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Forensic Psychology Degree Guide

In 2001, the professional practice of forensic psychology was named a recognized specialty by the American Psychological Association (APA) within the larger areas of clinical psychology, counseling psychology, and school psychology.1 Forensic psychologists are often called upon by the judicial system to provide their professional psychological expertise, helping to evaluate and convict criminals, and to prevent future crimes.

There are three primary areas of focused practice within the specialty of forensic psychology:

  • Clinical – including diagnosis, treatment, testing, and ethics of mental disorders
  • Forensic – including forensic ethics and assessment of symptoms in a legal context
  • Legal – including specific knowledge of the law and the legal system

A degree in forensic psychology is typically an advanced one: a master’s degree, a PsyD, or a PhD, but to be a licensed forensic psychologist, a doctoral-level degree must be obtained. Courses in forensic psychology may also be offered in undergraduate programs, but will most likely be limited to an elective course or two giving an overview of the specialty. Most students who enter a graduate or doctoral program in forensic psychology will have an undergraduate degree in psychology (with a possible focus on criminal justice) or in criminal justice or criminology (with a possible focus on psychology). Graduates of programs in forensic psychology might seek jobs in the fields of homeland security, correctional systems or law enforcement, and social services for offenders and victims.

Degree Requirements and Coursework

In a graduate or doctoral forensic psychology degree program, students will be exposed to coursework covering the psychopathology of criminals, the proper treatment of sex offenders, and the ethical interrogation of suspects. Helpful qualities for future students of this degree include being strong in science, having strong critical-thinking skills, good communication skills, and a sound knowledge of the legal system.

Most programs require new students to have at least a 3.0 minimum GPA from their undergraduate program and take anywhere from two to six years to complete, with master’s-level programs taking an average of two years and doctorate-level programs taking an average of four to six years. In these degree programs, students will learn about social psychology, human development, criminal justice and criminology, criminal psychology, and statistics. Sample coursework might include:

  • Evaluation and Treatment of Offenders
  • Evaluation and Treatment of Sex Offenders
  • Family Systems and Family Treatment
  • Interrogation and Interviewing
  • Issues in Family Law
  • Psychology of Violence
  • Psychology and the Legal System
  • Psychopathology
  • Research, Theory, Design, and Methods
  • Social Psychology
  • Theories of Criminal Behavior
  • Theories of Personality and Counseling

Profiles of Forensic Psychology Programs

While master’s-level degrees are offered in the field, it is important to note that a doctorate-level degree from an APA-accredited or Canadian Psychological Association (CPA)-accredited program is required to be a qualified forensic psychologist.2 In fact, the APA does not accredit master’s-level graduate programs, but only doctoral graduate programs.

Master’s Programs

John Jay College of Criminal Justice: Since 1978, the John Jay College of Criminal Justice has offered a Master of Arts in Forensic Psychology (MAFP). 42 credits in forensic psychology are required for graduation, which take an average of two years to complete. The MAFP is designed to train practitioners to provide psychological services for the criminal justice system and to prepare students for doctoral study in the field. Approximately 115 of 175 forensic psychology applications are accepted each year. Applicants must score a minimum of 1000 on the GRE and have a minimum of 3.0 GPA on their undergraduate program. The curriculum focuses on how to understand, evaluate and treat offenders and victims alike. Students can choose between completing a thesis or completing an externship with a minimum of 300 hours in a psychological setting (under the supervision of a licensed psychologist or other approved-trained mental health professional). A post-graduate certificate program in forensic psychology is also offered at the college.

University of Denver: The University of Denver offers a Master of Arts in Forensic Psychology (MAFP), a program that has been offered since 1999 at the Graduate School of Professional Psychology, a graduate school that has been accredited by the APA since 1979. The MAFP requires 90 credits to graduate, and the coursework takes students about two years to complete. Only 26 of roughly 100 applications are accepted each year. A minimum GPA of 3.5 is required for admittance, as well as minimum GRE scores. During their two years of study, students will learn how to apply psychological theory, knowledge, skills, and foundational and functional competencies to the civil and criminal justice systems. Courses include Interviewing and Theories of Psychotherapy, Issues in Forensic Psychology, Trauma and Crisis Intervention, and Socio-Cultural Issues in Forensic Psychology.

Oklahoma State University: The Center for Health Sciences at OSU offers a Master of Science in Forensic Sciences (MSFS) degree, which is accredited by the Forensic Science Education Programs Accreditation Commission of the American Academy of Forensic Sciences. The program requires students to take a total of 39 credits (at least 21 of which are offered online), complete a research project, graduate seminars, and a comprehensive exam. The program takes full-time students two to three years to complete, and while the degree will not qualify graduates to be forensic psychologists, it gives students a good foundation to begin a career in the field. Courses in the program include Survey of Forensic Sciences, Ethics in Forensic Leadership, Molecular Biology for the Forensic Scientist, Advanced Forensic Toxicology, Forensic Accounting and Fraud Investigation, and Forensic Management and Organizational Development.

Doctorate Programs

John Jay College of Criminal Justice: The John Jay College of Criminal Justice offers a PhD in Clinical Forensic Psychology. While the program has only been in existence since 2009, it is currently in the process of applying to be accredited by the APA. The program takes a median of five years for students to complete the 90 required credits, a comprehensive exam, a Master’s thesis, and an empirical dissertation project. The PhD program is based on the Boulder (science-practitioner) model, placing an equal emphasis on research and professional practice competencies. In addition to regular coursework and a dissertation, students are required to complete a minimum of two years of supervised clinical practicum experience and take two doctoral examinations before graduating. Students admitted to the program pay no tuition, and, working as graduate assistants, receive a stipend and health insurance.

