Studying Forensic Psychology in the US

If you are interested in studying forensic psychology in the United States of America, 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. Both authors are graduate students at CUNY, John Jay College of Criminal Justice (New York).

If you want to look further into the universities and programmes that are offered in the United States, please check out http://www.allpsychologyschools.com/clinical-psychology/. This website gives a comprehensive list of current programmes as well as some advice on how to tailor your training to your field of psychology. 

Intro

Welcome to the exciting and constantly evolving field of forensic psychology the United States! 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 in the United States is the choice for you, hopefully you will find many of the answers you seek here.

Different Types of Forensic Psychology Programs

One of the most important facts to consider if you are interested in clinical practice is that the American Psychological Association (APA) does not recognize forensic psychology as a license eligible subfield. Rather, the APA recognizes the intersection of various other subfields of psychology with the legal system (Division 41). For example, 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 in American universities every week. Here, we will discuss the universities currently listed on the American Psychology and Law Society’s (AP-LS) website. Each program contains a link to the university’s website where doctoral faculty and their specific interests are listed.

Universities

Masters Programs with a Focus in Forensic Psychology:

Argosy University (M.A. in Forensic Psychology)

American International College (M.S. in Forensic Psychology)

Arizona State University (M.S. in Psychology; Law and Psychology J.D./Ph.D. Program)

The Chicago School of Professional Psychology (M.A. in Forensic Psychology)

College of Saint Elizabeth (M.A. in Forensic Psychology and Counseling)

Fairleigh Dickinson University (M.A. in Forensic Psychology)

Holy Names University (M.A. in Forensic Psychology; Dual M.A. in Forensic and Counseling Psychology)

John Jay College of Criminal Justice-CUNY (M.A. or Ph.D.).

Marymount University (M.A. in Forensic and Legal Psychology).

Massachusetts School of Professional Psychology (M.A. in Forensic and Counseling Psychology)

New York Law School (M.A. and Certificate in Mental Disability Law)

Palo Alto University (M.A. in Forensic & Correctional Psychology)

Roger Williams University (M.A. in Forensic Psychology)

The Sage Colleges (M.S. in Forensic Mental Health or M.A. in Counseling and Community Psychology).

Tiffin University (M.A. in Criminal Justice with Forensic Psychology Concentration).

University of Colorado at Colorado Springs (M.A. in Clinical or Experimental Psychology with Concentration in Psychology and Law)

University of Denver (M.A. in Forensic Psychology)

University of Florida (M.A. or joint J.D/M.A. in Criminology, Law and Society)

University of Houston-Victoria (M.A. in Forensic Psychology)

University of Leicester (M.Sc. in Forensic Psychology)

University of Nebraska (joint J.D./ Ph.D. or joint J.D./M.A. in Clinical or Social Psychology or Masters of Legal Studies).

University of North Dakota (M.S. or M.A. in Forensic Psychology)

Valparaiso University (Joint J.D/M.A. in Counseling)

Doctoral Programs with a Focus in Clinical Forensic Psychology:

Alliant International University - California School of Forensic Studies (Ph.D. in Forensic Psychology or Psy.D. in Forensic Psychology).

American School of Professional Psychology (Psy.D. with concentration in Forensic Psychology)

Argosy University - Chicago (Clinical Psy.D. with concentration in Forensic Psychology)

Arizona State University (Law and Psychology J.D./Ph.D. Program).

Carlos Albizu University in Miami (Psy.D in Clinical Psychology with a concentration in Forensic Psychology)

Chicago School of Professional Psychology (Psy.D. in Clinical Psychology with a concentration in Forensic Psychology)

Drexel University (J.D./Ph.D. or Ph.D. with a concentration in Forensic Psychology)

Forest Institute of Professional Psychology (PsyD in Clinical Psychology with a concentration in Forensic Psychology)

Fordham University (Clinical PhD with concentration in Forensic Psychology)

John Jay College of Criminal Justice-CUNY (M.A. or Ph.D.)

