The expertise of forensic psychologists is essential to the judicial system and to legal matters of all kinds, both civil and criminal. These specialists apply psychological principles to legal issues, serving as expert witnesses in criminal and civil cases, conducting psycho-legal evaluations, and working as trial consultants for law firms and the state.
Since the American Psychological Association (APA) recognized forensic psychology as a subspecialty of psychology in 2001, the field of study has grown rapidly in popularity.
As new undergraduate and graduate programs continue to be developed, the nation’s forensic psychology colleges continue to redefine and shape this field of study.
Forensic Psychology Education Info by State
- District of Columbia
- New Hampshire
- New Jersey
- New Mexico
- New York
- North Carolina
- North Dakota
- Rhode Island
- South Carolina
- South Dakota
- West Virginia
Bachelor’s Degrees in Forensic Psychology
Your introduction to psychology—and even forensic psychology—will occur at the undergraduate level.
A great number of colleges and universities across the country offer bachelor’s degrees in psychology. Undergraduate forensic psychology programs have foundation courses in the sciences or the liberal arts and are therefore structured as either Bachelor of Science (BS) or Bachelor of Arts (BA) programs.
Bachelor’s degrees in psychology generally include similar core courses, such as these:
- Research methods and statistics
- Introductory psychology
- Criminal behavior
- The court system
- Psychological psychology
- Abnormal psychology
- Ethics in criminal justice
Bachelor degrees in forensic psychology have a similar structure to psychology degrees; however, they may provide you with additional opportunities to take courses related to forensic psychology, such as these:
- Juvenile delinquency
- Child and adolescent development
- Adult development and aging
- Introduction to forensic psychology
The APA reports that only about 15 percent of graduate programs in psychology require an undergraduate forensic psychology major, which means that you may choose to pursue other related degrees and still enter a graduate program in forensic psychology. Some of the popular options include bachelor’s degrees in criminal justice and criminology.
However, most graduate programs require the completion of at least 18 credits of basic coursework at the undergraduate level, such as statistics and research methods, so it is important to make sure you satisfy these requirements in your undergraduate program.
Master’s Degrees in Forensic Psychology
There are two options for continuing your education after completing a bachelor’s degree program. You can complete a terminal master’s degree, followed by a doctoral degree, or you can complete a combined master’s/doctoral degree.
Colleges and universities offering terminal master’s degrees in clinical psychology or forensic psychology often require a minimum undergraduate GPA and a minimum GRE score for admission. Other requirements may include an admission interview or essay.
The APA reports that a master’s degree in psychology is “increasingly valued” by forensic psychology doctoral programs. Research has shown that individuals who enter a doctoral program with a master’s degree are more likely to complete the program than those with a bachelor’s degree. In other words, you may experience greater success in your doctoral program and in your career by first completing a master’s degree instead of entering directly into a doctorate in forensic psychology.
Similar to bachelor’s degrees in psychology and forensic psychology, master’s degrees are structured as Master of Science (MS) or Master of Arts (MA) programs. Some of your degree options for master’s-level study include:
- Master of Arts/Master of Science in Clinical Psychology with a Forensic Science concentration
- Master of Arts/Master of Science in Forensic Psychology
Core courses in a master’s degree in psychology often include:
- Social science and the law
- Intermediate statistics in the social sciences
- Research design and methods
Further, a master’s degree allows you to explore the many topics and populations within forensic psychology, such as:
- Eyewitness identification
- Social psychology and the legal system
- Violence and aggression
- Psychology of criminal behavior
- Crisis intervention
- Ethical issues in forensic mental health
- Family violence and dispute
You can expect a terminal master’s degree to require about two years of graduate-level coursework and the completion of a thesis. Many forensic psychology students intent on pursuing careers in consulting or research enter the job market after the completion of their master’s degree.
