The Study of Psychology Within the Legal System

Forensic psychology is recognized as a specialty by the American Psychological Association (APA). Forensic psychology exists at the intersection of psychology and law; its practitioners are experts who provide psychological expertise in legal matters within the judicial system. Their most common responsibility is to provide psychological assessments of individuals in the legal system. They may also do the following:

  • Deal with cases of child custody
  • Provide counseling services to crime victims
  • Perform evaluations on the mental competency of a criminal defendant
  • Conduct investigations and research for legal proceedings
  • Provide expert testimony in a courtroom

About the Forensic Psychology Degree Program

The educational journey to becoming a forensic psychologist requires a major commitment. Forensic psychology isn’t customarily offered as an undergraduate degree. The first step is to complete an undergraduate education in general psychology, setting the stage for a master’s and then doctoral degree in psychology. It is during graduate work that students delve into the practices specific to forensic psychology. There are two major undergraduate avenues: associate degrees in psychology and bachelor’s degrees in psychology. An associate degree is generally a bridge to a bachelor’s degree, which is the typical minimum educational requirement for admission to a master’s degree program.

Forensic psychologists must get a doctoral degree in psychology (either a PhD or PsyD) from an APA-accredited institution. They must meet minimum requirements for professional clinical experience, pass a licensing examination from the American Board of Professional Psychologists (ABPP), and meet any additional licensing requirements of their state.

Before qualifying for licensing, candidates must complete at least 100 hours of continuing education after their doctoral program, and either accumulate 1,000 hours of direct professional experience over the course of five years, or complete a 2,000-hour postdoctoral training program in forensic psychology.

Associate Degree Forensic Psychology Programs

Associate degree programs in psychology are designed to prepare students for entry-level careers, as well as future study at the bachelor’s and graduate levels. They aim to provide students with a solid foundation in the liberal arts, and arm them with basic skills for beginning jobs in the field of psychology.

A major benefit of associate degree programs is the option to craft a curriculum that matches the student’s interests to their future educational and professional goals. Although no specific forensic psychology specializations exist at the associate degree level, community college can still serve as the starting point for future forensic psychologists.

Associate degree programs are largely aimed at students who are seeking more flexibility in course scheduling; who need less expensive tuition; or who prefer to satisfy their general education requirements prior to enrolling in a four-year institution. Typically, students complete between 60 and 66 credit hours of study to earn their degrees, a process that requires about two years of full-time study.

The curriculum is divided between general education requirements, core (major) courses, and electives, with the major designed to provide students with a solid overview of the central concepts and underlying principles of psychology. Students should be aware that classes are meant to be introductory, and in most programs students only take between nine and 15 credit hours of psychology classes.

Goals of Associate Level Degrees

  • Familiarize students with the theory and concepts of psychology
  • Teach students about scientific inquiry
  • Provide an introduction to research methods
  • Develop critical thinking skills

With a grasp of the fundamentals, students should then be prepared to transfer to a bachelor’s degree program in psychology. Common courses at the associate level include:

Introduction to Psychology

Introduces students to the central concepts and theories of psychology. Students study topics including the history of psychology, human behavior and trends in psychology.

Social Psychology

Provides students with an understanding of social psychology principles, focusing on human interaction within a social context.

Introduction to Research Methods

Presents the fundamentals of research and the methods employed by psychologists to conduct studies and assessments, perform experiments, and report research.

Experimental Psychology

Students learn about scientific literature review and experimental research designs, including how to collect, analyze, interpret and report research findings.

Bachelor’s Degree Forensic Psychology Programs

The American Psychological Association recommends that students take a wide selection of coursework at the undergraduate level, as graduate schools seek well-rounded students who are prepared for the rigors of graduate study. Although there are specialized forensic psychology programs at the master’s and doctoral levels, they do not exist at the undergraduate level. Instead, students should focus on taking classes in general psychology, as well as those related to a concentration in forensic psychology.

The bachelor’s degree in psychology is widely available, with more than 1,400 U.S. universities offering such programs, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. When selecting a program, students should find one that offers a comprehensive curriculum that covers research methods, experiment design, and statistics and data analysis, as well as one that includes a field experience component.

Two degree programs are available to students at the bachelor’s level

The Bachelor of Arts

is a humanities-focused degree, and directs students into a broad base of courses that cover several areas of study.

The Bachelor of Science

puts greater emphasis on math and hard science, and is generally recommended for future clinical psychology practitioners.

A student’s admission to graduate school, however, typically does not depend on whether they earned a Bachelor of Arts or Bachelor of Science degree.

Undergraduate education in psychology is not accredited by the APA, so instruction varies from program to program. Completing a bachelor’s degree generally requires four years of study, although students who hold an associate degree may accelerate the process by transferring credits. Students majoring in psychology with an eye to becoming a forensic psychologist should be focused on preparing for the next academic step: graduate school. That means they should take a range of preparatory coursework across the spectrum of psychology and general education subjects. Related fields of study include the following:

  • Natural sciences (biology; anthropology)
  • Mathematics (statistics; calculus)
  • Liberal arts (philosophy; sociology)
  • Physical sciences (chemistry; physics)

Psychology-specific courses consist of core major courses, electives and field experience requirements such as labs and internships. Following are a sampling of classes offered during the bachelor’s program:

History of Psychology

Introduces students to the trends, specialties and concepts of psychology, as well as the development of the field of practice.

Introduction to Psychology

Covers the fundamental principles of psychology, concepts involved with professional practice in the field, and research methods.

Social Psychology

Explores the core foundations of social psychology, including how human behavior is influenced in social settings and how the field itself is researched and studied.

Developmental Psychology

Examines the development of children from infancy to adolescence, including a review of the emotional, social, physical and cognitive factors that influence development.

Introduction to Research Methods

Introduces students to research methodologies in psychology, including the study of qualitative and quantitative research.

Clinical experience and laboratory research are critical for undergraduate students preparing for graduate school, as they allow students to translate their classroom experience into real-world settings.

Although the requirements vary, research and supervised internships are components of most bachelor’s degree programs. Students usually complete between 120 and 150 hours in clinical practicums in either faculty research laboratories or in external volunteer internships.

Only a handful of institutions specifically offer forensic psychology as a concentration of a psychology degree. For the majority of students, the ultimate goal is to simply prepare for graduate school, which translates into getting a broad-based education that may also include coursework relevant to their future plans in forensic psychology, such as classes in law or criminal justice. Meanwhile, they need to complete courses that will prove critical at the graduate level, such as statistics and research methods. Students should be competent researchers when they enter graduate school and the emphasis shifts to clinical practice and forensic psychology as a specialty.

Student Forensic Psychology Resources

Both current and prospective students can benefit from myriad educational and professional resources in the field of psychology. A range of organizations and associations in forensic and general psychology provide educational assistance, scholarships and grants, student membership opportunities, conferences, and networking events. Below is a list of resources to help students identify support outlets and take advantage of opportunities: