What is a Forensic Psychology Degree?

The American Board of Forensic Psychology describes the field as ‘the application of the science and profession of psychology to questions and issues relating to law and the legal system.’

In other words, forensic psychologists work at the intersection of psychology, law, and criminal justice. They conduct defendant competency evaluations, make sentencing recommendations, evaluate the risk of reoffending, provide expert witness testimony, conduct academic research on criminality, consult with law enforcement, provide psychological services to offenders, inmates, and victims of crime, act as jury consultants, and design correctional programs.

To prepare for careers in the field, students of forensic psychology study theories of personality, theories of criminal behavior, mental health law, the connection between mental disorder and crime, and offender rehabilitation and reintegration. They seek to understand the relationship between human psychology and all parts of the criminal justice system – legislation, law enforcement, courts, corrections, and victim services.

Program Options


  • The forensic psychology major is sometimes offered as a concentration of a psychology or criminal justice degree.
  • It is important to seek out degree programs that are accredited by the American Psychological Association (APA), the Canadian Psychological Association (CPA), or a national accrediting agency approved by the American Board of Professional Psychology (ABPP).

Bachelor’s Degree in Forensic Psychology – Four Year Duration
The bachelor’s program in forensic psychology provides students with foundational knowledge and skills which prepare them for their studies at the graduate level. The psychology training component of the curriculum focuses on the behavioral and social sciences and the role they play in understanding and predicting human behavior.

Students also take courses in biology, chemistry, anatomy, physiology, critical reasoning, mathematics, psychological statistics, and research methodology. Programs typically include field work, visits to institutions and agencies, and research projects, as well as a psychology practicum in a community / social service agency.

The core curriculum is comprised of courses like these:

  • Cultural Anthropology – the origin and nature of culture, cultural universals, and the uniformities and variations in human cultural development in a cross-cultural context
  • Introduction to Criminal Justice – the philosophy and history of law enforcement; an overview of crime and police problems, criminal justice agencies, processes of justice from detection of crime to parole of offenders, and evaluation of modern police services; career opportunities in criminal justice
  • Criminology – an historical examination of crime and factors of deviant social behavior; criminological theories used to analyze contributing factors and evaluate remedial measures currently in use
  • Juvenile Delinquency – study of delinquency, juvenile courts, detention, and probation; investigation and comparison of treatment and prevention programs
  • Introduction to Psychology: Social Foundations – an introduction to the scientific study of behavioral processes and mental states; topics include historical information, research methods, human development, personality, social psychology, stress and health, psychological disorders, and treatment
  • Introduction to Psychology: Biological Foundations – an exploration of the scientific study of behavioral processes and mental states; topics include issues in psychology related to neuroscience, sensation and perceptions, consciousness, memory, learning, emotion and motivation, language, thinking, and intelligence
  • Developmental Psychology – development of the individual across the lifespan, emphasizing the biosocial, cognitive, and psychosocial development of the individual
  • Introduction to Forensic Psychology – introduction to forensic psychology in a social psychology context, including the interactive components of law and law enforcement, exploration of the criminal mind, investigation techniques, and eyewitness and criminal profiling
  • Social Psychology – the dynamics of social interaction and interpersonal behavior in contemporary society
  • Theories of Personality – a survey of the principal theories of personality, the experimental methods and findings on which they are based, and their applications in everyday life; personality profiling
  • Psychological Testing – the principles of test selection, administration, and interpretation; the contributions and limitations of standardized tests and assessment tools used in the behavioral sciences
  • Advanced Forensic Psychology – selected topics in forensic psychology, criminal justice, and criminology; the application and practice of psychology in the areas of police and investigative psychology, family forensic psychology, psychology of crime and delinquency, and correctional psychology
  • Abnormal Psychology – an overview of the major categories of abnormal behavior, including clinical description and classification, research on etiology (causes), and approaches to treatment
  • Current Social Problems – topics addressed include the economy, overpopulation, healthcare, education, social class, poverty, race, gender, and the environment; discussion of the impact of social problems on individuals, groups, institutions, organizations, and society at large; examination of potential solutions

Master’s Degree in Forensic Psychology – One to Two Year Duration
A master’s degree in forensic psychology is typically the minimum education requirement to work in the field. To enter a master’s program, students need to have completed the equivalent of a bachelor’s education. At this level, programs concentrate on psychopathology – the in-depth study of problems related to mental health – and on forensic assessment and forensic treatment. At many schools, students may elect to undertake a thesis project or pass a comprehensive final examination.

