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Forensic psychology degrees: What you need to start your career

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Dr. Breann Martin, Psy.D., licensed psychologist and certified forensic evaluator, said that she discovered forensic psychology after taking some psychology and criminal justices classes as an undergraduate. She had a professor that was also a forensic psychologist who introduced her to the field, and she followed the career from there. It combined her longtime fascination with true crime and interest in psychology.

Ultimately, you need to have a psychology license in order to formally practice psychology, but the requirements for obtaining licensure vary state to state. That said, there are some commonalities between most states that can help narrow down what you need to do in order to become a licensed psychologist. For example, most states require a doctorate in psychology to practice. Earning a doctoral degree requires earning a bachelor’s degree first and possibly a master’s degree, too.

There are forensic psychology degrees and specializations at every degree level. Jobs may not require that your degree be in forensic psychology specifically, but it could make you a more competitive candidate.

It may be helpful to think about where you want to work prior to choosing your degree(s). That way you can determine your state’s psychologist licensure requirements and take those requirements into consideration when choosing a program.

In this Article

Bachelor’s degrees

Before you can pursue a master’s or doctorate level degree, you will need to earn a bachelor’s degree first to be admitted to higher level programs.

“Forensic Psychology” is not usually a stand-alone major at the baccalaureate level, though it is offered by some schools. Forensic psychology can also be a concentration or specialization within another major.

Earning a bachelor’s degree in a similar subject can help prepare you for a higher-level degree in forensic psychology, such as:

  • Psychology
  • Clinical Psychology
  • Sociology
  • Criminal Justice
  • Criminology

Like many bachelor’s degrees, you will likely take courses in a variety of subjects to have a well-rounded degree. Psychology majors will focus more on human behavior, while criminal justice or criminology majors focus more on the law enforcement and criminal justice system.

Most bachelor’s degrees will take four years to complete. 

Master’s degrees

Master’s degrees in forensic psychology are not as common, nor are they always required to apply to doctorate programs. However, earning a master’s degree in forensic psychology could make you a more competitive doctoral candidate.

There are also master’s degrees available in closely related subjects that would advance the skills needed to be a successful forensic psychologist, such as clinical psychology, applied behavioral analysis, and general psychology.

Classes at this level are more rigorous and focused on your subject area. Many master’s programs also require some sort of clinical training experience where you work with a practicing psychologist.

Most master’s degree programs take two years to complete.

Doctoral degrees

There are two types of doctorates for prospective psychologists: Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) and Doctor of Psychology (PsyD). A doctorate is needed in almost all states to qualify for a license to practice psychology.

Although both degrees will teach students the knowledge needed to take and pass state licensing exams, their curricula are distinct.

PhD vs. PsyD degrees

Neither degree is superior for anyone hoping to become a forensic psychologist. Choosing which degree suits your individual goals should begin with understanding the differences between the two.

  • Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) in Psychology: PhDs are the most commonly held doctorate degree in psychology. They focus more on scientific research, uncovering new information and/or preparing students to teach. They usually take five to seven years to complete.
  • Doctor of Psychology (PsyD): PsyDs were first offered in the ’70s to provide a doctorate program with less emphasis on research and more emphasis on applied knowledge. They focus on teaching students the ability to provide psychological services to others. They generally take four to six years to complete.


Many states require that your doctorate program is accredited by the American Psychological Association (APA) in order to get licensed, so this is something you will want to consider when choosing doctorate programs.

The APA accredits doctorate programs in clinical, counseling and school psychology. Any of these concentrations will benefit someone who wants to become a forensic psychologist. Some doctorate programs also offer a specialization in forensic psychology. Knowing the type of forensic psychologist career you want to have could help you narrow down your choice. For example, if you know you want to work primarily with delinquent youth, then a doctorate degree in school psychology could be more beneficial. There are resources available to help you choose which educational path best aligns with your career goals.

Are there online degrees available?

There are online bachelor’s and master’s degrees which may provide a level of flexibility that traditional, in-person programs cannot. However, almost all master’s and doctorates require a certain number of internship or clinical experience hours to graduate. These hours must be in-person interactions with patients. In addition, most states require you to have a certain number of these hours on top of hours earned as part of a degree program in order to qualify for licensure. Thus, you can’t get a psychology education completely online. Psychologists should have a lot of real, face-to-face practice with patients in order to learn the skills needed to serve them.  

Career advancement

If you know you want to be a practicing forensic psychologist, you can get certified by the American Board of Professional Psychology (ABPP) in forensic psychology. This certification signifies that you possess a high level of professional competency in this specialty, and could make you a more competitive candidate for forensic psychologist jobs. 

kendall upton

Written and researched by:

Kendall Upton

Staff writer