Criminal investigative psychologists, also known as forensic psychologists, help legal professionals understand the psychological findings of particular cases. A Bachelor of Science (B.S.) program in psychology or criminal justice with a forensic psychology concentration can prepare graduates for careers in criminal justice or mental health settings, while a master's degree could be obtained for career advancement purposes. A Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.) typically is required in order to obtain licensure as a psychologist.
At the bachelor's level, studies tend to focus on criminal behavior and abnormal psychology. Graduate studies delve deeper into research and, at the doctoral level, programs may offer both clinical and research tracks.
Voluntary certifications are also offered in the forensics field for professionals who meet education and experience requirements.
Bachelor of Science in Psychology with a Forensic Psychology Concentration
Some schools offer bachelor's degree programs in psychology with a track or concentration in forensic psychology. Students explore human behavior and the criminal justice system. These four-year programs generally focus on the fundamental principles of applied psychology and their relationship with the legal system and law enforcement. Students learn about treatment of the mentally ill in relation to criminal activity. As with most bachelor's degrees, students need to have a high-school diploma or GED to enter the program.
Classes provide an overview of human behavior from a variety of sociological, psychological and criminological perspectives. Focus is placed on identifying and interacting with criminals, as well as recognizing the impact of crime on victims and the community. Topics covered might include:
- Abnormal psychology
- Crisis intervention
- Legal psychology
- Professional and ethical issues
- Police and investigative psychology
Master of Science in Forensic Psychology
Candidates study the relationships between psychology and the justice system, including criminal trends and rehabilitative efforts. Areas of focus include forensic assessment and evaluation, research design, expert testimony and jury selection. Students gain experience in the preparation, planning and operation of forensic and investigative research programs.
Applicants typically must hold a bachelor's degree in psychology, applied psychology, criminal justice or a closely related field from an accredited college or university. Candidates generally are required to have completed undergraduate coursework in areas such as abnormal psychology and criminology.
Graduate degree programs generally take at least two years and contain classes that combine theoretical and practical knowledge of psychological principles for use in a variety of legal disciplines. Many programs require candidates to complete field experience in a legal or criminal justice setting. Course topics may include:
- Psychology of criminal behavior
- Forensic assessment and prediction
- Law and mental health
- Interviewing techniques
- Psychology in the courts
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Ph.D. in Forensic Psychology
Doctoral degree programs generally provide the highest level of study and research in the field of forensic and investigative psychology. Although program lengths vary, most require 3-5 years of upper-tier coursework, in addition to previously completed master's degree credits in the field. Most institutions require the completion and defense of a doctoral dissertation to fulfill their curricula. The program may offer a choice of tracks focusing on either clinical practice or academia and research.
Candidates generally must be in possession of a master's degree in forensic psychology or a related discipline, such as psychology or criminal justice. Some institutions may consider bachelor's degree holders if their undergraduate coursework meets department requirements in areas such as social psychology, organizational development and ethics.
Classes consist of advanced studies in specialized research in areas including psychopathology, research design and statistics, jury psychology and eyewitness testimonies. Course subjects can include:
- Psychological assessment
- Advanced data analysis
- Trial consulting
- Forensic mediation and dispute resolution
Popular Career Options
Many graduates of a bachelor's degree program in psychology continue on to a master's or doctoral program because most positions in the field require graduate-level study. However, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports that certain entry-level positions in the federal government or working with senior psychologists require only a bachelor's degree (www.bls.gov).
Graduates of the master's program are generally equipped to seek careers in the civil and criminal justice systems as forensic specialists, as well as pursue further academic training at the doctoral level. Some career options include:
- Case manager
- Research specialist
- Clinical/program director
- Psychologist assistant
- Correctional counselor
- Mental health associate
Employment Outlook and Salary Info
The BLS reported that employment of all psychologists is expected to grow much faster than average at 19% between 2014 through 2024. In May 2015, the BLS reported that counseling, school and clinical psychologists earned a median annual salary of $70,580.
Continuing Education Information
Psychologists need a license from the state in which they will work. The American Board of Professional Psychology also offers voluntary certification for a variety of psychology specializations, including the forensic field. Both certification and licensure require applicants to meet educational standards and complete written exams, oral exams or both. Those who earn a license or credential must renew it periodically and complete continuing education credits to remain current on issues in the industry.
Bachelor's degree programs in psychology with a forensic psychology concentration are available to those who wish to pursue a career in criminal investigative psychology, as are master's and doctoral programs in forensic psychology. These professionals use their training to identify and understand criminal behavior.