Forensic psychology is a discipline that exists at the intersection of psychology and the criminal justice system. It brings together the science of human behavior and knowledge of the legal system, law enforcement, and the criminal statues that determine guilt and innocence. The work of the forensic psychologist has been popularized through portrayals of these highly trained specialists serving as expert witnesses in criminal proceedings, assessing the mental states of those on trial, and testifying to the competency of defendants in high-stakes cases. And the image of the forensic psychologist as an integral part of a criminal investigation has been cemented through Hollywood films and network procedurals in which the role of profilers is central to the drama.

But, forensic psychology has somewhat broader applications, as defined by the American Psychological Association (APA), including the assessment and treatment of those involved in legal proceedings, providing expert advice to legislators and administrators charged with enacting laws, and performing research that leads to the enactment of better criminal and legal policy. In most states, forensic psychologists, like other psychologists who practice professionally, must earn a doctorate in order to be formally licensed. However, a master’s degree in forensic psychology is the starting point for a potential career in this field, whether it’s in the realm of profiling, expert testimony, or judicial reform.

Master’s in Forensic Psychology Concepts

  • Tenets of forensic psychology and the criminal justice system
  • Criminal profiling
  • Police psychology
  • Psychology in criminal courts
  • Correctional psychology
  • Abnormal behavior
  • Assessment and diagnostics
  • Principles of statistics and forensic psychology research
  • Techniques and instruments used for evaluation in the forensic psychology arena
  • Sociological and anthropological aspects of criminal behavior
  • Professional and ethical issues for the forensic psychology professional
  • Social psychology
  • Psychometrics
  • Treatment of various forensic demographics (sex offenders, substance abusers, victims of crime, etc.)
  • Juvenile delinquency, justice system, and reform
  • Multicultural counseling
  • Therapy techniques

Benefits of Earning a Master’s in Forensic Psychology

If you’re a person who is drawn to the study of the human mind and behavior, and who also has a particular interest in legal issues and the judiciary process, a career in forensic psychology is an excellent way to satisfy both of those fascinations. Technically, forensic psychology is, in the words of the APA, “the professional practice by psychologists within the areas of clinical psychology, counseling psychology, school psychology or another specialty recognized by the American Psychological Association, when they are engaged as experts and represent themselves as such, in an activity primarily intended to provide professional psychological expertise to the judicial system.”

In other words, forensic psychology offers an opportunity to apply the theories and practices of psychology in all its various facets in the arena of the law. As psychologist Jane Tyler Ward, PhD, details in “What is Forensic Psychology?,” a paper for the APA’s Psychology Student Network, there are many different opportunities for those working in the field of forensic psychology. These include, “threat assessment for schools, child custody evaluations, competency evaluations of criminal defendants and of the elderly, counseling services to victims of crime, death notification procedures, screening and selection of law enforcement applicants, the assessment of post-traumatic stress disorder, and the delivery and evaluation of intervention and treatment programs for juvenile and adult offenders.” She goes on to point out that, “the practice of forensic psychology involves investigations, research studies, assessments, consultation, and expert witness courtroom testimony.

It is, however, important to note, as Ward stresses, that forensic psychologists are generally required to have a doctorate in the form of a PhD or PsyD degree, as well as “the equivalent of two years of organized, sequential, supervised professional experience.” So, a master’s in forensic psychology essentially amounts to the first step on the path to becoming a licensed forensic psychologist, one that may qualify some students to work in an assistant’s capacity for those already practicing forensic psychology.

What to Expect from a Forensic Psychology Master’s Program

Forensic psychology is a relative new specialization in psychology, one that the APA first recognized officially in 2001. In doing so, the APA began the process of defining the scope of the work of forensic psychologists, as well as the core areas of competency in training programs for forensic psychologists. These areas, as identified by the APA, are the following:

  • Clinical: diagnosis, treatment, psychological testing, prediction and intervention measurement, epidemiology of mental disorders, ethics
  • Forensic: response style, forensic ethics, tools and techniques for assessing symptoms and capacities relevant to legal questions
  • Legal: knowledge of law and the legal system, knowledge of where and how to obtain relevant legal information

