What is forensic psychology?
Forensic psychology is a relatively new specialty under the umbrella of clinical psychology. Officially recognized by the American Psychological Association (APA) in 2001, forensic psychology has become an increasingly popular field of study in recent years. This boost in popularity may be due to the appearance of forensic psychologists in the media. Most viewers accept that a forensic psychologist will be the key to solving the majority of crimes, especially murders, in films and television police dramas. Although this portrayal is highly flawed and over-glamorized, the number of job opportunities for real forensic psychologists is predicted to increase over the coming decade, and the jump in training courses seems to support this prediction.
So what exactly is forensic psychology? Broadly, forensic psychology is the application of psychological theories and clinical knowledge to the field of law and criminal justice. As such, forensic psychologists work with people who are involved in the legal system. The individuals they work with can be crime suspects, victims, incarcerated people or their family members, crime investigators, legal representatives, witnesses, public servants (for example, staff from child welfare organizations), school staff, or anyone affected by a crime. Specialists in this field are essential members of the legal system, often called on to share their knowledge, due to their expertise in understanding human behavior.
Requirements to study forensic psychology
Generally, to be eligible to study a master’s degree in forensic psychology, a bachelor’s degree is required. The most obvious undergraduate degree would be in psychology, although having a degree in a different field does not mean that you are ineligible, especially if you have completed classes in abnormal or criminal psychology. Similarly, some college programs may also be happy to consider your application if you have a statistics or introductory psychology course in your undergraduate studies.
Most graduate programs do request a minimum GPA score of 3.0-3.3, a decent GRE test score, and good letters of recommendations from your teachers. If you have completed an internship as part of an undergraduate program, include a recommendation from your supervisor with your application. Due to the variations in admission specifics at different schools, it is best to contact the schools directly and see whether you have what it takes to be admitted to their graduate program.
A master’s degree in forensic psychology is usually a 2-year program, offered on-campus, online, or as a hybrid program which is a mixture of these 2 options. Regardless of the option you choose, remember that you must accrue the necessary hours of practical experience in person.
Examples of popular degrees are:
- Master of Science (M.S.) in forensic psychology
- Master of Science (M.S.) in criminal justice (with a concentration in forensic psychology)
- Master of Arts (M.A.) in forensic psychology
As the focus of the M.A. and M.S. course differ, your choice will depend on your future study and career goals. Typically, an M.A. course focuses more on the human side of psychology; counseling, developing psychological profiles, and working with people. An M.A. might be attractive to you if you plan to continue with your studies to earn a Psy.D. and to work as a counselor, professor, or with the public in general.
Some coursework in an M.A. program may include:
- Criminal evaluation – you will learn about risk assessments, predicting behaviors, and interventions with at-risk people. This course can include specialized topics like the evaluation of sanity.
- Public policy and advocacy – this course involves clinical training and looks at how public and political policy can impact on the overall mental health of a community.
- Psychopathology and treatment – this course looks at psychopathology in relation to violent crime, including predictive and preventative factors.
The M.S. program focuses more on the scientific side of forensic psychology; research and analysis, experimental psychology, and study. This could be a good fit for you if you aim to continue studying and earn a Ph.D. qualification or go on to work as a research psychologist or in a laboratory. Some coursework in an M.S. program may include:
- Psychology and law – this course teaches you about the intersection where psychology and law meet. It will cover legislation and policies that you will learn to understand from the perspectives of law-makers and law-breakers. Why are laws broken? What is the psychology behind breaking laws and understanding the ramifications of doing this? How can the psychological make-up of a person impact their understanding and compliance with the law? These are all questions you may consider in this course.
- An introduction to forensic psychology – this course prepares you with an overview of forensic psychology as a topic. You will look at different theories and research regarding the criminal justice system.
- Victimology – is the study of victims of crime, and the psychological impact the crime has had on their lives and the people close to them. Taking a historical perspective, you will learn how victims have been viewed and treated by society before moving on to the theories currently being used to develop intervention strategies to work with victims today.
What will you study?
You may choose a variety of classes to make up the required credits, which, again, depend on the college and course you choose.
