Profiling a Serial Killer: Forensic Psychology Degree

Although they may make the profession seem more glamorous than it typically is, popular television shows that deal with true crime have elevated the profile of forensic psychology as a career. Forensic psychologists are highly trained professionals that practice psychology within the criminal science, investigation and law systems. Some of the work is like that featured on television shows. The scope of the profession includes applying psychological principles to understand the motivation of criminals. For example, forensic psychologists develop profiles for serial murderers and try to understand why they kill. They also serve as expert witnesses in criminal court, and determine whether alleged offenders are competent to stand trial. Forensic psychologists are also called upon to evaluate victims and witnesses of crime, especially children.

The profession also includes practicing psychology in civil court, such as in custody cases and insurance and other lawsuits.

Working as a forensic psychologist involves being part of a team of professionals. It often requires one to work directly with criminals. For those who enjoy solving complex problems of the human mind, and who also have an interest in the legal system, forensic psychology can make an excellent career.

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Forensic Psychology Degree Information

Extensive training and an advanced degree (doctorate) is required to become a working forensic psychologist. In fact, very few colleges offer a degree in forensic psychology. It's usually an area of focus attached to a PhD in psychology. PhD focuses at certain schools include family/child psychology and policy and justice.

Online Forensic Psychology Curriculum

The curriculum for a PhD in clinical, counseling or forensic psychology consists of classes designed to prepare students to complete a successful dissertation. These include research methods, statistical analysis, advanced psychology, the legal system and classes that review all historic and relevant literature.

Earning a Degree Online

There are online forensic psychology degree programs. These distance learning options can make earning a degree more affordable and provide the flexibility important to students. Just be sure that your school is accredited.

Bachelor’s and Master’s Degrees

Very few schools offer a Bachelor of Science (B.S.) and/or Master of Science (M.S.) in Forensic Psychology, although there are a few online options. A doctorate is necessary in order to be a certified, practicing forensic psychologist, but a B.S. or M.S. in the same field serves as excellent preparation. Other typical undergraduate degrees leading up to a PhD in forensic psychology are clinical and counseling psychology, criminal justice, social work and legal studies.

Doctoral Degree

Admission to a forensic psychology doctoral program is highly competitive and typically takes 5-7 years to complete. Applicants are usually already considered psychologists, while doctoral studies define them as a specialist within the field. Both online and offline degree options are offered.


Bachelor’s and Master’s coursework includes general psychology, and may focus on social deviance, criminology or criminal personality, victimology, criminal justice and political science.

Coursework for a PhD consists of advanced topics such as epidemiology of mental/behavioral disorders, profiling and patterning, risk factors for violence and criminality, profiling and patterning, prediction and intervention measurement, criminal and civil law and procedures and professional standards and ethics.


Certification via the prestigious American Board of Forensic Psychology (ABFP) stamps the forensic psychologist as a top qualified professional in the field. Certification is available to graduates of a PhD program in psychology, and is composed of rigorous written, practical and oral tests.

Career Opportunities

With a bachelor’s or master’s degree, certification as a forensic psychologist is not possible; however, several career paths are available to graduates. Social workers, crime analysts, police officers, and victim advocates are all common professions for people with a B.S. or M.S. in forensic psychology.

Attaining a PhD and certification by the ABFP opens the door to careers such as criminal profiler and forensic psychologist in the criminal and civil court systems, in other government agencies, in education or in private practice. Individuals working in forensic psychology have such varied responsibilities that it is difficult to define the typical “job”, but the overall goal is to lend psychological and behavioral expertise to cases and issues in the legal system.

Earning Potential

Salaries for forensic psychologists run the gamut, with estimated averages between $34,345 and $91,693 per year plus benefits and bonuses. The large difference in wages is typically based on educational attainment and years of experience.

Career Outlook

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics Occupational Outlook Handbook, the job growth for psychologists with a specialty is 22%, faster than the average 10-19% predicated from 2010-2020. Many forensic psychologists are practicing clinical psychologists who work for the legal system as needed, adding another level of flexibility to this career. Large employers include the Federal Bureau of Investigation, police agencies, correctional facilities, healthcare facilities and government.

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General Forensic Psychology FAQ

How long does it take to become certified as a Forensic Psychologist?

The entire process takes over ten years. At a minimum, you will need a bachelor’s degree plus 5-7 years of graduate work. For some, the low rate of pay in relation to the extensive education is a deterrent; to others, the ability to constantly learn about human behavior and the criminal justice system are its own reward.

What types of skills does a Forensic Psychologist need?

Forensic psychologists typically work as part of a team of investigators, attorneys and judges, so the ability to communicate well and negotiate as part of a team is invaluable. You must be comfortable working with criminals and child victims. Lastly, a healthy appetite for varied tasks and complex problems is a necessity in this profession.

How do I get more information?

If you're interested forensic psychology as an area of study, free information is available online for both distance learning and on campus programs. Simply use the “Search Schools” form on this page to view a list of suitable colleges in any area of the country.

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