Students interested in doctoral programs in forensic psychology typically have specific career goals, whether they are interested in joining the profession as clinical practitioners, researchers, or educators. Some are drawn to the thrill of solving a case with their psychology expertise, or delving into the mechanics of the job. Others like the idea of contributing to the legal system and justice in general.

Regardless, the path to a doctoral degree in forensic psychology is rigorous, usually involving about five years of intensive coursework and field experience. Students can expect to complete practicum requirements, a year-long internship, and possibly additional work in the legal field. After graduation, they may go on to work in settings such as court systems, universities, mental health agencies, law firms and private practice.

Steps to get into a PhD/PsyD Forensic Psychology Program

The process for applying to a particular degree program in forensic psychology varies, but there are common denominators that students should anticipate:

Step 1:Do the Groundwork

Few bachelor’s degrees exist specifically in forensic psychology, but degrees in general psychology are widely available and are a typical entry point for graduate work. Students may complete a separate master’s program as an interim step to a doctorate degree, or may choose to bundle it within a doctoral program that takes students directly from a baccalaureate to a doctorate. Experience in the specific field of forensic psychology, or in clinical psychology in general, can enhance a student’s chances.

Step 2:Research Programs

Some schools offer a specific degree in forensic psychology, while others make it a concentration within a broader program. Pairing a PhD with a JD (law degree) is another option. Competition at the graduate level is often intense, with some schools accepting only a handful of applicants each year. Prospective students should thoroughly investigate programs and plan to apply to several schools to better their chances of admission and widen their choices when it comes time to accept an offer.

Step 3:Take the Tests

Many programs require GRE test scores, with some specifically requiring applicants to take the psychology subject test. All programs require students whose native language is not English to take the TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language).

Step 4:Collect Documents

You’ll need official transcripts from all college coursework, as well as evidence of any direct psychology experience, in the form of a resume or curriculum vitae. Students are often asked to include either an academic paper written in a previous program, or a professional paper written within the field of forensic psychology (or both). Start early to request and obtain letters of recommendation from people with whom you have worked, and who can attest to your proficiency in the field.

Step 5:Write Essays

To help sort through candidates, admissions committees ask applicants to write personal essays about their interest and experience in forensic psychology; what attracts them to the particular program offered by that school; and what their future career goals are. More general essays, such as ones asking applicants to explain overcoming adversities, may also be required.

Step 6:Apply for Admission

This will usually be completed online. Some programs require students to just fill out one application, whereas others require students to apply to both the college’s graduate school and the department the program is located in.

Step 7:Apply for Financial Aid

A variety of funding opportunities exist for graduate students, both through government agencies and private organizations. The first step is to complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), which is required of any student seeking federal-level aid. It’s also worth investigating the many private scholarships and grants that target students interested in psychology and its various specialties.

Forensic Psychology Doctoral Program Requirements

As a relatively new specialty within psychology, program requirements for a doctoral degree in forensic psychology vary from school to school, with students having some flexibility to tailor their coursework to future career goals. That said, programs will have overlap to meet the field’s standards.

Students may expect to take courses in general psychology and clinical psychology, as well as those focused specifically on forensic psychology; they will also devote several hundred hours to completing field requirements.

Requirements will vary depending on how the degree is structured. For example, although students may choose to attain a master’s degree as an interim step, it’s also possible to enter a program that channels students directly from a bachelor’s degree to a doctorate.

At the doctoral level, two possibilities are open to students:

  • The research-oriented PhD degree is appropriate for those who want to conduct research or enter an academic setting.
  • The more clinically focused PsyD may satisfy those who prefer more direct interaction with clients.
  • With either degree, students can expect to take between 100 and 140 hours of coursework for graduation, with the PsyD generally requiring slightly more.

Students generally also complete at least one practicum (about 800 hours) and possibly two, often in a forensic environment. An internship of about 1,500 hours is another standard requirement, as is the completion of a doctoral dissertation. Individual programs may also require the student to complete assessments in a variety of areas, attend conferences, and demonstrate professional competence.

A typical program either specializing in forensic psychology or offering it as a concentration might look as follows:

137 credits, including completion of advanced courses in general psychology and forensic psychology

Completion of an MA in Clinical Psychology, with the thesis being on a forensic topic

Completion of multiple practicums, with at least one of the practicums being done at a forensic site

At least 1,500 hours in an internship

A completed dissertation on a forensic topic

Attendance at several professional conferences

Completion of the Interprofessional Competence sequence

The time to graduate depends on the student’s workload and individual program requirements, but is usually between four and five years, with the time slightly shorter for students who enter the program having already obtained a relevant master’s degree.

Goals of the PhD/PsyD in Forensic Psychology

Each forensic psychology doctorate program has its own goals, but there are underlying standards common to most programs.

To become a licensed forensic psychologist, students must attain licensure, so programs will be designed in part to help students pass licensing tests.

Skills in assessment and intervention are vital for forensic psychologists, and courses are structured to build the knowledge base and specific techniques used to work with individuals in the justice system. Coursework generally covers topics such as forensic psychology as it relates to both adults and children, such as its application in child custody cases; correctional psychology; and forensic assessment. As mental health relates to the law, students will be trained to assess individuals’ mental status at the time of an offense, their mental competency to stand trial, and the psychological factors that influence eyewitness identifications and interrogations.

Research is a vital component of a doctoral degree, especially for a PhD. Graduates should acquire advanced skills in conducting research, as well as analyzing its results. Broadly speaking, then, some fundamental goals of a forensic psychology doctoral program would include:

  • Goal 1:

    Attain basic competency and skills necessary for entry-level work as a practitioner in the field.