Here is a snapshot of a typical forensic psychology master’s curriculum:

  • Mental Health, Law, and Criminal Justice – basic psychological theory and specific applications in the criminal justice system, emphasizing mental health issues as they affect the criminal justice system
  • Theories of Criminal Behavior – exploration of theories relating to the nature and scope of the crime problem; deviancy, including social norms deviancy, mental disturbances, juvenile crime, and possible and actual responses to deviancy; approaches to rehabilitation
  • Research Methods in Criminal Justice – introduction to the quantitative and qualitative methods used in criminal justice research and policy analysis; types of research design, survey research methods, and evaluation methods
  • Quantitative Applications in Criminal Justice – basic descriptive and inferential statistics, measurement scales, data distributions, sampling probability, hypothesis testing, and analysis of variance models
  • Mental Health Law – civil and criminal law relating to mental health issues; topics covered include competence to stand trial, insanity, competence to be executed, civil commitment, sexual predator commitment statutes, confidentiality, duty to warn, and issues of expert testimony; ethical issues and issues of professional responsibility
  • Abnormal Psychology in Forensic Populations – mental disorders associated with prisons and other forensic practice; disorders involving violent and predatory behavior including personality disorders, psychosis, pedophilia, and other conditions characterized by abnormal sexual desires; psychopathy, psychopathology, and criminal behavior; related case studies
  • Forensic Assessment – assessment methods used in evaluation and treatment in inmate and forensic settings; techniques of forensic interviewing; assessing violence and risk; the strengths and limitations of various forensic assessment methods; techniques to assess malingering (the intentional production of false or grossly exaggerated physical or psychological symptoms, motivated by external incentives such as evading criminal prosecution or obtaining drugs)
  • Forensic Treatment Models – various mental health treatment modalities for patients / inmates in the forensic system; psychopharmacology, group therapy, cognitive techniques, community-based management, faith-based approaches, and social skills training; treatment of individuals acquitted on grounds of insanity, incompetent-to-stand-trial patients, inmates, juvenile offenders, psychopaths, and sex offenders; management of high-risk forensic populations; current research findings on the effectiveness of these approaches with forensic populations
  • Introduction to Psychotherapy and Counseling – theory, research, and practice of psychotherapy and counseling; examination of the therapist-patient relationship

Post-Graduate Certificate in Forensic Psychology – One Year Duration
Admission to a post-grad certificate program in forensic psychology requires a master’s degree in psychology or a related field. This option allows students to acquire additional academic or professional credentials without committing to a doctoral program. Programs normally blend coursework, scientific research, and real-life case studies.

Concepts explored in certificate curricula may include:

Theories of Criminal Behavior

  • Victims and victimology
  • Classic and contemporary theories of crime causation
  • Developmental theory and critical criminology
  • Public order, violent crimes, and property crimes
  • Social structure and social process theories
  • Rational choice and trait theory

Psychology and the Legal System

  • The legal foundations of the adult and juvenile criminal justice systems
  • Criminal procedures
  • Developing criminal profiles of potential suspects through research and clinical studies
  • Pre-trial processes
  • Interviewing victims of crime
  • Providing expert testimony
  • Post-conviction procedures

Psychopathology of Crime

  • The biological, neurochemical, and sociological factors that underlie criminal behavior
  • Assessing clients in a correctional environment
  • Addiction
  • Brain imaging
  • Biopsychosocial research
  • Development of treatment plans

Offender Rehabilitation and Reintegration

  • Rehabilitation and reintegration of sex offenders
  • Rehabilitation and reintegration of drug offenders
  • Rehabilitation and reintegration of juvenile offenders
  • Rehabilitation and reintegration of female offenders
  • Rehabilitation and reintegration of mentally ill offenders

Doctoral Degree in Forensic Psychology – Four to Eight Year Duration
Forensic psychology doctoral candidates earn either a Ph.D. or a Psy.D. The Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.) emphasizes scientific research and teaching as a way to contribute new knowledge to the field. The Doctor of Psychology (Psy.D.) is a clinical practice program, focusing on training to deliver clinical services within different legal environments. It prepares students for careers involving one-on-one patient assessment and treatment and provides in-depth knowledge of the legal system.

Admission requirements for both Ph.D. and Psy.D. programs vary by institution, but most applicants have a master’s degree in psychology or a related discipline. Acceptance to some programs requires a specific score on the GRE (Graduate Record Examination).

Degrees Similar to Forensic Psychology

Criminology is the study of crime, the human factors and behaviors that make it happen, and its impact on society. Degree programs in the discipline include coursework in: criminal law, psychology of crime, statistical and computer applications in criminal justice, and research methods in criminal justice.

Forensic Science
The objective of forensic science is to solve crimes by applying science and scientific methods to the justice system. Degrees programs in the field, therefore, train students to use cutting-edge techniques to examine and interpret evidence in criminal and civil cases. Because forensic science draws upon the sciences of biology, physics, and chemistry, these subject areas make up an important part of the forensics curriculum.

