What is the Best Degree for Getting Into Forensic Psychology?

What is the Best Degree for Getting Into Forensic Psychology?Thanks largely to the proliferation of TV shows in recent years, such as CSI, NCIS, and Criminal Minds, the field of forensics has never been more popular as a profession. And among the most popular aspects of the forensic sciences is forensic psychology.

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But, as popular as forensic psychology has become thanks to dramatizations on TV and in movies, the reality of this field is a little different than what’s portrayed.

Forensic psychologists typically don’t carry weapons, nor are they some sort of all-knowing figures like Nostradamus that claim to foretell the future.

Instead, forensic psychologists are highly trained professionals that spend years and years in school and on the job perfecting their understanding of human behavior. Likewise, they spend years honing their ability to use tools like personality assessments (e.g., the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory 2, or MMPI-2) and intelligence tests (e.g., the Wechsler Adult Intelligence Scale, 4th Edition, or WAIS-IV) to better understand how and why people behave the way they do.

In most cases, forensic psychologists do their work within the criminal justice system. There, they combine the fields of psychology and criminal investigation to achieve a wide range of outcomes, from criminal profiling to preparing witnesses for courtroom testimony to assessing the competency of a defendant to stand trial.

But the question is, how do you become a forensic psychologist?

What is Forensic Psychology?

What is Forensic Psychology?First, it’s important to fully understand what forensic psychology is and what it is not.

Generally speaking, forensic psychology is where psychology meets the criminal justice system. As noted earlier, unlike the sensationalized portrayals often seen on television, forensic psychologists don’t spend their days working with investigators to deduce the actions of a criminal’s next move.

Instead, for the most part, forensic psychologists work within the legal system to provide psychological services to stakeholders within that system. So, in addition to the job duties enumerated earlier, this might involve:

  • Testifying as an expert witness in court
  • Offering consultative services to the prosecution or the defense in a legal proceeding
  • Conducting research on criminality
  • Investigating family-based crimes, like child abuse or neglect
  • Providing therapeutic services to victims of crimes

This is, of course, not an exhaustive list of all the duties you might have as a forensic psychologist, but it does give you a good idea of the types of tasks you might be expected to perform.

Naturally, the specific duties of a forensic psychologist’s job depends on a lot of factors – their place of employment, their level of education and experience, and their specific area of expertise. For example, some forensic psychologists specialize in criminology and developing profiles of criminals. Others specialize in forensic research. Yet others specialize in witness preparation. These types of professionals will have wildly different job duties because of these specializations.

Note as well that not all of the professionals working in the area of forensic psychology are forensic psychologists. Some clinical psychologists are employed within the criminal justice system and work with patients virtually exclusively in a therapeutic setting. A good example of this might be a clinical psychologist that is contracted by a Circuit Court to provide therapy services to victims of domestic violence.

It is also important to point out that in the field of forensic psychology, the concern is typically not on providing therapy. Instead, the emphasis is on providing objective evaluations which allow the court to determine the most appropriate course of action. This is a large part of the reason why forensic psychologists must be intimately familiar with the legal system, its language, procedures, and other nuances – they must be able to work effectively within that environment.

And since a forensic psychologist can be called upon to work in any number of settings, from courtrooms to mental institutions to jails or prisons, it is also important to note that forensic psychologists often work on the “dark side” of people – those who have been accused of crimes and other wrongdoing. As a result, there is sometimes little resolution of these cases. Instead, the forensic psychologist works to identify abnormal traits and present them to the criminal justice system for trial.

The educational path you pursue for forensic psychology will also depend on the specialty area you choose. There are a variety of specialties in this field, including:

  • Criminal forensic psychology, which involves working within the criminal court system to provide psychological assessments of defendants, such as their ability to stand trial.
  • Civil forensic psychology, which focuses more on cases of divorce, child custody, and other non-criminal issues. In civil court, forensic psychologists typically provide assessments, such as conducting psychological evaluations of parents for custody hearings.
  • Juvenile forensic psychology, which involves working with juvenile courts to assess juvenile defendants and their cognitive functioning and provide treatment to kids that are in the juvenile detention system.

Additionally, some forensic psychologists specialize in working with law enforcement to train officers, develop screening procedures for new officers, and provide counseling services to officers after a traumatic event, such as the death of their partner or an officer-involved shooting.

While each of these specialties might require additional training or specialized education, pursuing a career in one of these specialties begins at the same place – getting a bachelor’s degree.

Where to Start

Get a bachelor's degree to become a forensic psychologistNo matter what direction you want to go in your career as a forensic psychologist, you will need to start by getting a bachelor’s degree.

There are some bachelor of science (B.S.) and bachelor of arts (B.A.) degrees in forensic psychology, but they are far rarer than a B.S. or B.A. in general psychology. While an undergraduate degree in forensic psychology is an excellent option, a degree in general psychology is also completely acceptable for beginning your studies. 

