People are often astonished when a terrible crime is committed. Famous killers like Charles Manson and Jeffrey Dahmer have grabbed headlines over the years. How could people do such horrible things? What makes them behave in that manner? While the perpetrators of crimes often get the biggest headlines and have the most questions swirling around them, there are many other parties involved that are deeply impacted by such events, not the least of which are the loved ones of victims. Law enforcement personnel, members of the judicial system, and communities as a whole struggle to understand why such awful events occur.
Forensic psychologists have training in a wide variety of disciplines, from psychology to sociology to criminology, and use that knowledge to assist in situations like those outlined above. Forensic psychologists are trained to profile criminals, counsel victims, and assess defendants for mental, emotional, and behavioral problems. They also conduct research, hoping to find answers to the question of why people commit crimes. In order to do these tasks, they must first get adequate training by obtaining a forensic psychology or relevant degree.
What is a Forensic Psychology Degree?
Forensic psychology degrees focus on helping students obtain the knowledge and skills they need to apply psychological insights to the legal arena. Degrees in forensic psychology don’t just focus on the romanticized task of criminal profiling, although that is often a duty forensic psychologists perform. Instead, college programs in this field are highly diverse, and include studies from a number of disciplines, including psychology, sociology, criminology, and forensic science, to name a few.
A central component of studies in this field is in the area of psychological assessment. Forensic psychologists are often tasked with assessing individuals that are involved in the criminal justice system. For example, a forensic psychologist might be required to assess whether or not a person that has recently been arrested is suicidal. So, to prepare for such a task, psychology degree programs include much coursework on administering psychological assessments, interpreting the results, and drawing up reports to explain their findings to others.
Forensic psychology degrees also focus on research skills and abilities. This pertains to psychological and scientific research. For example, a psychological research course might explore social psychology issues, such as groupthink, and how those issues impact the manner in which people behave. Scientific research courses might include biology, chemistry, or anatomy, with students exploring the biological basis of human behavior.
There are some bachelor’s degree programs that offer a concentration in forensic psychology, but very few institutions offer a major in forensic psychology at the undergraduate level. Instead, master’s and doctorates are much more common in this specific discipline. Typically, students pursuing formal education in forensic psychology will get a Master of Science (M.S.), or go on to get a Ph.D.
What is the Difference Between a Bachelor’s and a Master’s Degree in Forensic Psychology?
As mentioned above, bachelor’s degree programs in forensic psychology are few and far between. Instead, students interested in pursuing a career in this field usually major in psychology, criminal justice, sociology, or a related field for their undergraduate studies, then go on to specialize in forensic psychology in graduate school and beyond.
Undergraduate programs are four-year programs of study that involve a mixture of courses. Much of the coursework at the undergraduate level is introductory in nature, so students will take basic math, science, English, and humanities classes, as well as courses specific to their particular major. For example, a student that majors in psychology may take classes in developmental psychology, psychological research and methods, psychological statistics, and physiological psychology. A student choosing to major in criminal justice might take government, criminal procedure, police systems, and correctional systems. All told, undergraduate students typically must complete approximately 60 credits of coursework related to their major, with another 60 credits of coursework in general studies and required classes.
Admission requirements for bachelor’s degree programs vary from institution to institution. Some schools, particularly those that are private, have more strict entrance requirements. In these instances, students may need to have extremely high test scores, an outstanding GPA, and several letters of recommendation from teachers or other people in positions of authority. At public colleges and universities, however, the entrance requirements are generally more relaxed. At these schools, students might just need a minimum acceptable GPA and test scores to gain admittance.
Graduate school in forensic psychology is a much more difficult undertaking than undergraduate studies. It is at this level that students begin specialized studies in the field, so there is very little coursework undertaken outside the realm of psychology. Additionally, the level of rigor of courses is much more advanced, and, as a result, the classes at this level are much more difficult.
The typical graduate-level forensic psychology curriculum includes studies that pertain to mental health and the law. Students participate in classes that focus on research and statistics as well. Psychopathology, criminal assessments, and crisis intervention are also commonly required courses. Many graduate programs also include an internship component, which places students in a real-life work setting to further develop their skills. For example, a forensic psychology student might spend a six-month internship working in a crime lab for a local law enforcement agency.
Graduate programs in this field vary in terms of the number of credits required, but the norm is between 30-45 credit hours or coursework. That is inclusive of any internship or research requirements that students must complete as part of the degree program.
Admission to a graduate program in forensic psychology requires students to meet a variety of criteria. Students might be required to have an acceptable score on the Graduate Record Exam (GRE), as well as sufficient grades in their undergraduate studies. Prospective graduate students must also already hold a bachelor’s degree, which may or may not have to be in a specific field of study, depending on the graduate program to which they apply. For example, a graduate program in forensic psychology might require applicants to have a bachelor’s degree in psychology or criminology in order to gain admission. Other requirements are often included as part of the graduate admissions process as well, such as writing an essay and participating in an interview process with department faculty.
What Do You Learn in a Forensic Psychology Degree?
Advanced forensic psychology studies may include the following coursework:
- Psychology and Law – Students explore both the American legal system and the mental health system, and how those two systems interact. Learners also investigate criminal and civil law, juvenile justice, criminal competence, and establishing a defendant’s insanity.
- Testing and Assessment – Test design, psychometrics, and report design are among the topics explored in testing and assessment courses. Students also learn how to administer objective and projective psychological assessments.
