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Question: How Long Does it Take to Become a Forensic Psychologist?

Answer: The amount of time it takes to become a forensic psychologist depends on several factors, including state licensure requirements and the pathway one chooses. In most states, a high school graduate can complete the academic and professional training required to become a licensed clinical psychologist in eight to ten years. This includes: earning a bachelor’s degree (3-4 years); completing a master’s program (2-3 years) followed by a doctoral program (3-5 years), or enrolling directly in a doctoral program (4-7 years); and engaging in up to a year or more of postdoctoral clinical work experience.

The process of becoming a forensic psychologist involves pursuing academic training and instruction in psychology and attaining a terminal doctoral degree, as well as receiving specialized training in forensic psychology both through didactic instruction and supervised clinical training. This training process typically takes a minimum of eight years, after which forensic psychologists may opt for professional certification through the American Board of Professional Psychology (ABPP). Certification in forensic psychology requires 100 hours of postdoctoral didactic training in forensic psychology and either 1,000 hours of postdoctoral work experience in forensic psychology over a five year period, or a full-time, 2,000-hour postdoctoral training program approved by the ABPP’s American Board of Forensic Psychology (ABFP). Thus, while it is possible to become a forensic psychologist in eight years, it is more common for forensic psychologists to spend nine, ten, or more years preparing for professional licensure and certification.

What Is Forensic Psychology?

Forensic psychology is a formally recognized specialization within the larger field of psychology. The American Psychology-Law Society, a division of the American Psychological Association (APA), maintains Specialty Guidelines for Forensic Psychology, which defines forensic psychology as, “professional practice by any psychologist working within any sub-discipline of psychology (e.g., clinical, developmental, social, cognitive) when applying the scientific, technical, or specialized knowledge of psychology to the law to assist in addressing legal, contractual, and administrative matters.” And the ABFP, which provides education and training in forensic psychology through the American Academy of Forensic Psychology (AAFP), defines forensic psychology broadly as, “the application of the science and profession of psychology to questions and issues relating to law and the legal system.”

Forensic psychologists are licensed clinical psychologists with additional training in criminal and civil law, the courts, and the criminal justice system. They work with law enforcement agencies, correctional facilities, law firms, and other key players in the legal system to provide psychological insights and analyses on a number of matters, including the causes and effects of criminal behavior, the reliability of witness testimony, and the state of mind of those involved in criminal and civil proceedings. Forensic psychologists may also provide clinical mental health services to law enforcement officers, crime victims, incarcerated individuals, and others who are exposed to and experience the stress and trauma associated with crime and violence.

In its Specialty Guidelines for Forensic Psychology, the American Psychology-Law Society describes seven distinct professional roles and functions for psychologists engaged in the practice of forensic psychology:

  1. Researchers: collect and disseminate psychological data relevant to various legal issues.
  2. Advisors: provide attorneys with an informed understanding of the role that psychology can play in legal cases.
  3. Consultants: explain the practical implications of relevant research, examination findings, and the opinions of other psycholegal experts.
  4. Examiners: assess an individual’s functioning and report findings and opinions to an attorney, a legal tribunal, an employer, an insurer, or other relevant parties.
  5. Treatment providers: provide therapeutic services tailored to the issues and context of a legal proceeding.
  6. Mediators/Negotiators: serve in a third-party neutral role and assist parties in resolving disputes.
  7. Arbiters/Special Masters/Case Managers: serve parties, attorneys, and the courts in a decision-making capacity.

Steps to Become a Forensic Psychologist

There are numerous pathways into the field of forensic psychology, beginning with bachelor’s degree programs that feature a forensic psychology major, and including forensic psychology master’s and doctoral programs. However, the professional practice of clinical forensic psychology is restricted to those who hold a doctoral degree in psychology and state licensure as a psychologist. Bachelor’s and master’s program graduates with training in psychology and knowledge of the legal system may be eligible for various types of non-clinical work in the field of forensic psychology, but they are not called psychologists and they are not permitted to provide expert advice, clinical diagnoses, and other types of professional psychological services.

In order to become a forensic psychologist, high school graduates must first earn a bachelor’s degree, which typically takes four or more years, but which can be done in as few as three years by students who take courses year-round. A bachelor’s degree in psychology/forensic psychology is not required for admissions to most psychology graduate programs, although it may be advantageous to major in psychology, forensic psychology, or a behavioral science if that is an option. An undergraduate major in criminal justice may also be a good option for those interested in pursuing graduate studies in forensic psychology.

Bachelor’s program graduates who want to pursue a graduate degree in forensic psychology can enroll in a master’s in forensic psychology program or go directly into one of two types of doctoral programs: a Doctor of Psychology (PsyD) program or a Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) in Psychology program. Master’s programs typically take two to three years to complete and do not qualify graduates for licensure. However, a master’s degree in forensic psychology may qualify graduates for various types of non-clinical work in the field of forensic psychology, and graduate credits earned in a master’s program may often be counted toward the total number of credits required for a doctoral degree, thereby decreasing the number of courses and thus the amount of time it will eventually take to earn a PsyD or PhD in Psychology degree.

The primary difference between PsyD and PhD in Psychology programs is pedagogical: PhD programs generally emphasize scientific research in the field of psychology, while PsyD programs are more practice-based and emphasize training in the provision of psychological services. Both types of programs can prepare students for licensure, and there are PhD and PsyD programs that offer training in forensic psychology. Most PhD programs require students to complete a doctoral dissertation, while some PsyD programs may not require a dissertation. The typical completion time for a doctorate in psychology varies by program and by a student’s prior academic training. Students who begin a doctoral program with a bachelor’s degree, for example, typically have to earn more credits and take more courses at the doctoral level than students who hold a master’s degree in psychology. Nevertheless, students should expect to spend a minimum of four to seven years of graduate study prior to receiving a doctoral degree, although PsyD programs may take less time to complete than PhD programs (3-6 years vs. 4-7 years).

Graduates from APA-accredited PhD and PsyD programs must then qualify for licensure in their state of practice. All 50 states require candidates for licensure to pass the Examination for Professional Practice in Psychology (EPPP), a 225-question standardized test administered by the Association of State and Provincial Psychology Boards (ASPPB). Eligibility requirements for licensure vary by state. Most states require candidates for licensure to complete a specific number of supervised postdoctoral clinical hours, which can take up to a year or more. And some states require applicants for licensure to pass a jurisprudence exam in addition to the EPPP.

Finally, forensic psychologists seeking professional certification can receive specialty certification in forensic psychology through a process administered by the ABPP. The eligibility requirements to sit for the ABPP forensic psychology exam include:

  • A doctoral degree in psychology from an APA-accredited PhD or PsyD program
  • A minimum of 100 hours of postdoctoral training through an APA-approved continuing education or graduate course in forensic psychology, or documented work experience under the supervision of a forensic psychologist
  • Direct experience in forensic psychology (1,000 hours) accumulated within a five-year timeframe, or the completion of an ABFP-approved postdoctoral training program in forensic psychology (2,000 hours)

The table below provides a summary of the main steps in the process to become a forensic psychologist and the typical number of years it takes to complete each step.

Steps to Become a Forensic PsychologistNumber of Years
Earn a bachelor’s degree3-4 years of full-time enrollment
Earn a master’s in psychology followed by a PhD or PsyD in clinical or forensic psychology, or enroll directly in a PhD or PsyD in clinical or forensic psychology program4-8 years of full-time enrollment
Fulfill state licensure requirements for postdoctoral clinical experience and pass the EPPP exam0-2 years of full-time work
Earn an ABPP certification in forensic psychology1-5 years

It is important to note that licensing requirements and the number of years it may take to become a licensed psychologist vary by state. Those interested in seeking licensure in order to become a forensic psychologist should contact their state board of licensure. The ASPPB maintains an online PSY|Book tool that provides an overview of licensing requirements by jurisdiction.

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