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Forensic Psychology: PhD Program Information

forensic psychologist holding electronic notepad looking out office window

About the PhD in Forensic Psychology

Degree Type:

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


Online, classroom, and hybrid


4–8 years

Total Credits:

Usually between 90 and 130, including a dissertation

Aid Eligible:

Yes, for accredited programs

Forensic psychologists use their knowledge of psychological principles and apply them to the legal system.  They can make a significant impact on criminal cases and on the people and communities affected by those crimes. With a PhD in forensic psychology, you can learn the theory behind current methods of criminal justice and conduct research into treatment methods, preventive measures, and assessment techniques.

If you’re interested in the law and want to use your psychological knowledge in dynamic and meaningful ways, earning your PhD in forensic psychology might be a great career step. Read on to learn about what to expect from a forensic psychology PhD program and about the steps you’ll need to take before, during, and after your program in order to earn your license.

What Is Forensic Psychology?

Forensic psychology is a specialization for clinical psychologists that allows you to work alongside lawyers, law enforcement, correctional professionals, and social service workers to ensure the best outcome of criminal cases.

As a forensic psychologist, you can assist in court cases, assess criminals, measure the impact of crime on victims, and much more. You can also implement treatment programs, provide services to incarcerated clients, or provide expert testimony in court. Your daily work might involve speaking with trauma victims, monitoring at-risk populations, or overseeing a probation facility.

Criminal psychology vs. forensic psychology

The terms criminal psychology and forensic psychology are often used interchangeably, but the role of these professionals is actually different.

  • Criminal psychologists work to understand criminal motivations and to draw up criminal profiles.
  • Forensic psychologists work with all aspects of legal cases. They might determine if a criminal is competent to stand trial or educate a jury about the PTSD experienced by victims of crime.

Forensic Psychology PhD Programs

There are 2 options for your doctoral degree if you want to work as a forensic psychologist. You can either earn a Doctor of Psychology (PsyD) degree or a Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) degree. No matter what you choose, you’ll need to have a concentration in forensics. A PhD will involve research in legal and academic settings, as well as the study of practical application of legal theory. You’ll learn research techniques and formulate your own theories about psychology in a criminal setting. You’ll also prepare and defend a dissertation on a topic relevant to forensic psychology.

PhD vs. PsyD in forensic psychology

While both degrees will prepare you to work as a forensic psychologist, there are some key differences. A PsyD degree is more focused on clinical settings and interactions with individual clients. A PhD is more focused on research, statistics, and on larger trends in the field. If your goal is to assess and treat patients in a forensic setting, you might want to consider a PsyD degree. If you’re interested in applying psychology to legal theory or working in academic settings, a PhD is a better choice.

Admission Requirements

Admission requirements will depend on your program and whether you’re entering with a bachelor’s or master’s degree. However, you’ll most likely need to:

  • Complete a criminal background check
  • Provide letters of recommendation
  • Write a personal essay describing your career goals
  • Attend an interview

Some programs will also ask that you’ve done some work in the field prior to admission, either on a paid or volunteer basis.

Is there a GPA requirement?

Yes, in most cases. Most programs will require that you earned at least a 3.0 GPA from your prior education, and some competitive programs require as a high as 3.75. Additionally, there are programs that require a higher GPA for graduate-level classes. For example, you may need a 3.0 from your undergraduate program, but a 3.5 from your master’s.

Do you need to take the GRE?

Most programs require applicants to take the GRE, and many require specific scores, or that applicants be within a certain upper percentile of test takers. However, there are some schools that don’t require the GRE at all. You’ll need to check the admissions requirements for your top choice programs to make sure you’ve taken all the necessary steps.

Can you get in without a master’s degree?

There are many forensic psychology PhD programs that allow you to apply for admission with a bachelor’s degree. In these programs, you’ll earn your master’s alongside your PhD. You might see this referred to as a dual or joint degree track.

How Long Does It Take to Get a PhD in Forensic Psychology?

