The Business of Practice

What Type of Psychology Degree Do I Need to Become a Forensic Psychologist?

There are several different paths to becoming a forensic psychologist. This article describes a few of the most common ways and the required psychology degrees.

What Type of Psychology Degree Do I Need to Become a Forensic Psychologist?

Choosing a Specialty

One of the first considerations when deciding on a career in forensic psychology is whether to become a clinical psychologist or a non-clinical psychologist specializing in an area outside of clinical psychology, such as social, cognitive, developmental, experimental, or one of many others. Although forensic psychologists may be either clinical or non-clinical, the roles and responsibilities of each differ.

  • Clinical forensic psychologists can evaluate and provide intervention (treatment services) for clients, patients, and defendants. 
  • Experimental (non-clinical) forensic psychologists do not engage in evaluation or treatment service delivery; instead, they engage in research, consultation, and non-clinical service delivery about issues related to psychology and law.

Deciding on Licensure

Another consideration when deciding on a career in forensic psychology is whether one desires the ability to practice independently or to have their work supervised by someone else. For example, a doctoral degree is required to become licensed and to practice independently as a psychologist. In contrast, 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. Doctoral-level degrees typically take between 4 and 6 years to complete (post-baccalaureate).   


The PhD (Doctor of Philosophy) is the most common doctoral degree and the highest educational achievement for clinical and experimental psychologists. PhD's in Psychology are offered in numerous areas, such as developmental, clinical, cognitive, experimental, and social, focusing on theory and application. These degrees emphasize research, and a doctoral dissertation is required. Numerous PhD programs exist across the United States, Canada, and other countries.

The distinction between clinical and non-clinical psychologists concerns the focus of training. Clinical psychologists are trained in administering, scoring, and interpreting psychological tests and instruments. In addition, learning to provide treatment to individuals and groups is a significant focus. 


The PsyD degree (Doctor of Psychology) has a narrower focus than the Ph.D. degree. The emphasis of the PsyD degree is almost solely on the practice of psychology, and research training is not typically a strong focus. Nevertheless, while it is newer than the PhD, they are growing in popularity, and practically 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 to practice forensic psychology under the supervision of a doctoral-level psychologist. In addition, correctional facilities, forensic hospitals, and other treatment facilities commonly employ  masters-level practitioners. They work closely with doctoral-level psychologists and other treatment providers, such as psychiatrists, psychiatric nurses, and social workers. There are two types of masters-level degrees in psychology—the MA and the MS (sometimes called the MSc). Masters-level degrees typically take about two 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. In addition, MA programs typically vary in their emphasis on research, with some having a strong focus 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. However, some universities and colleges may offer an MS through the Social Sciences. In addition, many MS programs offer areas of specialization, such as cognitive, neuropsychology, or biological psychology. The MS typically focuses more on empirical research than the MA degree, although this may vary by program. 

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