What is forensic psychology?
The American Psychological Association (APA) defines forensic psychology “as a specialty in professional psychology characterized by activities primarily intended to provide professional psychological expertise within the judicial and legal systems.” It is often referred to in broad terms because this specialization spans across many different areas of psychology, from clinical to cognitive to social, all with a legal context.
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.
It may come as a surprise to some people, that forensic psychology was not officially recognized by the APA as a branch of psychology until 2001, especially as criminal profiling has been incorporated into books and films for over a century. Regardless of the lack of early recognition, forensic psychology is now one of the most popular subfields in psychology for both undergraduate and graduate students.
The academic routes to specialization are varied and offer interesting career options at all degree levels. And the job market? Different agencies predict an annual hike of between 3-11 percent in employment opportunities for forensic psychologists until 2026, suggesting that job prospects are good. Read further if your interests cover both psychology and law because an education in forensic psychology might be the key to your future career.
What are the requirements to study forensic psychology?
The growing interest within this subfield of psychology has been the impetus for the introduction of undergraduate forensic psychology subjects at many colleges. Before you decide on your major, you may want to sign up for a forensic psychology class, if available, to assess whether forensic psychology is a field that you find sufficiently interesting to commit to during, and possibly after, your studies.
Generally, most schools that offer an undergraduate psychology 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. Letters of recommendation written by your teachers can always help and support your application.
As well as specific Bachelor of Arts (B.A.) or Bachelor of Science (B.S.) degrees in forensic psychology, some schools also offer psychology with a concentration in criminology, criminal justice, or forensic science.
Another possibility can be to complete a double major in psychology and criminology, especially if you find that the school you want to attend doesn’t offer a specific forensic psychology program. Although this option involves taking subjects separately, you do have the advantage of gaining more subject-specific knowledge, which can be a strong foundation for your future learning.
A full-time, on-campus bachelor program will generally take 4 years to complete. In this time you will study, research, and gain practical experience. If you choose to end your studies after receiving your bachelor’s degree, the employment options in this field are limited. Professions such as court liaison, probation officer, or law enforcement officer will ensure that the skills and knowledge gained in your degree are put to good use in what is sure to be an interesting career.
If you decide that you want to continue with your studies, or that you want to expand your career options, a graduate degree in forensic psychology is a good way to go. Programs such as a Master of Arts (M.A.) in forensic psychology, or Master of Science (M.S.) in clinical psychology with a concentration in forensic psychology are popular. In this 2-year graduate degree program, you can increase your knowledge with further coursework, or focus on specialized topics. To be eligible for a master’s degree, most colleges require a 3.0-3.3 GPA. In addition, good GRE scores are necessary for most programs.
To enroll in a master’s degree program in forensic psychology, it is not necessary for you to hold a corresponding undergraduate degree. An undergraduate degree in a related area, such as social work, is generally acceptable for you to pursue this master’s degree, although many applicants do have degrees in psychology, criminology, or criminal justice.
Although the majority of professions that attract students of forensic psychology demand a doctorate, a master’s degree is sufficient for you to be eligible for certain positions. For example, you can apply to be a correctional counselor, working in jails and juvenile detention facilities, or an investigative journalist.
To become a fully licensed forensic psychologist, you need to continue your education and get a doctoral degree. This can be attributed to the intricacies of this specialization especially apparent in career options such as criminal profiler or – as you may have seen on TV – a crime scene consultant or investigator.
An undergraduate degree is a prerequisite to apply for a doctoral degree in forensic psychology.
It may seem odd that a master’s degree isn’t required, and some programs allow you to receive your master’s degree while working towards your doctorate. Specific requirements related to accepting your undergraduate degree for entry to a doctoral program vary by college.
For master’s students applying to doctoral programs, colleges and universities do impose minimum GPA and GRE scores on applications. Check your program of choice for details.
Doctoral programs take 4-8 years to complete – depending on whether it is a Psy.D. or Ph.D. degree – and require practical work, research, and internships. Internships must be under the supervision of a licensed psychologist and take place in an establishment that is accredited and recognized by the APA.
Can I study on campus or online?
The various degrees and academic levels of study in forensic psychology are all offered as on-campus, online, and hybrid study options. However, this isn’t the same for all colleges. Studying on campus is an exciting prospect for many students, and can be part of the dream of going to college. This option is not available to everyone. Many students have family commitments, need to support themselves by working, or don’t live near their college of choice. Cost is an important factor that can be a deterrent to studying on campus, especially for out-of-state students who have the expense of accommodation to add to the usual cost of things like food, books, travel, and having a social life.
