Forensic Psychology Degrees: What You'll Study

Learn what degree you'll need to embark upon a career in the fascinating field of forensic psychology.

What degree levels are available?

forensic psychology professional in court

Earning a four-year undergraduate degree is the first step in your education toward becoming a forensic psychologist. Proper forensic psychology degrees are few, but are increasing along with interest and demand in the field. Most people who work in forensic psychology are clinical psychologists who choose a coursework track in law or criminal justice. You can also pursue a criminal justice degree with an emphasis on forensic psychology. A master's degree is the next step in becoming a psychologist of any kind. Finally, you can go on to complete a doctoral degree if you choose.

Bachelor's Degree Programs

There's more than one route you can take in pursuing a career in forensic psychology. First, you can work toward a bachelor's degree in psychology with an emphasis on forensics. Most psychology bachelor's degree programs require a blend of science and liberal arts courses. You'll typically be ready to take psychology electives by your junior year. 

Another pathway is to study for a degree in criminal justice, with an emphasis on forensic psychology. For example, Kaplan University offers a Bachelor of Science in Criminal Justice, with a focus on Forensic Psychology. As in any undergraduate degree, you’ll first complete 33 credit hours of communication, math, arts and humanities, physical science and social science. Below are a sampling of major courses and Forensics Psychology electives within Kaplan’s 180-credit program:

Examples of Major Courses

  • Introduction to the Criminal Justice System: An overview course on the United States justice system, outlining its philosophy and development, the current state of its agencies and institutions and the challenges facing them.
     
  • Criminology I: A framework for studying the nature and causes of crimes and antisocial behavior.Criminal Investigation: Explains the importance and legal significance of evidence, demonstrating how the investigative process works, from crime scene preservation to case preparation and courtroom presentation. Forensic psychologists are involved in each step of this process.
     
  • Applied Criminal Justice Ethics: Fundamentals of morality and ethics in the context of applied criminal justice. 
     
  • Research Methods in Criminal Justice: Fundamentals of applied research, including qualitative, quantitative, evaluative and predictive research, measurement of data, preparing and reading research report.

In addition, students will complete a Bachelor's Capstone in Criminal Justice, which is the culmination of your study. A capstone paper is a lengthy research paper, or thesis, that ties together what you've learned. It shows your command of the subject matter, ability to apply critical thinking and integrate concepts. This paper determines your readiness for further study, such as graduate school.

Master's Degree Programs

Master's degrees in forensic psychology are rare. It's more likely that you will earn your master's in clinical psychology, with a title that reflects the subfield of psychology in which you've chosen to specialize, such as "clinical forensic psychology."

Clinical, developmental, social and cognitive psychologists are some of the most common practitioners applying their expertise to the law in the field of forensic psychology.

Doctoral Programs: PhD and PsyD

Whether you earn a traditional or online psychology degree at the PhD level (or are able to find an accredited PhD program directly in forensic psychology, or in a criminal justice program), the possibilities for practice range widely and can include the following tasks:

  • Psychological evaluation or expert testimony in court cases
  • Clinical treatment and assessment concerning individuals prone to aggressive behavior
  • Forensic consultation to law enforcement, criminal justice, corrections and mental health systems

PsyD Programs

If you decide to pursue your forensic psychology education to the doctorate level, it's helpful to understand the differences between the two types of degrees you can work toward.

A Doctor of Psychology degree emphasizes practice training with less research than a PhD program. To decide which degree you should choose, it may be helpful to consider whether you wish to work in the academic (teaching and research) or clinical (applied practice) realm. In clinical practice, both types of degrees offer similar opportunity.

What certification will I need to practice forensic psychology?

After earning your master's or doctorate in psychology or criminal justice, no further licensure is needed to begin practicing. However, additional certification may give you extra oomph in the job market. If that interests you, the American Psychology-Law Society recommends obtaining certification by the American Board of Forensic Psychology. This process involves both a written, practice and oral examination, and only the practice-sample examination may be submitted online.

What will I learn from my courses?

Below is a sampling of The American Psychological Association (APA) specialty guidelines for working in forensic psychology:

  • Integrity
  • Diligence
  • Impartiality and fairness
  • Avoiding conflicts of interest
  • Gaining and maintaining competence
  • Knowledge of the legal system and the legal rights of individuals
  • Knowledge of the scientific foundation for opinions and testimony
  • Knowledge of the scientific foundation for teaching and research
  • Therapeutic-Forensic role conflicts

Are online programs available?

Online programs for psychologists are available for certain types of coursework. Generally, to complete a bachelor's degree program, internships and approximately 1,800 clinically supervised hours are required. You may not be able to complete psychology postgraduate degree programs online only.

Emerging online programs related to forensic psychology include Kaplan University's Bachelor of Science in Criminal Justice (Forensic Psychology track); Florida Tech University's Bachelor of Arts in Applied Psychology (Forensic Psychology track); Western International University's Bachelor of Arts in Criminal Behavior.

How much will my education cost?

As an example of tuition* you might find at a forensic psychology school, the John Jay College of Criminal Justice's undergraduate tuition is $2,865 per semester for full-time, New York State residents. Out-of-state tuition is $510 per credit hour (Credits required: 40-46)

The school's master's degree program is $4,585 per semester for in-state students. Out-of-state tuition runs close to $30,000 for the entire program.

Based on recent College Board research, bachelor's degree programs range from almost $9,000 to $30,000 depending on whether a student pays in-state or out-of-state tuition and whether the school is public, private, for-profit or nonprofit.

In-state tuition at public institutions cost an average of $7,750 annually for master's degrees.

*Cost of tuition only. Prices do not reflect other fees, books, room and board.

Are there prerequisites?

Undergraduate: A strong college preparatory high school education is a good start for your psychology degree program. Courses in sociology, science, math, child development, political science and social studies are important for prospective psychologists.

Graduate: If you aren't majoring in or planning to major in psychology for your undergraduate degree, taking psychology courses as electives will give you an idea of the field. If you've already earned your undergraduate degree and have not taken psychology courses, there may be other applicable areas in your educational or vocational background when applying to graduate psychology programs.

GRE: Check with the institution and program you plan to apply to, to find out whether the Graduate Record Examination (GRE) is not required for admission. If it's not, but you've taken the test and have good scores, you may submit them for review with your admission materials.

What accreditation is there for my program?

Why is accreditation important? Accreditation shows that an institution or program meets standards of quality set forth by an accrediting agency, and that it is committed not only to meet those standards but to continuously seek ways in which to improve the quality of education and training provided.

The American Psychological Association accredits doctoral programs in clinical psychology. Within some of these programs are concentrations in forensic psychology.

The APA is a specialized/professional accreditor. Institutional accreditation is provided by regional and national associations of schools and colleges. There are six regional associations, each named after the region in which it operates.

Attending an accredited school may allow you to apply for financial aid, whether the school you select is a traditional classroom or online program.

Source: College Board's Trends in College Pricing 2013-2014

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