Forensic psychology exists at the intersection of psychology and the criminal justice system, employing the science of human behavior to foster a nuanced understanding of the psychological aspects of a given case. These highly trained specialists can:
- Serve as expert witnesses in criminal proceedings
- Assess the mental states of those on trial
- Testify to the competency of defendants in high-stakes cases
Most people may be familiar with forensic psychologists as criminal profilers in Hollywood films and network procedurals, but the American Psychological Association (APA) defines the profession as having somewhat broader applications. In addition to the tasks described above, forensic psychologists may be tasked with:
- Providing expert advice to legislators
- Analyzing the outcomes of certain cases
- Performing research that leads to the creation of better criminal and legal policy
In most states, forensic psychologists must earn a doctorate in order to be formally licensed. The road to a doctoral degree is long and winding, however, and careers related to forensic psychology may exist for professionals at just about any level of the scholarly ladder. We’ve done the research on what you can expect from campus-based and online forensic psychology degrees, including a few featured academic programs and potential career options for each degree level.
Forensic psychology degrees online and on campus
Degree programs that specify forensic psychology as their focus may not be offered at levels below the four-year bachelor’s, but students can begin aligning themselves with the goals of those programs at any point on their educational path. Here’s a category-by-category breakdown of on-campus and online forensic psychology degrees:
Certificates and non-degree awards in forensic psychology
If you couldn’t find a forensic concentration at the undergraduate level but earned a bachelor’s degree in a related discipline, graduate certificates in forensic psychology can put you on track to better understand the forensic specialty without committing to another full-time degree program. Study plans that lead to a certificate can be found both on campus and online, and many of them allow students to choose a schedule of courses that best agrees with their goals and availability.
Curriculum requirements tend to vary from program to program, but common examples of forensic psychology courses in graduate and post-graduate certificate programs include the following:
- Juvenile delinquency
- Correctional psychology
- Psychology of deception
- Forensic assessment
- Criminal typology
- Traumatic stress reactions
- Clinical interviewing
- Psychology of violence
Certificate programs in forensic psychology come in a variety of program lengths, from as few as seven to as many as 50 credit hours, depending on the institution, but most programs require between 15 and 21 credits to complete. Master’s level certificates often approach the discipline from a more generalized standpoint while postdoctoral certificates tend to study a selection of nuances in considerable depth.
Notable forensic psychology certificate programs
Certificate from Washington University in St. Louis
U.S. News and World Report ranks Washington University in St. Louis among the top 20 schools for the graduate study of psychology, and the certificate program is the sole method by which students can pursue a forensic concentration. The Missouri school also makes it clear that an undergraduate degree in psychology is not a requirement to pursue the forensic certificate — the program description mentions political science, sociology, anthropology, urban studies, biology and chemistry as compatible undergraduate majors.
- Department: Washington University Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences (sponsor); University College at Washington University
- Location: St. Louis, MO
- Online options: The bachelor’s degree program in psychology at Washington University provides select courses online and in a hybrid format, but the certificate program in forensic psychology indicates no online support at this time.
Certificate from John Jay College of Criminal Justice – CUNY
Forensic psychology certificates available at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in Manhattan in 2016 were all post-graduate offerings, meaning that students must complete a program of study at the master’s level before enrolling. No less than six concentrations — psychological assessment and forensic psychology, family violence and victims, forensic counseling and psychotherapy, research in forensic psychology, forensic psychological assessment and testimony and selected topics in forensic psychology — await interested graduates, and individual course substitutions may be made from an approved list of nearly 40 additional relevant courses.
- Department: John Jay College of Criminal Justice Psychology Department
- Location: New York, NY
- Online options: The forensic psychology certificates at John Jay College are offered as campus-based programs, but certain other degrees and individual courses may be available online through the institution itself or the larger City University of New York (CUNY) system.
Associate degrees in forensic psychology
Most programs for aspiring forensic psychologists at the associate level take the form of Associate of Arts (A.A.) and Associate of Science (A.S.) degrees in general psychology, which typically cover the fundamentals of the psychological discipline alongside a healthy slate of general education core courses. Most associate degree programs require about two years of full-time study to complete, although some institutions may offer accelerated or part-time options with shorter or longer expected lengths.
Graduates with associate degrees in psychology can make use of their acquired skills in a variety of career fields. Positions are typically most plentiful in health care, education and social services and include such job titles as childcare worker, counseling aide, social services assistant and psychiatric aide.
Notable forensic psychology associate degree programs
A.A. from University of New Mexico – Gallup
The associate degree program in psychology at the University of New Mexico – Gallup is designed to give students the foundation necessary to move confidently into any branch of psychological study at the bachelor’s level. Students can choose from a range of major-specific courses to complete the requirements for their associate degree, including general psychology, developmental psychology, brain and behavior, psychology of learning and memory, social psychology, cognitive psychology, statistical principles and more.
As a bonus, not only is UNM ranked among the nation’s top 100 psychology schools by U.S. News and World Report, but its law school also placed in the national top 60. Associate degree students with their sights set on forensic psychology might be able to pick up a few extra bits of knowledge for the future from students or professors in criminal law.
- Department: University of New Mexico – Gallup Arts and Sciences Division
- Location: Gallup, NM
- Online options: Although online students at UNM cannot earn their associate degree in psychology entirely in the virtual classroom, numerous major-specific as well as general education courses can be completed through the institution’s distance education program.
Bachelor’s degrees in forensic psychology
The forensic portion of forensic psychology begins to firmly take shape at the bachelor’s level, with some institutions even offering entire Bachelor of Arts (B.A.) or Bachelor of Science (B.S.) degree concentrations in the field. More common, however, are general psychology programs that contain individual courses in the elements of forensic practice or allow students to specialize a small subset of their credit hours in forensic psychology.
