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Forensic Psychology Degree Programs

The field of forensic psychology has grown a lot in recent years. While elements of forensic psychology have been around for over a century, it’s become a recognized discipline within the last 20 years. Thanks to its popularity in TV shows and movies, forensic psychology has also enjoyed the spotlight — although, there’s been some confusion over what the specialty actually entails.

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“Forensic” is a Latin word meaning “of the forum,” where ancient Rome held law courts. Basically put, forensic psychology incorporates both psychology and the law. While the Bureau of Labor Statistics doesn’t offer information specific to the forensic discipline, the job outlook for psychologists in general has a projected job growth rate of 14% — double the 7% average across all occupations.

This page will introduce you to the field of forensic psychology, the type of work practitioners do, salary expectations, and the educational and licensure requirements.

What Is Forensic Psychology?

Forensic psychology combines the study of psychology and the legal system. A forensic psychologist needs to possess knowledge in three primary areas: clinical, forensic, and legal.

The American Psychological Association (APA) officially defines forensic psychology as “the application of clinical specialties to the legal arena.” This arena can include police departments, courts, prisons, and other environments.

Many authors of forensic psychology textbooks identify two specific types of definitions: narrow and broad. The narrow definition of forensic psychology is the application of clinical skills — for example, assessment, treatment, and evaluation — to forensic settings. The broad definition of forensic psychology is the application of research and experimentation in various other psychology disciplines — for example, cognitive psychology and social psychology — to the legal system.

This specialized field requires that practitioners understand legal concepts and psychological fundamentals, such as memory, perception, communication, and state of mind. Forensic psychologists assist individuals involved in the court system.

According to the APA, in practice, forensic psychology “involves investigations, research studies, assessments, consultation, the design and implementation of treatment programs and expert witness courtroom testimony.” As a result, it’s essential to have both training in law and forensic psychology, and good clinical skills. These skills include clinical assessment, report writing, verbal communication (from interviewing a victim to acting as an expert witness in court), and case presentation.

It takes lots of schooling and supervised practice hours to become a forensic psychologist. Practitioners are required to have a Doctor of Psychology (Psy.D.) or Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.) degree. Depending on your career goals, you might also need to obtain licensure and become board certified.

Note: It’s important to differentiate forensic psychology from criminal psychology. While sometimes used interchangeably, criminal psychology is a specific sector within forensic psychology. A big distinction between the two is that the former studies the psychology across the criminal justice system, particularly the mental state and health of the suspects, victims, and witnesses. Criminal psychology, on the other hand, studies the psychology of criminals in general. These specialists often work for state or county police departments and work with government bureaus to form policies and advance the criminal justice field.

What Does a Forensic Psychologist Do?

Although forensic psychologists perform a range of tasks, one of the more prevalent is to assess the mental health of suspects, criminals, and victims. Other tasks might vary depending on work setting, but can include:

  • Assessing threats in schools
  • Conducting child custody evaluations
  • Evaluating criminal defendants and the elderly for competency to stand trial
  • Providing counseling services to victims of crime
  • Developing death notification procedures
  • Counseling inmates individually and in group therapy settings
  • Screening and selecting law enforcement applicants
  • Assessing post-traumatic stress disorder in police officers
  • Delivering and evaluating intervention and treatment programs for juvenile and adult offenders
  • Consulting with attorneys and other legal professionals

Forensic psychologists are often called upon in “mens rea,” or insanity, cases. “Insanity” is a legal term; the standard of insanity varies from state to state, though there is a federal standard as well. It’s up to the forensic psychologist to determine a person’s mental state at the time of the crime — not in the present day. Much of this work is retrospective and consists of third-party information and statements made around the time of the crime.

This field can play a big role when solving criminal cases. Aside from providing expert testimony, forensic psychologists might be called on to help interpret a motive. This discipline can help with crime prevention, too, from the rehabilitation of perpetrators to research into the types of people who commit crimes.

With that stated, forensic psychology isn’t always the easiest field to work in. Forensic psychologists need to maintain an unbiased viewpoint when dealing with accused individuals and be able to deal with crimes that are disturbing for most people.

Forensic Psychologist Salary

The salary for a forensic psychologist varies depending on experience, workplace setting, and location.

