A relatively young specialty area, forensic psychology merges psychological principles with criminal investigation. Forensic psychologists help attorneys, judges, and other legal professionals understand the psychological elements of particular cases. They often evaluate victims of crimes or accidents and provide expert testimony in court.
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects 11% growth in psychology jobs through 2026. Advances in forensic psychology indicate that specialists in this field should be in demand. Continue reading for an overview of educational requirements, licensing and certification, and job opportunities for this rewarding career.
Earning a Ph.D. vs. a Psy.D.
Most state licensing boards require a doctoral degree to independently practice clinical psychology and to use the title of "psychologist."
Students can earn a doctorate in psychology in two ways: a doctor of philosophy in psychology (Ph.D.), or a doctor of psychology (Psy.D.). In general, a Ph.D. is more research-oriented and requires a dissertation and comprehensive exam to graduate. The Psy.D. curriculum focuses on clinical practice, requiring practical work experience and exams.
Ph.D. programs in psychology span 5-7 years, while students can earn the Psy.D. in 4-6 years. As a general rule, Ph.D. holders are qualified to work in academia as researchers or professors, while Psy.D. graduates tend to gravitate toward careers working directly with patients.
Applicants should know that Psy.D. programs usually admit more students than Ph.D. programs, and Ph.D. admissions requirements tend to be more stringent.
A typical path to a career in forensic psychology consists of earning a doctorate in clinical psychology from a program accredited by the American Psychological Association (APA) that includes coursework in both psychology and law.
Typical Admission Requirements:
Academic transcripts, recommendation letters, academic writing sample, personal statement, in-person interview, GRE scores
Time to Completion:
Why Get a Ph.D. in Forensic Psychology?
An advanced degree may be necessary to become licensed in most states, and earning a Ph.D. or Psy.D. also confers many professional and personal benefits, including:
- The opportunity to obtain state licensing and use the title "forensic psychologist"
- The chance for students to design their own programs that meet their research and career goals
- Job opportunities in a growing field
- Potential tuition cost waivers and stipends for teaching and research assistantships
- The clout that comes with a Ph.D. or Psy.D.
While curriculum and graduation requirements vary depending on the program, most forensic psychology graduate programs require classes similar to those described below.
Graduate students in forensic psychology take courses in two general areas: applied clinical psychology and law and justice. Clinical psychology content usually includes assessment, diagnosis, and patient treatment; history of psychology and practice methods; and social, cognitive, and biological behavior.
Legal topics typically cover the justice system, mental health law, and assessment of juveniles and adults in legal contexts.
A practicum course allows students to apply the knowledge and skills gained in their doctoral program in a real-world setting. Students complete practicum placements under the supervision of a professor and their onsite supervisor. Practicums typically begin during the program's second year.
Between years three and five, Ph.D. students begin researching and writing their dissertations, which consist of a lengthy report detailing the student's original research. Once they complete their dissertations, students must defend them. Dissertation defense involves a discussion or question-and-answer process with their dissertation committee faculty members.
Like a practicum, an internship field placement typically happens during the second year of the Ph.D. or Psy.D. program. Internships, which must be APA-accredited, function more like a job with an onsite supervisor. Interns often work full time with more autonomy than in a practicum.
What Can You Do With a Ph.D. in Forensic Psychology?
Most graduates of Psy.D. programs pursue careers as forensic psychologists. Graduates of Ph.D. programs often seek positions in academia and research. Potential positions include academic researchers and professors. Forensic psychologists work in a variety of fields, including corrections, homeland security, law enforcement, and social services.
Most state licensing boards require a doctoral degree to independently practice forensic and clinical psychology and to use the title of "forensic psychologist." Licensing requirements vary by state. Candidates should check with the Association of State and Provincial Psychology Boards for specifics.
In general, license applicants need to have completed an internship and 1-2 years of supervised work experience. They also take the Examination for Professional Practice in Psychology. Licensing costs typically exceed $1,000, including application, licensing, and exam fees.
Licenses expire every 2-3 years. Licensing boards require continuing education for renewal. License holders can find the number of required credits from their state board.
Licensed psychologists can also earn a Specialty Board Certification in Forensic Psychology from the American Board of Forensic Psychology/American Board of Professional Psychology. Certification benefits include potentially higher salaries, job market advantages, license mobility in most states, and academic tenure.
- American Psychology-Law Society-Div 41 A division of the APA, AP-LS focuses on practice, public service, and scholarship in psychology and law. Member benefits include publications, job postings, and information on graduate programs and grant funding.
- American Academy of Forensic Psychology AAFP offers in-person and online APA-approved continuing education workshops for students and practitioners. Topics include criminal and civil forensics, ethics, and preparing for board certification in forensic psychology.
- International Association for Correctional and Forensic Psychology With student and professional memberships available, this organization is a clearinghouse of evidence-based research. Benefits include free online research tools, a monthly journal, and discounts on books, educational materials, and conferences.