Coursework in forensic psychology at the bachelor’s level typically focuses on introducing the forensic approach in a broad sense, although some programs structure their undergraduate curriculum with a finer eye toward the details and delicacies of the field. Typical programs offer courses in forensic psychology, criminal behavior and other foundational chunks of the discipline, while a more intensive curriculum might include sections on victimology, forensic interviewing and investigation, criminal law, abnormal development or other fine-grained areas of knowledge.
Notable forensic psychology bachelor’s degree programs
B.S. in Forensic Psychology from Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University
Students most commonly attend Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University for its top-ranked online bachelor’s and aerospace engineering programs, each of which were ranked No. 1 in their categories by U.S. News in 2016, but this premier air and space institution also offers an undergraduate degree in forensic psychology at its campus in Prescott, Arizona. The high-tech infrastructure in place at Embry-Riddle gives students access to state-of-the-art forensics laboratory facilities, including a three-dimensional human imaging systems and a cybersecurity lab.
- Department: Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University Department of Social Sciences and Economics
- Location: Prescott, AZ
- Online options: ERAU students can choose from some of the most highly regarded online bachelor’s degrees in the nation, but the undergraduate program in forensic psychology is not one of them.
Master’s degrees in forensic psychology
The master’s degree level is where most institutions begin offering dedicated forensic psychology degrees, either as stand-alone programs or available concentrations within a clinical psychology curriculum. Most graduate programs in the field are designed to satisfy core competency requirements as determined by the American Psychological Association (APA), which include 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. Coursework may vary from program to program, but such subjects as psychopathology, theories of criminal behavior, psychological profiling, family law, and forensic consultation and testimony are common examples.
You’ll need a doctorate in order to become licensed as a forensic psychologist, but master’s degree holders do typically experience a widening of their career prospects after graduation. For example, programs that lead to a master’s degree in forensic psychology may qualify graduates to earn a licensed professional counselor (LPC) or licensed clinical professional counselor (LCPC) credential, which opens up opportunities for counseling substance abuse survivors or serving as a private consultant to lawyers and other legal professionals.
Notable forensic psychology master’s degree programs
M.A. from New York University
The graduate psychology programs at New York University are ranked as tied for No. 30 in the country by U.S. News and World Report, and the Master of Arts (M.A.) degree comes with an option to concentrate your psychological study on forensic psychology theory and practice. Students build their forensic psychology degree plan on one of two sets of general psychology core courses and add at least 15 more credits from the Manhattan university’s catalog of subjects in forensic psychology.
- Department: New York University Department of Psychology
- Location: New York, NY
- Online options: NYU does offer an online bachelor’s degree in social sciences, but its master’s degrees in psychology are awarded through campus-based programs.
M.A. in Forensic Psychology from The Chicago School of Professional Psychology
The M.A. in forensic psychology available at The Chicago School of Professional Psychology is designed to prepare students for the LPC and LCPC licensure exams after graduation. The program comes with a choice among child protection, corrections, sex offenders and generalist concentrations and works in concert with the institution’s dedicated forensic center to give forensic psychology students a comprehensive introduction to the ins and outs of the profession. What’s more, the clinical psychology program at the Chicago School was recognized as one of the best in the nation by U.S. News and World Report.
- Department: The Chicago School of Professional Psychology
- Location: Chicago, IL; Washington, D.C.; Los Angeles, CA; Irvine, CA
- Online options: The Chicago School does offer an online M.A. in forensic psychology, but all licensure-track programs are specific to campus locations in Chicago, Washington, D.C. and Los Angeles and Irvine, California.
Doctoral degrees in forensic psychology
In order to find work as a full-fledged forensic psychologist, you’ll need to complete a Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.) or Doctor of Psychology (Psy.D.) degree program and successfully become licensed to practice in your state. Subject matter covered in doctoral programs is often similar to that studied at the master’s level, although some courses may go into greater detail or include more research or analysis than their graduate counterparts.
Most doctoral programs include:
- An intensive research methods component and require that students design, compose and defend a dissertation project that aims to contribute to the existing body of forensic psychology knowledge
- Around 90 credit hours of coursework
- A typical expectation of graduation in about five years of full-time study
Programs at certain institutions may or may not be offered as Ph.D./Psy.D. programs in forensic psychology, but don’t worry if none of the available programs with that title seem to suit your circumstances. Doctoral programs in clinical psychology may have a forensic specialization track available, and post-graduate certificate study may be able to fill in any further blank spots in your understanding of the nuances of forensic theory and practice.
Notable forensic psychology doctorate programs
Ph.D. from Palo Alto University
Forensic psychology doctoral study at Palo Alto University is offered as an area of emphasis within the clinical psychology Ph.D. program. In order to qualify for the forensic concentration, students must have at least two sections of psychopathology and psychodiagnosis training, at least one dedicated forensic psychology course at the post-graduate level and prior doctoral study of ethics and professional standards in clinical psychology.
- Department: The Pacific Graduate School of Psychology at Palo Alto University
- Location: Palo Alto, CA
- Online options: PAU does offer some online psychology courses and degrees, but the doctoral program makes no suggestion that it offers online sections by default.
Ph.D. or Psy.D. from Drexel University
The doctorate at Philadelphia’s Drexel University is actually offered under the banner of a joint Juris Doctor (J.D.) and Ph.D. program in law and psychology, rather than a Ph.D. or Psy.D. in forensic psychology. This dual-degree track may be one of the more rigorous paths available to students pursuing a forensic psychology career, but that additional rigor may present you with the opportunity to emerge from post-graduate work with a richer and more flexible background of training than most others in your profession.