As television shows such as Criminal Minds surge onto America’s TV networks, viewers seem to be less interested in “whodunnit” and more focused on “why’d they do it?” If it’s true that art reflects reality, the field of criminal justice could continue to expand beyond prosecution and include deeper dimensions of the motives behind why a crime was committed. And the field that straddles the disciplines of criminal justice and psychology is forensic psychology—a specialized study of the human mind as it relates to legal matters.
Forensic psychology uses principles of general psychology to draw conclusions in legal cases. A forensic psychologist works with attorneys, victims, witnesses, and suspects involved in prosecution and defense. Although they are not law enforcement officers, forensic psychologists are often key witnesses in legal cases involving serious crimes ranging from murder and battery and use their knowledge of psychology as it relates to criminal justice to assess the validity of testimonies given by suspects or crime victims. Forensic psychologists also assess psychological readiness for transitional programs such as parole, background checks, child custody, and pre-courtroom proceedings.
The occupational outlook is promising for those with career interests in psychology and criminal justice. Data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) shows that professions in psychology are growing at a rate of 6 percent between 2021 and 2031, which is faster than the national average (5 percent). In other words, the BLS estimates that 11,300 new psychology positions will be needed between 2021 and 2031 (BLS 2022).
The BLS also shows that the median annual salary for psychologists is $81,040 (BLS May 2021). While the BLS doesn’t keep specific statistics for forensic psychologists, PayScale.com (2022), an aggregator of self-reported salary data, shows that forensic psychologists earn an average annual salary of $72,828 based on 111 individuals reporting. As is usually the case, salaries depend on several factors, including the cost of living in a particular location and years of professional experience.
To become a practicing forensic psychologist, a doctoral degree such as a PhD or a PsyD is required. Licensing requirements for psychologists vary by state, but many states require psychologists to pass the Examination for Professional Practice in Psychology (EPPP) given by the Association of State and Provincial Psychology Boards (ASPPB). Forensic psychologists are also recommended to earn board certification in forensic psychology by the American Board of Professional Psychology (ABPP).
Read on to learn more about online doctoral PhD programs in forensic psychology.
Most online forensic psychology degrees are offered as bachelor’s and master’s degrees or certificate programs. ForensicsColleges keeps a detailed list of schools featuring online forensic psychology degrees and certificate programs.
As of December 2022, only one school, Walden University, offers an online PhD program specifically in forensic psychology. However, it’s worth noting that a common pathway to becoming a forensic psychologist is earning a bachelor’s, master’s, or certificate program in forensic psychology and later earning a doctorate degree in general psychology.
To support a variety of career pathways, Walden University has two PhD tracks: one for students with a master’s degree in forensic psychology and one for students with a master’s in an unrelated discipline.
Fielding University is another university that offers a closely related online program. It offers an online doctoral program in clinical psychology with a concentration option in forensic psychology.
A list of online doctoral programs and online master’s and certificate programs in forensic psychology is featured below.
There are two main types of doctoral programs in forensic psychology: the PhD and the PsyD. While these programs have some overlap in their areas of instruction, there are some important differences.
PhD programs in forensic psychology are considered terminal research degrees, preparing graduates to conduct in-depth studies of specialized subfields of their discipline. These programs generally take longer than PsyD programs.
PsyD programs in forensic psychology are more clinically focused, preparing holders to practice psychology in various settings. These degrees are more hands-on in nature, focusing on the practice of the discipline rather than advancing its theoretical underpinnings.
While admissions requirements vary for each institution, here is a list of common items requested when applying for forensic psychology PhD programs:
Offering the only online PhD program specifically in forensic psychology, Walden University features a fast-track option allowing students to waive up to six courses or 53 credits from a master’s degree in forensic psychology. Students in this program have several specialization options: general; criminal justice self-designed; crisis leadership management; crisis response; legal issues in forensic psychology; self-designed studies; and victimology.
Once admitted, students in this program are sorted into two tracks: Track I is for students with a master’s degree in forensic psychology, and Track II is designed for master’s degree holders from disciplines other than forensic psychology. Walden University is committed to supporting students with families and offers support services to balance work and school responsibilities. With multiple start dates offered throughout the year, aspiring forensic psychologists can begin their PhD program at a time that’s convenient for their schedules.
The curriculum includes courses such as the intersection of crime, psychology, and the law; understanding violence, risk, and threat assessment; advanced issues in forensic psychology; quantitative reasoning and analysis; legal issues and social change in forensic psychology; police psychology; and psychology in the courts.
Fielding University offers a doctoral program in clinical psychology that is accredited by the American Psychological Association. Blending digital formats with in-person learning opportunities, this program includes in-person and online seminars, weeklong residential sessions, meetings with other students and faculty members, and clinical training and research experiences. In addition to the generalist option, students can also have the option to specialize in some of the most exciting growth areas of psychology. One such area is forensic psychology.