In an article on the APA website, Mary Connell, EdD, a private practitioner in Fort Worth, TX, estimates forensic psychologists earn between $200,000 and $400,000 a year. However, PayScale reports the following:

  • Early-career forensic psychologist (with 1 to 4 years of job experience) average salary: $68,011
  • Mid-career forensic psychologist (with 5 to 9 years of job experience) average salary: $82,868
  • Late-career forensic psychologist (with over 20 years of job experience) average salary: $115,913

Educational Requirements for Becoming a Forensic Psychologist

It takes four to six years of post-graduate study and supervised professional experience to become a forensic psychologist. To become an actual psychologist and provide clinical services you need a doctorate from a program that is accredited by the APA or Canadian Psychological Association (CPA). Note, however, that there are entry-level and assistant jobs that you can get with a master’s degree.

Typically, you will take the following steps to become a forensic psychologist

Get a Bachelor’s Degree

To begin your career in forensic psychology, you need to earn an undergraduate degree from an accredited university. You’ll most likely want to major in psychology (forensic, if available) and consider a minor in criminal justice, pre-law, criminology, or a mental health specialty. While you can consider related programs to major in, note that some graduate schools will only accept students with a bachelor’s of arts or bachelor’s of science in psychology. You’ll also want to get good grades to secure a high GPA and increase your chances of getting into a graduate program.

Typical courses you’ll take in a psychology program include criminal psychology and forensic psychology and classes on human behavior and psychology research. The degree can be completed within four years, though it may take longer if you pursue additional areas of study or internships.

Get a Master’s Degree

A standalone master’s degree is not necessarily required to continue your forensic psychology education. Some schools only require Graduate Record Examination (GRE) scores to enroll in doctoral program. Many offer a combined master’s-doctorate degree program. However, some graduates choose to pursue a master’s degree in forensic psychology to boost their chances of getting into the Ph.D. or Psy.D. program of their choice.

A master of science in forensic psychology program traditionally focuses more heavily on psychology and legal issues, and professional training. Most programs will require 36 credits, or about two years, to complete; however, this can vary by school.

Get a Doctorate Degree

Reminder: You have to earn either a Ph.D. or Psy.D. degree before you can become a bona fide forensic psychologist. A Ph.D. is typically more research-centered, while a Psy.D. tends to focus on the treatment of patients. Depending on your professional aspirations, it might make sense to pursue one degree over another. If you’re not sure which direction you want to head in, review programs at different schools — some degree programs may even offer a similar curriculum.

For either degree, you’ll often take coursework in criminal behavior, police psychology, program evaluations, and more. This program can take four to eight years to complete.

Obtain Licensure

Graduates can apply for licensure and sit for an oral or written exam, depending on the state in which they’ll be practicing. Each state has different licensure requirements for forensic psychologists. Typically, you must complete a specific number of supervised training hours and pass an exam. From there, applicants will most likely go through a background check and have their credentials reviewed by their state board.

For information about individual state requirements, visit the Association of State and Provincial Psychology Boards.

Gain Practical Experience

After completing a Ph.D. or Psy.D. degree from an accredited doctoral program, forensic psychologists will need “the equivalent of two years of organized, sequential, supervised professional experience, one year of which is an APA- or CPA-accredited predoctoral internship,” according to the APA.

Become Board Certified

While it’s not always a requirement to practice, forensic psychologists can get professionally certified through the American Board of Forensic Psychology (ABFP). Having board certification is advantageous because it shows that you are a dedicated professional. According to the ABPP, there are two general requirements for forensic psychologists:

  1. Practitioners must complete the credential review, a written and oral examination, and a vote by the ABFP to be accepted.
  2. Practitioners cannot have past serious ethical misconduct or unlawful behavior that the board would deem incompatible with its high standard for board certification.

Optional: Get a Law Degree

Since law and psychology are intertwined in forensic psychology, some students choose to also pursue a law degree. But that’s purely optional.

Online Forensic Psychology Degrees

There are many advantages to taking courses online. Online programs provide you with flexibility, convenience, and the ability to work around your schedule. You might also save money by avoiding commuting costs and campus fees. In addition, a U.S. Department of Education report found that college-level students in online learning programs performed better than students learning on campus — particularly those enrolled in hybrid programs.

Be aware that the APA doesn’t accredit fully online doctoral programs, but some accrediting agencies may. However, the APA does accredit some hybrid doctoral programs. You’ll want to check with individual schools to see if they’re APA-accredited.