As an emerging and rapidly growing area, forensic psychology is recognized by the American Psychology Association (APA) and is considered a discipline within the broader specialty areas of clinical, school, social and organizational psychology, and other APA-approved fields of practice.
Forensic psychologists apply their specialized knowledge to matters within the criminal justice system, using their expertise to illuminate and clarify situations that are often complicated and controversial.
Forensic psychologists assess and treat individuals within the legal system and serve as expert witnesses. In their capacity, they may do any of the following:
- Assist lawyers with trial preparation
- Conduct forensic assessments and evaluations
- Testify as expert witnesses in civil or criminal cases
- Devised research-based evaluations
- Conduct investigations and legal research
Because of the specialized nature of their profession, forensic psychologists are required to possess a doctoral degree in psychology; after attaining this degree they must also complete either 1,000 hours of professional experience or complete an approved, 2,000 hour postdoctoral training program, as well as finish 100 hours of continuing education requirements. Finally, to legally practice they must pass a licensing examination from the American Board of Professional Psychologists (ABPP) and meet any additional licensing requirements imposed by their state.
Online Forensic Psychology Programs and Schools
Students interested in a career in forensic psychology must be ready to commit to years of study, which begin at the undergraduate level. Currently, there are no online associate degree programs that focus specifically on forensic psychology, and only a handful at the bachelor’s level. Nonetheless, this should not be a deterrent to those interested in the field.
Forensic psychologists often start their education with a degree in general psychology, a degree that is offered online at nearly 200 institutions in the United States. In fact, the breadth of curriculum in online associate and bachelor’s programs in general psychology helps students in their applications to graduate school, according to the American Psychological Association. At the undergraduate level, students can explore the core methodologies, concepts and principles of general psychology, and then develop clinical proficiencies and narrow their focus to forensic psychology during their graduate education.
Online learning comes with two major benefits: flexibility and cost. Online degree programs can be less expensive than campus programs, and are designed to accommodate working professionals by offering more options in scheduling and course selection. Students may often attend part-time, allowing them to manage other responsibilities, and academic sessions frequently start at multiple times throughout the year, so that students do not have to adhere to a traditional semester schedule.
Although distance learning is, by nature, more solitary than campus-based schooling, most schools have taken strides to extend a community environment to online students. Ever-improving technology allows them to access course materials in multiple formats, and communication with instructors and peers is facilitated through email, online discussion boards, and real-time video chats.
How Do Online Forensic Psychology Programs Work?
Perhaps surprisingly, online education closely mirrors the learning process of traditional education. Online students face the same challenges as their on-campus counterparts—and reap the same rewards. Students attend lectures, write papers, read required materials, take tests, and interact with their peers. The difference is manifested not in the content or quality of the education, but only in its delivery format.
Students may select from two types of online programs: online and blended. Fully online programs allow students to complete their entire education without attending classes in a physical location. On the other hand, blended courses combine elements of face-to-to-face instruction with online classes. Within this overall structure, online classes may take one of two formats:
Synchronous learning environments require students to be present simultaneously, using online technologies that connect them with each other and promote interaction. These types of programs use webinars, live audio and video, and online chat and discussions to facilitate real-time learning experiences.
Commonly known as self-paced, asynchronous programs allow students to access course materials and complete assignments with more flexibility. Instead of a real-time lecture, students typically listen or watch pre-recorded lectures. However, courses are still instructor-led, and students are expected to follow the syllabus and meet deadlines for assignments.
In either format, students rely on some sort of Learning Management System (LMS), a software application that allows them to register for courses, download reading materials, submit assignments, post messages, and receive grades. All students will need a computer and Internet connection, but the specific technological requirements vary by program. The table below outlines some of the common technologies and platforms used in online learning:
|Streaming Audio and Video||Used to deliver instructional materials|
|Discussion Boards||Used to facilitate peer-to-peer interaction|
|Wikis||Used for student collaboration, especially on projects|
|Web Conferencing||Used by students and instructors for presentations and discussions|
|Online Whiteboard||Used to share ideas and foster collaboration|
|Instant Messaging||Used by students and instructors for real-time conversations|
|Podcasts||Used to deliver instructional material|
Online Associate Degree in Psychology for Students Interested in Forensic Psychology
The online associate degree in psychology can be an effective launchpad for students interested in becoming forensic psychologists. In these two-year programs, the curriculum focuses on preparing students to study at the bachelor’s level, developing a firm foundation of knowledge about the concepts, theories and principles of psychology. Specific coursework varies by department and program, but students should seek a program that has the following goals:
Endeavors to teach students about the fundamentals of scientific inquiry
Provides students with access to a range of subjects in psychology
Introduces students to research methods used by practicing psychologists
Helps students gain an understanding of clinical practice
These goals outweigh the need to take coursework specifically related to forensic psychology; rather, students should concentrate their studies in general psychology to build the broad knowledge base that will prove just as critical in future practice. The table below includes a sample list of common classes students take in online psychology associate degree programs:
|Introduction to Psychology||Introduces students to the overall field of psychology, including core concepts, methods and principles of practice.|
|Introduction to Research Methods||Provides an overview of the relationship between research and psychology, including modern research methods, theories of research, and research reporting.|