Made up of 179 credits, the program’s core courses include history and systems of psychology; cognitive and affective bases of behavior; biological bases of behavior; psychopathology; research in psychotherapy; and multicultural psychology. Courses in the forensic psychology concentration include ethics in forensic psychology; forensic psychology; forensic psychology lab; malingering and deception; and forensic neuropsychology assessment.
Liberty University offers a fully online 60-credit PhD program in psychology that prepares graduates for careers in academia or research. Optional face-to-face intensive courses take place on campus and are designed to bring students and faculty together to enhance their professional networking and research skills. Students in this program will have several specializations to choose from: general psychology; behavioral health leadership; theology; social psychology; industrial/organizational psychology; and developmental psychology.
This faith-based curriculum aims to weave a biblical perspective into their scientific and clinical courses and emphasizes human value and techniques and theories related to psychology. Tuition discounts are available for current and former military service members and their spouses.
The curriculum includes courses such as research methods & statistics; foundations of doctoral study in psychology; psychological research & biblical worldview; teaching of psychology; and qualitative research & analysis.
Northcentral University offers a 60-credit online PhD program in psychology. Students have ten unique specializations to choose from: substance-related and addictive disorders; the psychology of gender and sexual fluidity; general psychology; gerontology; health psychology; industrial-organizational psychology; social policy and behavioral health administration; trauma and disaster relief, and counseling psychology (with or without a California licensure track).
With an emphasis on experiential learning through case studies and real-life situations, this program demands that students use critical thinking skills to evaluate real-world problems and practice research methods to advance the field of psychology. New courses begin every Monday.
University of North Dakota (MA in Forensic Psychology)
The University of North Dakota offers an online master of arts in forensic psychology. Consistently ranked as one of the best degree programs in the US for educational quality, affordability, and career outcomes, this 30-credit part-time program serves as a foundational and practical pathway for aspiring forensic psychologists pursuing doctoral programs.
With two application deadlines, students can begin this two-year program at their convenience and learn psychological theories, knowledge, skills, and competencies in psychology as they apply to criminal justice systems.
The curriculum includes courses such as cognitive psychology; eyewitness testimony memory; diversity psychology; readings in psychology; behavior pathology; psychology and law; research methods in forensic psychology; advanced social psychology; and supervised fieldwork.
Montclair State University (Graduate Certificate in Forensic Psychology)
The Department of Graduate Psychology at Montclair State University offers an online graduate certificate in forensic psychology. This 15-credit program is designed for graduate students, licensed (or license-eligible) psychologists, social workers, psychiatrists, counselors, psychiatric nurses, and other related professionals.
Students in this program can participate in intensive clinical supervision in a forensic setting or a clinical practice which can count towards professional licensure or diplomate status. Online courses are offered in real-time and asynchronous formats and in-residence seminars are available.
The curriculum includes courses such as psychological science and the law; criminal forensic assessment; interventions in forensic psychology; forensic interviewing of children; and interpersonal and familial violence theories. A certificate in family/civil forensic psychology is also available.
Every forensic psychology program has its own unique curriculum and admission requirements. Here’s a list of common courses and requirements:
In addition to coursework, PhD programs in psychology require around 600 in-person supervised clinical and research hours.
In the case of online programs, these can generally be completed at approved sites within a student’s home community, although some programs require regular in-person training immersions or intensives.
Students are encouraged to reach out to the coordinators of their program of interest for more information, as procedures vary by institution.
Students researching degree programs are encouraged to validate institutional quality by ensuring that the schools and programs they ultimately choose are accredited at the national, regional, or programmatic level.
Verifying accreditation is important for several reasons. First, it validates that a college or university meets high-quality educational and teaching standards. Graduates, employers, and forensic psychology patients benefit from accreditation, and students who use federal loans to fund their education can only attend accredited schools. Lastly, fields such as psychology may require that graduates show proof of programmatic or institutional accreditation to be eligible for licensure exams.
The Forensic Science Education Programs Accreditation Commission (FEPAC) is the leading accreditation organization for forensic science programs. While FEPAC accredits forensics programs in the natural sciences, the American Psychological Association (APA) accredits doctoral psychology programs.
While there are currently no online forensic psychology doctoral programs that are FEPAC- or APA-accredited, the University of North Dakota has two in-person APA-accredited PhD programs in clinical and counseling psychology; it can be presumed that there is some overlap in the high-quality coursework and teaching faculty in the masters in forensic psychology program listed above.
If programmatic accreditation isn’t available, reputable programs, including the ones listed above, hold institutional accreditation. Seven institutional accreditation agencies are responsible for accrediting educational instructions throughout the regions of the United States. These organizations are recognized by the US Department of Education’s Council of Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA). The seven institutional accreditation organizations are:
Rachel Drummond is a freelance writer, educator, and yogini from Oregon. She’s taught English to international university students in the United States and Japan for more than a decade and has a master’s degree in education from the University of Oregon. Rachel writes about meditation, yoga, coaching, and more on her blog (Instagram: @racheldrummondyoga).