Your PhD can take anywhere between 4 and 8 years to complete. Factors that influence the length of time include whether you attend full- or part-time, your dissertation subject, and the structure of your chosen program. Some programs put a limit on the amount of time allowed to work towards your PhD. This means that if you’re not able to complete the requirements for graduation before the limit— generally 7 or 8 years—you’ll need to petition the school for an extension.

Accelerated programs

There are a few options available to you if you want to earn your degree more quickly. Some schools offer accelerated or fast-track programs. In a fast-track program, you can start your dissertation earlier in your program and take additional classes, allowing you to move through the requirements in a lot less time.

Another way to accelerate your PhD is by attending a program that allows you to apply credits from your master’s degree. These programs can be a good choice if you already have a master’s degree in psychology, because they lessen the number of courses you’ll need to take to earn your PhD.

Education Requirements

Your PhD program will cover topics related to legal theory and psychology. You’ll study the effects of current programs on populations and the research-based reasoning for their structure and methods. You’ll also discuss ways those programs might be improved in the future and the types of research studies such changes would require. In addition to research, you’ll focus on teaching and consulting skills that could help you advance in your career and gain leadership in the field.

In addition to your coursework, you’ll need to complete a dissertation. In many programs, you’ll also need to complete fieldwork or an internship.

Core classes

Common classes in forensic psychology PhD programs include coursework in:

  • Theories of psychology
  • Criminal behavior
  • Research and analysis
  • Understanding violence
  • Risk assessment
  • Teaching psychology
  • Police psychology
  • Issues in forensic psychology
  • Treatment techniques in forensics
  • Program evaluation

Dissertation requirements

Another core component of your PhD program will be your dissertation. Your dissertation will need to be approved by the faculty at your school, and you’ll need to meet with advisors throughout your program. You’ll also need to present and defend your dissertation before you can be awarded a forensic psychology PhD. The work and research on your dissertation will be worth a set number of credits toward your degree.

Is an Internship or Other Fieldwork Required?

Some programs do require fieldwork or internships, but others don’t. In general, PhD programs with a stronger research focus won’t require internships, while programs with a more clinical focus. Keep in mind that even if the PhD program you select doesn’t include an internship or fieldwork, your state will still require a set number of experience hours to be completed after you graduate before you can earn your license.

What Instruction Formats Are Available?

You can earn your forensic psychology PhD degree online, in a classroom, or in a hybrid program. Each type of program has its own advantages, so it’s important to pick the option that best fits your lifestyle and goals. Some key difference include:

  • Online programs: By attending an online program, you can structure your classes around your schedule. You might be able to watch lectures at your convenience or have a window of an entire day to log in for a test. Additionally, you don’t need to live near campus to attend an online program. Keep in mind, however, that some programs do have an internship or fieldwork requirement that you won’t be able to complete online. Some states also require that aspiring forensic psychologists earn some of their doctoral hours on campus.
  • Hybrid programs: In a hybrid program, you’ll attend some of your classes on campus, but complete others entirely online. These programs can be a great choice for students who are working while completing their degree because they don’t require as much time spent in a classroom. For example, if you were taking 4 courses in a semester, you might only need to come to campus once or twice a week for a single course.
  • Classroom programs: Classroom programs can be a great choice for students who want to attend research-heavy programs and who aren’t working while earning their degree. Classroom programs tend to be more immersive, and some students prefer to interact with their professors, advisors, and classmates in person.

How to Choose a Program

Your forensic psychology PhD is an investment in your future career. By choosing the program that best fits your needs, you can ensure that your investment pays off. Some important considerations are:

  • Is this program accredited?
  • What kinds of jobs do graduates of this program find?
  • What credentials does the faculty of this program have?
  • Can I attend this program part-time?
  • What are the admissions requirements for this program?
  • Are online courses offered?
  • Is an internship required?
  • Is financial aid available?
  • Does this program have a cap on the amount of time I can take to earn my PhD?

