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Different Types of Forensic Psychology Programs: Clinical vs. Experimental

If you are interested in studying forensic psychology, either as a graduate or post-graduate student, this resource will be perfect for you! This article is a guest post written by Joseph Toomey and Angela Yarbrough.


Welcome to the exciting and constantly evolving field of forensic psychology! I know that the process of applying to graduate schools can be very daunting and fraught with difficult and complicated decisions. Is it better to apply to a master’s program? Can I apply directly to doctoral programs without a master’s degree? Which type of program is best for me (e.g., clinical, counseling, social, experimental, etc.)? The list of questions and concerns may seem endless, but know that there are resources available to help you make your decisions. If you have decided that pursuing a career in forensic psychology is the choice for you, hopefully you will find many of the answers you seek here.

Different Types of Forensic Psychology Programs

The two most common divisions of forensic psychology training involve clinical psychology training with a focus in forensic issues (clinical forensic psychology), and social/experimental psychology, also with a focus in forensic issues (social/experimental forensic psychology).

Clinical Forensic Psychology

Clinical forensic psychologists apply basic clinical theories and methods to the understanding of behavior and mental processes within civil court processes and the criminal justice arena. Some of the more common areas of interest within clinical forensic psychology include child custody evaluations, the assessment and treatment of sexual offenders, the assessment of psychopathy and likelihood of future violent behavior, the study of how psychological processes and mental illness affect various legal competencies (e.g., competency to stand trial, competency to waive Miranda rights, competency to be sentenced, etc.), as well as the role mental illness plays in the ability to understand right from wrong, or comport one’s behaviors within the requirements of the law during the course of an otherwise criminal act (i.e., criminal responsibility or the insanity defense). Clinical forensic psychologists often go on to become licensed practitioners who apply their knowledge of these concepts to actual criminal or civil cases, and within secure treatment facilities.

Ph.D. vs. Psy.D.

One may wonder whether it is better to apply to Ph.D. or Psy.D. clinical programs. For many, this choice is slightly more complicated than it needs to be. Additional hair pulling can be averted by taking a few moments for clarification. First, it is important to clarify the philosophical and practical differences between Ph.D. and Psy.D. programs. Doctoral programs that award a Ph.D. typically spend a great deal of time and effort educating students in the areas of clinical research and scientific inquiry. These programs follow a traditional Scientist-Practitioner model, which trains psychologists to be competent scientists and researchers who apply their knowledge and techniques to the individuals with whom they practice.

The Scientist-Practitioner model differs from the typical Practitioner-Scholar model espoused by many Psy.D. programs. The Practitioner-Scholar model trains psychologists to be skilled practitioners who are consumers of scientific research, and who apply the knowledge they consume to solving their clients problems. Practically speaking, Psy.D. programs place a greater emphasis on training students to practice their craft, while Ph.D. programs place greater emphasis on understanding and engaging in the scientific research that informs practice.

***It is very important to note that while the above distinctions apply to most, they do not apply to all Ph.D. and Psy.D. programs. ***

With these philosophical distinctions in mind, your next question should be, “What are my career aspirations?” If it is your intention to pursue an academic career in psychology, a Ph.D. is likely for you. However, if you are certain that you have no intention of entering into academia after completing your degree, a Psy.D. may be an option. It is important to understand that there is nothing a Psy.D. prepares you for that a Ph.D. does not. Conversely, by pursuing a Psy.D., you may limit yourself in terms of your career options in academia and other research related professions.

Social/Experimental Forensic Psychology

Within the area of social/experimental forensic psychology, researchers focus on the application of social psychological theories to assist in the understanding of phenomena that occur within the criminal justice system, and during the course of criminal acts. Some of the more common areas of interest within social/experimental forensic psychology include the study of eyewitness accuracy and lineup procedures, police interrogation tactics and false confessions, the psychology of deception and deception detection, and jury decision making to name but a few. Social/experimental forensic psychology programs differ significantly from clinical forensic psychology programs in that clinical programs focus on preparing students to work directly with individuals in a therapeutic or evaluative context. Whereas students in social/experimental forensic psychology programs focus primarily on research and pursuing an academic career, students in clinical programs also spend a great deal of time gaining face-to-face experience through externships/practica and a yearlong clinical internship. Clinical programs also tend to require a larger credit/course load.

Knowing the differences between the types of programs in forensic psychology, as well as the general areas of focus within the field is very helpful in making the decision about which schools to apply to. If your intention is to practice or conduct research in the area of forensic psychology, it is not actually necessary to attend a program that explicitly contains a forensic specialization. Rather, one could simply seek out a mentor who has an active line of forensic research within any doctoral program, or who is open and interested to the possibility of beginning such a line of research. With that said, if your dream has always been to attend John Smith University in Sweet Valley, Kansas, but you were discouraged to learn that they do not have a forensic specialization, browse through their list of faculty and determine whether one or more happens to have a forensic interest. You may be pleasantly surprised!

For those who are sure that they would like to immerse themselves into an intense focus on forensic issues, you are in luck! It would seem that new forensic tracks are popping up around the world every week. Find out more about studying forensic psychology around the world by reading our "studying in" article series, or find out more about finding a job in forensic psychology by reading our job hunt article series!