|Statistics for Psychology||Students explore statistical methods and their applications in psychological practice and research.|
Online Bachelor’s Degree in Forensic Psychology
At the bachelor’s level, online psychology programs offer the same rigorous academic curriculum as on-campus programs, and students generally require four years of full-time study to complete between 120 and 128 credit hours. Credits are divided between general education classes, major requirements, core classes, and electives. Students are exposed to a curriculum that covers a variety of psychology disciplines, such as developmental psychology, organizational psychology, cognitive systems, child psychology, and behavioral neuroscience. Individuals interested in specializing in forensic psychology should seek programs with the following student outcomes:
Advanced psychological principles and concepts
Communication skills needed to practice in a clinical, forensic setting
An understanding of the role of psychologists in general, and forensic psychologists in particular
Firm knowledge of research methods (qualitative and quantitative), data analysis, and evaluation
The table below details courses common to bachelor’s degree programs:
|Introduction to Psychology||Introduces students to the core principles of psychology, including a review of the major specialties (e.g. clinical and school psychology), and research methods.|
|Developmental Psychology||Explores the social, cognitive, physical and emotional factors that affect the development of children from infancy through adolescence.|
|Psychology Statistics||Provides an overview of the importance of statistics in psychological research and helps students gain an understanding of statistical review and analysis.|
|Introduction to Research Methods||Examines both qualitative and quantitative research methods used by psychological researchers.|
|Cognitive Psychology||Investigates the theories and concepts of cognitive psychology, such as perception and problem solving.|
In addition to general psychology topics, students may also have the opportunity to add a forensic psychology concentration to their degree or take forensic psychology classes as electives, which will help them focus their studies in order to prepare first for graduate school and later for a career in forensic psychology. Below is a list of sample courses that could benefit psychology majors who wish to specialize in forensic psychology:
|Introduction to Forensic Psychology||Introduces students to the fundamental theories and governing principles of forensic psychology.|
|Introduction to Criminal Justice||Introduces students to the core components of the criminal justice system: courts, corrections and law enforcement.|
|Criminal Law and Procedures||Provides an overview of the principles and purpose of criminal law. Topics may include the study of state, local and federal law; constitutional issues; human behavior in criminal acts; and social issues.|
|Psychology and Law||Examines the relationship between psychology and the law; the criminal justice process; the role of psychology in the criminal justice system; and theories of behavior.|
|Psychology of Violence||Investigates the underlying theories of violent behavior, including patterns, methods, causes and meanings.|
|Social Psychology||Explores how social interaction impacts behaviors and beliefs, including attitudes, group dynamics, and social self-perception.|
|Forensic Psychology and Statistical Analysis||Looks at the fundamental statistical models and techniques used in forensic psychology.|
A Stepping Stone to
Forensic Psychology Graduate School
Research from the APA reveals that fewer than 40 percent of applicants are accepted into master’s programs of study; that number shrinks to only 8 percent at the doctoral level. That means preparation is paramount, with the quality of an undergraduate education directly translating to the chances of acceptance into graduate school and future career success.
Students considering an online psychology degree with an eye to becoming a forensic psychologist should be prepared to work hard: according to the National Science Foundation, it takes nearly nine years of study to complete the path from a bachelor’s to a doctoral degree in psychology.
Regardless of the duration of the path through graduate school, psychology remains one of the country’s most popular majors, with more than 161,000 total degrees in psychology awarded in 2013, according to data from the National Center for Education Statistics. Those numbers fall dramatically when the degree is narrowed to forensic psychology, however. This specialty puts students in exclusive company, with only 1,255 individuals in 2013 earning degrees in forensic psychology at either an undergraduate or graduate level.
|Degree Level Granted||Forensic Psychology||Psychology|
Important Considerations for Choosing an Online Forensic Psychology Degree Program
With the growing number of online options, it can be challenging to decide whether to attend an online, campus-based, or hybrid program in psychology, but selecting an appropriate program is crucial. With hundreds of available programs—and with physical location often not being an important factor—students have an array of choices that can be advantageous and bewildering at the same time. To effectively sort through the options, they should understand how each program prepares students for graduate school, how it positions them for future professional practice, and how each school supports online students.
Is the program entirely online or does it have hybrid components? Even in fully online programs, students usually complete an in-person internship or practicum. What are the program’s curricular requirements? What type of coursework is available?
Faculty members shape a student’s learning experience and often play an important role in the student’s selection of a graduate program and success in that program. What is the faculty-to-student ratio? What is the academic background of department members? What type of professional experience do they have? Are they active members of professional organizations, such as the APA?
Research experience is highly valued by graduate schools, and admissions officers traditionally seek candidates who have participated in hands-on research at the undergraduate level. Students should inquire about each program’s research requirements and opportunities.
Curriculum and Concentrations
Because graduate schools favor candidates who have taken a wide variety of classes in psychology at the undergraduate level, prospective students should examine the breadth of the online program’s curriculum. If they are committed to a future in forensic psychology, they should check what electives or possible concentrations are offered in forensic psychology.
Student Services Access
Online students may or may not be granted the same access to student services as those attending classes on campus. Students should check to see what services are available to online students, such as library privileges, academic counseling or tutoring services.
Online learning is still an emerging field at many universities, and educational quality will vary. Students should ask about the program’s acceptance and graduation rates, if it caps the number of online students, and what percentage of its students are accepted to graduate school.