The reason for this is simple – to build a career in forensic psychology, you will need at least a master’s degree, if not a doctorate. So, your undergraduate studies are meant to prepare you for additional, higher-level schooling, which can be accomplished in a general psychology undergraduate program. In some cases, you might find that a bachelor’s degree in a related field – social work, for example – can also prepare you well for master’s and doctoral studies in forensic psychology.

No matter what route you take for your undergraduate degree, you can expect that some basic requirements will apply. Most undergraduate programs are 120 semester credits, which takes four years for most full-time students to complete. Of those 120 credits, about half are general education courses like math, science, and humanities, while the other half are in the major area of psychology.

Some undergraduate psychology programs offer the chance for students to expand their learning beyond the classroom. This might be in the form of research opportunities with faculty, job shadowing, or even practicum or internship placements with practicing forensic psychologists.

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These kinds of real-world experiences are not only valuable for enhancing your learning at that point, but they also provide you with hugely beneficial experiences that can help guide and direct your learning in graduate school and beyond. Likewise, the more experience you have in forensic psychology research and applying forensic psychology principles in the workplace – even when you’re an undergraduate – the better off you’ll be when it comes time to apply for jobs later down the line.

As you search for an undergraduate psychology program in which to enroll, think about the learning opportunities it will provide. If you want to specialize in working directly with law enforcement, a program that offers a specialization in psychology and criminal justice would be an ideal fit. Similarly, if your passion is to work with juveniles in the criminal justice system, a bachelor’s degree in developmental psychology would be a great choice.

The Next Step – a Master’s Degree in Forensic Psychology

After getting your undergraduate degree, you can certainly seek employment and find entry-level positions, such as a forensic psychology research assistant. But, as was mentioned earlier, if you want to be a forensic psychologist, you’ll need to continue your studies.

There are many institutions of higher learning in the United States and abroad that offer graduate degrees in forensic psychology. Typically, these degrees are master of science (M.S.) as opposed to a master of arts (M.A.). Master of science degrees focus more on scientific research, which is more appropriate for most applications of forensic psychology. Master of arts programs in forensic psychology, meanwhile, focus less on research and more on the application of psychological principles in practice.

So, if your goal is to provide forensic psychology services to clients, like counseling children that have experienced abuse, an M.A. in forensic psychology would be an appropriate option. But if you prefer to conduct research, work as an expert witness, or work as a criminal profiler, an M.S. in forensic psychology might be a better option.

Also consider that if you want to continue your education in a doctoral program in forensic psychology that you will need a strong foundation of psychological research skills. An M.S. in forensic psychology will be the best option for acquiring that skill set.

To recap, a master’s degree is a must to work as a forensic psychologist, but the type of degree you get will depend on how you want to apply your knowledge and skills in the workplace.

It should be noted that just like at the undergraduate level, master’s programs in this field often offer (if not require) practicum or internship placements in addition to robust research, like a master’s thesis or capstone.

The length of practicum and internship placements (e.g., the number of contact hours required) as well as the location of the placements can vary greatly from one university to the next. So too can the type and depth of research you conduct. As a result, it’s important to carefully consider the practicum and internship opportunities, as well as the research opportunities that programs offer – it could help make or break your future career.

While there are many differences in master’s programs in this field, you can expect a master’s degree to involve anywhere from 30 credits to 60 credits or more. Depending on the graduation requirements, it might take two years or three years to complete a master’s degree in this field. This is of course in addition to the four years it takes to get a bachelor’s degree in psychology or a related field.

Getting a Terminal Degree

As mentioned earlier, there are many job opportunities for master’s-level forensic psychologists. Despite that, some forensic psychologists choose to continue their education to get a doctorate, which is the terminal degree in psychology.

Doctorates in psychology can take four or five years or more to complete. Most doctoral programs result in a Ph.D., though PsyD programs are gaining popularity. The main difference between the two is that a Ph.D. is primarily focused on research (like the M.S. degree) while a PsyD is primarily focused on providing psychological services (like the M.A. degree).

In either case, having a doctorate in forensic psychology will open the most career paths for you. Likewise, the higher your level of education, the higher the income you can expect to earn.

But, getting the best degree for forensic psychology is only part of the equation. As noted before, gaining relevant experience in research and in workplace settings during your undergraduate and graduate studies will prove to be critically important for your development as a professional. This is something that you should continue to pursue if you decide to get a doctorate.

Licensure and Certification

It is important to point out that in addition to getting the appropriate degrees and completing other coursework, each state licenses psychologists, regardless of their specialty. Since state licensure requirements vary, you will need to consult with the state licensing board in your state regarding the specific educational and experiential requirements for obtaining a license.

Those who wish to practice as forensic psychologists also often earn certifications, like those offered by the American Board of Forensic Psychology and the American Academy of Forensic Psychology. Though certifications aren’t always required for employment, they can be helpful in expanding your knowledge and skill development in forensic psychology. Combined with a robust undergraduate and graduate education, a certification in this field can provide you with all the resources and tools you need to be a highly effective forensic psychologist.

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