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Do I Need a Master’s Degree to Get Into Forensic Psychology?

Do I Need a Master's Degree to Get Into Forensic Psychology?Forensic psychology is a highly specialized field that requires education and experience that goes beyond a bachelor’s degree.

As such, a master’s degree most certainly is required for many aspects of the field. However, there are some exceptions to this rule. For example, there are some entry-level positions for which a bachelor’s degree is enough, like a lab assistant or research assistant.

Additionally, there are some positions in forensic psychology in which a doctorate is required. An example of this would be if you chose to become a college professor. Often, colleges and universities require professors to have a terminal degree, which in this case would be a Ph.D.

Let’s have a closer look at what you can and cannot do in forensic psychology with a master’s degree.

Working in the Field of Forensic Psychology

Working in the Field of Forensic PsychologyThis is a varied, dynamic line of work with many different career pathways that you can take. Some, as discussed below, require that you have more than a master’s degree. However, there are a number of career options in forensic psychology that only require a master’s.

Doctoral-Level Careers in Forensic Psychology

Without a doctorate, you will likely not be able to become licensed to practice as a psychologist. While individual states are in charge of establishing licensure requirements for professionals like psychologists, by and large, states have agreed that a doctorate is necessary to become licensed. 

If you wish to be a practicing psychologist, you’ll need to consult with your state’s licensing board to determine what the exact educational requirements are for licensure. Typically, you’ll need a doctorate from an accredited institution, satisfactory scores on a licensure exam, and you will also need to fulfill a certain number of supervised hours (e.g., 3,000 hours over three years) to be fully licensed. Again, these are just examples of possible requirements and they may differ from what your particular state outlines for licensure.

Another area of work in forensic psychology that usually requires a doctorate is in the criminal justice system. For example, some forensic psychologists work with the courts to advise attorneys and judges, conduct mental evaluations of the accused, and provide expert testimony. Typically, these types of duties are best reserved for forensic psychologists that have a doctorate (and a wealth of experience working in the field, too).

Since tasks like conducting mental evaluations and providing expert testimony are in the high stakes setting of a civil or criminal trial, it’s important that experts have just that – the utmost expertise in their field.

Although it’s certainly possible for a master’s-level forensic psychologist to be considered an expert, a doctorate – and the additional years of education, research, and job experience – are more widely accepted as measures of a professional’s expertise. Think of it like this – a medical doctor in residency is certainly a professional with a lot of knowledge and experience, but a doctor with 10 years of practice under their belt has more knowledge and experience from which to draw expert opinions. The same applies for forensic psychologists.

That said, there are some jobs in forensic psychology that don’t require a doctoral degree.

Master’s Level Careers in Forensic Psychology

A great example of a master’s-level career in forensic psychology is a forensic psychology consultant. Some large law firms employ master’s-level forensic psychologists to work on cases with staff lawyers. In this case, you wouldn’t be relied upon for testifying in court or administering mental health evaluations. 

Instead, positions like this would likely entail “behind the scenes” work, such as helping prep a witness for providing testimony in court or helping identify the best jurors for a jury.

Another potential area of employment in forensic psychology for a master’s-level worker is as a police consultant. 

Again, this position is more about what goes on behind the scenes than being in front of juries offering expert testimony. Instead, police consultants might offer their expertise in human behavior to help detectives understand an accused criminal’s behavior. Police consultants are also often asked to provide services to uniformed officers and detectives like trauma counseling after a hostage situation, officer-involved shooting, or the death of a colleague.

Additionally, forensic psychologists that work directly for law enforcement agencies often provide training to officers that help them improve their ability to be effective on the job. Examples of this include anger management training, cultural sensitivity training, and providing educational resources on how to interact with people that have mental health issues, developmental disabilities, and the like.

There are plenty of other career options if you have a master’s degree in this field.

For example, you might find employment as a research assistant. There is much research in the area of forensic psychology, which is often led by private research firms as well as academic institutions. In either case, research teams need help designing and carrying out experiments, collecting and analyzing data, and reporting on that data in the form of journal articles. With a master’s degree in forensic psychology, you will gain a lot of experience in all of these areas, and can therefore be a valuable part of a research team.

Another career path you can pursue with a master’s degree in this field is as a forensic case manager. This is a mid-level position, usually in a state or federal agency like the Department of Human Services, that is focused on treating and managing clients that have a history of mental illness. In some cases, you might also work with clients that have a substance abuse issue or a developmental disability.

Forensic case managers have a wide range of responsibilities, from connecting their clients with local resources (e.g., for housing or a job), conducting drug tests, scheduling counseling sessions, and collaborating with other stakeholders to ensure the client has a strong support system.

This position typically does not involve providing direct counseling. Instead, it’s the job of a forensic case manager to identify the root of the client’s problems, explore options for helping their client rehabilitate, and then ensuring that the client has the proper supervision and resources for making rehabilitation a possibility.

