There are a number of different paths to becoming a forensic psychologist. This article describes a few of the most common paths and the required psychology degrees.
Clinical vs. Non-Clinical
One of the first considerations when deciding on a career in forensic psychology is whether to become a clinical psychologist or a psychologist who specializes in an area outside of clinical psychology, such as cognitive, developmental, experimental, social psychology and many others (collectively called non-clinical or experimental psychology). Although forensic psychologists may be either clinical or non-clinical, the roles and responsibilities of clinical and non-clinical forensic psychologists differ. Clinical forensic psychologists have the ability to conduct evaluations of and to provide intervention (treatment services) for clients, patients, and defendants. Experimental (non-clinical) forensic psychologists do not engage in evaluation or treatment service delivery directly with patients or defendants; rather, they engage in research, consultation, and non-clinical service delivery about issues related to psychology and law.
Independent Practice vs. Being Supervised by Others
Another consideration when deciding on a career in forensic psychology is whether one desires the ability to practice independently or to have his or her work supervised by someone else. A doctoral degree is required to become licensed and to practice independently as a psychologist whereas those who obtain a master's degree in psychology can work under the supervision of a doctoral-level psychologist.
Doctoral Degrees in Psychology
There are two types of doctoral degrees in psychology—the PhD and the PsyD—recognized across the United States, Canada, and other countries for forensic psychologists who want to practice independently. The PhD is the most common degree, provides the most typical path to becoming a forensic psychologist, and is considered to be the most prestigious. Doctoral-level degrees typically take between 4 and 6 years to complete (post-baccalaureate).
The PhD degree (Doctor of Philosophy) is the most common doctoral degree for psychologists and is the highest educational achievement for both clinical and experimental psychologists. PhDs in Psychology are offered in numerous specialized areas of study, such as developmental, clinical, cognitive, experimental, and social and focus on both theory and application. PhD degrees have a strong emphasis on research and a doctoral dissertation is a requirement of the degree. Numerous PhD programs exist across the United States, Canada, and other countries.
The distinction between clinical and n
on-clinical psychologists occurs with respect to the focus of training. Clinical psychologists receive training in the administration, scoring, and interpretation of psychological tests and instruments and in providing treatment services to individuals and groups as part of their doctoral-level training in addition to the general training on conducting and evaluating research that is part of any PhD program. To become licensed as a clinical psychologist, almost every state and province requires a doctoral-level degree from a program in clinical psychology as well as experience in clinical assessment and intervention.
The PsyD degree (Doctor of Psychology) is a relatively new degree and has a narrower focus than the PhD degree. The emphasis of the PsyD degree is almost solely on the practice of psychology and training in empirical research training is not typically a strong focus of PsyD programs. While less common that the PhD degree, almost every state and province recognizes the PsyD as a doctoral-level degree that satisfies the requirements for licensure as a clinical psychologist.
Masters-Level Degrees in Psychology
While a doctoral degree in psychology is required to practice independently as a forensic psychologist, many states will allow individuals with masters-level degrees in psychology to practice forensic psychology under the supervision of a doctoral-level psychologist. Masters-level practitioners are most commonly employed by correctional facilities, forensic hospitals, and other treatment facilities where they work closely with doctoral-level psychologists and other treatment providers, such as psychiatrics, psychiatric nurses, and social workers. There are two types of masters-level degree in psychology—the MA and the MS (sometimes called the MSc). Masters-level degrees typically take about 2 years to complete (post-baccalaureate).
The MA degree (Master of Arts) is the most common masters-level degree in psychology. MA’s are offered through the Humanities or Social Sciences and are graduate degrees that focus on the theory and application of psychology and psychological principles. Many MA programs offer areas of specialization, such as developmental, cognitive, clinical, experimental, and social psychology. MA programs typically vary in their emphasis on research, with some having a strong emphasis and others having almost none.
MS (or MSc)
The MS (or MSc) degree (Master of Science) is typically offered through the Physical Sciences or Empirical Sciences, although some universities and colleges may offer an MS through the Social Sciences. Many Ms programs offer areas of specialization, such as cognitive, neuropsychology, or biological psychology. The MS typically has more of a focus on empirical research than does the MA degree, although this may vary by program.
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