Doctoral Degrees in Forensic Psychology
A doctoral degree is the final educational step to earning state licensure to practice as a clinical psychologist with a forensic specialization. Each doctoral program sets its own admission requirements; however, you can expect admission to be highly competitive, with schools taking your GPA, resume, GRE scores, professional references, and admission essay/interview into consideration.
The APA recommends that applicants apply to multiple programs and do what they can to stand out from other applicants, such as gain clinical experience and earn a solid GPA.
Some doctoral programs require the completion of a master’s degree for admission, while others allow students to enter with just a bachelor’s degree. You can expect your doctoral degree program to take about 5 to 7 years to complete.
The sequence of your doctoral education and training will depend on the type of degree you choose. Most programs require you to pass a comprehensive examination and write/defend a dissertation or other scholarly product. Further, you must complete a one-year internship as part of your doctoral study in the area of forensic psychology.
You will soon discover that doctoral degrees in clinical psychology or forensic psychology Ph.D. programs are also structured as forensic psychology PsyD programs. In general—although this is certainly not always the case—the difference between these programs is as follows:
- Ph.D. Programs: Students interested in the production of new knowledge through scientific research usually apply to Ph.D. programs. Doctoral programs that award a Ph.D. focus on the areas of clinical research and scientific inquiry. They follow the traditional Scientist-Practitioner model, which trains students to become scientists and researchers.
- PsyD Programs: Students interested in the application of psychological science for service delivery at the individual or group level usually apply to PsyD programs. PsyD programs generally follow the Practitioner-Scholar model, which trains students to become skilled practitioners who apply knowledge to solve client problems.
However, it is important to recognize that some Ph.D. programs offer training in providing psychological services and the production of new knowledge. It is therefore always in your best interest to research a number of doctoral programs to find the one that best fits your career goals as a forensic psychologist.
Just a few of the doctoral programs in forensic psychology include:
- Ph.D. in Forensic Psychology
- PsyD in Forensic Psychology
- PsyD in Clinical Psychology with a forensic science concentration
- Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology with a forensic specialization
You may also notice a number of joint degree programs; more specifically, JD/Ph.D. and JD/PsyD programs. These programs provide students with the opportunity to pursue a law degree while also pursuing their doctoral degree in psychology.
Many doctoral programs in clinical psychology or forensic psychology also allow you to focus your doctoral studies on a specific population, such as adult, family, juvenile, inmate, offender, or victim.
According to the APA, in 2017 3.9 million people held a bachelor’s degree in psychology. Of those almost 4 million degree holders, only 14% held graduate degrees in psychology. Earning a graduate degree can really help you stand out in the field.
The Value of APA Accreditation: What You Need to Know
According to the APA, accreditation serves as the mechanism for ensuring educational quality. For your undergraduate and master’s program, at the institutional level your state’s Board of Psychology will typically expect you to seek schools recognized by one of the six, regional accrediting bodies:
- Middle States Association of Colleges and Secondary Schools
- New England Association of Schools and Colleges
- North Central Association of Colleges and Schools, Higher Learning Commission
- Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities
- Southern Association of Colleges and Schools
- Western Association of Schools and Colleges
However, at the doctoral level, the APA’s Commission on Accreditation (CoA) oversees program accreditation, and most states defer to the CoA when approving doctoral programs for state licensure for forensic psychology colleges.
The CoA, recognized by the U.S. Department of Education, accredited doctoral programs in clinical, counseling, and school psychology. It also accredits internship programs in professional psychology and postdoctoral residency programs in professional psychology.
The CoA requires all institutions with accredited doctoral programs to publish their internship placement success rate, an important aspect of doctoral programs.
The APA has a searchable database that allows you to locate doctoral programs, internships, and post-doctoral fellowships required to complete your education in forensic psychology.
You can also learn more about APA-accredited programs by reading the APA’s publication, Graduate Study in Psychology.
Interested in exploring different fields in forensic psychology? Find other Forensic Psychology Careers in your state.