  • Goal 2:

    Demonstrate understanding of the criminal justice system, including how it applies to adult and juvenile offenders and victims.

  • Goal 3:

    Understand mental health issues that drive criminal behavior

  • Goal 4:

    Learn advanced forensic psychology research methods

PhD in Forensic Psychology Program Descriptions

On average, both PhD and PsyD programs in forensic psychology take five years of full-time study, although this can vary slightly depending on the student’s background. In some programs, students complete their coursework early in the program, and then use it as the basis to complete practica and internships that come later, as well as to prepare their dissertations. Other programs are structured so that coursework and hands-on experiences are integrated throughout.

Faculty members are a critical component of any program; they are seasoned, and often practicing professionals in the field. Students match themselves with faculty members who have experience in their desired field, and who can provide advice and guidance during research projects, as well as in the dissertation process.

While most doctoral programs require a dissertation, there are some that allow the student to replace it with fieldwork or other specialized coursework. A comprehensive examination also is often required. A master’s degree is often incorporated into the overall doctoral program; for this requirement students prepare a thesis related to forensic psychology.

Forensic Psychology PhD/PsyD Coursework

Because of their different focuses, coursework can differ significantly between the PhD and PsyD in forensic psychology. In general, PsyD programs emphasize exams and fieldwork over the research and dissertation crucial to a PhD program. In either case, however, students should come away with a foundational education in the principles of clinical psychology and how to apply them in practical situations, as well as a sound understanding of the justice system and how the practices of psychology apply in legal circumstances.

Courses are divided into two major arenas: clinical psychology and its applications and those related to the justice system and legal issues.

Clinical Skills

Coursework will typically include advanced classes in assessing, diagnosing and treating individuals with psychological issues or disorders. Classes may include the history of psychology and the systems used in its practice; personality theory and assessment; clinical and diagnostic interviewing techniques; family systems and family treatment; social, cognitive, and biological bases of behavior; psychopharmacology; and psychopathology.

Forensic and Legal Skills

This portion of the curriculum includes ethics and standards in forensic psychology, as well as the methods for assessing symptoms and behaviors in a legal environment. Classes focus on childhood development, assessing both juveniles and adults in legal situations, mental health law, and diversity as it relates to forensic psychology.

The online PhD in Forensic Psychology

Students with scheduling challenges presented by work or family obligations can pursue a doctorate in forensic psychology through a fully online or blended program (a combination of online and on-campus programs.)

In general, students can complete coursework at their convenience as long as it meets preassigned deadlines; they should, however, be aware that some course requirements may require online attendance at established times in order to facilitate interaction with instructors and peers. Quality online programs will work with students to complete internships, practica, and clinical work at geographical locations that are viable for the student.

Online Program Q&A

Are online programs recognized by the APA?

At this time, the APA does not accredit any fully online psychology programs at the PhD level, although some hybrid programs are recognized and accredited.

How do I get face-to-face experience in this degree program?

In fully online programs, face-to-face experience is achieved through internships and clinical work, often done in a student’s local region. Hybrid programs may add this component through on-campus courses offered on weekends or week-long intensives, or by offering the opportunity to meet faculty and other students in-person.

Is the academic quality the same?

Many schools offering fully or partially online doctoral programs in forensic psychology pride themselves on offering the same level of quality online as they offer through their traditional, on-campus programs. Lectures may be recorded during campus classes and then delivered via the school’s online platform to distance students. Even when the coursework does not exactly mimic its on-campus counterpart for practical reasons, faculty usually strive to make the course content academically comparable.

How do I collaborate with other students and faculty?

While online students have a responsibility to initiate and pursue communication and collaborative opportunities, most online programs are set up to facilitate the process. Discussion boards, video chat, and email are just a few of the technological options.

Forensic Psychology: Putting Knowledge into Practice

A doctorate in forensic psychology program is a very hands-on process, whether it’s achieved on-campus, online, or through a mix of the two.

Reputable programs want their students to get solid field experience, and work to ensure that they have access to sufficient, varied opportunities to do so. Doctoral students will spend significant time completing practica, assessments and clinical work. Although carried out in a student’s local community, these are often supervised by both a faculty member at the school as well as an on-site professional. Another year, at minimum, is devoted to internships, often supervised by faculty. Like a practica, an internship is designed to apply ideas to real-world work, but it lasts longer and includes added responsibilities.

Academic residencies are another opportunity for hands-on experience. These are not offered by all online programs, but those that do give students the chance to travel to the school’s campus to complete coursework. This allows them to get feedback on their skills and presentation, and to work directly with instructors and fellow students.

Choosing the Right Online Doctorate Program in Forensic Psychology

Before embarking on several years of study, students should spend ample time assessing their educational and career goals, and then determining how a particular program will fulfill those. In particular, students should consider:

Program Format

How much of the program is online? What are the fieldwork requirements and how do those translate into time commitments? Finding a program that fits your lifestyle and preferences is important.

Faculty

At the doctoral level, students will almost certainly work with faculty on a thesis and later a dissertation, and will be directly under their supervision in clinical work and internships. Look for a school that has faculty member whose research interests are compatible with your own.

Cost

Tuition costs can vary widely from program to program. There may also be hidden expenses, such as travel to campus or research costs, that are not obvious at first. Look beyond tuition and fees to anticipate all the costs that may be associated with a program, such as travel, housing, or board. Bear in mind that financial aid can cover not only tuition, but also some specialized expenses.

Resources for Doctoral Students in Forensic Psychology

Undertaking a graduate program in forensic psychology requires a huge commitment, but it does not have to be a solitary one. Many organizations offer resources and support to students for professional development; others have scholarships, grants, and other funding sources earmarked specifically for doctoral students.