Forensic psychology degree programs guide
What is forensic psychology
Movies predominantly show forensic psychologists getting into the minds of serial killers, and while these depictions may be exaggerated, they do contain a seed of truth. Broadly speaking, forensic psychology is the application of psychological theories and clinical knowledge to the field of law and criminal justice. Forensic psychologists bring their expertise in understanding human behavior to the legal system, in either a therapeutic or investigative capacity.
Forensic psychologists bring their expertise in understanding human behavior to the legal system, in either a therapeutic or investigative capacity.
A crime psychologist tends to focus only on criminal behavior, whereas a forensic psychologist works with a wide range of people from different areas. These include victims, incarcerated people, crime investigators, legal representatives, witnesses, public servants, school staff, or anyone affected by a crime
The role of a forensic psychologist also extends to civil law. They may be hired to make psychological assessments during disputes over guardianship or personal injury claims. These may not be the kind of cases to grace movie screens, but if you are interested in human behavior and promoting justice they can be equally fascinating.
Specialists in forensic psychology find employment in many different settings including hospitals, law enforcement agencies, welfare services, child protection advocacy centers, and universities. This is indicative of how diverse the opportunities are for graduates in this subfield of psychology.
Forensic psychology jobs are predicted to increase over the coming decade, with the jump in training courses seemingly supporting this forecast.
Although portrayals of forensic psychologists are often exaggerated, the job opportunities in this sector are not. Forensic psychology jobs are predicted to increase over the coming decade, with the jump in training courses seemingly supporting this forecast.
If a range of interesting topics, the interweaving of the law and psychology, and the prospect of never having a dull moment at work sounds attractive, then studying for a career in forensic psychology may be for you.
Forensic psychology is thought to have originated in 1879, when Wilhelm Wundt, who many refer to as the father of psychology, founded his first lab in Germany.
What are the educational requirements for forensic psychology?
The first step to becoming a forensic psychologist is a bachelor’s degree. This generally takes 4 years to complete. A specific major is not a requirement, but some subjects better lend themselves to a career in this field. For example, choosing psychology or criminal justice can provide a strong foundation.
Generally, most schools that offer an undergraduate program will require a minimum GPA of 3.0. More competitive programs may also be looking at applicants with good scores in statistics, the sciences, and the humanities.
Below are some degrees and majors that can be beneficial to a prospective forensic psychologist:
Bachelor of Arts (B.A.) in psychology
This degree provides an excellent overview of the field. Upon completion of introductory courses, such as organizational behavior and statistical methods for psychological research, students move on to a more detailed examination of human behavior and cognition.
Most courses cover mental health, trauma, and development—subjects particularly important to forensic psychologists. You can also consider taking elective courses in criminal justice to provide a footing in the legal field. Some B.A. psychology degree programs even offer a concentration in forensic psychology, so this is something to look out for when deciding on a school.
Bachelor of Science (B.S.) in psychology
The course content for a B.S. in psychology focuses on math and science, with copious time dedicated to statistics, research, and lab classes. Some suggest this degree choice is a better fit than a B.A. program as it provides the analytic and research skills a forensic psychologist often requires. Again, a concentration in forensic psychology is an option in some programs.
B.S. in forensic science
If forensic psychology is the intersection of psychology and law, forensic science is the meeting point for science and law. This program offers classes on forensics and incorporates biology and chemistry classes to provide the scientific foundation required to work in this field. Subjects on the U.S. justice system provide the legal arm to the program, providing a strong foundation for potential forensic psychologists.
B.A. in criminal justice
Core courses in the American justice system provide an understanding of citizens’ rights and responsibilities. Other content can include behavioral and social science as applied to criminology. This program also looks at ethics and introduces students to forensic science. It is a good option of you have a strong interest in the law and are thinking about training to be forensic psychologist in the future.
In addition to the above-mentioned majors, some schools offer psychology with a concentration in criminology, criminal justice, or forensic science. All of these concentrations provide information highly relevant to a career in forensic psychology.
Another possibility is to complete a double major in psychology and criminology. Although this involves taking subjects separately, the advantage is gaining more detailed subject-specific knowledge, which can provide a strong foundation for your future learning.
The ancient Greeks and Romans were the first to introduce the concept of insanity to the law.
