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

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Master's and PhD degrees in criminal psychology can lead to careers in counseling and academia. Get the truth about the requirements, courses and career options and find out what you can do with your degree in criminal psychology.
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Criminal Psychology Master's and PhDs: Degrees at a Glance

Criminal psychology graduate degree programs train students to become mental health experts and work in clinical settings or as consultants in legal trials. Graduates of PhD programs typically pursue careers in academia, research or policy, while master's degree program graduates may work as directors in social and community programs. In many states, practicing clinical psychologists must be licensed, a task that generally requires graduating from an accredited degree program in the field, completing a supervised clinical experience and passing an exam.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) predicts that the overall demand for psychologists will grow 22% during the 2010-2020 decade. The BLS suggests that individuals with a doctoral degree in an applied specialty can expect the most positive job climate.

Who is this degree for? - Individuals interested in working as a director of a social or community program
- Individuals interested in pursing a doctoral degree
- Individuals interested in working in academia
- Individuals wanting to practice psychology in a clinical setting
Common Career Paths (with approximate annual salary) - Psychologist ($86,000)* -Psychologist ($86,000)
- Postsecondary level psychology instructor ($75,000)*
Time to Completion Typically two years, full-time Typically 4-5 years, full-time
Common Graduation Requirements - Coursework
- Thesis
- Master's examination
- Practicum
- Coursework
- Dissertation
- Qualifying exams
- Teaching or research assistantships
Prerequisites - Bachelor's degree
- Resume
- Letter(s) of recommendation
- Personal statement
- Recent GRE scores
- Prerequisite courses in psychology and statistics, if applicable
- All the master's requirements plus:
- Graduate transcripts, if applicable
- Samples of professional writing from master's thesis or other relevant work
Online Availability YesYes

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

Criminal Psychology Master's Degrees

Students in criminal psychology master's degree programs study the prevention of, intervention in and analysis of the behavior of criminal offenders. Degree programs specifically in criminal psychology may be rare, but forensic psychology master's degree programs are widely available and typically feature a similar curriculum. Degree programs can be offered as a Master of Science (or Arts) in Forensic Psychology or as a Master of Arts (or Science) in Psychology with a concentration in forensics. Obtaining a master's degree usually does not qualify you to practice psychology; you need to satisfy your state's licensing guidelines to work as a clinical practitioner.

Pros and Cons


  • Master's degree programs are typically taught by practitioners who bring real-world professional experiences into the classroom
  • Programs typically include a professional component that provides hands-on experience
  • Graduation satisfies a prerequisite for PhD program admission; a master's degree is typically required for admission to a competitive PhD program


  • Degree does not prepare you for all careers in psychology; a doctoral degree is generally needed to work as a clinical, counseling or research psychologist
  • Degree does not qualify you to immediately work in the field; it is common for psychology professionals to be required to complete background checks and other certification or licensing requirements prior to working
  • Admission into master's degree programs may be competitive due to the popularity of the field and its accompanying promising career opportunities

Common Courses and Requirements

The curriculum of master's degree programs in criminal or forensic psychology includes academic coursework, a qualifying examination and a clinical internship or practicum. A clinical experience allows students to apply their newly acquired knowledge to real-life situations. Some programs may allow students to supplement or swap a clinical experience with writing an original thesis paper. Classes in these programs may cover topics like:

  • Introduction to forensic psychology
  • Ethical issues in criminal psychology
  • Research design and methods
  • Brain and behavior
  • Criminal psychological assessments

Online Degree Options

Fully online master's degree programs specifically in criminal psychology are rare, but similar programs, such as a Master of Arts in Psychology with a concentration in forensics, are widely available. Typically, even though they include an in-person clinical component, online master's degree programs do not prepare students for clinical licensure. Admission to online programs may require possessing several years of work experience and a basic understanding of psychology.

Getting Ahead with this Degree

To stand out against your competition, consider becoming a Student Affiliate of the American Psychological Association for Graduate Students (APAGS). Membership with this organization gives you access to information about available scholarships as well as to professional development books and materials. It also provides you with networking opportunities, which may make finding a job after graduation easier.

Criminal Psychology PhD Degrees

PhD programs in criminal psychology train students in the principles of criminal psychology and prepare them for careers as researchers, professors or clinical practitioners. PhD candidates need to complete academic coursework, pass examinations and research, write and present a dissertation. Most programs focus on research. As a result, students usually engage in several research projects during their studies. Curricula in PhD programs are highly specialized and flexible to ensure that students can tailor their coursework to fit their individual career goals.

Pros and Cons


  • A PhD is widely recognized as the best option for pursuing a career as a postsecondary teacher
  • It is common for doctoral programs to offer competitive research or teaching assistantships to qualified students; these opportunities not only provide research and hands-on work experience, but may impress employers
  • Academic institutions may provide grants to qualified PhD candidates to help offset housing and tuition costs


  • In academia, job security is typically only available through tenured positions, which are highly coveted and very competitive
  • Acceptance into a PhD program in criminal psychology is competitive
  • According to the BLS, clinical and counseling psychologists must overcome several professional and academic hurdles beyond earning a PhD, including completing several years of professional experience and achieving a passing score on a national examination

Common Courses and Requirements

As a PhD candidate, you will complete academic coursework, perform research, site for doctoral examinations and write a dissertation. Some programs require that students serve as teaching assistants for at least one semester. In a typical forensic psychology PhD program, you can expect coursework to include advanced psychopathy, interviewing and interrogation, forensic psychology research, quantitative analysis and legal issues in forensic psychology.

Online Degree Options

Online PhD degree programs in forensic psychology are available. However, these programs may not prepare students for licensure. Additionally, although the coursework in an online program is generally the same as its on-campus counterpart, research must still be conducted in person.

Getting Ahead with this Degree

If you want to pursue a career in higher education, consider completing teaching assistantship opportunities. These assistantships provide hands-on experience working as a postsecondary professor, which may impress potential employers. If assistantships are unavailable, consider volunteering at a school or nonprofit organization to gain the same experience.

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