Pursuing a career in forensic psychology can be an exciting way to enter the field of forensics for someone who has an undergraduate background in psychology. A forensic psychologist is someone who uses their training in psychology, including evaluation, diagnosis, and treatment, to work within some aspect of the criminal justice system. Graduates of a forensic psychology master’s program could go on to become a therapist in a prison, an expert witness in court, or (with a doctoral degree) a forensic psychologist.
Careers in psychology are growing at the same steady rate compared with other occupations according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). While the BLS does not keep specific data for the subfield of forensic psychology, it does show the median annual salary for psychologists is $80,370 (BLS 2019). From 2019 to 2029, an estimated 5,700 new positions are anticipated to be needed as psychology careers are expected to grow by three percent in the same decade.
More specifically, Payscale.com (2021), an aggregator of self-reported salary data, shows the average annual salary for forensic psychologists is $70,031 and 11 forensic psychologists ranked this career a 4.7 out of 5, showing that they are extremely satisfied with their jobs. For more detailed career outlook information such as regional salary data and top employers, please see our guide to Careers in Forensic Psychology.
Forensic psychologists must have graduate-level training, with psychology licensing laws in most cases requiring that they go on to pursue a PhD or PsyD. Those who seek a master’s degree in forensic psychology should consider the necessary prerequisites for this type of program, the types of courses they might end up taking, and how they would like to pursue and apply for this advanced degree.
As with any master’s degree program, a student wishing to apply to forensic psychology master’s programs must have completed, or be on track to complete, an undergraduate degree. Most programs do not require that degree to be in forensic psychology, or in psychology at all.
However, certain courses are usually required, such as statistics and introductory level courses to psychology as well as a background in the scientific method, psychological experimentation, and ethics. For promising candidates, many schools exercise the option to grant conditional admission for students that have not completed all required courses, provided they can complete them within their first semester of the graduate program.
Many selective programs also have a minimum GPA for applicants to their graduate-level programs. This helps narrow the applicant field to those who have proven they can function successfully at an institute of higher learning. Most master’s degree programs also require applicants to take the GRE and may have established minimum scores for admission.
Applicants should always keep in mind the requirements for individual programs can vary and should be sure to check with a program before applying.
Every curriculum is different, but some generalizations can be made about the standard courses required for a master’s degree in forensic psychology. Once prerequisites have been met, students can begin to take advanced courses in psychology, including general courses in research, psychopathology, and advanced statistics.
Once the foundational requirements have been met, students can begin to explore courses that focus on the forensic aspect of the forensic psychology master’s degree. Forensic psychology courses in a master’s program may include such course titles as:
The above list is not exhaustive. Rather, it is only a sampling of the kinds of courses found in the course catalogs for forensic psychology master’s degree programs.
Many programs may also offer courses that deal with the intersection of forensic psychology and other professions, including law enforcement and social work. In addition, the majority of master’s degree programs in forensic psychology do require an externship or practicum which involves students working in the field, under the supervision of a licensed psychologist. This type of fieldwork is required for licensure. Some schools may offer assistance in obtaining these positions while others may leave the process largely up to the students themselves.
Schools around the country offer on-campus forensic psychology programs that result in a master’s degree. These programs can be competitive, so applicants should be sure they meet as many prerequisites as possible before applying to attend.
California State University at Los Angeles (Cal State LA) offers a master of science (MS) program in forensic psychology. The 33- to 34-credit program includes a nine-month practicum that allows students to be placed in a professional environment that best aligns with their future career goals. The curriculum emphasizes theoretical research and practical experience and is designed for students who want to pursue doctoral studies or enter the field as psychologists.
Students without bachelor’s degrees in psychology are encouraged to apply and may be granted conditional admission and required to complete 31 to 36 units of psychology courses. Students are also required to complete a thesis prior to graduation.
