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 6% growth in psychology jobs through 2031. Advances in forensic psychology indicate that specialists in this field should be in demand.
Below, discover an overview of educational requirements, licensing and certification, and job opportunities for this potentially 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. in forensic psychology is more research-oriented; it 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. graduates are qualified to work in academia as researchers or professors, while Psy.D. graduates tend to gravitate toward careers working directly with patients.
Psy.D. programs often admit more students than Ph.D. programs, and Ph.D. admission requirements tend to be tighter.
A typical path to a career in forensic psychology involves earning a doctorate in clinical psychology from a program accredited by the American Psychological Association (APA). This program should include 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
$75,000 (Payscale, 2023)
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Why Get a Ph.D. in Forensic Psychology?
You may need an advanced degree to become licensed in most states. 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, 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 often includes assessment, diagnosis, and patient treatment; history of psychology and practice methods; and social, cognitive, and biological behavior.
Legal topics tend to 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 can 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.
Source: Payscale, 2023
Where Do Forensic Psychologists Work?
Forensic psychologists work for federal government agencies, local governments, private organizations, universities, research labs, and as independent consultants.
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 often 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.
- AAFP continuing education workshops. (n.d.) American Academy of Forensic Psychology
- About. (n.d.). American Psychology-Law Society
- About us. (n.d.) International Association for Correctional and Forensic Psychology
- Association of state and provincial psychology boards (n.d.) ASPPB
- Average forensic psychologist salary. (2023). Payscale
- Forensic Psychology. (n.d.) American Board of Professional Psychology
- Psychologists: Occupational Outlook Handbook. (2021). U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics
- Wilt, Chelsey. (n.d.) What is the EPPP exam? Study.com
Page last reviewed January 4, 2023