The following are some common classes and topics:
- Advanced research
- Assessment of psychological injury
- Behavioral criminology
- Child trauma – assessment and intervention
- Intervention in school and workplace violence
- Psychology and the legal system
- Psychological evaluations (competency, sanity)
- Psychological issues in family and dependency cases
- Suicide prevention and intervention skills
- Trauma – assessment and intervention
- Understanding psychological reports
- Understanding witness testimony
A crucial component of this study program is the practicum, where you will gain hands-on experience working with clients in a clinical setting. One benefit of compulsory fieldwork is that you may be introduced to new ideas, topics, and situations that aren’t covered during your time in the classroom. You will have the opportunity to network and learn from professionals who often have years of experience working with hundreds of clients. Choose the setting of your practicum carefully to make sure it fits your career goals. Practicums can be located in prisons, mental health facilities, or even with forensic psychologists who work in private practices.
If your goal is to work with at-risk juveniles or juveniles who have committed a crime, an interesting internship could be at a juvenile detention facility. In this type of internship, and under the guidance of your supervisor, you could conduct psychological assessments, assist with educational programs, and provide counseling. In order to apply for an internship in this area, you will need good academic scores, and be prepared to submit to a background check – which will need to come back clean or without any previous criminal convictions.
You can find information about internships, externships, and work experience settings at your college career center. You may also look at different internship blogs/boards like the Association of Psychology Postdoctoral and Internship Centre (APPIC). Although there is some variation in requirements between institutions, practicum experience is generally for a minimum of 1,000 hours.
During your practicum, you will be overseen by a supervisor who will observe and offer feedback on your skills and practical experiences. These supervisors are licensed psychologists who have gone through the same training as you so it’s important to listen to their advice and feedback.
An invaluable benefit of practical experience is building relationships with patients. An important skill for a psychologist is being able to make patients comfortable and trusting of you. Keep evidence and records – sometimes referred to as a portfolio – of these experiences to use towards further study and career options.
How much does a master’s degree cost?
Many colleges offer master’s degree programs in forensic psychology on campus or online.
Making the decision on which study option is more suitable and attractive for you, will often be based on cost, so let’s have a look at that.
The cost of a graduate degree varies significantly with tuition at some schools being $7,785 per year, and other schools charging upwards of $28,000 per year. For specific information on the fees charged by your chosen college, visit the school website or contact their school admission office.
Aside from your tuition fees, additional costs to consider include:
- Course books and suggested reading
- Campus fees
- Library fees
If you prefer to study online due to work commitments, distance from campus, or any other reason, then you may find this is a more flexible and less expensive option. Online tuition fees range from $11,000-$27,000.
Financial aid is available to eligible students who need assistance to cover the cost of their study. Visit studentaid.gov to find more information about eligibility criteria and the FAFSA application process. For graduate students, applications are assessed based on your individual status, and not as a dependent on your parents.
After completing your master’s degree in forensic psychology, you can continue your study to the doctoral level. As with many areas of psychology, achieving a doctoral degree is necessary if you want to be a licensed clinical psychologist.
To complete a Ph.D., you need to research, write, present and defend a dissertation. Not all courses require an internship, as the degree is very research based. Do note, however, that this is something you have to do before becoming certified and licensed.
Rather than focusing on research, Psy.D. programs are based on real human interactions and reactions. Internships are essential components as they provide the opportunity to learn from real people in real situations. Make sure you read all the available information on the internship opportunities available through the program you choose, as this is a learning experience you will want to experience fully.
- Ph.D. in forensic psychology – these programs take, on average, 4-8 years to complete. Factors affecting the length of a Ph.D. are the structure of your program and whether you are a full-time or part-time student.
- Psy.D. in clinical psychology with a concentration in forensic psychology – these programs take, on average, 4-6 years to complete.
Licenses and accreditations
It is always important to check that your school has been APA accredited. Attending an accredited school will guarantee that your academic program is up-to-date with psychological theories, methods, and practices. This ensures that, once you start working, you can provide the best psychological services to your clients.
After you earn your doctoral degree in forensic psychology, you will need to be certified by the American Board of Forensic Psychology (ABFP). This identifies you as being professionally competent in forensic psychology by the APA, and while this is not a legal requirement, the certification does set you apart from those who have not met this standard.
A master’s degree in forensic psychology will not get you recognized as a clinical psychologist throughout the United States. Your job options will likely be limited if you don’t take the next step of a doctoral level program. It’s important to note that you must have a doctoral degree to be eligible for a ABFP license, which will open career doors for you.
That said, there are some interesting career options available to you if you hold a master’s degree in this field.