Generally, to be eligible to study a master’s degree in forensic psychology a bachelor’s degree is required. Most graduate programs request a minimum GPA score of 3.0-3.3, a decent GRE test score, and good letters of recommendations from your teachers.
Some school’s offer master’s programs in forensic psychology, others a master’s in psychology or criminology, with a concentration in forensic psychology. Your choice depends on your preference of program and school.
Master’s in forensic psychology
A master’s degree with a major in forensic psychology is usually a 2-year program, offered on campus, online, or as a hybrid program. Regardless of the option you choose, you need to accrue the necessary hours of practical experience in person.
Examples of popular degrees are:
- Master of Science (M.S.) in forensic psychology
- Master of Arts (M.A.) in forensic psychology
Deciding between the M.A. and M.S. courses is typically based on where your interest lies.
An M.A. course focuses more on the human side of psychology; counseling, developing psychological profiles, and working with people.
Some coursework in an M.A. program may include:
- Criminal evaluation – includes risk assessments, predicting behaviors, and interventions with at-risk people. There may be specialized topics like the evaluation of sanity.
- Public policy and advocacy – this 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.
Coursework in an M.S. program often includes:
- Psychology and law – why are laws broken? What is the psychology behind breaking them? 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 – provides an overview of forensic psychology incorporating the different theories and research relevant to the criminal justice system.
- Victimology – this is the study of victims of crime, and the psychological impact the crime has on their lives and the people close to them. You learn how victims have been viewed and treated by society in the past, before moving on to the theories currently adopted to develop intervention strategies.
There were 7 forensic psychologists called upon to work on the famous Ted Bundy case. Their psychological profile helped to end the manhunt and connected him to other unsolved murders.
A crucial component of this study program is the practicum that provides hands-on experience working with clients in a clinical setting. One benefit of compulsory fieldwork is being introduced to new ideas, topics, and situations not covered in the classroom. It also provides 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.
You can find information about internships, externships, and work experience settings at your college career center or by looking at various 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.
After earning a master’s degree, you may qualify to work in some lower-level jobs in the forensic field—such as research, education, or the prison-industrial complex. More advanced positions require a doctoral degree.
A master’s program provides excellent preparation for a doctoral degree, meaning those who bypass the master’s step may challenge to keep up.
Most doctoral students complete a master’s first, although some with a determined career path skip the master’s and go directly to the doctoral degree. The obvious advantage being that they save themselves a year of study. Note, there are downsides to this approach too. A master’s program provides excellent preparation for a doctoral degree, meaning those who bypass the master’s step may challenge to keep up. Further, students with a master’s sometimes are preferred when it comes to applying for research projects.
Should I take a Ph.D. or Psy.D.?
The 2 most common doctoral options are a doctor of philosophy in psychology (Ph.D.), or a doctor of psychology (Psy.D.). 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 research based, although an internship is demanded to become certified and licensed.
During a Ph.D., you can focus on an area of interest, such as forensic psychology. Core classes can include:
- theories of psychology
- criminal behavior
- understanding violence
- teaching psychology
- police psychology
- issues in forensic psychology
- treatment techniques in forensics
A Ph.D. usually program takes 4-8 years to complete. Factors affecting the length of a Ph.D. are the structure of the program and whether you are a full-time or part-time student. Many Ph.D. graduates go on to work in the academic world, typically as researcher or professor.
Internships are essential components as they provide the opportunity to learn from real people in real situations.
Rather than focusing on research, a Psy.D. is based on real human interactions and reactions. Internships are essential components as they provide the opportunity to learn from real people in real situations. Ensure you read all the available information on the internship opportunities available in the program you choose, as this is a learning opportunity to take full advantage of. Psy.D. graduates often go into roles that involve working directly with patients.
Core classes in a Psy.D. often include:
- ethics and legal issues
- foundations of clinical practice
- human development
- personality assessment
- psycholegal assessment, diagnosis, intervention, and treatment
- psychology and the law
A Psy.D. in clinical psychology with a concentration in forensic psychology typically takes 4-6 years to complete.
After completion of a doctoral degree you can decide to continue to a postdoctoral specialization in forensics. Typically this is a year-long residency program that includes seminars and supervised clinical and research experiences. The aim is to prepare candidates for a career in practicing forensic psychology and to cover the content needed to pass the ABPP certification.
The aim is to prepare candidates for a career in practicing forensic psychology and to cover the content needed to pass the ABPP certification.
