How to become a forensic psychiatrist (plus key skills)

Updated 28 April 2023

You might want to become a forensic psychiatrist if you're interested in a job that combines parts of medicine and law enforcement. Because this job is so important, there are a lot of qualifications and requirements before you can start. As a forensic psychiatrist, it's your job to take care of the minds of some of the most vulnerable people in society, so it's important to be ready for that. In this article, we discuss what a forensic psychiatrist is, what they do, how to become a forensic psychiatrist and the skills you can work on to prepare for a role in forensic psychiatry.

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What is a forensic psychiatrist?

Forensic psychiatrists are medical professionals who focus on examining the mental health of patients involved in crime and those who demonstrate criminal behaviour. They assess patients' mental health, diagnose and treat them and generate reports for law enforcement officials and lawyers involved in their cases.

They may also give evidence in court regarding how a patient's mental illness influences their criminal behaviour. In ensuring public safety, forensic psychiatrists may evaluate if a defendant is mentally fit to attend court or request that the court detains the patient until their trial.

Related: Types of psychiatrists and how to choose a specialist area

How to become a forensic psychiatrist

Learning how to become a forensic psychiatrist is more difficult than in many other professions. Medical professions traditionally have a higher barrier to admission, although psychologists play a significant role in the mental health of their patients. Employers go to great lengths to ensure that every potential employee is the right fit for the position. Here are some steps to show you how to become a forensic psychiatrist:

1. Go to medical school

A key requirement for becoming a forensic psychiatrist is going to medical school and getting a degree in medicine. This typically takes five years to complete if you have the necessary school-level qualifications, or six years without them when you take a pre-medical foundation year. Alternatively, those with an existing degree in a science subject can take a four-year graduate route into medicine.

Part of the application for this often includes taking the University Clinical Aptitude Test (UCAT) or BioMedical Admissions Test (BMAT), which assess your competency for medical roles through a demonstration of key skills like problem solving and critical thinking. The entry requirements for a degree in medicine typically include at least three A-levels with good grades, usually including biology and chemistry.

Related:What is a degree in psychology? (Plus skills and careers)

2. Complete a foundation programme

The next step toward becoming a forensic psychiatrist is a foundation programme. This usually takes two years to complete and you can receive pay during this time, as it involves numerous work placements in various settings as a newly-qualified doctor. These programmes allow you to learn how to provide effective and safe care, in addition to meeting the standards of the General Medical Council (GMC).

Related: What is a forensic psychology degree? (Plus career options)

3. Seek specialty training

After you’ve completed your two-year foundation programme, you can specialise in forensic psychiatry. This involves specialty training, which typically takes six years to complete full-time. You may encounter opportunities to study or specialise in particular sub-fields within forensic psychiatry, such as adolescent forensic psychiatry, forensic psychotherapy and forensic learning disability psychiatry.

Related: How to become a doctor in the UK

4. Join an association

Joining a professional association, such as Psychiatry UK or the Royal College of Psychiatrists, during your training and specialisation can be an excellent idea. These organisations can enable you to seek help from experts in the field and gain access to a variety of resources not available to individuals outside of the organisation. In addition to the available resources, you can develop a strong network of contacts.

Knowing people in high-level jobs in the sector through online forums or in-person conferences can help you gain insight into available roles. It can also be a good idea to follow or contribute to specialist organisations like the Forensic Psychiatry Research Society (FPRS) to advance your career.

5. Get a licence

Just like all medical doctors, forensic psychiatrists require a licence to practice medicine. They pass an exam and gain real-world experience working with patients before they can acquire this licence. In most cases, you can attain this experience while still in education and while training. The body which registers forensic psychiatrists and issues their licences is the General Medical Council (GMC).

There are also a variety of additional qualifications that you might pursue. These aren't always required, but they can demonstrate a higher level of competence in the role. These certifications can also serve as evidence of your commitment to the field of psychiatry, given the difficulty in obtaining them based on your chosen specialisation.

Related: How long does it take to become a psychiatrist? (A guide)

What does a forensic psychiatrist do?

Depending on where their patients are in the criminal justice process, a forensic psychiatrist may practice in dedicated offices, prisons or in courtrooms. Forensic psychiatrists often begin treating patients after they commit a crime and the police have identified their involvement. They can also work with victims and others who were involved in a crime. Once they have gathered information by observing the patient, the forensic psychiatrist uses the information they collect to diagnose and treat them and determine how their mental health may have contributed to the crime or how a crime affected their mental health.

Based on their evaluation of the patient, the forensic psychiatrist then provides their recommendations for treatment. A forensic psychiatrist might work as part of a forensic mental health team. They can also assess the risk of harm for those who are vulnerable and provide advice on dealing with violent behaviours. These psychiatrists can also give their opinion on the fitness of certain individuals to give evidence in court or stand trial.

Related: What is a psychiatrist?

How much does a forensic psychiatrist earn?

The national average salary of a forensic psychiatrist is £86,179 per year. Salaries can vary according to your experience, education and the area in which you live. Cities with a higher cost of living tend to offer higher salaries to compensate for costs like rent, bills and transport.

Related:Careers in forensic psychology (with duties and salary)

What skills do I need to become a forensic psychiatrist?

Forensic psychiatrists have a set of skills that allow them to analyse patients and come to sound judgments. Forensic psychiatrists employ a variety of skills to be successful in their work, including:

  • Problem-solving skills: Forensic psychiatrists generally have strong problem-solving abilities because much of their work involves conducting tests and examinations to determine the causes or consequences of mental health issues. As a forensic psychiatrist, you can also use your problem-solving abilities to identify the most effective resources and methods to help enforcement officers find solutions to crimes.

  • Communication skills: Forensic psychiatrists frequently explain their findings to non-experts, such as the patient's family members, government officials or law enforcement. You require good writing and speaking skills to convey this knowledge effectively.

  • Listening skills: A forensic psychiatrist pays attention to what their patient says while also keeping in mind and analysing the patient's communication style to make an accurate evaluation. Sometimes, because physical symptoms are infrequent, the only information they can use relates to what the patient says and how they act.

  • Emotional resilience: The majority of a forensic psychiatrist's work involves working with criminals, their victims and individuals who might pose a risk to others or themselves. Maintaining emotional resilience to get through scenes that could otherwise be upsetting is essential.

  • Empathy: Obtaining information from a patient often necessitates building rapport with them, as patients who trust their forensic psychiatrist are more likely to divulge relevant information. Empathy, conflict resolution and negotiation are all abilities that forensic psychiatrists can use to promote trust toward their patients.

  • Attention to detail: Forensic psychiatrists pay close attention to the smallest of details and have a keen eye for observation. Investigative and analytical work is easier when you have this competence.

  • Observational skills: While some patients find it easy to speak to forensic psychiatrists, others may struggle to do so because of their mental health issues. A forensic psychiatrist monitors the behaviour traits of their patient to obtain insight and examine how the patient interacts with others to understand their cognitive abilities.

Salary figures reflect data listed on the quoted websites at the time of writing. Salaries‌ ‌may‌ ‌‌vary‌‌ ‌depending‌ ‌on‌ ‌the‌ ‌hiring‌ ‌organisation‌ ‌and‌ ‌a‌ ‌candidate's ‌experience,‌ ‌academic‌ background‌ ‌and‌ ‌location.

Please note that none of the companies, institutions or organisations mentioned in this article are affiliated with Indeed.

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