Study Forensic Psychology: Master's Degree, PhD & Online Course Info

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What kind of job can you get with a master's or Ph.D. degree in forensic psychology? Find out program requirements, online options and info on courses and forensic psychology degrees.
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Forensic Psychology: Master's and Ph.D. Degrees at a Glance

Forensic psychology is an essential part of the criminal justice and legal systems. You would work to bridge the gap between legal issues and psychological concepts. Within the legal system, forensic psychologists serve many roles, such as advocating for victims and law enforcement agents, testifying in family court/custody disputes, analyzing criminal behavior and establishing mental competency of criminals facing trial. If you're interested in being part of the criminal justice system and are fascinated with the inner workings of the mind, a master's or Ph.D. degree in forensic psychology might be a good fit for you.

You could work in a variety of settings, including jails, prisons, hospitals, universities, advocacy offices and courtrooms. The overall job outlook for all psychologists was predicted to rise by 22% (a faster than average rate) from 2010-2020, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS).

Master's Doctorate
Who Is This Degree for? People interested in working in advocacy, criminal rehabilitation and trial procedures People who want to work as forensic psychologists, expert witnesses or in academia as professors and researchers
Common Career Paths (with approximate mean annual salary) - Victim advocate (salary unavailable)
- Expert witness (salary unavailable)
- Law enforcement advocate (salary unavailable)
- Forensic treatment specialist (salary unavailable)
- Postsecondary psychology teacher ($75,000)*
- Forensic psychologist ($86,000 (based on mean annual salary for all other psychologists)*
- Forensic psychology consultant (salary unavailable)
Time to Completion 2 years full-time 3-5 years full-time
Common Graduation Requirements - Master's thesis/research paper
- Master's exams
- Fieldwork
- Internship
- PhD qualifier exams
- Dissertation prospectus (proposal)
- Dissertation
- Internship/residency
Prerequisites Bachelor's degree in psychology or related field Bachelor's or master's degree in psychology or related field
Online Availability Yes Yes

Source: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (May 2011 figures).

Master's Degrees in Forensic Psychology

Some master's degree programs are focused on general forensic psychology. Others combine this study with counseling psychology, training you to work with incarcerated individuals suffering from substance abuse and mental health problems. Additionally, you might be able to select an emphasis in community-based forensic psychology or forensic psychology program planning.

Through your program, you'll gain a strong foundation in the realm of forensic psychology and be prepared to pursue a number of careers within the criminal justice, civil and juvenile legal systems. Upon graduating, you'll be able to apply principles of psychology to various legal issues, implement diagnostic tools in forensic settings and assess behavior in a professional and ethical manner.

Pros and Cons

Pros

  • Diverse job options, like case manager, jury consultant and correctional officer.
  • Various work settings, including courts, prisons and hospitals.
  • Schools are often affiliated with a number of well-respected institutions that offer internships to students, including the FBI and Federal Bureau of Prisons. Study abroad opportunities are also available.
  • Can work to decrease crime and treat criminal behavior, therefore improving communities and society.

Cons

  • You may be exposed to dangerous criminals or individuals through your work.
  • Careers in this field are often high-stress and you may become burned out.
  • Not all programs teach counseling techniques and prepare students for licensure (this could reduce job opportunities).

Courses and Requirements

While the coursework you complete will vary from one school to another, some common forensic psychology courses include:

  • Personality disorders
  • Violence psychology
  • Effects of trauma
  • Forensic assessment
  • Criminal behavior
  • Ethics in forensic psychology

In addition to the required coursework, you may need to complete a specific number of fieldwork and/or internship hours. Schools are affiliated with different institutions at which internships may be carried out, including the FBI, your state department of investigations, city and county police departments, attorney offices, hospitals and more. A master's thesis paper or equivalent research project is also required to obtain your degree.

Some programs, like ones focused on forensic-counseling psychology, may prepare you to obtain state licensure. These programs typically include all licensing requirements in the curriculum.

Online Availability

If you are interested in pursuing your master's degree in forensic psychology, you have the ability to do so on campus, online or through a hybrid program that combines both learning formats. Online programs include the same type of coursework as campus programs, and still require you to complete fieldwork hours, an internship and a thesis paper in order to earn your degree. If you have a busy schedule or are employed full-time, an online or hybrid program may provide the flexibility of scheduling you need to obtain the higher education you desire.

Stand Out With This Degree

If your school offers assistantship programs, take advantage and participate in one. You'll be paired with a professor and will have the chance to build your research skills outside of class. Assistantships are often paid in either tuition reimbursement or a monthly living stipend.

Ph.D. Programs in Forensic Psychology

Ph.D. programs in forensic psychology prepare you to contribute new knowledge to and initiate changes within the field of forensic psychology. You could enroll in a general forensic psychology program or a clinical psychology program with a forensic psychology emphasis. You'll develop a wide-ranging knowledge of how legal-psychological principles are related to race, culture and gender. By the time of graduation, you should be able to conduct professional research, analyze behaviors and develop methods for dealing with problematic behaviors, effectively assess risks and determine whether or not one is mentally competent to stand trial.

Pros and Cons

Pros

  • Holding a Ph.D. degree might give you a competitive edge over applicants holding just a master's.
  • Can seek out prestigious internships and post-doctoral fellowships.
  • Participating in a Ph.D. program enables you to maximize your knowledge in the field.

Cons

  • Forensic psychologists may have to travel among work sites to perform different duties on a daily basis, such as interviewing, reviewing documents and appearing in court; this could be hectic.
  • Programs, particularly those focused on clinical forensic psychology, are very competitive and accept a very small number of applicants.
  • You could end up working with dangerous criminals and your safety may be compromised at any time.
  • You could spend in total 9-11 years completing postsecondary education.

Courses and Requirements

The coursework you complete during a doctoral program in forensic psychology is a combination of advanced psychology principles and high-level methods of research and analysis. Clinical coursework is also required. You'll complete most of the coursework during the first year or two of the program, and will spend the next few years researching and writing your doctoral dissertation. Some courses in forensic psychology that you might take include:

  • Forensic assessment
  • Physiological psychology
  • Psychopathology
  • Legal experimental psychology
  • Qualitative and quantitative reasoning
  • Police psychology

In addition to coursework and writing a dissertation, you will be required to complete an internship or residency in order to earn your degree. Your internship/residency may be carried out in a number of different settings including jails, prisons, hospitals, clinics, criminal justice firms and more. Teaching undergraduate courses and presenting your dissertation at conferences may also be mandatory.

Online Availability

While doctoral-level forensic psychology online programs are not common, they do exist. An online program contains similar coursework to a campus-based program and still requires you to complete an internship/residency and write a dissertation paper. You may able to do your residency in-person or via Internet.

Stand Out With This Degree

Schools suggest that you network with other forensic psychology students and professionals. You could participate in relevant school organizations, join online list-serves and attend major conferences. Another thing to consider is structuring your education to meet licensing requirements in more than one state. For example, you could research licensing requirements in three states with good job prospects and fit your education to meet the strictest requirements of the group, even if it is not the state you live in. This will widen your job prospects after graduation.

The American Board of Forensic Psychology (ABFP) offers specialty board certification in forensic psychology. Earning the ABFP's Diploma in Forensic Psychology credential demonstrates your expertise in the field to possible employers and can give your resume a boost. To qualify to take the certification exams (written and oral), you need to accumulate at least four years and 1,000 hours of practice in addition to at least 100 hours of specialty forensic psychology training. The exams cover areas such as professional ethics, court procedures, criminal responsibility, juvenile crimes and family issues.

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