- Evaluation and treatment – Students learn how to evaluate individuals accused or convicted of crimes. Areas of specialty include treating juveniles, offenders with substance abuse issues, and sex offenders.
- Psychological profiling – Courses in psychological profiling help students understand the benefits and limitations of profiling in criminal cases. Students also explore crime scene analysis and methods for identifying serial offenders.
- Consultation and testimony – Students acquire the skills needed to provide expert witness testimony in legal proceedings. Issues related to consultation with attorneys, law enforcement personnel, and mental health providers are discussed as well.
What is an Online Forensic Psychology Degree?
There are a wide variety of online programs in forensic psychology. As noted earlier, some bachelor’s degree programs in psychology offer a concentration in forensic psychology, but very few actually offer a major in this discipline. What options there are for undergraduate degrees in this field are usually of the Bachelor of Science variety. Courses at the undergraduate level are broad-based and cover a wide variety of subject matter, just as traditional campus-based courses do. Four years are typically required to complete an online undergraduate program.
Online graduate programs in this field are more common than undergraduate programs. Like online undergraduate programs, online master’s degree programs are highly similar to the on-campus programs in this field. Students explore issues at the intersection of psychology and law, and acquire the necessary skills to assess clients, offer interventions, provide insights and consultations to law enforcement, and do so in an ethical manner.
Online programs typically require the same number of credits to graduate as on-campus programs. However, most students pursuing an online degree tend to take fewer classes at a time. Therefore, the timeframe for completing an online degree is often longer than campus-based programs.
What Does it Take to Get a Forensic Psychology Degree?
Ideally, students interested in training in forensic psychology should possess the following qualities, skills, and traits:
- Strong interest in multiple disciplines – Forensic psychology degree programs include many courses outside the realm of psychology. Having an interest in science, criminal justice, and sociology will be beneficial.
- Excellent research skills – Students in forensic psychology programs acquire strong research skills as part of their coursework, but going into studies in this field with excellent research skills will make for a more successful experience.
- Critical thinking skills – Having the ability to analyze information, make informed judgments, and solve problems quickly are just a few of the critical thinking skills that students need to complete their studies in forensic psychology.
- Excellent communication skills – Formal education in this field require students to do a lot of researching, writing, and oral presentations because that is a major component of jobs in this field. Students that do not have effective oral and written communication skills may struggle to perform well.
What are the Advantages and Disadvantages of a Degree in Forensic Psychology?
- Rapid job growth – Students with an advanced degree in forensic psychology may benefit from a booming job market for practitioners with forensic training. And since forensic psychologists can work in a variety of settings, including the criminal justice system, education, or in private practice, the types of jobs available are also many in number.
- Interesting subject matter – Forensic psychology degree programs are multidisciplinary, offering students the opportunity to learn about psychology, sociology, law, and criminology, and how each discipline is an integral component of practicing forensic psychology.
- Making a difference – One of the primary benefits of having a degree in this field is that you can make a significant, positive difference in the lives of many people.
- Time demands – Getting adequate formal training takes a lot of time. Many positions are only open to individuals with a doctorate, although some can be found with just a master’s degree. Either way, be prepared to spend at least six years working towards a minimum of a master’s degree.
- Expense – College isn’t cheap, and since advanced degrees in this field are required to find even entry-level positions, a lot of money will have to be spent to get the required education and training.
- Advanced coursework – Students in this field must take many high-level courses. A deep understanding of science and math, in addition to psychology and criminology, is required. Students that are not successful in these subjects may struggle to get a degree in this field.
How Much Can You Make With a Degree in Forensic Psychology?
According to PayScale, the average annual wage for a forensic psychologist is $60,880. There is an extremely wide pay band for workers in this field. At the low end, recent graduates or those with little experience can expect to earn little more than $37,500 per year. However, there is the potential for excellent income growth, as the top ten percent of earners in forensic psychology make well over $100,000 per year.
Naturally, individuals with more education and training will be offered higher salaries. Many of the most experienced workers in this field have a Ph.D. and thus command higher wages. Location also heavily influences the salary one can expect. In large cities where there is more crime, the need for forensic psychologists is greater, thus there are more job opportunities and well-paid ones at that. This isn’t necessarily the case in rural areas, where the demand for forensic psychologists may not be as strong, and the budgets of local law enforcement agencies tend to be too tight to support hiring forensic psychologists and other personnel that are not absolutely critical for day-to-day operations.
What Degrees are Similar to Forensic Psychology?
There are several degrees that provide a similar educational experience to forensic psychology, both within and outside the field of psychology. These programs include:
Criminal Psychology – A criminal psychology degree prepares prospective psychologists to evaluate criminals, research criminal behavior, and predict how a criminal might act. Much research is involved in this degree program, with students using past cases of famous criminals to develop the skills needed to conduct evaluations. Common coursework also includes criminal law, mental health law, victimology, and social psychology.
Criminology – Degrees in criminology are quite similar to those in forensic psychology and criminal psychology. Much coursework focuses on developing skills related to understanding the thinking and behavior of criminals. Courses in psychology, sociology, and criminal justice give criminology students a wide perspective in terms of describing and explaining criminal behavior.
Forensic Science – Forensic science degrees are another multidisciplinary option for students interested in working in the criminal justice system. Unlike psychologists and criminologists, forensic scientists focus less on behavior and more on physiological systems, scientific research, and analysis of evidence. Biochemistry, molecular biology, and anatomy are common courses required for this degree.