Since many clients that need forensic case management services have been involved in the criminal justice system, it’s valuable to have a forensic psychology background when working in this position. Understanding both human behavior and the law is crucial for devising a proper treatment plan for someone that might have a history of criminality.

A related career option is child protective services worker. Though this position doesn’t require a master’s degree in forensic psychology, having that kind of educational background would certainly be helpful.

Part of the duties of this job include investigating accusations of child abuse or neglect. Not only is it important to have a strong background in understanding human behavior when making such investigations, but it’s also important to know the relevant legal ramifications for parents or guardians should they be charged with a crime.

Other aspects of this job also draw on the unique combination of psychological and legal expertise. For example, child protective services workers often have to determine whether it’s appropriate to remove a child from the home. To do so, they have to evaluate the parents or guardians for fitness, determine if the home environment itself is safe, and determine if the child is getting the social, emotional, and physical support they need to develop normally.

These are but a few examples of what you can do with a master’s degree in this field. There are many other options, too, but the careers discussed above are a good cross-section of what you can expect in terms of master’s-level jobs in forensic psychology.

Educational Requirements for Forensic Psychology

As with any career area, there might be specific requirements you need to meet – educationally, experientially, and so forth – to qualify for a specific position in forensic psychology. However, there are also some common, basic educational requirements that you will need to fulfill for most forensic psychology jobs. Some of these basic education requirements are enumerated below.

First, you’ll need to complete a bachelor’s degree program in psychology or a related field. In most cases, colleges and universities offer general psychology undergraduate degrees, but a growing number of institutions are offering specialized bachelor’s degrees in forensic psychology.

However, you don’t necessarily have to have a bachelor’s degree in psychology. If your undergraduate degree is in social work, pre-law, human services, or criminal justice, the likelihood is good that you will be able to begin a master’s program in forensic psychology without having to fulfill a lot of prerequisites first.

Once you have a bachelor’s degree from an accredited institution, you can either find an entry-level job in forensic psychology as discussed earlier, or you can immediately pursue your graduate degree. A graduate degree in this field will take anywhere from two to four years depending on the specific graduation requirements.

Likewise, the length of time you must spend in a graduate program in forensic psychology will vary depending on the type of program it is. For example, some colleges and universities offer accelerated programs that combine the bachelor’s and master’s degrees into a single program. Oftentimes, this type of format can save you a semester or two (or even more) from the overall timetable to get your master’s degree. But, typically, to get a bachelor’s degree and a master’s degree you’ll need six or more years of schooling.

Again, after completing your master’s degree, you can choose to enter the workforce to gain experience, or you can choose to continue your studies in a doctoral program.

As noted earlier, many positions in forensic psychology and related areas only require a master’s degree, but if you want to practice as a psychologist or work within the criminal justice system, a doctorate is typically required.

At each level – bachelor’s, master’s, and doctorate – it’s advisable to take part in experiential learning as much as possible. Most master’s degree programs require an internship, a practicum, or both, and doctoral programs require extensive research. But if you can add job shadowing or volunteering to the mix, or perhaps even better – paid work – you will be that much more experienced upon graduating with your degree.

Remember that most states require psychologists to have a certain number of supervised hours before they can be fully licensed. The timeframe for completing those hours might be one year, two years, or more, depending on the requirements. So, by the time you complete a doctoral program and supervised hours, you could be looking at a total time frame of a dozen years or so from the time you begin your bachelor’s degree until the time your supervised licensure hours are completed.

Is it Worth the Time to Earn a Master’s Degree in Forensic Psychology?

Is it Worth the Time to Earn a Master’s Degree in Forensic Psychology?It is true that there are many students that bypass the master’s degree and earn a doctorate instead. And while this is a worthwhile pathway for many, it eliminates the possibility of being able to enter the workforce after getting a master’s and gaining valuable work experience. While it isn’t a necessity to get on-the-job experience before graduating, it certainly doesn’t hurt.

So, unless you have aspirations of being a practicing, licensed psychologist, you might consider getting a master’s degree in forensic psychology. As noted above, there are many different career pathways that are open to master’s-level workers in this field. Not only that, but many of those careers can be extremely rewarding and pay relatively well.

It’s an unfortunate part of life that some people’s lives are marred by crime, abuse, and neglect. And while you can’t fix those occurrences, with training as a forensic psychologist, you can do your part to right the wrongs that have occurred, prepare people to be better equipped to live independently, and ensure that your clients are safe and provided for.

Forensic psychology is a great career path, but it takes time to become a psychologist and gain the necessary skills to work as a forensic psychologist. Earning a master’s degree has the benefit of qualifying you for a wide range of well-paying jobs and is a good step to take on your way to fulfilling your career goals.

Sean Jackson

B.A. Social Studies Education | University of Wyoming

M.S. Counseling | University of Wyoming

B.S. Information Technology | University of Massachusetts

November 2021

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