This kind of didactic training typically covers criminal and civil areas, and can involving testifying in court. You may be involved with conducting forensic clinical assessments, answering questions such as:
- competence to stand trial
- criminal responsibility
- violence risk assessment
- commitment of substance abusers
- need for treatment
Beyond education — what are the next steps?
With a doctoral degree, you are close to being a forensic psychologist, but the journey isn’t quite over yet. There are a series of additional steps before you can officially declare yourself licensed.
These can vary from state to state but typically include:
- passing the Examination for Professional Practice in Psychology (EPPP), a 225-question standardized test
- passing a jurisprudence exam
- accumulating a certain number of supervised postdoctoral clinical hours (such as the hours amassed during your postdoctoral specialization)
For professional certification, forensic psychologists can also take the ABPP exam, after first completing all of the above steps.
Paying for your education
The road to becoming a forensic psychologist is long and expensive, resulting in many students needing financial assistance. Although the most common forms of funding are loans, other means of assistance are available.
The American Psychological Association (APA) and affiliated organizations, offer various scholarships for forensic psychology students. Successful applicants can secure funding at undergraduate, master’s, and doctoral level. These scholarships usually help to cover the costs of study. They can also come in the form of research grants, or the chance to participate in fellowship opportunities.
To receive funding, candidates need to research and meet the various requirements of the different scholarships. Those seeking undergraduate funding must have a GPA of at least 3.0 and be applying for a 4 or 5 year program.
Available career options
The job outlook in the psychology sector is excellent, with BLS predicting employment to increase by 8% between 2020-2030. Career options for forensic psychologists are interesting and varied. Higher levels of education are required for jobs that you may have seen in the media, but you can also enter the field with an undergraduate degree.
Careers with a bachelor’s degree
Some interesting careers in forensic psychology with a bachelor’s degree are:
Law enforcement officerMedian salary: $46K
Works to keep the community safe, responds to emergencies, and maintains the observation of laws. It isn’t always necessary to hold a bachelor’s degree before entering law enforcement, but some states— Illinois for example—set a bachelor’s degree as a minimum requirement. Most other states require a high-school diploma.
Forensic case managerMedian salary: $36K
As a forensic case manager, one of your main roles is providing professional guidance to people who have committed crimes and served time in a correctional facility. You may help these people find support from healthcare professionals, their families, and in the community, in addition to providing assistance to secure employment and attend parole meetings.
The ancient Egyptians distributed pictures of suspects amongst each other in an attempt to catch them.
Career options with a master’s degree
Some interesting professions available to graduate degree holders include:
Crime analystMedian salary: $48K
This involves gathering and analyzing data to help solve crimes. You may visit crime scenes and conduct interviews with witnesses suspects and first responders. A large part of the job is helping to prevent crimes by uncovering patterns and using them to make predictions.
Victim advocateMedian salary: $38K
This may be of interest to graduates who want to assist people confronting the legal and welfare system. Specifically, victim advocates work with victims and those affected by crime. They help people going through court trials, file paperwork for compensation, and provide emotional support.
Career options with a doctoral degree
Some interesting professions available to doctoral degree holders include:
Federal government employeeMedian salary: $88K
With a doctoral degree in forensic psychology, you may be eligible for positions with the federal government. Agencies, like the FBI or CIA, often employ people with forensic psychology backgrounds due to their critical thinking skills. Career options with the federal government are varied and can include work in an FBI laboratory or as a forensic auditor.
Psychology professorMedian salary: $78K
As a psychology professor, you can share your knowledge with students looking to follow in your academic footsteps. If you are passionate about strengthening the specialty of forensic psychology or want to spend your time conducting research, becoming a psychology professor might be for you.
The ABFP standardizes the practices in forensic psychology. This organization deals with professional competence and certification for forensic psychologists and ensures the highest standards of work.
This society aims to advance and promote the understanding of psychology and law, the education of psychologists, and to keep the general public up-to-date with developments in psychology and law.
This a non-profit organization that helps criminal offenders get the help and support that they need. They look at humane practices in prison and incarceration facilities throughout the world.
The AAFS provides education and resources to promote the study, research, and practice of forensic science. They aim to encourage communications, meetings, and shared reports in this field and the general advancement of forensic sciences.
This organization sponsors education for forensic psychologists and is approved by the APA. This educational association is composed of psychologists worldwide.