Criminal psychologists play an essential role in the justice systems — and its defendants. The American Psychology Association (APA) reports that criminal psychology, sometimes called forensic psychology or public service psychology, is a relatively young field providing much-needed support in the courts, social services organizations and even the military. They conduct criminal psychological evaluations to determine defendants' competency; evaluate evidence for courts and attorneys, and guide legal proceedings and policy in a range of areas. In other words, criminal psychologists are at the center of mental health issues that arise in the course of a trial.
Criminal psychology is vital work that demands proper training, usually in the form of a doctorate. According to the APA, rising psychologists' education should focus on psychology and criminology. Beyond that, however, there is no one model of training:
- Undergraduate students may study sociology, psychology, criminology or criminal justice while graduate students pursue master's degrees in clinical psychology, criminology or forensic psychology.
- Note that criminal psychologists who earn bachelor's degrees in general psychology will typically pursue master's degrees and Ph.D.s in clinical forensic psychology.
- Likewise, those with bachelor's degrees in criminology tend to dedicate master's doctoral studies to clinical psychology. The APA notes both pathways can provide the training necessary to become licensed and practice as a criminal psychologist.
Whatever path you choose, it is essential to carefully research all levels of degrees and select those that best suit your goals and interests. Read on to learn more about criminal psychology degrees and programs.
Certificates and non-degree awards in criminal psychology
Criminal psychology certificates and non-degree awards usually serve one of two purposes:
- This first is to provide introductory knowledge of the field to students pursuing various types of undergraduate degrees. This format is a great option for students attending two- and four-year schools who want to get a sense for the field before committing to it.
- The second type of certificate program is designed to supplement or specialize skills for those already working in the field. Both can enhance criminal psychologists' resumes and, in some cases, satisfy continuing education requirements for licensed professionals.
Criminal psychology certificates are not always called criminal psychology certificates: forensic psychology, criminology and criminal justice programs can be just as practical, especially at the undergraduate level. The most important thing is to make sure you choose a program that is appropriate for your level of education and that enhances your knowledge of the field in a meaningful way.
Featured criminal psychology certificate programs
Crime, Psychology and Public Policy certificate from Pennsylvania State University
Penn State University's Crime, Psychology and Public Policy certificate is a 15-credit undergraduate program intended for anyone interested in learning more about the criminal justice system, including psychologists. Students pursue an in-depth study of the social and psychological causes of crime and how to analyze and investigate criminal behavior using psychological techniques. They also study the legal processes involving accused and convicted criminals, public policies regarding criminal behavior and crime prevention theories. Penn State University's programs in this area are highly-regarded: U.S. News & World Report's 2017 Best Colleges rankings placed the University No. 5 nationally for its criminology programs and No. 30 in the area of psychology
- Department: School of Humanities & Social Sciences
- Campus location: State College, PA
- Online learning options: This is a campus-based program.
Associate degrees in criminal psychology
Not all criminal psychologists began their training with associate degrees, but those who did were likely more prepared for upper-division courses and saved a hefty penny on tuition and other fees. Most two-year colleges offer associate degrees designed specifically for transfer to a four-year university, and some even offer on-site bachelor's degrees through university partnerships. Online associate degrees are also increasingly common. Whatever form they take, associate degrees give students a metaphorical taste for the field before they commit to a lengthier program. They can also provide workforce-ready training for those who would like to become psychological technicians and related professionals before becoming criminal psychologists.
Prospective students will find associate degrees in criminal psychology difficult to come by — if they find them at all. Not to worry. As with undergraduate certificates, associate degrees in criminology, criminal justice or general psychology are all field-relevant.
Featured associate criminal psychology degrees
AA in Criminology from Idaho State University
Many rising criminal psychologists begin their training with an associate degree in an area like psychology or criminal justice. Two-year degrees in criminology — like Idaho State's AA in Criminology — are rare. Finding them at four-year universities is even more so. Students enrolled in Idaho State's associate in criminology program gain a foundational understanding of the field of criminology from a sociological point of view all while completing the general education they need to transfer to a four-year program. Students pair with criminology program advisors in their second semesters. According to ISU, an AA in Criminology is an excellent starting place for students who want to advance to its bachelor's degree in Sociology with an emphasis on Criminology. Those who intend to pursue graduate studies will be happy to know ISU ranked among U.S. News & World Report's Best Graduate Psychology programs of 2017.
- Department: Department of Sociology, Social Work & Criminology
- Campus location: Pocatello, ID
- Online learning options: While this is a campus-based program, students may be able to complete some general education courses online.