No matter which option you choose, your program must be accredited. Most states require programs to have earned accreditation from either the American Psychological Association (APA) or the Canadian Psychological Association (CPA). In some states, programs that have been designated by the ASPBB are also accepted.

Forensic psychology education and licensure requirements

You’ll need to earn a doctoral degree in psychology with a specialization in forensics in order to work as a forensic psychologist. Generally, you’ll then need to take exams specific to your state and acquire a set number of experience hours in addition to your degree. All states require that candidates for psychology licensure take the Examination for Professional Practice in Psychology (EPPP) given by the Association of State and Provincial Psychology Boards (ASPPB). This exam consists of 225 multiple-choice questions and, in most states, must be passed with a score of at least 500 out of 800.

Earning your license allows you to practice without supervision and in private practice. It also has the potential to increase your salary and allow you to take on leadership and other advanced roles.

The first step to licensure in all states is earning a bachelor’s degree. This degree does not have to be in psychology, but if you know your goal is to work as a forensic psychologist, then an undergraduate program in psychology, law, or other related fields could be your best choice. If you choose to earn an unrelated degree, you might need to take additional prerequisites before gaining admission to a graduate program.

Your next step will be to earn a master’s degree. Keep in mind that there are programs that allow you to earn your master’s degree alongside your doctorate. You can apply for admission to these programs with only your bachelor’s, allowing you to earn your required doctorate faster.

Forensic psychologist salary

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) doesn’t track data for forensic psychologists specifically.

However, psychologists of all kinds report a median annual salary of $85,330. Those employed by federal government agencies, which many forensic psychologists may be, earn an average of $101,540.

Financial Aid for Forensic Psychology Students

Advanced degrees can be very costly. Fortunately, there are several financial aid options available to forensic psychology PhD students. Popular options include:

  • Research assistantships
  • Teaching assistantships
  • Fellowships
  • Scholarships

Research and teaching assistantships will grant you a stipend, generally paid per semester, to work as an assistant while you earn your PhD. Many of these programs also waive tuition fees for students with these positions. You’ll need to apply to gain an assistantship position and meet the continued requirements of the position throughout your program in order to receive these benefits. According to the APA, these programs are more likely to be offered at public universities, and students might have better chances of qualifying for them after the first year of their program.

You can also apply for scholarships and fellowships, though you must meet the requirements of these awards each semester. In some cases, you might need to reapply every academic year. For fees not covered by any of these positions and awards, or for students who don’t qualify, federal loans, and state grants are also available. Your first step to getting this type of aid will be to fill out the Free Federal Application for Student Aid (FAFSA). Other options to explore might include employer tuition reimbursement, private foundation loans, or military grants.

Does Forensic Psychology Qualify for Student Loan Forgiveness?

Student loan forgiveness depends on your employer and other factors. Most loan forgiveness programs require that you work full time for a government or nonprofit agency. Additionally, you’ll need to make at least 120 payments before loan forgiveness can be considered. In some cases, you might also need to prove there’s specific need for forensic psychologists in your area. The Federal Student Aid office has detailed information about forgiveness programs that might be available.

Forensic Psychology Certification

Certification is available to forensic psychologists. While it’s not required for licensure, having certification can boost your career and make you stand out among other job applicants. The certification is overseen by the American Board of Forensic Psychology (ABFP), a specialty board of the American Board of Professional Psychology.

Certification requires that 2 primary standards are met:

  • You pass a review of your credentials, a written exam, and an oral exam. The board will then vote to accept your certification and membership request.
  • You must not have any prior conduct the board deems unfit for certification.

The oral exam is the last stage of certification and is a rigorous 3-hour test in 2 areas of forensic psychology, administered by board-certified professionals.

Professional Organizations for Forensic Psychologists

A professional organization can be a great way for you to make connections, find career opportunities, and keep up on industry news and trends. The APA is the primary organization for all psychologists in all specialties across the country and offers many benefits. Beyond the APA, some prominent organizations more specific to forensic psychologists include: