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Clinical Forensic Psychology: Degree Program Options

Forensic psychology is the study of how psychological principles can be applied to issues in the criminal justice system. Degree program options in this field include the Bachelor of Science (B.S.), Bachelor of Arts (B.A.), Master of Arts (M.A.), Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.) and Doctor of Psychology (Psy.D.) programs.

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Essential Information

A bachelor's program in forensic psychology gives students a foundational knowledge of various aspects of human behavior and how that behavior affects communities and the legal system. Applicants to a bachelor's degree program should have a high school diploma. This 4-year program combines courses in psychology with criminal justice courses, and students also develop an understanding of basic research methodologies. A bachelor's degree in this field can prepare graduates for occupations such as probation counselor or court liaison.

Master's degree programs in forensic psychology often focus on field work such as counseling juvenile offenders and developing community outreach programs. Students learn to apply psychological theories and research findings to real world situations. Courses offer information on interviewing and assessing criminals and victims as well as various treatment methods. Master's degree programs require that applicants have a bachelor's degree, either in psychology or with a significant number of psychology credits.

Doctoral programs in psychology combine research and clinical practice and often offer forensic psychology as an option for concentration. A bachelor's degree may be sufficient for entry into these programs. Students get instruction on common duties in this field, such as evaluating child custody cases and providing psychological assessments of criminals. They must complete extensive internship work.

All states require that psychologists be licensed. Requirements vary, but call for a doctor's degree and experience. There are also professional certifications available for forensic psychologists.

Bachelor's Degree Programs in Forensic Psychology

Bachelor's degree programs in forensic psychology generally train students to analyze human behavior through empirical research methods. Students learn about the social, biological and cognitive aspects of human behavior, as well as how the behavior of individuals impacts communities and more specifically the legal system at-large. Programs may incorporate interdisciplinary courses in criminal justice in order to make clearer connections between psychological principles and their forensic applications in criminal justice.

Course Topics

In bachelor's degree programs in forensic psychology, coursework usually coalesces around a core of courses in fields such as abnormal psychology, social psychology and developmental psychology. Statistics is also generally required as a means of enhancing students' abilities as assessors and researchers. Related electives then cover topics such as:

  • Alcohol and drug abuse
  • Behavioral pharmacology
  • Corrections psychology
  • Counseling
  • Psychotherapy techniques
  • Criminal psychology
  • Evidence and investigations
  • Psychology and the law
  • Psychology of gender

Popular Career Options

With a bachelor's degree, students may pursue careers in fields such as law enforcement or social work. Possible titles include:

  • Casework specialist
  • Correctional counselor
  • Court liaison
  • Probation counselor
  • Victim advocate

Master of Arts in Forensic Psychology

In master's degree programs in forensic psychology, students typically learn to apply psychological methods, theories and research directly to field work in courts and communities. Available field work options may include counseling juveniles and their families, developing community programs and advocating public policy. Alongside this field work, master's degree programs can provide students with classroom instruction in how to interview, assess and provide appropriate clinical treatment to their target clientele, namely offenders, victims and other parties involved in criminal cases. Students may learn particularly about approaches to psychotherapy and crisis intervention.

Education Prerequisites

Applicants must typically have a bachelor's degree, transcripts, Graduate Record Examinations (GRE) scores and letters of recommendation for admission to a master's degree program. Most programs recommend that applicants either have an undergraduate degree in psychology or a minimum level of coursework in psychology, statistics and research methods. Some institutions also have minimum GPA requirements.

Course Topics

Courses at this degree level cover theoretical topics in analyzing crime and criminals as well as cultural issues in forensic psychology. Most curricula also further train students in statistics and methodological approaches to psychological research. Intervention and therapeutic techniques commonly used in clinical practice and legal work make up the remainder of the coursework. Possible topics include:

  • Assessing and treating juvenile offenders
  • Crisis intervention
  • Ethics in forensic psychology
  • Evaluating criminals
  • Family law
  • Forensic mediation

Doctoral Degree Programs in Forensic Psychology

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) states that most practicing clinical psychologists have doctoral degrees. ( Accordingly, doctoral programs focusing on clinical forensic psychology train students in the primary tasks performed by licensed forensic psychologists, such as evaluating child custody cases, providing court testimony and assessing criminals. To hone these abilities, students are generally required to complete internships in settings such as mental health clinics, correctional facilities or law offices. Doctoral programs also require the composition and defense of a dissertation.

Doctoral programs usually take five years to complete and may offer the Doctor of Psychology (Psy.D.) or Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.) degree. These degrees tracks have similar curricula and requirements related to research and internships. Forensic psychology itself is usually offered as a concentration track within Psy.D. and Ph.D. programs in clinical psychology.

Education Prerequisites

Although generally similar to M.A. programs in their admissions requirements, some doctoral programs offer accelerated program completion tracks to students who enter with a master's degree rather than a bachelor's degree. Some programs also require applicants to have working experience in the mental health field.

Course Topics

Doctoral students must complete a series of general requirements in psychotherapy, psychological theory, diagnostic techniques and diversity training before completing their concentration requirements in areas like forensic psychology. Topics specific to forensic psychology may include:

  • Adult forensic psychology
  • Child forensic psychology
  • Family treatments
  • Forensic assessment
  • Group approaches to therapy
  • Mental health law
  • Neuropsychological assessment

Employment Outlook and Salary Info

The BLS lists forensic psychologists as a subset of general psychologists. The BLS goes on to state that all psychologists can expect to see 12% growth in total employment, or about as fast as the average for all professions, from 2008 to 2018. Psychologists with doctoral degrees and training in applied specialty areas are expected to have among the best opportunities for employment.

In May 2010, the BLS stated that the mean annual wage for all clinical, counseling and school psychologists was $72,540. At that time, the leading employers of these psychologists included schools and health practitioners.

Licensure and Certification Info

All clinical psychologists in the U.S. must be licensed by the state or territory in which they practice. Standards vary by state, but usually require psychologists to have a doctoral degree and professional experience and to have completed an internship. Written and oral examinations are also required by many states.

Certification in specific areas of psychology, including forensic psychology, is available through the American Board of Professional Psychology (ABPP). Candidates for certification must have a doctoral degree, a state license and professional experience. The ABPP also requires candidates to pass its board examination.

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