John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City offers a master of arts (MA) degree in forensic psychology. The program requires 39 classroom credits and a three-credit externship. The curriculum emphasizes how social identities such as race, gender, sexual orientation, religion, and social class can influence psychopathology. Assessment implementation and research design are also taught to give future forensic psychologists expertise in future careers such as federal law enforcement and forensic researchers.
Applicants must have a minimum general GRE combined score of 297. It’s important to note that this program is not a licensure program and aspiring forensic psychologists are encouraged to research licensure requirements in the states where they plan on working.
Kean University in Union, New Jersey, offers a master of arts (MA) degree in forensic psychology as part of its Nathan Weiss Graduate College. This program is ranked ninth in the nation for affordability and requires its applicants to have studied general psychology; experimental psychology or research methods, statistics, abnormal psychology, and developmental psychology.
The MA program requires 36 classroom credits and three to six master’s project credits. Courses include psychology and criminal behavior, advanced abnormal psychology, and personality and behavioral assessment. Graduates of this program may go on to earn a doctoral degree or to work in court clinics, correctional facilities, law enforcement, or other settings. Fall and spring semester application deadlines are
Any student who chooses to pursue graduate studies may be concerned about where they will attend school, particularly if they hope to continue working while furthering their education. Luckily, some forensic psychology master’s degree programs do offer the option to study online, in part or in full, which can make attending a graduate school that much more convenient.
It’s worth noting that these programs may still require some degree of in-person work, particularly when it comes to practicums that may be required for the completion of the degree or for future licensing.
The Center for Psychological Studies at Nova Southeastern University, with a campus in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, offers an entirely online master’s of science (MS) degree in forensic psychology. The 36 credit hour program is offered in a non-clinical format, meaning there are no in-person clinical requirements to complete the degree program. Students have found the program to be a useful stepping stone to doctoral programs or other professional opportunities in law enforcement or mental health services.
This program is designed for working adults who want to earn a non-clinical master’s degree online while balancing job and family responsibilities. Three application deadlines are available throughout the year in July, December, and March, and the GRE is not required for admission.
The University of North Dakota offers a fully online master of arts degree in forensic psychology. Students in the UND program are eligible for in-state tuition no matter where they reside, making it a particularly affordable option. Students in this MA program must complete 30 credits and requires approximately two years to complete part-time.
The curriculum focuses on law and psychology and students are trained to conduct focus groups for jury selection; select and use appropriate evaluation tools; and assist courts and state legal agencies in issues related to forensic psychology. A supervised field placement in a real-world clinical or community setting is required and specialization in interrogation, eye witness testimony, or psychology in education is available.
Walden University in Minneapolis, Minnesota offers a master’s of science (MS) in forensic psychology with ten unique specializations. This program features an engaging learning community and cutting edge curriculum delivered by well-known authors and thought leaders in the field of forensic psychology.
As well, in-person field experiences and a capstone project require students to go deeper beyond didactic knowledge and apply real-world situations to demonstrate their proficiency in the course material. Up to half of the credits in the MS program can be applied towards a PhD in forensic psychology. Please note: this program does not prepare candidates for licensure in psychology.
Finding a school that is accredited is essential, particularly for those students who plan to seek licensure in the future.
A program that holds program-level accreditation means that the forensic psychology master’s degree program meets certain requirements in terms of its curriculum, faculty, and facilities.
Forensic psychology programs themselves can earn accreditation from such professional organizations as the American Psychological Association (APA). In many instances, those students wishing to pursue an internship and eventually licensure may be required to study at an APA-accredited school.
In the case of institutional accreditation, an entire institution goes through the accreditation process. Schools may be accredited by an organization that has been recognized by the US Department of Education’s Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA). These accrediting bodies are typically divided by region.
For instance, the Middle States Commission on Higher Education (MSCHE) accredits colleges and institutions mostly in the midwest. Similar commissions exist for different areas of the country. As an example, John Jay College of Criminal Justice has accreditation from the MSCHE.
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: @oregon_yogini).