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Online Master’s in Forensic Psychology

Mapping a Path for Success

Popularized by film and television, forensic psychology has become a hot career niche in the criminal justice and legal fields. While they may work with law enforcement organizations and the courts, forensic psychologists actually are more aligned with the field of social psychology than law enforcement. There is no single educational route into the field. The career and educational pathways to the profession traditionally culminate with a doctoral degree in the field; however online master’s in forensic psychology programs have developed in response to the need for highly trained experts looking to enter this growing profession.

The occupation demands a combined advanced training in the law and criminal psychology. As a result, students with diverse undergraduate degrees and experience (counseling, law enforcement, legal studies or criminology) can find a common path into the field by completing their online master’s in forensic psychology. What schools offer an online master’s in forensic psychology? Which are the top online programs? What can you do with your degree? The following guide cuts straight to the essential steps in becoming a licensed forensic psychologist, including details on the master’s curriculum, career options, potential earnings and career outlook. Graduates of online master’s in forensic psychology programs lend their insight into how their education led to a successful career.

Insider’s Look at the Online Forensic Psychology Master’s Degree

Online master’s degree programs in forensic psychology provide one of the quickest, most-direct pathways into the profession. There are two basic types of online degree programs for aspiring forensic experts:

A wholly online degree

All academic degree work is done remotely with the exception of internships, which are arranged to be convenient to the location of the student.

A hybrid online degree

Classwork combines online studies with on-campus components, such as seminars and team research projects.

Online master’s degree programs in forensic psychology are typically constructed in an asynchronous format which allows students to complete self-paced studies while meeting specific deadlines for submitting research papers, taking examinations and completing degree components such as master’s projects and internships. The asynchronous structure allows students to access courses and research materials at their convenience, 24/7. At the same time, students build natural communities with their peers and educators via real-time chats, video/audio conferencing and digital discussion boards.

Both online and hybrid degree programs require a dedication to hitting milestones and maintaining consistent academic progress toward completing the forensic psychology master’s. Whether students view the program as a terminal degree or a stepping stone toward a doctoral, they should hold prospective online programs up to scrutiny in terms of degree requirements, curriculum and how they prepare them for their careers. Here are four key components of an online master’s in forensic psychology:

Certification preparation

State and federal licensing for forensic psychologists is limited to graduates of doctoral degree programs. Master’s degrees in forensic psychology are non-licensing programs. However, the Forensic Counselor and Criminal Justice Specialist certifications from the National Association of Forensic Counselors can add academic and professional power to their credentials in the competitive hiring line. Those seeking certifications after graduation should evaluate their degree programs to determine if they will receive the training necessary to add certifications.

Faculty with professional forensic psychology experience and credentials

The faculty serving in an online master’s in forensic psychology should know the lay of the professional landscape as well as have advanced academic achievements in the theoretical and research methodologies native to the field. Educators have a research focus, making it essential for prospective graduate students to assess faculty expertise to their precise degree and career goals. Professors may have practical experience as professional expert witnesses, criminal profiles, victims’ advocates, case managers, program directors or researchers. For example, Dr. David Arena of Argosy University’s online master’s program has 20 years of clinical experience; and Dr. Mary Alice Conroy of Sam Houston State University’s online program has been Director of Forensics for the Federal Medical Center and Consultant to U.S. District Court’s analysis of mental health programs in California prisons. Faculty with high-caliber credentials and experience can be invaluable in assisting students to determine their optimal curriculum path as well as in providing indispensable job networking and internship contacts.

Unique focus

In addition to evaluating faculty, students should also strive to find programs that best align with their career goals. There are dozens of online forensic psychology master’s degrees, and many offer common baseline or core curriculum in the field. The school’s sweet spot, however, can provide the best opportunities for psychology graduate students who are focused on a dedicated role in the forensic professions. For example, the forensic psychology master’s at Saint Leo University combines a criminal justice foundation and evidence investigation with studies in terrorism, hostage negotiations and offender treatment methodology. The online program at The Chicago School of Professional Psychology offers optional licensure tracks leading to Illinois professional counselor licensure with specializations in child protection, corrections or sex offenses.