A master’s in forensic psychology is typically designed to be completed in two years of full-time study, or up to four-years for part-time students. Many programs include internship opportunities as part of the course of study, and some also have a thesis requirement. So, you should expect some degree of variation from program to program. Nevertheless, here are some of the classes typically offered as part of a master’s in forensic psychology:

CourseAreas of Study
Psychology and the Legal SystemA survey of the relationship between mental health and the legal system, including criminal, civil, juvenile, and family law settings
Theories of Criminal BehaviorThe behavioral, social, biological, and genetic bases for classifying, assessing, and understanding criminal behavior
PsychopathologyExamining accepted definitions and classifications for mental disorders, including symptomatology, assessment, and treatment
Ethics in Forensic PsychologyThe best professional practices in forensic psychology, and the conflicts that arise between psychology and the law
Psychological Research and StatisticsDesign, methodology, and interpretation of research in psychology and the social sciences
Forensic Psychology Consultation and TestimonyHow psychology is practiced in the context of the legal system, from counseling prosecutors and defendants, to testifying in court
VictimologyThe psychology of victims, including the relationship between victimization and the development of criminal behavior
Evaluation and Treatment of Sex OffendersThe cognitive and psychology basis of sexual predation, and the treatment of convicted sex offenders
Family LawPsychological aspects of divorce, child custody, guardianship, and domestic violence and sex offending, as well as dispute resolution strategies and treatment modalities
Correctional PsychologyJails, prisons, parole, and probation in the American legal system, and the role psychology plays in assessing policy and outcomes
Psychological ProfilingUsing the tools of psychology to understand and identify criminal behavior
Psychology and Law EnforcementConsulting with and counseling police and other law enforcement officials, and the psychological stresses of police work

Master’s Degrees and Specializations in Forensic Psychology

Forensic psychology is considered to be an area of specialization within clinical or counseling psychology. As a specialization, it focuses on the practice of psychological research, assessment, and consultation within the realm of the legal system. Criminology and forensic science, on the other hand, are disciplines that, at the master’s degree level, aim to prepare students for careers within the criminal justice system, as law enforcement officers, laboratory technicians, or crime-scene investigators. The distinction is important because master’s degrees in forensic psychology, which are almost exclusively master’s of arts (MA) degrees, are different from the master’s of science (MS) degrees available in forensic science and criminology. An MA in forensic psychology is based in the principles and practice of psychology, while an MS in forensic science/criminology is rooted in the techniques and technology used to solve crimes.

Within the realm of forensic psychology, there are areas of sub-specialization, most of which are addressed more rigorously on the PhD or PsyD level. However, as a student earning an MA in forensic psychology, you may have the opportunity to narrow your focus to a particular area within the discipline. For example, through elective coursework, a master’s in forensic science candidate might focus on child protection issues in the legal system, sex offenders and the law, or the psychology in relation to the correctional system. Other areas of specialization within forensic psychology include the psychology of addiction and the psychology of violence.

Careers in Forensic Psychology

In almost all cases, state licensure is required to work as a professional psychologist, and that requires a doctoral degree. However, a master’s degree in forensic psychology does qualify graduates in many states to be certified as a licensed professional counselor (LPC) or licensed clinical professional counselor (LCPC). These designations vary from state to state, but they do allow those who meet the qualifications to work in a number of capacities, including as corrections officers, substance abuse treatment counselors, or private consultants to lawyers and other legal professionals.

That said, a master’s in forensic psychology is more commonly thought of as a crucial step along the way toward earning a PhD or PsyD in forensic psychology, and becoming licensed as a professional forensic psychologist. At that point, it becomes possible to work in any area of forensic psychology, as a psychological profiler, an expert witness, a researcher, a counselor, a consultant, or some combination of several of these. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) does not collect specific data on forensic psychologists, but the latest report from the BLS Occupational Outlook Handbook predicts a healthy growth rate of 12 percent for psychologist jobs through 2022. The median annual salary for psychologists in May 2012, according to the same report, was $69,280, which is slightly higher than Payscale’s average yearly salary estimate of $61,486 for forensic psychologists.

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