Sam Houston State University: Sam Houston State University offers a PhD program in Clinical Psychology. The first PhD in Clinical Psychology at SHSU was awarded in 2002. PhD students take courses ranging from Mental Health Law to Forensic Assessment and during their schooling will do forensic evaluations, consult on court cases, and participate in the treatment of forensic populations. Students in this program must complete 108 credits, which takes a median of six years. In addition to the coursework, students must take a comprehensive exam, complete an empirical Master’s thesis, and an empirical dissertation before graduating. There is no minimum GRE score or GPA required for admittance into the program.

Online Programs

The University of North Dakota offers a Master of Arts in Forensic Psychology (MAFP) that is completely online. Requiring 35 credits to graduate, the program typically takes students a minimum of two years to complete, depending on their availability to take classes. UND’s MAFP gives graduates a solid foundation of advanced psychological concepts and theories, statistical skills, and a deep understanding of the role of forensics in the legal system. In addition, students will learn how to testify in court as an expert witness, assist courts and state agencies with evaluations, and conduct focus groups to assist lawyers in trial preparation. The completion of this program will also prepare students for entry into a PhD or PsyD program. A minimum undergraduate GPA of 3.0 or graduate GPA of 3.5 is required for entry, but no GRE scores are necessary for entrance.

Forensic Psychology Job Description

Completion of a forensic psychology degree will open graduates to a variety of job fields, including homeland security, the fields of law and law enforcement, correctional systems, and social services fields. Forensic psychologists may help determine whether a suspect suffers from mental illness and they may be involved in the treatment of criminals suffering from addiction. Forensic psychologists may also council children and minors who are suspected victims of abuse. They may spend their time writing reports, giving testimony, or treating patients. Prospective forensic psychologists should possess excellent critical thinking skills, science skills, strong writing and oral presentation skills, and a calm demeanor. Work hours for forensic psychologists can be long and grueling, especially in those weeks leading up to an important trial. According to the APA, forensic psychologists might expect to work eight or 12-hour days, but they are usually well-compensated for their time.

What Jobs Can You Get with This Degree?

With a doctorate degree in forensic psychology, graduates can pursue a postdoctoral specialization in forensics. While the job title of forensic psychologist requires a PhD or a PsyD in the field, master’s-level graduates in forensic psychology can still participate in the field, but in more supportive roles.

  • Case manager
  • Clinical and program director
  • Criminal justice clinical specialist
  • Correctional officer
  • Criminal profiler
  • Forensic clinician
  • Forensic mental health liaison
  • Forensic psychologist*
  • Forensic treatment specialist
  • Juvenile offender counselor
  • Law enforcement advocate
  • Rehabilitative counselor
  • Victim advocate

*This job title requires a PhD or PsyD.

Frequently Asked Questions

Do I need a doctorate degree to be a forensic psychologist?

Yes, according to the American Psychological Association, licensed forensic psychologists must possess a PhD or PsyD from an APA- (or CPA-) accredited doctoral program, including two years of supervised professional experience (one year of which must be accredited by the APA or CPA). After the degree is obtained, candidates will apply for licensure, sit for an oral or written exam (depending on the state), and then become board-certified by the American Board of Forensic Psychology.

Should I attend a traditional or online forensic psychology program?

The answer to this question is largely based on personal preference. Online programs tend to provide more flexibility for students, allowing them to work and to complete coursework on their own time. However, the field of forensic psychology offers very few online degrees, so do some research and ensure the school you choose (traditional or online) is accredited.

How long will it take for me to get a forensic psychology degree?

Depending on the program and the level, a degree in forensic psychology will take anywhere from two to six years on average to complete, with master’s-level degrees taking two to four years and doctorate-level degrees taking four to six years.

Forensic Psychology Salary and Job Outlook

The outlook for forensic psychologists is good. Under the umbrella of “other psychologists” by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, jobs in this field are expected to increase by 11% through the year 2022, equating to 1,400 new jobs each year, which is similar to the average projected growth for all job fields.4 According to the American Psychological Association, the field of forensic psychology is a young, growing specialty, which offers high salaries, especially for those in private practice, working long hours leading up to a trial. The APA estimates that forensic psychologists earn between $200,000 to $400,000 per year, even though it can take some years of working part-time in private practice before getting up to that level.5

Additional Resources

References:
1. American Psychological Association (APA), Recognized Specialties and Proficiencies in Professional Psychology: http://www.apa.org/ed/graduate/specialize/recognized.aspx
2. American Psychological Association (APA), What is forensic psychology?: http://www.apa.org/ed/precollege/psn/2013/09/forensic-psychology.aspx
3. US News and World Report, Best Graduate Schools: https://www.usnews.com/best-graduate-schools/top-health-schools/the-university-of-alabama-100751
4. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Occupational Outlook Handbook, Psychologists: https://www.bls.gov/ooh/life-physical-and-social-science/psychologists.htm
5. American Psychological Association, Postgrad growth area, Forensic psychology: http://www.apa.org/gradpsych/2009/11/postgrad.aspx