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.
For those with career interests in psychology and criminal justice, the occupational outlook is promising. Data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) shows that professions in psychology are growing at a rate of 14 percent, which is much faster than the national average. In other words, the BLS estimates 26,100 new psychology positions will be needed between 2018 and 2028 (BLS 2019).
The BLS also shows that the median annual salary for psychologists is $80,370 (BLS 2019). While the BLS doesn’t keep specific statistics for forensic psychologists, PayScale.com, an aggregator of self-reported salary data, shows that forensic psychologists earn an average annual salary of $69,514 based on 218 individuals reporting (Payscale.com 2020). As is usually the case, salaries depend on several factors, including 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 degree and certificate programs.
As of July 2020, only one school, Walden University, offers an online forensic psychology PhD program. 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.
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 a range of 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.
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.
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.
This faith-based curriculum aims to weave a biblical perspective into their scientific and clinical courses and emphasizes human value as well as techniques and theories related to psychology. Tuition discounts are available for current and former military service members and their spouses.
Northcentral University offers a 60-credit online PhD program in psychology. Students have eight unique specializations to choose from: addictions, the psychology of gender and sexual fluidity, general psychology, gerontology, health psychology, industrial-organizational psychology, mental health policy and practice, 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’s 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 who plan to pursue 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.
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 have the option of participating 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. 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 in order to be eligible for licensure exams.
The leading accreditation organization for forensic science programs is the Forensic Science Education Programs Accreditation Commission (FEPAC). While FEPAC accredits forensics programs in the natural sciences, the American Psychological Association (APA) accredits doctoral programs in psychology.
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. Six 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 six 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).