Massachusetts School of Professional Psychology (Psy.D. with Forensic Psychology Concentration)

Nova Southeastern University (Psy.D. with a concentration in Clinical Forensic Psychology).

Pacific University (Psy.D. with an emphasis in Forensic Psychology)

Palo Alto University (joint Ph.D./J.D. [with Golden Gate University School of Law]; and Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology with Forensic Emphasis).

Sam Houston State University (Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology with an emphasis in forensics).

 

Spalding University (Psy.D. in Clinical Psychology with a concentration in Forensic Psychology)

Texas A&M University (Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology)

University of Alabama (clinical Ph.D. with a psychology-law concentration).

University of Arizona (Clinical Psychology with a Forensic Interest).

University of Illinois at Chicago (Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology with Minor in Psychology and Law)

University of Nebraska (joint J.D. and Ph.D. or joint J.D. and M.A. in Psychology).

West Virginia University (Ph.D. in Clinical with emphasis in forensics)

Widener University (J.D./Psy.D. joint degree)

You may have noticed that many of the programs listed offer joint J.D./Ph.D. or Psy.D. options. These programs offer students the opportunity to pursue a law degree while simultaneously pursuing their doctorate in psychology. You may ask, “What is the advantage of attending a program that offers a joint degree?” The world’s oldest ongoing integrated program in psychology and the law at the University of Nebraska describes their program as training “researchers and professionals to identify and evaluate the psychological assumptions underlying laws and court decisions and to apply their psycholegal expertise to improve understanding of the operation of law in our society” (http://www.unl.edu/psypage/psylaw/index.shtml). We believe this statement best captures the philosophy of joint degree programs.

Doctoral Programs with a Focus in Social/Experimental Forensic Psychology:

Alliant International University (Ph.D. in Forensic Psychology).

Arizona State University (Law and Psychology J.D./Ph.D. Program)

Cornell University (Ph.D. with a concentration in Law, Psychology and Human Development)

Florida International University (Ph.D. in Psychology with an emphasis in Legal Psychology).

Georgetown University (Ph.D. in Psychology with concentration in Human Development and Public Policy and a Ph.D. in a joint program with a Masters in Public Policy )

John Jay College of Criminal Justice-CUNY (M.A. or Ph.D.).

Simon Fraser University (Ph.D. in psychology in the psychology and law program).

University of Arizona (Ph.D. and/or J.D)

University of California-Irvine (Ph.D. in Criminology, Law & Society or in Psychology and Social Behavior).

University of Florida (Ph.D. in Criminology and Law; and joint J.D./M.A. program)

University of Illinois at Chicago (Ph.D. with concentration in Psychology and Law).

University of Minnesota (Ph.D. in social psychology with a research concentration in social psychology and law; joint J.D./Ph.D. can be customized).

University of Nebraska (joint J.D./ Ph.D. or joint J.D./M.A. in Clinical or Social Psychology or Masters of Legal Studies).

University of Nevada- Reno (Ph.D. in social psychology with a concentration in psychology and law)

University of Texas at El Paso (Ph.D. in Applied Psychology with the Legal Psychology Group)

University of Wyoming (Social or Developmental Ph.D. with concentration in Psychology and Law)


As you can see, there are many programs across the United States with specialty tracks in both clinical and social/experimental forensic psychology. You will also notice that some of these programs house only one or two faculty members with forensic interests, while other programs house many. For example, the masters and doctoral programs at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City have the highest concentration of forensic faculty of any university in the world.

Who’s Who in American Forensic Psychology

If you have attended psychology and law conferences and are familiar with some of the bigger names in the field, but are unsure of their affiliations, here is a list of a few of the major players:

Drexel University:

Fordham University:

Iowa State University:

John Jay College of Criminal Justice-CUNY:

Sam Houston State University:

Texas A&M University:

University of Alabama:

University of California – Irvine:

University of Minnesota:

University of Nebraska:

University of Northern Texas:

University of Texas at El Paso :


While the above list is certainly not exhaustive, it should get you started!

Application Process

Applying to graduate school can be an overwhelming and stressful experience.  To successfully maneuver through the application process, advance preparation and organization are necessary.