Bachelor's degrees in criminal psychology
Bachelor's degrees are often the first step students take on their journeys toward becoming criminal psychologists. While bachelor's degrees in criminal or forensic psychology are relatively common, it is still okay to major in criminology, general psychology or sociology. Indeed, the American Sociological Association reports that psychology is one of the most popular graduate majors for students with bachelor's degrees in sociology. As always, it is vital to research programs and curricula carefully to ensure they are relevant to your career plans. You should also decide whether you'd prefer a campus-based or an online degree program.
Bachelor's degrees in forensic or criminal psychology both general education and core psychology coursework. English, math and biology coursework will be especially handy in higher-level programs and in the field. Core classes are usually a mix of introductory psychology training and more forensic-targeted electives. Students pursuing degrees in criminology or sociology may be able to supplement their studies by taking classes or minoring in psychology.
Featured bachelor's degrees in criminal psychology
BA in Applied Psychology - Forensic Psychology at the Florida Institute of Technology
Florida Institute of Technology's BA in Applied Psychology offers a concentration in Forensic Psychology — an ideal segue to graduate degrees in criminal psychology. Even better, students can complete the program 100 percent online. Students enrolled in this particular Florida Tech program study the psychological aspects of human behavior and how forensic psychologists interact with law enforcement and the legal system. Data from U.S. News & World Report suggests the Institute knows what it's doing: The publication ranked the school among the Best Online Bachelor's Programs and the Best Graduate Clinical Psychology Programs in the country.
- Department: School of Psychology
- Campus location: Melbourne, FL
- Online learning options: This is a fully-online program.
Master's degrees in criminal psychology
At the master's level, criminal psychology is considered to be an area of specialization within clinical psychology. It focuses on the practice of psychological research, assessment and consultation within the realm of the legal system. Graduate criminology and forensic science programs, on the other hand, 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 or criminal 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 or criminology is rooted in the techniques and technology used to solve crimes.
A master's in forensic psychology typically requires two years of full-time study, or up to four years for part-time students. Many programs require internships and/or theses, though expect some degree of variation from program to program. Note that students pursuing online master's degrees in criminal psychology may be allowed to complete any on-site training or internships within their local communities. Because master's degrees are an important step toward criminal psychology doctorates — and, in turn, state licensure — prospective students are encouraged to examine curricula to confirm it aligns with Ph.D. admissions requirements. Students who do not intend to advance to doctoral programs may meet state requirements for counseling careers.
Featured master's degrees in criminal psychology
Combined BA/MA in Psychology, Criminology and Social Justice from St. John's University
Many schools offer master's degrees in criminal psychology, but St. John's University is one of the few that allow students to pursue a BA in Psychology and an MA in Criminology and Justice at the same time. This five-year accelerated format shaves a full year off the usual 6-year time to completion. Students enrolled in St. John's joint BA/MA program complete general education and core psychology coursework in their first four years, but begin more advanced, graduate-level criminology class by their third year. The unique program teaches students the psychological and social processes surrounding normal and abnormal behavior and various forms of criminality, including street, terrorist and white collar crime.
- Department: Department of Psychology
- Campus location: Queens, NY
- Online learning options: This is a campus-based program.
MA in Forensic Psychology from the University of North Dakota
The University of North Dakota's online, two-year MA in Forensic Psychology program is ideal for future criminal psychologists. Students learn how to: relate psychological evaluations with criminal justice and social services system; address forensics issues in areas like child custody and sexual harassment; serve as expert trial witnesses; and research and evaluate agency programs. The University of North Dakota allows students to complete coursework on their own schedules using recorded lectures, though the program does require one two-week on-campus capstone experience. All students enrolled in the online MA in Forensic Psychology program pay in-state tuition regardless of residency.
- Department: Office of Extended Learning
- Campus location: Grand Forks, ND
- Online learning options: This is an online program requiring just one two-week campus visit.
Doctorates in criminal psychology
A doctorate in criminal psychology marks the culmination of one's training and is required to practice as a licensed practitioner. Not all doctoral candidates want to be criminal psychologists, however. Some would rather teach at the collegiate level or engage in research. Nonetheless, a Ph.D., PsyD or similar credential is a must. While students need not select programs with a mind for even further training, those who intend to work in clinical settings must make sure their chosen program meets state licensing requirements. Some doctorates in criminal psychology are specifically designed with licensing in mind.
Doctoral degrees in criminal psychology explore highly advanced, specialized topics, but most programs are research-focused. The odds of a mandatory (and original) research fellowship and dissertation are high. Some colleges also expect doctoral students to publish papers in scientific journals. In other words, programs demand a good deal of work and commitment. That does not necessarily mean you have to spend every waking moment on campus. There is actually a handful of online Ph.D.s in criminal psychology. Review all graduation requirements so that you can prepare for any that require you visit campus or another site.