Psychobiology is the interaction between biological systems and behavior. It is concerned with how what we think and what we feel combine with biological events. Research in the field covers topics such as how psychological stressors can impact the brain and behavior. An example is how an exam or job interview can cause heart palpitations.

The scientific study of the mind and behavior is the focus of psychology degree programs. In simple terms, psychology students study the way that humans and animals act, feel, think, and learn.

Social Work
Social work is about helping people solve and cope with problems and challenges in their everyday lives. Students who pursue a degree in the field gain the knowledge and skills, as well as the ethics and values, to work for social justice for individuals, families, organizations, and communities. The typical curriculum examines issues such as child welfare, mental health, poverty, aging, domestic violence, and marginalized groups.

Degree programs in sociology are focused on studying groups, from two people and beyond. Sociology students examine human behavior patterns and relationships at both the micro-level and the macro-level. They study interactions between individuals as well as in families, peer groups, cultural groups, gender groups, racial groups, religious groups, and social classes.

Skills You’ll Learn

In addition to developing expertise in psychology, a firm grounding in scientific theory, and familiarity with mental health law, case law, and courtroom procedures, students of forensic psychology build a significant set of transferable skills:

  • A non-judgmental, non-discriminatory approach
  • Ability to remain calm under pressure
  • An organized, systematic approach to work
  • Attention to detail
  • Awareness of ethical issues / security awareness
  • Awareness of social and cultural issues
  • Capacity to cope with an element of personal risk
  • Communication and listening skills
  • Dedication and motivation
  • Laboratory skills
  • Leadership and teamwork
  • Observation, investigation, critical thinking, and problem solving
  • Planning and research
  • Strong oral presentation skills
  • Strong writing skills
  • Understanding and use of statistical information

What Can You Do with a Forensic Psychology Degree?

Employment options for forensic psychology graduates exist in the areas of criminal justice, criminology, law enforcement, counseling, and research. Most career paths start with a master’s or doctoral degree in the field. Here are some of the most common:

  • Correctional Counselor – conducts inmate counseling sessions and psychological evaluations in a correctional facility; collaborates with lawyers, caseworkers, and correctional facility staff regarding parole hearings; develops programs that help reduce recidivism (reoffending) rates
  • Jail Supervisor – works in juvenile jails, state penitentiaries, and detention centers; oversees daily activities, alleviating conflict, ensuring prison is clear of contraband, and generally keeping inmates and staff members safe
  • Victim Advocate – works directly with victims of crimes and survivors of traumatic events; helps victims understand their legal rights; provides support throughout the legal process and attends hearings with the victim
  • Jury Consultant / Trial Consultant – works with attorneys on trial preparation, courtroom strategy and case presentation, and jury evaluation and selection; observes and interprets juror body language and behavior; evaluates witness testimony
  • Federal Government Employee – is employed by federal government organizations such as the FBI, DEA (Drug Enforcement Agency), CIA, VA (Veterans Affairs) hospitals; or by state and local government agencies and departments
  • Police Consultant – helps police personnel understand the minds of criminals; helps promote community policing strategies; may conduct suicide prevention training, anger management training, critical incident stress debriefing training, and educate police officers on how to better handle situations involving the disabled and mentally ill
  • Licensed Professional Clinical Counselor – forensic psychology can translate into many different types of counseling, such as substance abuse and domestic violence
  • Juvenile Offenders Counselor – works with juveniles who enter the criminal justice system
  • Probation Officer – assists with the supervision of people recently released from prison and/or those placed on parole; helps with decisions concerning release dates; evaluates the likelihood of risky behavior; advises past offenders
  • Crime Analyst – acts as an investigative liaison to police; examines statistical data and forensic research to create crime profiles, detect criminals, and control the occurrence of crime in given locations
  • Forensic Research Psychologist – focuses on research designs and conducts psychological research within the criminal justice and criminology realms; studies criminal history; questions suspects, victims, and other people related to a crime; studies the crime scene and records the information (such as eye-witness accounts, patterns, and evaluation of offenders and victim treatment programs) missed by other personnel
  • Investigative Journalist / Crime Reporter – works with law enforcement to collect and analyze information they receive from witnesses and informants
  • Forensic Social Worker – serves as a link between the court system, law enforcement agencies, and the individuals affected by crime; recommends appropriate therapy and protection of criminal defendants and informants; evaluates the defendant’s mental state; testifies as an expert witness; identifies criminal activities committed by their clients
  • Professor / Researcher – teaches forensic psychology and related disciplines in a university or college setting; may also conduct forensic psychology research
  • Expert Witness – provides expert testimony during court proceedings on psychology related issues and topics, including an individual’s mental state


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