Application Requirements

Grade Point Average (GPA) and Graduate Record Examination (GRE) Scores

Many doctoral programs in psychology and law have overlapping requirements involved in the application process.  For example, application deadlines for most American universities are in either December or January for admission beginning the following Fall semester.  To apply, most universities require a minimum GRE score of 1200, with some as high as 1395. You can find more information about the GRE by visiting their website (http://www.ets.org/gre/). Some programs require or strongly encourage applicants take the GRE Psychology subject test, while others do not.  It is important to consult program websites to determine whether the Psychology subject test is required. Some of these programs indicate a minimum subject test score of 650 is needed.  The GRE examination should be taken no later than three months prior to the application deadline.

GPA requirements generally range from 3.0-3.7 (on a 4.0 NOT 4.33 scale).  To verify GPA, official transcripts from your previous institution must be submitted with your application.  Some universities allow for flexibility in GRE scores and GPAs if other aspects of the application can compensate.  However, the most successful applicants typically have GRE scores and GPAs above these minimums.

International Students

An applicant who has not studied in an English-speaking country typically must take the Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL), administered internationally by Educational Testing Service (ETS). Students must request that ETS send their TOEFL scores directly to the programs to which they are applying. Many American universities require TOEFL written scores between 525 - 600, and TOEFL iBT scores can range from 70 to 100. It is important to consult the websites of the programs you are interested in order to determine whether their score requirements are on the higher or lower end.

Personal Statements and Letters of Recommendation

Most universities also require some form of a personal statement. This statement should be tailored to each program and typically includes a description of your past research experience, what you hope to accomplish in graduate school, and your future career goals.  Those who are able to demonstrate competency to conduct independent research will be looked upon most favorably.  This applies to both clinical and non-clinical programs. A history of direct patient contact can also be important for clinical programs. For those universities that match applicants with a faculty advisor, you should discuss how your interests overlap with the faculty member(s) of your choice.  If possible, you should contact faculty members prior to applying to ensure they are accepting new students and what their future research agendas entail.  To complement the personal statement, you should create an academic resume, also known as a curriculum vitae, that displays conference presentations and publications if applicable.

Recommendation letters are yet another requirement among most universities.  If you haven’t done so already, it is essential that you develop strong relationships with at least 3 faculty members at your current institution who can testify to your research experience and capacity to handle graduate studies.  As programs vary in procedures to submit recommendation letters, such as electronic submissions, including sealed letters of recommendation with your application packet, or having faculty members directly mail their letters to each program, it will be necessary to verify with each program and convey this information to faculty members well in advance of deadlines.

To increase your odds of acceptance, applicants should apply to several doctoral programs. Clinical applicants applying to Ph.D. programs who are more interested in clinical practice should also consider applying to Psy.D. programs. Master’s programs may be more appropriate for those students who do not meet the stringent requirements of doctorate programs.   Specifically, many programs do not require applicants to take the GRE, but those that do typically require a minimum score of 1000. GPA requirements are less rigorous as well, with the range from 2.8-3.5 (on a 4.0 NOT 4.33 scale).

One Last Thing

It is very important to understand that applying to doctoral programs in psychology is an exceptionally competitive process. You may find yourself competing against as many as 200 other applicants, many of whom are highly qualified, for one of four or five available spots. Additionally, American universities are also feeling the strain of the current economic downturn, forcing many programs to make cuts in their number of available spots. This is why we recommend applying to multiple programs as well as doing all that you can to make your application stand out (e.g., gaining research and/or clinical experience, earning a solid GPA, and advocating for yourself appropriately in personal statements).

We hope that many of your questions have been answered, and concerns addressed. Doctoral programs in the United States offer an incredible depth of experience and training that you are unlikely to find anywhere else in the world. Good luck to you all, and we hope to see good things from you in the future!

You can email us at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. if you would like more information about studying abroad.

Best wishes from the United States!


- Joseph Toomey and Angela Yarbrough

 

 


Below you will find links to the articles from our studying abroad series: