Forensic Psychology Degree and Career Guide
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Forensic Psychology: Master’s Degree Programs
What Is a Master’s in Forensic Psychology?
A master’s in forensic psychology is a graduate-level degree that prepares students to work within the justice system from a psychological perspective. Students learn the clinical, legal and forensic analysis skills necessary to aid criminal investigations, litigation or consultation. The degree is ideally suited for those interested in pursuing a career in law enforcement or advancing to a doctorate degree.
Are MA and MS degrees different?
A Master of Arts (MA) and a Master of Science (MS) in Forensic Psychology will each provide a slightly different focus. While both can prepare you to work within the field, the degree you choose should depend on the exact career path you want to pursue.
An MS emphasizes the more scientific aspects of forensic psych, such as research, analysis, and consulting. An MA will likely focus more on counseling and developing psychological profiles.
Who are forensic psychology graduate degrees intended for?
To enter into a forensic psychology master’s program, you must already hold a bachelor’s degree. Depending on the requirements of your program, your bachelor’s may or may not need to be in forensic psych specifically. Degrees in areas such as general psychology, criminal justice, human services, and other related fields may properly prepare you for the program.
Terminal vs. non-terminal degree programs
Terminal degrees refer to programs where that level of education is the highest that you can complete. In non-terminal master’s programs, it’s often expected by the school that you’ll go on to earn your doctorate.
The type of program you choose should align with your ultimate career goals. While there are plenty of jobs that let you work in forensic psych with a master’s, being considered an official psychologist requires a doctoral degree and a license.
Academic Requirements and Prerequisites
To enter a master’s program, you’ll need to have completed the equivalent of a bachelor’s-level education with at least 120 course credits.
Is there a GPA requirement?
In general, most master’s programs require at least a 3.0 GPA for admission, with many requiring a minimum of 3.3.
Can you get in if your bachelor’s degree isn’t in forensic psychology?
It depends on the program, but there are many schools that will allow you to pursue a master’s in forensic psych without a bachelor’s specifically in the field. That said, they’ll often want you to have related experience in areas such as general psychology, criminal justice, public policy, human resources, and social work.
Do you need to take the GRE?
You’ll likely have to sit for the GRE and achieve an acceptable score for the program you’re applying for. That said, some schools require alternate tests, while others don’t ask for scores at all.
How Long Does It Take to get a Master’s Degree in Forensic Psychology?
Depending on the program and how many credits you take per semester, full-time students typically earn their master’s degrees within 2 years.
Core classes covered in a forensic psychology program include:
- Psychology and the Legal System: The study of the psychological impact of the legal system on those within it
- Psychopathology of Crime: The study of biological, cognitive, genetic, neurological, sociological and other factors contributing to the psychopathology of crime
- Research Methodology: The study of the processes used to conduct research in the field and produce new findings
- Theories of Criminal Behavior: The study of competing theories as to why people commit crime
- Treatment and Rehabilitation: The study of strategies to combat relapse or reoffending
Number of course credits
Credits required vary by program, but in general, you can expect to complete anywhere from 36–54. Students who won’t be attending on a full-time basis may evaluate schools on a cost-per-credit basis.
You may choose to tailor your forensic psych degree even further. This could mean concentrating specifically on areas such as:
- Crisis response
- Legal issues
- Mental health
Is Fieldwork or a Practicum Required?
In addition to classroom work, practical experience is required in most programs. It’s always required if you wish to get board certification.
What Formats Are Available?
Online master’s programs are available and are great for working professionals with limited time who still want to advance or change careers. Keep in mind, however, that online courses will most likely still require hands-on experience in the form of internships or training sessions.
For some programs, all education takes place in the classroom. This option is best for people who prefer a more traditional college experience. If you school offers courses at night or on the weekends, you may still be able to have flexibility.
Hybrid classes can offer the best of both worlds by combining online and in-person classes. These programs allow you to learn theoretical concepts online while putting them into practice in a traditional classroom setting.
For those who can handle the intense, fast-paced workload, there are accelerated learning programs in the field of forensic psychology. You may also be able to find a dual master’s/doctoral degree program that allows you to earn both degrees while shortening the length of time.
Can I Apply Credits Toward a Doctorate?
You might be able to apply some of your master’s degree credits toward a doctorate if you choose to advance your studies. If you opt for a dual master’s/doctoral degree, it’s likely that credits from your forensic psychology education can be applied to earning a PhD or PsyD in general psychology or a related field.
What Does a Forensic Psychologist Do?
