A forensic psychology master's degree is a two-year program that provides advanced education and training in concepts, practices, and theories of law and psychology. A master's typically does not fulfill the education requirements needed for clinical psychology licensure, so many students pursue this degree as a stepping stone to a doctoral program. Others earn their master's in order to access advanced, nonclinical career opportunities in the justice system.
Read through this guide to learn more about graduate education in this interdisciplinary field. Topics covered include career options, common admission and curriculum requirements, tips for selecting a program, and additional resources for students.
What Is Forensic Psychology?
Forensic psychology is the intersection of psychology and the law, where scientific principles and practices are combined with legal theory and procedure. Forensic psychology strives to promote ethical, evidence-based decision-making in criminal justice, social services, and related fields.
Despite being a relatively young discipline, forensic psychology has gained popularity and widespread attention through portrayals in network television shows like "Criminal Minds" and "NCIS." In the real world, forensic psychologists provide services and expertise in a variety of settings, including courtrooms, government agencies, higher education, jails, prisons, and rehabilitation facilities.
All of the potential applications of forensic psychology are too numerous to list here. Forensic psychology is used both in clinical and nonclinical environments. Common examples include assisting attorneys with jury selection, determining an individual's competency level before trial, performing criminal profiling to help law enforcement, and conducting clinical evaluations and treatment of inmates with mental health problems.
Searching for the perfect graduate school doesn't have to be overwhelming. Discover the best online master's in forensic psychology programs on our rankings page.
What You Can Do With a Master's in Forensic Psychology
Forensic psychologists learn about clinical psychology, the judicial system, and criminology. As such, they prepare for an interesting and varied career working in corrections centers, social services departments, the department of homeland security, or law enforcement offices. Serving a variety of different people, they offer psychological profiling, diagnosis, treatment, advocacy, or expert testimony in legal proceedings. Students should research their desired career path to ensure that they can work with a master's degree or whether they need to move onto Ph.D. studies.
Licensed forensic psychologists offer clinical care to patients involved in criminal cases and provide recommendations to social services and law enforcement. They diagnose mental illness, treat victims of abuse, and write reports for the involved parties. After completing their master's degree, students may earn their doctorate and sit for licensing examinations to become licensed forensic psychologists.
Median Annual Salary: $79,010*
- Probation Officer and Correctional Treatment Specialist
These specialists work with law offenders and provide counseling, rehabilitation, resources, and job training. In many cases, correctional treatment specialists testify in court concerning the background and status of the offender. Typically, a bachelor's degree represents the minimum educational requirement, but those hoping to pursue supervisory positions benefit from earning their master's degree.
Median Annual Salary: $53,020*
- Substance Abuse, Behavioral Disorder, and Mental Health Counselor
These counselors specialize in working with substance abuse, abnormal or deviant behaviors, and mental health difficulties, helping clients modify destructive and dangerous behaviors. Graduates from a master's in forensic psychology may apply their skills to treating and working with law offenders suffering from addiction and other issues affecting their behavior.
Median Annual Salary: $44,630*
- Police and Detectives
Police and detectives help uphold the law. They respond to and analyze crime scenes, search for and arrest wanted criminals, and testify in court cases. Earning a master's in forensic psychology assists detectives in evaluating their suspects and recommending the correct course of action; it may even allow them to specialize in working with a specific population.
Median Annual Salary: $63,380*
Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics
The psychology field offers work for professionals at all education levels. Visit our career guide to explore popular clinical and nonclinical opportunities in psychology.
What to Expect in a Master's in Forensic Psychology Program
The best online master's degrees in forensic psychology offer advanced study of human behavior, criminal justice, mental health, and ethics in law and psychology. Specific offerings vary depending on the school you select, but the examples below provide a representative look of courses and concentration options available in a forensic psychology program.
Concentrations Offered for a Master’s Degree in Forensic Psychology
- Child Protection
- Graduate students with a concentration in child protection focus on the nuances of working with a juvenile population. They work on both the evaluation and treatment of youth and assist victims of abuse or neglect.
- Correctional psychology studies mentally ill inmates, determines their mental state when they committed the crime, and decide if they can stand trial. Corrections also focuses on diagnosis, treatment, and future management to prevent additional offenses.
- Legal Studies
- Learners who want to learn to make psychological assessments and sentencing recommendations to the court should consider a legal or criminal justice specialization.
- Applied Clinical Psychology
- This concentration emphasizes clinics and prepares students for careers in research or the psychological diagnosis and treatment of either victimized or at-risk populations.
- Sex Offenders
- This specialization track studying sex offenders looks at the assessment and treatment of criminals who commit forced, threatening, or illegal sexual acts. A forensic psychologist with this concentration performs risk assessments and makes recommendations for rehabilitation.
Courses in a Master's in Forensic Psychology Program
Programs vary in their course offerings, specialization options, and range of materials covered. Read on for a sampling of classes that you may see in a master's program, but make sure to research each specific school's curriculum to see whether it offers the classes that interest you.
Covering a range of mental disorders and abnormal behavior, this course teaches students to diagnose mental illness and determine appropriate treatment plans. Forensic psychologists practicing in clinical settings and those who determine whether an offender can stand trial benefit from this course.
- Sex Offender Behavior
This course prepares forensic psychology learners to work with the sex offender population. It focuses on the deviant behaviors of sex offenders. Students look at diagnosis, risk assessment, treatment plans, and the legal issues raised in sex offenses.
- Mental Health Law
Coursework in mental health law analyzes previous court cases, criminal responsibility, and legal precedents surrounding criminal acts committed by mentally disabled individuals. It emphasizes the rights of persons with mental illness and discusses different punishments that may arise from an offense. This course prepares learners to provide expert witness testimony in court cases.
- Crime, Psychology, and the Law
This class introduces forensic psychology to learners and covers basic principles and sub-specialties within the field. Students analyze ethical and legal issues that arise when working with law offenders; they discuss criminal profiling, correctional psychology, and criminal court proceedings.
- Violence and Risk Assessment
Forensic psychologists need to determine whether an offender presents a risk to society. Completing this course in violence and risk assessment proves vital to professionals working in correctional facilities, with violent criminals, and with sex offenders. Students learn to evaluate offenders, use assessment tools, implement strategies to reduce risky behavior, and provide recommendations to the court.
How to Choose a Master's in Forensic Psychology Program
When reviewing your options and choosing a master's in forensic psychology, keep the following things in mind: accreditation, faculty qualifications, fieldwork opportunities, capstone options, and cost. Discover details about each of these factors below.
- Accreditation ensures a school or program meets certain standards of academic and professional quality. The American Psychological Association (APA) does not accredit bachelor's or master's degrees, so you don't need to look for a forensic psychology degree with programmatic accreditation. You should, however, make sure your prospective institution holds regional or national accreditation.
- Faculty Experience and Qualifications
- Before committing to a school, take the time to research the professors in your prospective department(s) of study. You want to learn from faculty with terminal degrees and significant experience in psychology, criminal justice, and law. If you can, visit an on-campus graduate fair to meet lecturers in person.
- Fieldwork Opportunities
- Fieldwork is useful for any psychology student, but it's especially important if you plan to continue your education with a doctorate in pursuit of clinical licensure. While researching your options, look for schools that require or offer supervised practicum credits. Gaining experience in school makes you a more valuable job candidate after graduation.
- Capstone Options
- Forensic psychology master's degrees commonly offer students a variety of different ways to culminate their educational experience. A thesis is ideal if you plan to pursue a doctorate in the future. A comprehensive exam or final project offers an alternative that's less research-intensive if you plan to enter the workforce after graduation.
- Graduate school isn't cheap, but some programs cost less than others. If cost is a major factor impacting your college decision, look for schools with the lowest tuition rates and reach out directly to ask about financial aid opportunities. You don't want to start a degree that you can't afford to finish.
Master's in Forensic Psychology Program Admissions
You may encounter slightly different admission requirements depending on the school or program you decide to apply to, but most forensic psychology master's programs adhere to similar prerequisites and procedures. Review these standard expectations in the sections below.
- Bachelor's Degree: With very few exceptions, graduate schools require applicants to hold a bachelor's degree or have confirmed plans for imminent graduation. Specific discipline requirements vary by program. Some forensic psychology programs accept only applicants with bachelor's degrees in psychology. Others are more flexible and willing to work with applicants from other academic fields.
- Prerequisite Courses: To ensure the success of students entering a forensic psychology master's program, schools may require applicants to meet limited prerequisites. These typically include introductory undergraduate courses in psychology, research methods, and/or statistics. Programs commonly offer completion options for incoming students who do not meet these minimum requirements.
- Minimum GPA: Specific minimum GPA requirements vary from school to school but tend to sit around 2.75-3.0 for full admission. If your undergraduate GPA is below the minimum requirement, you may still qualify for conditional admission. Some schools require applicants with lower GPAs to submit standardized test scores.
How to Apply
- Test Scores
- Highly competitive forensic psychology programs may require all applicants to supply GRE scores in order to help narrow down admissions decisions. Others limit mandatory standardized testing to individuals who fail to meet minimum GPA requirements. Even if a school doesn't explicitly require examinations, you can typically provide scores if you choose to.
- Letters of Recommendation
- Almost every graduate school requires master's program applicants to submit three letters of recommendation from individuals who can adequately address a candidate's potential for success. Ideal options for recommenders include undergraduate professors, coworkers, managers, or mentors. Recommendation letters should not come from family or friends.
- Statement or Essay
- Expect to write an essay of at least 500 words for each master's program you apply to. Writing specifications and guidelines vary, but admissions departments typically want to get a feel for your personality, learn more about your past experiences, and better understand your academic and professional aspirations.
Most graduate schools follow a similar set of admissions procedures. Final application deadlines typically occur about a month before the start of semesters in the spring, summer, and fall. Some schools, especially those offering online degrees, may accept applicants year-round with no firm cutoff dates.
GRE and GMAT test scores stay valid for five years. If you want or need to submit scores along with your applications, consider getting this major requirement out of the way early. Plan to set aside 2-3 months to study before sitting for your exam.
Along with noting final deadlines, find out when your prospective schools begin accepting applications. Avoid a last-minute rush by planning to submit as early as possible. Start gathering transcripts, requesting letters of recommendation, and writing your essays as soon as you can. Submitting early also provides a cushion for unforeseen delays and processing errors.
Resources for Master's in Forensic Psychology Students
APA seeks to promote and advance psychological knowledge to help improve lives. The organization includes more than 118,000 members, including psychology researchers, educators, clinicians, consultants, and students. Forensic psychology students can apply for membership at a discounted rate or access free online articles, news, and career resources.
AP-LS is a division of APA focused on research, education, and application of psychology in legal environments. AP-LS offers a variety of free and membership-based resources ideal for forensic psychology students, including a guide to graduate programs, research funding and award opportunities, and the academic journal, Law and Human Behavior.
The ABPP website is a vital online resource for graduate students who ultimately plan to pursue a doctorate and clinical licensure in forensic psychology. ABPP provides site visitors with a wealth of resources including comprehensive reviews of certification requirements, application procedures, and exam procedures.
SPCP is a professional organization dedicated to the scientific study of police and criminal psychology and the application of scientific knowledge to criminal justice issues. Membership benefits include access to the Journal of Police and Criminal Psychology, networking opportunities, and conference registration. Students pay discounted membership dues.
David Webb -- lecturer, author, and promoter of forensic psychology -- founded this website in 2006 as a hub for comprehensive information and resources. All-About-Forensic-Psychology.com provides articles and informative pages on forensic psychology topics, historical figures, and career guidance. Other resources include book recommendations and links to free online journals and courses.