- Bachelor’s (annual payment for a 4-year program) – $18,037
- Master’s (annual payment for a 2-year program) – $8,640 – $30,345
- Doctorate (annual payment for a 4-8 year program) – $10,800 – $33,698
The range in the figures above can be, according to the summary report conducted by the APA, attributed to factors such as in-state and out-of-state institutions, and takes into account private institutions as well. To get an exact figure for your chosen course, head over to the college’s website and request more information.
Should you choose to study online, you can bypass some of the extra costs incurred when studying on campus. It’s also worth knowing and considering that many colleges charge extra for out-of-state students, so an online degree may work out better for you financially. This is also true with regards to accelerated courses where you can earn your undergraduate or postgraduate degree in half the usual time.
The tuition fees for online degrees are generally reported as being around $16,000 per year, although there are great variations in this figure. Please contact your desired schools to be given exact quotations.
If the above costs seem daunting, check your eligibility for financial aid to help you meet these financial demands. It’s a good idea to apply early by going to the website for Federal Student Aid to fill in the online FAFSA form. Before applying, make sure you have your social security information, family income details, driver’s license, and tax documents. These are necessary to calculate the level of aid you are eligible for.
For graduate degrees, your parents’ income isn’t taken into consideration because you are classified as independent. Graduate programs are time-consuming due to the coursework expectations. As a result, many graduates do not have adequate time to be in paid employment. In addition to FAFSA, there is a range of financial support options including scholarships, grants, and loans, that can be applied for. Check the Studentaid.gov website to find an overview of the different types of aid that you may be eligible for.
In the psychology field, it is very important to make sure that the college and course you are choosing is accredited by the APA. This means that the college and course have been assessed and have successfully met the required regulations. To your future employers and clients, an accredited program demonstrates that your education has met the highest standards.
You can search the American Psychological Association’s website to find out which programs are accredited.
What will I study?
You can expect that your bachelor’s degree will take 4 years to complete as a full-time student. Some colleges do offer specific forensic psychology courses and others offer psychology with a concentration in forensic psychology, forensic science, or criminal justice. All of these majors will help you pursue a degree in forensic psychology and possible acceptance into a graduate program in this specialization.
Psychology courses for undergraduates will include some of the following topics:
- Human behavior
- Abnormal psychology
- Experimental psychology
- Cognitive psychology
- Developmental psychology
- Experimental methods
- History of psychology
Forensic psychology courses may also cover some of the topics above, as well as:
- Introduction to criminal justice
- Victim psychology
- Criminal behavior
- Psychology and law
- Research methods
In master’s programs, you can specialize and focus on your area of interest. Examples of degrees are M.S. in Forensic Science and M.S. in Criminal Justice with a concentration in forensic psychology. In M.A. programs, it is possible to gain a graduate degree in forensic psychology. Criminal justice programs will focus more on law and the legal system.
Examples of some of the coursework and topics are:
- Criminal law
- Concepts of criminal law
- Data management systems
- Forensic science
- Criminal justice report writing
In addition to attending classes and completing coursework, it is useful for forensic psychology and criminal justice majors to participate in internships. Some popular and useful internships take place in correctional facilities, research institutes, or medical facilities.
In completing an internship, you can gain experience, while utilizing what you have learned in your studies, in a practical environment. The added benefit of an internship is that the experience can better guide you in deciding on the direction of your career. Similar to the process of course selection, don’t forget to check the details of your internship to confirm that it is recognized by your college and psychological associations like the APA.
Licenses and certification
All aspiring members of the psychology field must gain and maintain licenses in their specific field. Licenses ensure that you are up-to-date with current psychological theory, research and methods. To receive a license, you must take and pass the Examination for Professional Practice in Psychology (EPPP). Depending on the state you practice in, your license should be renewed every 2-3 years. The Association of State and Provincial Psychology Boards (ASPPB) recommend that you engage a mentor, someone who is licensed, to guide you through the licensing process. Generally, you will need to provide a background check, fingerprints, and proof of your professional experience, before ASPPB issues your license.
After receiving your license, you can apply to become certified by the APA under the American Board of Forensic Psychology. Although this is not a formal requirement, many employers do look favorably on this extra step. To receive this certification, you must have a doctoral degree and at least 2,000 hours of supervised experience in a credible institution.
The career options for a forensic psychologist with any degree 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 of work with an undergraduate degree.
Careers with a bachelor’s degree
Some interesting careers in forensic psychology with a bachelor’s degree are:
Career options with a doctoral degree
To reach the top of your field in forensic psychology, you will need to earn a doctorate. While this is a significant time commitment, the reward may be the availability of many fascinating career options that will hopefully meet the career vision you set for yourself when you first enrolled. These jobs may not be as glamorous in reality as they are depicted on television, but the chance of boredom is low, and these jobs can provide comfortable salaries.