: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), ** CareerBuilder.com September 2012 job postings.

Step 1: Earn a Bachelor's Degree

Although forensic counselors usually require graduate degrees to find employment, most graduate degree programs only accept students who already hold bachelor's degrees. Not all schools require students to hold bachelor's degrees in related fields, per the BLS. However, many graduate programs often prefer students to complete some prerequisite coursework related to psychology or counseling.

Bachelor's degree programs that potentially prepare students for further graduate studies may include counseling, behavioral sciences or psychology. Common coursework in psychology degree programs may include social psychology, abnormal psychology, personality studies, cognitive psychology, clinical counseling methodology, life span development and psychology research methods. Most programs require students to complete internships either in the field at counseling centers or through participating in psychology-related research projects.

Success Tip:

  • Participate in forensic internships. At the bachelor's degree level, students may not have access to psychology internships at correctional facilities. Nevertheless, students may find internships through other forensic institutions, including drug abuse rehabilitation centers and parolee mental health hospitals.

Step 2: Earn the Necessary Graduate Degree

The BLS implied that forensic psychologists need doctoral degrees to find employment; however, job postings listed on CareerBuilder.com in September 2012 indicated that many employers require forensic counselors to hold the minimum of a master's degree. In choosing degree programs, individuals should consider licensing requirements. For example, in most states, licensed psychologists are often required to have more education than licensed mental health counselors.

Master's degree programs in forensic psychology can often be completed in two years. Doctoral degree programs take 5-6 years. Students have to complete several clinical internships for both degree programs. Students in doctoral degree programs also have to write dissertations. Common graduate-level courses in forensic and clinical psychology may include mental health law, roles of forensic psychologists, addiction disorders, personality assessment, adult psychopathology, forensic assessment, group treatment and clinical interviewing tactics.

Step 3: Build Experience

After completing graduate school, individuals have to complete a certain amount of supervised experience to be eligible for state licensure. Every state has different experience requirements. For example, New York requires mental health counseling license applicants to accrue a minimum of 3000 hours, and applicants must accrue this experience after graduating from master's degree programs. Some states may require professionals to register with the state prior to accruing supervised experience hours. State registration allows officials to verify that each applicant has completed the appropriate number of hours and any additional coursework.

Step 4: Become Licensed

Upon completion of supervised experience hours, professionals are usually eligible to become licensed. The licensure process involves passing state exams. Some states have one exam for all mental health counselors, whereas other states have specific exams for each different type of counselor or psychologist. Several states use nationally recognized exams instead of state exams. Hawaii, for example, uses the National Certified Counselor Exam offered by the National Board of Certified Counselors (NBCC).

Professionals who pass state exams, submit paperwork and pay appropriate fees will be awarded state licenses. Some states have reciprocity laws, which mean that a professional licensed out of state may be eligible to work in the state. In states that do not have reciprocity laws, professional forensic counselors may have to acquire additional licenses, especially if they work in multiple states.

Step 5: Find Employment

Forensic counselors can work in a multitude of settings, including county jails, federal prisons, drug abuse recovery centers, mental health facilities and parolee counseling centers. From 2010-2020, the BLS predicted that open positions for psychologists and other related career fields would increase by 22%. The BLS indicated that recent trends of overcrowded prisons have led to a higher population of inmates being released on parole. A larger number of parolees being released could mean more job opportunities for forensic counselors.

Step 6: Earn Industry Certifications

The majority of industry certifications are not required, per the BLS, but forensic counselors may wish to obtain certifications to prove their level of skills. Forensic counselors deal mainly with patients who are inmates or former inmates, but these patients may be struggling with several kinds of problems, including drug addiction, relationship problems, family stress, psychological disorders or violent tendencies. Forensic counselors can gain certifications in many of these specific areas. For instance, the NBCC offers the Master Addiction Counselor (MAC) designation as well as the Certified Clinical Mental Health Counselor (CCMHC) designation.

For most organizations, the certification process involves first meeting eligibility requirements, which may include having the appropriate academic degrees and years of clinical experience. After meeting these requirements, individuals are eligible to take certification exams. Some organizations may require people to become organization members prior to taking certification exams. Those who pass exams are recognized as certified.

Step 7: Renew Licenses and Certifications

Forensic counselors have to renew their state licenses and industry certifications every few years. Renewal requirements for licenses and certifications are often similar. For example, in many states, licensed counselors and psychologists have to complete continuing education coursework related to their field of practice as part of the license renewal process. Most organizations that offer certifications also have this continuing education requirement. Other common renewal requirements for licenses and certifications include submitting the appropriate paperwork and paying renewal fees.

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