Forensic psychologists can conduct academic research, consult with law enforcement, provide evaluation and treatment of inmates, counsel victims and families, analyze evidence from crime scenes, and consult with attorneys and other legal professionals. They also often testify as an expert witness in court.
Forensic psychology offers a variety of overlapping career paths, including:
- Correctional psychologist: Many forensic psychologists work in the corrections department with inmates, parolees, and probationers. Correctional psychologists provide counseling, psychological testing, and evaluations.
- Counselor: Counselors work to assess a litigant’s mental competency or emotional well-being and provide psychological service both during and after civil trials. They also provide treatment to those who have been declared legally insane.
- Evaluator: Forensic psychologists can use their expertise to make many determinations in the justice system. This includes competence to stand trial, likelihood of re-offending, or the mental state of a defendant. In civil cases, they assess home situations, especially for child custody cases.
- Expert witness: Trial attorneys recruit forensic psychologists to serve as expert witnesses in court. They take the stand and testify as to the state of mind of a litigant.
- Law enforcement consultant: These forensic psychologists work hand-in-hand with law enforcement officers. Often, these roles involve crisis intervention assistance while treating the victim of a crime. Other tasks might include designing training programs, personnel management, and referral for counseling.
- Researcher: A researcher might train, teach, and supervise other forensic psychology students. It’s not uncommon for researchers to additionally work in other areas of the field.
- Trial consultant: Leveraging relevant research, forensic psychologists provide consulting during trial, helping lawyers prepare for jury selection, case strategy, and witness preparation.
While the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) doesn’t report salary specifically for forensic psychologists, clinical and counseling psychologists earn a median annual salary of $90,130 a year.
There’s no specific license for forensic psych, however to legally be considered a psychologist, you must have a license in the state where you work. Though each state has its own unique requirements, gaining licensure requires holding a doctoral degree and passing the Examination for Professional Practice in Psychology (EPPP). Having your license can open you up greater career opportunities and help you to be seen as more respected in the field.
If you have your doctorate in psychology, you may also choose to become certified in forensic psych by the American Board of Professional Psychology. Getting certified can help you make connections in the field, find employment opportunities, and stay abreast of innovations and advances. Certification requires 100 hours of continuing education in forensic psychology and either 1,000 hours of direct experience or at least 2,000 hours of postdoctoral training.
Typical Degree & Career Paths
To study forensic psychology, you must first obtain a bachelor’s degree. Most commonly, this is a 4-year Bachelor of Science (BS) or Bachelor of Arts (BA) in Psychology with a minor in criminal justice or a related field. In some cases, the major and minor might be reversed.
Following completion of these studies, you can then go on to earn your master’s. Some schools may even offer dual degrees that let you work on your master’s at the same time as your bachelor’s. A master’s program typically takes 2–4 years to complete, though this can be shorter with a dual degree.
Many PhD programs don’t offer specialization in forensic psychology, so people in the field often complete their education at the master’s level. However, some might choose to go on to get their PhD or PsyD in general psychology or another specialty. It’s also not uncommon for forensic psych students to go on to pursue a law degree, though this is far from a requirement. If you’re interested in roles that involve more research and producing new knowledge in the field, a PhD can help you secure those positions.
Financial Aid Information
Financial aid is available for forensic psychology students, both federally funded and through private loans, grants, and scholarships. Federal student loans come with income requirements and are only available to U.S. citizens and some qualifying non-citizens. You must also be enrolled in a degree-granting, accredited program to receive this aid. To determine what assistance you qualify for, you must first fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA).
Does Forensic Psychology Qualify for Student Loan Forgiveness?
A number of student loan forgiveness programs benefit psychologists, and those in the field of forensic psychology are no exception. You’re usually still required to make payments for a certain period of time, but can earn forgiveness for some or all of your loans through certain kinds of work.
- Public Student Loan Forgiveness: You must work for a governmental agency, a 501(c)3 nonprofit, a qualifying service organization, the Peace Corps, or AmeriCorps and make 10 years of qualifying payments.
- National Health Service Corps: Working 2 years in a qualifying, high need area can mean student loan forgiveness within 2 years.
- Indian Health Services Loan Repayment Program: Up to $40,000 in loan forgiveness is available for behavioral health professionals who work in Native American or Native Alaskan communities.
Additionally, a number of states have their own loan forgiveness programs that you might be eligible for.
Professional Organizations for Forensic Psychology
Becoming a member of a professional organization can provide great opportunities to network, gain new education, and obtain special certification. Some prominent groups for forensic psychologists include: