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. A bachelor's program gives students a foundational knowledge of various aspects of human behavior and how that behavior affects communities and the legal system. Master's degree students learn to apply psychological theories and research findings to real world situations. Doctoral programs combine research and clinical practice.

Essential Information

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. 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.

    • Program Levels: 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.)
    • Prerequisites for Bachelor's Degree: High school diploma
    • Prerequisites for Master's Degree: Bachelor's degree in psychology or significant number of psychology credits, Graduate Record Examinations (GRE) scores and letters of recommendation
    • Prerequisites for Doctoral Degree: Bachelor's degree in psychology or significant number of psychology credits, Graduate Record Examinations (GRE) scores and letters of recommendation, some programs require work experience in the mental health field
    • Program Lengths: 4 years (Bachelor's degree), 5 years (Doctoral degree)
    • Other Requirements: Field work, internships, dissertation (doctoral programs)

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. 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:

  • Behavioral pharmacology
  • Corrections psychology
  • Psychotherapy techniques
  • Criminal psychology
  • Evidence and investigations
  • Psychology and the law

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, 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. 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

Doctoral programs 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. 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. 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
  • Mental health law
  • Neuropsychological assessment

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

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 2012 to 2022. Psychologists with doctoral degrees and training in applied specialty areas are expected to have among the best opportunities for employment.

In May 2014, the BLS stated that the mean annual wage for all clinical, counseling and school psychologists was $74,030. 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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