Extensive study in forensic psychology is required to become a criminal psychologist. Students may take courses that focus specifically on criminal behavior, and some may choose a focus of psychology with a certificate in forensic psychology. Regardless of the track chosen, all students must complete clinical experiences working with patients.
At the bachelor's level, students get a solid background for graduate study through courses in criminal law basics and the principles of psychology. Study at the master's level prepares students for research work. For a master's program, a bachelor's degree is required -- usually one that combines psychology and law. The programs combine classes and lab work with case studies and role playing.
Students can often incorporate certificate programs in specific areas into their studies. Doctoral students prepare for careers in research or to work in private practice in many types of settings, such as prisons or juvenile facilities.
Bachelor's Degree in Forensic Psychology
A bachelor's degree program will prepare the student for graduate work in the field, either in research or clinical psychology. Students are introduced to criminal law courses as well as fundamental psychology theories and practices. A broad view is given that includes not only the criminal mindset, but also the perspective of the victim. Coursework for this beginning step on the path to becoming a forensic psychologist places a heavy emphasis on developing research skills. In most schools the program requires students to take courses that introduce the variety of specializations or career goals available to the prospective forensic psychologist. Standard forensic psychology courses include:
- Psychology research
- Criminal justice system
- Crime theory
- Police practices and theory
- Ethics and psychology
- Multi-cultural issues and the law
Master's Degree in Forensic Psychology
The majority of students pursuing a master's in forensic psychology are preparing for careers in research rather than clinical psychology. While study at this level does not prepare the student for a license to practice, it does qualify the student for board certification in most cases. This degree program offers students opportunities to pursue specialized studies in a particular area of interest through elective courses. At this level, the student undertakes in-depth studies that may include an intern- or externship period. Coursework remains primarily on a class and lab basis but begins to delve into role-play study and case review. Some of the courses available at this level include:
- Juvenile criminal issues and aggression in youth
- Cognitive and personality testing methods
- Family abuse and violence
- Criminal behavior recognition and study
- Forensic psychometrics
- Substance abuse issues
Doctorate in Forensic Psychology
Those interested in doctoral study may choose between Ph.D. and a Psy.D. programs. Students in the Ph.D. track typically focus on research, while their Psy.D. colleagues usually prepare for private practice. Study to attain a doctorate in forensic psychology or a concentration on psychology and law prepares the student for the professional world by applying theory and methodology in a practical format. Under the guidance of professors, students will have opportunities to work with actual patients in a variety of settings such as juvenile facilities, group homes and prisons. Doctoral studies prepare the student to become a licensed, practicing psychologist. Coursework for a doctorate includes:
- The effects of law on behavior
- Evaluation of reliability of testimony
- Psychology of serial killers
- Sex offenders and violent crime perpetrators
Certificate programs are available that condense training periods and focus on specializations. Some of the fields include research, testimony and assessment, victims of family violence and forensic psychotherapy. Depending on the school, certificate programs may, at times, be incorporated into a master's program and taken concurrently.
With a master's degree, prospective forensic psychologists are prepared to begin entry-level work if the work does not require licensure or certification. Most students go on to pursue graduate degrees rather than enter the job market at this point, however. Some career options include:
- Research assistant
- Social work
- Rehabilitation assistant
While some students with master's degrees continue their studies by pursuing doctorates, many choose to enter the job market at this point either through private consultancies or larger organizations. Some of the options available to those with a master's degree are:
- Law enforcement agencies
- Mental health research facilities
- United States Department of Juvenile Justice
Employment Outlook and Salary Info
Doctorate holders are prepared for careers in several fields, including academia. From 2018-2028, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics predicted that all postsecondary teachers would see an 11% growth in employment opportunities, which is about average for all occupations. In May 2018, the mean annual wages for psychology professors were $76,710.
Students interested in forensic psychology have options ranging from undergraduate to graduate degrees, as well as certificate programs. Students gain clinical experience and can usually can select an area of concentration.