Featured Ph.D.s in criminal psychology
Drexel University's Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology - Forensic Psychology and JD/Ph.D. in Law & Psychology degrees
Future criminal psychologists at Drexel University have not just one but two doctorates from which to choose. The first is a Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology with a specialization in Forensic Psychology. Students attending this on-campus program complete core and elective psychology courses and spend at least two years of research in an area relevant to forensic psychology. They must also complete a forensic-psychology-focused dissertation. Students' second option is Drexel's joint JD and Ph.D. in Law and Psychology. While the combined nature of the program requires seven years of full-time study, courses are online. Students enrolled in this program are trained as both scientist-practitioner criminal psychologists and lawyers with the knowledge and research skills necessary to make substantial legal decisions in criminal, domestic and civil cases.
- Department: Department of Psychology
- Campus location: Philadelphia, PA
- Online learning options: Drexel University's Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology is campu
Online degrees in criminal psychology
There is no denying that psychology is highly interpersonal, so prospective criminal psychologists will likely complete plenty of hands-on, practical training throughout the course of their educations, whether in a lab, through a practicum or research fellowship, or all three. This might lead one to think online degrees in criminal psychology are impossible, or at least less effective. One would be wrong: Online criminal psychology degrees are available at all levels of education, from undergraduate certificates to doctorates. The model works because criminal psychology is highly academic:
- Many professionals spend more time in labs or law offices than they do working with patients
- Online learning technologies have also advanced to a point where students can participate realistic online simulations with peers, professors and mock patients
- When online degrees do require on-site experience, students are often permitted to complete those activities in their local communities or at regional colleges.
Online education offers a degree of flexibility difficult to achieve in a traditional campus-based program. Some online schools let students log in whenever they can or work completely at their own place. Convenience is not the same as ease, however. Online criminal psychology degrees are usually just as rigorous as their campus-based counterparts, yet require far more organization, self-motivation and personal commitment. Prospective students should evaluate whether online learning is right for them before applying to online programs.
Featured online criminal psychology degrees
Online BA in Psychology with a concentration in Forensic Psychology from Southern New Hampshire University
Southern New Hampshire University's online- and career-driven programs earned in the no. 1 spot on U.S. News & World Report's 2017 Most Innovative School ranking. Students enrolled in the University's online BA in Psychology with a specialization in Forensic Psychology get to experience the University's efforts first-hand. According to SNHU, its BA program is ideal for anyone who wants to work with criminal offenders to assist in criminal investigations. Students gain foundational knowledge in criminal psychology and keen research and critical thinking skills. This 100 percent online criminal psychology degree requires two years of full-time study. Tuition discounts are available to active military personnel and their spouses.
- Department: College of Online and Continuing Education
- Campus location: Manchester, NH
- Online learning options: This is a fully-online program.
- American Psychological Association, Psychology: Science in Action, "A Career in Forensic and Public Service Psychology," accessed October 30, 2016, http://www.apa.org/action/science/forensic/education-training.aspx
- American Sociological Association, Footnotes, "BA and Beyond… And to Grad School," Nicole Van Vooren, Roberta Spalter-Roth, accessed October 30, 2016, http://www.asanet.org/sites/default/files/savvy/footnotes/feb09/ba.html
- Program pages, accessed October 30, 2016:
- Drexel University, http://drexel.edu/coas/academics/graduate-programs/psychology-clinical/; http://drexel.edu/coas/academics/graduate-programs/psychology-law/
- Florida Institute of Technology, https://www.floridatechonline.com/psychology/ba-applied-psychology-forensic/
- Idaho State University, http://www2.isu.edu/sociology/criminaljusticeindex.shtml
- Pennsylvania State University, https://psbehrend.psu.edu/school-of-humanities-social-sciences/academic-programs-1/certificate-programs/crime-psychology-and-public-policy-certificate
- Eastern Kentucky University, http://psychonline.eku.edu/bachelor%E2%80%99s-psychology-%E2%80%93-forensic-psychology
- Southern New Hampshire University, http://www.snhu.edu/online-degrees/bachelors/ba-in-psychology/forensic-psychology
- St. John's University, http://www.stjohns.edu/academics/schools-and-colleges/st-johns-college-liberal-arts-and-sciences/programs-and-majors/psychology/criminology-and-justice-bachelor-arts/master
- University of North Dakota, http://und.edu/academics/extended-learning/online-distance/degrees/forensic-psychology/