How Long Does It Take To Become A Forensic Psychiatrist?

The route to becoming a forensic psychiatrist in the United States is a long but rewarding pathway. Understanding how long does it take to become a forensic psychiatrist is one way to gauge whether or not this pathway is for you.

A forensic psychiatrist is trained in a specific branch of psychiatry related to criminology that interfaces between both the law and psychiatry. 


According to the American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law, it has an understood definition of a “sub-specialty of psychiatry in which scientific and clinic expertise is applied in legal contexts involving criminal, civil, correctional, legislative, or regulatory matters, and in specialized clinical consultations in areas such as employment or risk assessment.” 


A forensic psychiatrist must understand the relationship between criminality and mental illness, the defining nature of legal tests which conform to the definition of legal insanity, new understandings as it relates to the treatment of mental conditions, and changes in perception of mental illness among the population. 


A forensic psychiatrist will be in a position to provide a determination as to whether or not an individual is in a competent state of mind enough to stand trial in a court of law, helping to facilitate the adjudicative process. 


A forensic psychiatrist is also capable of providing treatment such as psychotherapy and medications to criminals. 


Term: Psychotherapy is a generic term for the treatment of mental health issues through conversation with a psychiatrist, psychologist, or other qualified mental health professional. It is otherwise known as talk therapy. 


So, how do you become a forensic psychiatrist? Individuals looking to achieve a career path toward forensic psychiatry must realize that it is a long but rewarding process. 


Why is it so long? This is because it requires the completion of medical school, a residency specialty of psychiatry after medical school, and then a fellowship in forensic psychiatry after residency. 


If you do not want to prescribe medication and be responsible for that side of the mental health equation, perhaps a path toward forensic psychology is more suitable. 


Step 1 – Individuals looking to pursue becoming a forensic psychiatrist should first go to college and earn a bachelor’s degree also known as an undergraduate degree. This degree can be in anything you like but may be more beneficial if it is in the biological science or chemical science areas like biology, chemistry, biochemistry. This can help with attaining the prerequisite classes required to go to medical school while also getting a degree. 


For example, if you pursued a degree in accounting although noble, you would still have to pursue the necessary medical prerequisites in order to gain entry to a U.S. based medical school. 


Step 2 – After having earned a bachelor’s degree in biology, chemistry, or biochemistry, it is likely you would have most if not all the medical prerequisites required for entry into medical school. If you choose another route such as accounting or foreign language for your bachelor’s degree, gaining the necessary prerequisites will be additional work. 


What are the prerequisites for medical school? 


In addition to a bachelor’s degree in a specific area, the following classes are most likely required before applying to any U.S. based medical school. 

  • General Biology I with Lab 
  • General Biology II with Lab
  • General Chemistry I with Lab
  • General Chemistry II with Lab
  • Organic Chemistry I with Lab
  • Organic Chemistry II with Lab
  • Algebra or Calculus based Physics I with Lab
  • Algebra or Calculus based Physics II with Lab 
  • Calculus (A few medical schools although not many require this course for admissions)
  • Biostatistics (Recommended) or Statistics 
  • English Composition I and II

Tip: Medical Schools enjoy seeing in-person labs done in coordination with the associated classes. Try to get all your classes, especially upper level ones like Bio II, Chem II, etc. as in-person labs. 


Tip: It is very important to do the best that you can with regard to these prerequisite classes. This means having a prerogative of achieving as high of a GPA as possible as it relates to each class. 


The higher the GPA of these classes combined with a good score on the MCAT will drastically increase your chances of acceptance into a U.S. based medical school. 


The distinction made between Algebra or Calculus based Physics is made as a personal choice. Very few medical schools required the upper level Calculus based Physics for admission. If you are seeking those specific schools, it may be worthwhile to do the harder course. People say that you really understand physics on an improved level when dealing with Calculus based mathematics but it is not necessarily required for medical school and/or taking the MCAT exam preceding medical school entry. The MCAT exam is a necessary exam administered before entry into medical school as explained in a subsequent step.  


Most recommend a statistics based math course usually in the form of bio-statistics although not always specifically required for admissions to every school. 


Step 3 – Once having earned a bachelor’s degree along with the prerequisites listed above, you would then proceed to taking the MCAT exam otherwise known as the Medical College Admission Test. This is developed and administered by the AAMC or Association of American Medical Colleges. It is a computerized exam that tests introductory level physics, psychology, biology, general chemistry, organic chemistry, and first-semester biochemistry. The exam is roughly 6 hours and 15 minutes. This comes out to 7 hours and 27 minutes when adding in breaks and extra sections. Needless to say, it is a monster of an exam!


Step 4 – Apply to and gain admissions to a U.S. based medical school through an application and then interview process detailing your bachelor’s degree, appropriate medical prerequisites taken, MCAT score, letters of recommendation, and other associated material.


Step 5 – Once in medical school, you will take a variety of courses experiencing a wide range of medical topics. This school lasts a total of four years. The first two years will typically be of an academic nature with instruction in both classroom and lab settings. With the goal in mind of becoming a forensic psychiatrist, it is imperative to put your sights during medical school on everything relevant to psychiatry as you learn. An example of this would be pursuing a clerkship rotation in psychiatry during the final two years of medical school. 


Tip: A clerkship is simply an opportunity for a medical student to put what has been learned into practice while being supervised by an attending physician. 


Tip: Aim to do your very best in medical school with regard to all academic instruction. This will help with your ability to attain the psychiatry residency slot.


Step 6 – After completing medical school, it is now time to pursue a residency slot in psychiatry. This is usually a period of four years for psychiatry residency in which you will gain the knowledge and experience of general psychiatry to become an attending physician. 


Step 7 – Upon completion of a residency in psychiatry, it is now time to pursue a fellowship. This is additional training in a specialty area within psychiatry. To become a forensic psychiatrist, this fellowship is to be in forensic psychiatry. The purpose of this fellowship is to give a licensed psychiatrist the experience in forensics they need to finally become a forensic psychiatrist. 


All in all, the answer to how long does it take to become a forensic psychiatrist may be a bit of a shock as the whole process to become a forensic psychiatrist in the United States can take roughly 13-14 years. 


This is estimated at four years for a bachelor’s degree along with completing the medical prerequisites, another four years of medical school, another four years of a general psychiatry residency, and one to two years of a forensic psychiatry fellowship before finally becoming a forensic psychiatrist. The completion of the fellowship really solidifies the transition to forensic psychiatry as the licensed psychiatrist can then apply for certification in forensic psychiatry through the ABPN or American Board of Psychiatry and Neurology.