Internships & career counseling

Other essential elements to an online master’s in forensic psychology program include services that put graduates in the best position to succeed. Not all programs require internships, for example, and these can be important components for a well-rounded education. Internships help students integrate their learning into real-world settings, such as counseling agencies, courts, government, consulting or education. Moreover, they provide opportunities for interns to move into permanent positions or roles with other employers. Does the prospective online program include a career-counseling component? Faculty mentors and human resource professionals can play an instrumental role in launching successful careers. Is there an identifiable go-to career resource at your target school?

These four key components should go a long way in informing a student’s evaluations of potential online forensic psychology programs. But there is a granular view of the curriculum and milestones that comprise the heart of what might be the best available online degree.

Coursework and Common Careers

Online master’s in forensic psychology programs are designed to serve a student population interested in participating in this growing courtroom-based profession. Some students hail from criminal justice and law enforcement backgrounds, seeking to upgrade their credentials or facilitate a career move. Other candidates emerge from entry level counseling jobs and undergraduate counseling degree programs who want to specialize as a consultant or expert in the legal system. Let’s examine professional specializations students may consider within the forensic psychology professions and courses that make up specialized training in their chosen niche:

Law enforcement psychologist

Forensic psychologists serve law enforcement organizations in service to department personnel. They may be hired by the department to a staff position or work as consultants. They may take roles in providing counseling interventions to officers with issues involving PTSD, job stress, substance abuse or family issues. Other duties can include developing psychological testing for job applicants or creating departmental or agency-wide training programs in emotional wellness related to the job. Key courses: psychological testing, principles of psychotherapy, police psychology, treatment methodologies.

Jury consultant

Consultants serve court-appointed or private attorneys in evaluating witnesses, providing mock trials to prepare defendants, and performing detailed research assignments into related laws, criminology and other aspects affecting the progress of a civil or criminal court proceeding. Key courses: criminal behavior, abnormal behavior, psychology and the courts, cognitive processes, mental health law.

Juvenile justice psychologist

Forensic psychologists who focus on teen and adolescent counseling may take jobs on the staff of agencies within the juvenile justice system. Roles can include working with underage criminal populations, performing youth assessments, counseling, referrals for substance abuse treatment or educating clients in long-range behavioral strategies. Key courses: psychology and juvenile justice, substance abuse diagnoses and treatment, program planning and evaluation.

Victim advocate

Forensic psychologists in this sector work as consultants or in the employ of governmental agencies and social service organizations to help victims of crime with counseling services, referrals to shelter or safe-housing organizations and legal assistance options. Some may participate through the course of a trial in offering support to victims and their family members. Key courses: social work assessments, victimology, child maltreatment, counseling.

Criminal court psychologist

Psychologists may be hired by attorneys or the courts to deliver assessments and criminal profiles leading to prosecution. The court or attorneys use psychologists to screen potential witnesses for emotional stability and credibility. They also may assess a defendant’s psychological readiness to stand trial. Other criminal court psychologists are tasked to offer counseling services to defendants and offenders. Courts may also employ forensic psychologists to develop options or plans for ongoing psychological rehabilitation of convicted offenders. Key courses: Treatment of forensic populations, interviews and interrogations, courtroom psychology.

Family and civil court psychologist

Parents and children may sometimes be sent to the court to undergo psychological assessments and treatment. In family courts, psychologists may offer expertise in divorce, custody and visitation matters. In civil trials, psychologists may prepare psychiatric assessments and provide treatment to victims of civil crimes such as work-related discrimination or sexual harassment. Key courses: family systems, domestic violence, communication and skills training, ethics and therapeutic supervised visitations.

Knowing career options within the field and the curriculum that builds expertise in a niche of forensic psychology should help students compile a list of prospective programs. Now it’s time to dive deeper into the courses that comprise the core of an online master’s in forensic psychology. The following list of master’s courses gathered from current online programs gives students a close-up view of curriculum as it applies to advanced studies in forensic psychology:

Foundations in Statistics

Advanced psychology students will gain an understanding of statistics in quantitative research along with mixed methodologies and the critical differences between computation and interpretation of findings. The course leads to a basic statistical literacy and its value in utilizing findings to resolve issues in psychological research.

The Mentally Ill and the Criminal Justice System

The course defines a best-practices model that can lead to interventions and treatment options to keep the mentally ill out of jail without endangering the general population. There is an examination of issues in competence, use of restraints, involuntary commitment, legal rights to treatment, advanced directives and the Americans with Disability Act. Topics include training law enforcement agencies in crisis intervention strategies and tactics, optional diversion programs such as mental health court and in-facility treatment programs within jails and prisons.

Evaluation, Methodology and Psychological Research

This course will explore research methods and tools used in the evaluation and testing as applied in a forensic setting, including statics and the use of databases. The course also addresses aspects of program evaluations and components specifically related to the grant-writing process.

Psychological Evaluation of Juvenile Offenders

This core class focuses on the assessment and testing of juvenile offenders, investigating the family or socio-economic systems contributing to delinquency and the relationship between the offender’s mental illness and criminal behavior. Projects include a clinical interview, the creation of an assessment using the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders and recommendations for treatment to prevent recidivism.

Ethical Issues in Forensic Psychology

Based on readings in the American Psychology-Law Society’s Specialty Guidelines for Forensic Psychology and American Psychological Association’s Ethical Principles of Psychologists and Code of Conduct, this course identifies the ethical responsibilities that apply to the forensic psychologist. Students examine contemporary issues and dilemmas in of forensic psychology and develop methods to overcome them.

Diversity Psychology

What are the challenges and successful outcomes of forensic psychology methodologies applied to diverse populations? This is an advanced survey of theory and tactics used in assessments, findings and interventions applied to offenders as they vary based on their types of crimes, economic and social differences and distinctions of gender and race.

Criminal Profiling

This course covers the fundamentals of uncovering a serial offender’s motives based on perpetrator evidence gathered at a crime scene. Studies incorporate the use of tools employed in criminal investigation, the application of psychological principles and theories and use of advanced assessment methodologies.

Police Psychology

Students examine the role of forensic psychology within law enforcement organizations. Topics include studies in the psychological aspects of stress in field policing, training, recruiting and crisis situations. Additional attention is paid to the role of psychology professionals in hostage situations, terrorism and natural disasters.

Victimology

Students gain a practical perspective on victim-offender dynamics, how victims are treated by society and many of the therapeutic remedies available to psychology professionals in the treatment of victims. Special attention will be devoted to social issues and the work of legislators, non-profit organizations and awareness groups that promote an improved understanding and treatment of victims.

Mental Health Law

This course focuses on mental health law and landmark cases that shape today’s civil rights for the mentally ill. Special topic areas apply to the legal system, case law and constitutional law as these govern expert witness testimony, criminal and civil competencies and violence risk assessments.

Timeline for Completing an Online Forensic Psychology Master’s

Students with heavy work and family commitments are naturally drawn to the benefits offered in online master’s degree programs. Even with the self-paced learning formats of forensic psychology programs, students will still be required to hit multiple deadlines and complete their degree milestones. The entire application, enrollment and degree-completion process can seem especially daunting to students returning to college after a number of years. The following timeline details the essential steps in the process from gathering and submitting application materials to a year-by-year breakdown that culminates with a post-graduation job search.

Year 0

Before a student can begin on the path to their master’s degree program, there are critical tasks with hard and fast deadlines for fulfilling prerequisites and submitting college applications. At the graduate levels, admissions are more competitive than those for undergraduate work. In Year 0, students must decide if an online program is appropriate for their learning styles and create a short list of finalist schools for applications. Each forensic psychology master’s program sets its own entry requirements in addition to the school’s overall graduate admissions guidelines. As a result, students need to outline all application requirements and deliverables for EACH prospective school on their list. Missing application deadlines is a show-stopper, setting back admissions by a semester or more depending on the institution. Here are key steps in completing the application process:

In creating a list of finalist schools, students should read all degree requirements and course descriptions to ensure that they can adapt to online studies. There are assessment tools at most schools that outline the challenges of asynchronous learning. Be clear about your abilities from the outset.

Determine if you meet educational pre-requisites for entering the graduate program. For example, the online forensic psychology masters at the University of North Dakota requires applicants to have an undergraduate education in behavioral or law enforcement majors including psychology, criminal justice, sociology, counseling or social work.

Begin rounding up required components for the formal application. Required forms are provided online by your target schools.

Create a calendar for each prospective school for delivering application materials before their deadlines.

Order official transcripts from all previous bachelor’s degree work and related post-bachelor’s coursework in psychology and have them sent to the admissions office.

Not all programs require scores from the Graduate Record Exam (verbal, quantitative and analytical writing). Be sure to send official GRE test scores to all programs that do. For those yet to take the GRE, sign up and meet the deadlines for taking the exam.

Round up and send recommendation letters from former professors, mentors, employers in psychology related jobs or volunteer work that attest to your academic prowess and personal achievements. Three letters is the standard number in applications.

Assess your ability to pay for an advanced degree. Most students require at least some form of financial assistance. Log on and complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) forms at https://fafsa.ed.gov to determine eligibility for graduate grants, loans or scholarships.

Most programs require submission of an admissions essay detailing career goals, how the prospective program addresses the goals and what you bring to the table.

Hit every deadline in the application process – without exception.

Year 1

The first year in a 2-year online master’s in forensic psychology degree program often introduces students to the core concepts of the profession. There will be courses in research methods and statistics as they apply to the entire field, along with master classes in forensic psychology, the criminal justice system, mental illness and the courts and applied methodology for making assessments and evaluations. Students with interests in specializations should complete pre-requisite courses and work with faculty in determining the curriculum for advanced, second-year work. In programs requiring internships for graduation, the first year offers an opportunity to investigate the venues in the courts, criminal justice system, corrections, victims’ rights or community service organizations. At the end of each class, semester, quarter or module, students should meet with advisers to track progress toward the degree and determine modifications and options going forward. It’s also a good time to make decisions about topics for a required graduate project or thesis and the courses that supplement capstone research.

Year 2

Students dedicate this year to completing degree requirements and undertaking advanced studies in specialty areas. If the program requires internships, this is the year to complete them. It can be beneficial to align an internship with the practices or specialties that inform the graduate research project. Students also use this year to take elective courses that delve deeply into their professional interests such as criminal profiling, mental health in corrections, juvenile criminal populations, homeland security and other niche specialties. It’s a strategic time at the beginning of the year for students doing a thesis to round up a mentor and thesis defense committee. Toward the end of the year, students should also begin investigating post-graduate options for employment or continued higher education. Those transitioning to careers should pay digital or telephone visits to career planning or job assistance offices. Students sequencing to a PhD program should satisfy transition requirements. Finally, students intending to earn an American Board of Forensic Psychology (ABFP) certification should investigate testing requirements and dates.

Insider Interview: Educational Advice from a Forensic Psychologist

Jack Bachmann earned a master’s degree in forensic psychology in 2009. He worked for the Department of Health and Social Services after graduation, assisting with the development of training programs.

Bachmann currently works as an assistant to a forensic psychologist consultant at a practice that provides psychological evaluations and performs testing for attorneys, law enforcement, human resources departments and other organizations. He is in the process of applying to doctoral programs in psychology, and offers the following insight and advice to students in master’s degree programs:

“I had an undergraduate degree in English from a private college in upstate NY,” explains Bachmann. “I was interested in both psychology and law and searching for a way to incorporate both into a full-time career. When I found the online master’s program I eventually entered, I knew it was the perfect match.”

Bachmann plans to consult after he finishes his education. “I want to open my own consulting practice. My plan is to work for five years so that I can apply for board certification in forensic psychology through the American Board of Forensic Psychology. The psychologists I work with every day have the credential and it’s very important. Unfortunately, it takes time to become eligible because you need supervised forensic work experience. You also have to pass the oral exam. But I am very motivated.”

He notes that he did not have a full-time job in grad school. “My best advice for grad students in a forensic psychology program is to not to have a full-time job, if possible. By not having a hectic work schedule, I was better able to concentrate and focus. It meant taking out a little more in loans than I would have if I was working, but I think in the end it was worth it.”

