Master’s Programs in Forensic Psychology

The field of forensic psychology has witnessed tremendous growth in the past 40 years in both academic and professional realms. While many of the early clinicians engaged in forensic practice did not receive specialized training prior to assuming their role within a forensic setting, graduate training in forensic psychology, or psychology and law, has attempted to address this need. The num­ber of programs offering graduate-level forensic psychology training has exponentially increased in the past 30 years, such that future generations of forensic practitioners will have received specialized course work and practical/research experiences that will only augment their effectiveness in conducting sound research, promoting relevant policy, and delivering competent clinical forensic services.

Although scholars have expressed a need for a more comprehensive look at specialized graduate training in forensic psychology since the 1970s, it was not until the Villanova conference in 1995 that models of training were evaluated. The invited conference participants provided recommendations for forensic psychology training through proposed models but offered no core curriculum. As such, graduate programs have been given enormous latitude to offer a sequence of courses and practical/research experiences that jointly meet their training goals and the needs of their students.

Much has been written on graduate-level training in forensic psychology, with scant emphasis on master’s level training. Yet a substantial number of students are graduating with master’s degrees in forensic psychology. Currently, there are more than seven programs in the United States and Canada that offer a terminal master’s degree in forensic psychology.

Relevant Components for Training

Although, by definition, master’s level graduate training does not offer the same breadth or depth of experience as one would receive in a doctoral-level forensic psychology program or a joint degree (Ph.D./ J.D. or Psy.D./J.D.) program, aspects of such training remain critical to the development of a competent master’s level graduate. Broadly, master’s level training should include education in law and the legal aspects (e.g., statutes, case law, and legal theory) affecting professional forensic psychology practice, knowledge of the relevant literature and ways of assessing the legal questions posed to clinicians/researchers, familiarity with broad and specialty area ethics and guidelines, and field placements in forensic settings. As the population of the United States is changing and becoming increasingly diverse, it is imperative that psycholegal researchers, scholars, and clinicians become competent to address the multiple and varied needs of a diverse forensic community.

The curriculum for master’s level training in forensic psychology will vary depending on the program’s orientation, with greater emphasis on research, clinical skills, or public policy to fulfill the requirements for completion of the degree. At minimum, forensic psychology curricula should include one or two law courses, including one in mental health law. Students should receive coursework that will provide them with the technical knowledge and practical skills to facilitate their clinical work in the forensic psychology field, such as clinical interviewing and psychotherapy and psychopathology and diagnosis. In addition, students should receive sufficient grounding in research design and methodology and statistical analysis. For more clinically focused programs, curriculum may include coursework in the historical basis of assessment and measurement of different variables in forensic settings and a sequence of traditional and/or specialized assessment courses. To prepare students for a wide range of possible careers, coursework may include specialty topics, such as understanding and treatment of offenders (male/female, sexual, juvenile), trauma and crisis intervention, substance abuse, and group therapy. As mentioned above, each course should reflect the diversity inherent in the United States, such that sociocultural issues should be infused within the curriculum as well as offered as a distinct course.

Because many people considering entry into forensic psychology through a master’s degree program may have been influenced by media portrayal of the field, it is critical that students gain some exposure to the reality of the work through field placement/ practicum experiences. Such experiences could include practical training within the criminal justice system (jails, prisons, forensic hospitals), within the law enforcement system (police departments, investigative departments, probation/parole, etc.), within the legal system (e.g., court clinics, district attorney’s office, litigation consulting firms), and within the mental health system (offender and/or victim treatment programs, community mental health, etc.). Programs may wish to consider providing coursework that serves as an adjunct to the field placement experience, such that students would be able to obtain additional support and supervision as well as receive an added didactic component.

In addition to coursework and practical training, program designers may also want to consider a capstone requirement, such as a competency exam and/or completion of a thesis. The competency exam requirement is designed to provide a comprehensive learning experience in helping students consolidate their academic, clinical, and research training in a meaningful, coherent manner. Similarly, a thesis provides students with an opportunity to pursue an area of research interest in more depth than would otherwise be available through regular coursework; the research may allow students to directly impact the systems and clients with which they interface through their field placements and potentially build on this area of research throughout their career.

Students pursue master’s level training for a variety of reasons. Professionals working within law enforcement, legal, or mental health systems may attend master’s programs in an effort to enhance their training and/or opportunities for promotion. Undergraduate students may want to explore a specialized field of study, such as law and psychology, without having to commit to the time required to complete a doctoral degree. Similarly, undergraduate students may postpone an eventual goal of obtaining a specialized doctoral degree by first gaining clinical and/or research experience through a master’s level program. Finally, because many states allow master’s level clinicians to practice independently, many graduates of these programs will have lengthy careers in the forensic field.

Considerations for Students Pursuing a Master’s Degree

The decision to attend a master’s program in forensic psychology is a major commitment that warrants much research. Current master’s programs in forensic psychology vary greatly in program orientation, curriculum, opportunities for practical experience, faculty interests and experience, as well as student requirements. Each of these is an aspect prospective graduate students may find helpful to consider. Students need to choose a path that best fits their individual needs, encompassing their current interests as well as their future plans.

One of the fundamental questions prospective graduate students in forensic psychology should consider when faced with the often daunting task of choosing a master’s program is how the program’s orientation matches their own. For example, while some students may seek a clinically oriented program, others may find their interests rooted in research. Therefore, the student should thoroughly review each program’s orientation. Such a consideration will prevent students from embarking on graduate study at programs with an orientation different from their own.

Exploration of requirements for graduation may also prove useful for students. Although the majority of master’s programs in this field are clinically based, those students interested in research may find themselves given the opportunity to pursue this interest in a clinically based program in lieu of competency exams to fulfill a graduation requirement. Therefore, one should not discount a program solely based on orientation but, rather, should explore each option within an individual program.

Additional consideration should be given to how a student’s educational and professional goals align with those of each program. Whereas some programs aim to prepare students for their respective state’s professional licensing exams or a career in the public sector, others focus on preparation for doctoral programs. Thus, it is important for prospective students to inquire and consider the educational and professional paths of previous graduates, as well as consider their own intentions. Furthermore, a student may find it helpful to explore the experience and formal education requirements for occupations in their areas of interest.

The educational framework and organization of each program should be closely examined by applicants. Prospective students should critically evaluate the curriculum of each program to ensure a solid foundation is provided and their specific interests addressed. Introductory courses aimed at the integration and applicability of psychology within the legal system should be a standard at each program, which should include criminal and civil aspects. At the same time, students should consider whether they have the flexibility to take electives or seminars in which their specific interests are addressed. After careful consideration of these elements, students can then begin selecting programs that offer a solid but broad curriculum and at the same time allow exploration of specific areas of interest through electives and seminars.

Although most clinical programs address professional ethics, a comprehensive curriculum in forensic psychology will not only address general ethical issues but also attend to and integrate the Forensic Specialty Guidelines set forth by the American Psychological Association. The issues addressed include exclusions in confidentiality when treating convicted offenders, conflicts of interest in child custody cases, and licensing requirements. These guidelines are vital in adhering to standards pertinent to forensic psychology and in offering the best services possible.

Students and professionals in forensic psychology programs are often faced with a variety of clients from backgrounds with which they are not familiar. Forensic clients vary greatly in race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, age, gender, socioeconomic status, education level, as well as religious affiliations and beliefs. Therefore, a multicultural or diversity component within the master’s program will prepare students for serving a wide range of clients. A comprehensive program will also stress a multicultural component in the available internship or field placement options, which will provide students with familiarity of a wide range of cultures through hands-on experience.

In addition to formal coursework, perhaps one of the most important considerations for prospective graduate students in forensic psychology should be the opportunities for practical application of learned materials in the form of field placements or internships. When considering each program, applicants may be well served by exploring the opportunities associated with attendance at each program. For those students with specific careers in mind, a placement at a related site may be the cornerstone of their graduate school experience. Such a placement may serve either to further their commitment to an intended career path or dissuade them from such a career. In addition, field placements and internships often open the door to new, previously unconsidered avenues, as well as assist in developing beneficial professional relationships.

Although it should not be the only factor considered, prospective students may find it beneficial to research the core faculty at each program. Research interests, professional affiliations, publications, alma maters, professional reputation, and length of time at the program of interest may be helpful when considering faculty members with whom a prospective student may want to work. In addition, inquiring as to whether or not faculty members are willing to collaborate with graduate students on current research and publications also warrant consideration. Faculty areas of interest may be of particular value for those students with a bent for research. In this case, it is particularly important not only that the program provide research opportunities but also that the faculty share similar interests and are able to assist in student research endeavors.

Program structure, specifically regarding time requirements, also warrants consideration. Although most programs require full-time attendance in a 2-year program, there are exceptions. Prospective students with families and those planning on maintaining full-time employment while pursuing graduate education may find their choice of programs limited owing to time constraints. On the other hand, there are several master’s programs in forensic psychology that are composed of part-time students, but these programs may require a prospective student to relocate if in a different state. Therefore, to critically evaluate each program, and choose that which best suits their needs, availability, and current commitments, such students should inquire as to whether part-time attendance is possible, as well as the expected schedules, average amount of independent work, and number of field placement or internship hours required per week.

Return to the overview of Forensic Psychology Education.