Forensic Psychology Degree Guide

What is Forensic Psychology?

Originally offered as "legal psychology" at American University in 1922, forensic psychology has grown tremendously as an academic discipline and practice. In the early 1920s, psychologists first began appearing as expert witnesses in court cases, offering expert testimony and insight. These court appearances prompted further study and exploration, leading to a thriving, comprehensive discipline. Today, students can earn a bachelor's, master's, doctoral, or professional degree in forensic psychology. Graduates often go on to practice psychology within all facets of the legal system, serving as expert witnesses and counseling law enforcement agents.

This page offers some further insight into earning a forensic psychology degree. Keep reading to learn more about this exciting academic field.

How to Become a Forensic Psychologist

Generally, you need a license to practice clinically as a psychologist in any capacity, including in forensics. To earn that license, you must fulfill certain education requirements. The typical academic path to licensure for forensic psychologists includes earning a bachelor's degree, pursuing graduate education, and ultimately earning a doctoral degree. The doctorate is the most common requirement for licensure as a clinical psychologist. Prior to earning licensure, you must also complete a minimum number of supervised practice hours in an internship or practicum. Keep in mind that these specific requirements vary by state.

Forensic Psychology vs. General Psychology

Curriculum in forensic psychology programs emphasizes the intersection between clinical psychology and the legal system. Generally, these programs offer a much more focused approach than a general psychology track. Coursework in forensic psychology programs covers psychology topics while tailoring them towards forensic and criminal psychology.

COMMONALITIES

Although forensic psychology programs provide a more focused and tailored approach to psychology studies, they share similarities with general psychology programs. Some general psychology programs may offer forensic psychology as a concentration or track rather than as its own degree. Forensic psychology students often take many of the same courses as general psychology students, including core courses in developmental and abnormal psychology, biology and human development, and seminars in addiction and substance abuse.

Forensic psychologists and general psychologists often pursue similar careers. Both forensic and general psychologists can work in a private practice or in a public setting, such as a government agency. Both types of psychologists must meet the same requirements to earn the same clinical psychology license, as mandated by their state psychology or mental health board.

DIFFERENCES

A forensic psychology degree differs in some key ways from a general psychology degree. Although both options emphasize core theories and tenets of psychology, forensic psychology programs also incorporate coursework exploring law and criminology. In addition to courses in abnormal psychology and human development, forensic psychology students also take courses in the legal system, correctional psychology, and criminal behavior. Students in graduate forensic psychology programs may also pursue research projects that explore the various intersections of law and psychology.

After earning a degree in forensic psychology, graduates may go on to pursue careers in specialized areas working in various legal sectors and fields. These professionals may work in correctional facilities, within law enforcement agencies and departments, and as private consultants to provide expert testimony in court proceedings. However, both general psychologists and forensic psychologists need the same standard license to practice clinically.

What Can You Do With a Forensic Psychology Degree?

Depending on where they work, forensic psychologists serve a variety of roles. Psychologists working in correctional facilities interact with prisoners, providing ongoing counseling and mental health screenings. Forensic psychologists work with law enforcement and prosecutors, assessing criminals and defendants to determine their ability to stand trial.

To practice as a forensic psychologist, you need a doctoral degree; however, a forensic psychology degree can prepare you for a variety of careers both inside and outside of the legal system.

Forensic Psychology Degree Programs

Source: PayScale, The American Psychology-Law Society


Undergraduate Forensic Psychology Programs

Degree Requirements

Typically, earning an undergraduate degree in forensic psychology takes 3-4 years, depending on enrollment. Some programs may require an internship or practicum, particularly for students intending to pursue graduate education. Undergraduate students in forensic psychology complete 45-60 credits of general education requirements and 45-60 credits within the forensic psychology major.

  • GPA: 2.75-3.0
  • Credits: 120
  • Internship/Practicum Requirements: Some programs may require an internship, capstone course, or thesis project.

Careers This Degree Can Prepare You For

With a bachelor's degree in forensic psychology, you can pursue a variety of entry-level careers in the field. Some graduates become research assistants, working alongside practicing psychologists. Other graduates go on to work as victim advocates, social workers, and police and probation officers.

Learn More About Forensic Psychology Bachelor's Degrees

Forensic Psychology Master's Programs

Degree Requirements

Earning a master's in forensic psychology generally requires 30-45 credits, depending on the program. Students can often complete these programs in 2-3 years. Some programs may require additional internship or supervised practice hours, especially for students interested in pursuing clinical practice and doctoral degrees.

  • GPA: 2.75-3.0
  • Credits: 30-45
  • Internship/Practicum Requirements: Master's students in forensic psychology often complete internships or practicum experiences prior to graduation.

Careers This Degree Can Prepare You For

A master's in forensic psychology provides pathways to different types of careers in psychology and counseling. With a master's, you can work as a professional licensed counselor in many states. Professional counselors with a background in forensic psychology work in correctional and juvenile facilities, and provide counseling services to law enforcement agents, victims, and criminals.

Learn More About Forensic Psychology Master's Degrees

Forensic Psychology Doctorate Programs

Degree Requirements

Doctoral degrees in forensic psychology can take up to seven years to complete, but generally require 4-6 years. Ph.D. and Psy.D. degrees often maintain different requirements, including research experience and supervised clinical practice in the field. Many doctoral students also serve as teaching or research assistants.

  • GPA: 3.2-3.75
  • Credits: 60-75
  • Internship/Practicum Requirements: Doctoral students often complete internships or supervised clinical practice hours, leading to licensure.

Careers This Degree Can Prepare You For

The doctorate in forensic psychology prepares students for state licensure as a clinical psychologist. With this degree and a license, they may go on to work in private practices, working one on one with clients. They may serve as expert witnesses in court testimonies, psychologists for law enforcement agencies, and as psychologists in corrections facilities.

Learn More About Forensic Psychology Doctorate Degrees

Online Forensic Psychology Programs

An online forensic psychology degree provides a flexible, accessible path toward earning your education credentials. Many colleges and universities offer bachelor's, master's, and doctoral degrees in forensic psychology entirely or partially online, allowing students to complete their degree from a distance or with minimal time on campus. Students earning degrees in forensic psychology online may even shorten their time to completion by taking more classes at once or choosing a program that offers accelerated learning options. Some online programs may offer opportunities to earn credit for work experience and transfer credits from other institutions.

Online degrees in forensic psychology require strong time management and organization skills, requiring students to be self-starters and complete work by set deadlines. Graduate programs in forensic psychology may also require more in-person components, including internships, supervised practice, and practicum requirements.

When Selecting a Program


Choose a location that offers opportunities that align with your interests

Programs located near penitentiaries, intelligence agency headquarters, or psychiatric hospitals can allow students to pursue opportunities that interest them during the school year or through summer internships.

Look to see if professors have experience in the field

Students interested in becoming forensic psychologists should ensure their professors have worked as forensic psychologists themselves. Some programs are taught by educators with a more generalized psychology or teaching background.

Consider class size

Smaller programs may allow for more one-on-one time with professors and less competition for field work experience and internships. Larger programs may give students a larger alumni network and access to exclusive opportunities.

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