Costs and Benefits of The Online Forensic Psychology Master’s

In a highly competitive job market that increasingly demands advanced education and experience, is a forensic psychology master’s worth the investment? Of course, that depends on variables in the grad student’s program, their work history, depth of training and work ethic. The rapid growth of online forensic psychology master’s degrees indicates that the profession is expanding beyond its initial requirement for doctoral holders to assume roles in the field. An examination of program costs and subsequent earnings reveals a beneficial return on education investment in the forensic psychology master’s degree.

Budgeting Expenses

There can be substantial savings in earning a forensic psychology master’s degree online. Students don’t pay for relocation, student housing, commuting and parking fees. They don’t need to hit the campus bookstore for a school sweatshirt to parade around campus. Tuition and fees comprise the major cost of earning an online graduate degree. Examine prospective schools to determine costs and when payments are due. For example, some colleges charge by the semester or quarter; others charge by the total number of credits per course. Public schools, universities and colleges tend to charge lower tuition than do private institutions. Vetting prospective schools involves creating a budget that embraces the total years that make up the program. Some schools – Southern New Hampshire University, for example – have online net price calculators that help with budgeting. There are programs that offer the option of paying by the cost for a course or by the number of credits. In budgeting, students need to include calculations of cost of living, books and materials and pertinent lab fees, if any. There may be also costs involved in commuting to internships or attending on-campus student orientations. Don’t forget to calculate costs offset by loans, grants, scholarships or employer tuition reimbursement.

Understanding Potential Payoffs

For those working in entry or mid-level positions in law enforcement or counseling, earning an online master’s in forensic psychology doesn’t automatically guarantee higher earnings, but a review of salaries suggests it’s more than likely. For example, the median annual pay for a police officer is $56,980. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reports a median annual wage for a forensic psychologist of $90,020. It’s more important to look at the earning potential for forensic psychologists where top-tier earners take home more than $110,000 annually. Salaries also vary by type of employer and specialty. For example, federal government forensic psychologists earn median wages from $78,000 to $86,000 a year. Large American cities typically have the highest salaries in the forensic psychology professions, but they also come with higher costs of living.

Here’s the salary range for forensic psychologists in 2013:

salaries for accountants stacked up
Top 10 % $110,880
Median (50%) $90,020
Bottom 10% $38,720

The Houston Chronicle reports that annual earnings for psychologists with bachelor’s degrees range from minimum wage up to $50,000. Adding a master’s degree will boost median earnings to $90,020. Can completing an online master’s in forensic psychology deliver a solid ROI? Do the math.

“Forensic psychology is one of the few areas in mental health where demand often outstrips supply,”

Dr. Eric Mart, forensic psychologist.

Job Growth in Forensic Psychology

The government has predicted 11 percent growth in employment of forensic psychologists between 2012 and 2022 – a rate higher than the national average for all jobs during the decade. The American Psychological Association reports that “forensic psychology is a booming area,” with a growth of available practice areas that reflect specializations in the field.

Surprising Careers for Forensic Psychologists

Not all forensic psychologists are driven to work in courtrooms and jails. Because of the growth in the field and specializations, there are options for psychologists who want to work outside the box. Here are three potential avenues to spark some creative thinking:

  • Education Security Expert

    In the wake of school shootings and campus crimes, law enforcement organizations such as the FBI and Homeland Security hire experts to profile students with mental illness or behavioral issues, and create security procedures for local police, school districts and educators. These forensic psychology professionals can be instrumental in the understanding of risks in an educational setting, ways to monitor student emotional wellbeing and the development of response or intervention plans.

  • Traffic Psychologist

    What does it feel like to sit at a broken red light at a stalled intersection? What are the environmental or social factors that spark road rage? Government organizations often turn to traffic psychologists to assess emotional impacts that the design and environment of roads and highways have on drivers. Findings can influence changes in signing, lighting, routing and engineering factors that negatively impact cognitive skills and driving behaviors.

  • Human Factors Consultant

    Hate living in a cubicle? Human factors psychologists work in teams with product designers, manufacturing-process engineers, ergonomic specialists and workplace usability engineers to determine the best ways to ensure productivity, safety and job satisfaction in business, manufacturing, education, healthcare and non-profits. They conduct research and employee surveys and develop processes to help organizations improve workplace morale.