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Best Forensic Psychology Schools in California in 2021

September 27, 2021 | Staff Writers

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Forensic psychologists use their expertise in mental health and legal matters to ensure the smooth running of the criminal justice system. Not only do graduates play a key role in solving crimes and keeping society safe, they also conduct research and help rehabilitate offenders in view of preventing future offenses and understanding why people commit crimes.

If you’re interested in working in police departments, jails, prisons, law firms, schools, federal government agencies, or becoming a private investigator or journalist — a degree in forensic psychology could be the perfect qualification for you.

Read on to find out about the different forensic psychology degree courses available in California, and discover the pros and cons of choosing the Golden State as your desired study destination.

Typical forensic psychology program subjects

Typically, getting qualified in forensic psychology in California involves starting out with a degree in general psychology and moving into your specialization at master’s or doctorate level. A degree in psychology provides the foundational understanding of the human psyche necessary for anyone looking to work with crime, victims, and offenders.

Whether you choose to study forensics at bachelor’s level or specialize later in your school career, you’ll gain the knowledge required to move forward into a lucrative, rewarding career in your chosen field.

Corrections

If you decide your time and expertise are best spent in jails and prisons, you can become a correctional psychologist at criminal justice school. The correctional system includes many individuals who are diagnosed with mental health issues, and your job would be to provide services such as assessing correctional personnel, assessing correctional competency, inmate screening, and crisis intervention.  

Suicide and self-harm are major problems among inmates, and part of your role is helping minimize such occurrences. You’ll also offer counseling services to ex-offenders and inmates to help them become fully functioning members of society and prevent reoffending. 

Competency to stand trial and insanity

If you’ve ever watched a crime series on TV, there’s a good chance you’ve heard the phrase “not guilty by reason of insanity” and know that in extreme cases, mental health disorders cam mean a person isn’t fully responsible for their crime. To do this, a specialist must show that a mental disorder directly caused the behavior, and if the individual didn’t have the condition, they wouldn’t have committed the crime. 

In some cases, the defendant might not be competent to stand trial. This is usually because they don’t have a rational understanding of court proceedings, or they’re unable to consult with a legal representative with an acceptable degree of understanding. This is where a forensic psychologist steps in: To determine whether the defendant is able to understand allegations, or if they were culpable for the crime on the grounds of mental health.

Expert witness

One of the most prominent jobs a forensic psychologist does is as an expert witness. Under these circumstances, they use advanced knowledge of human behavior and the legal system to make informed, impartial decisions in the court room. They work in a variety of settings in criminal and civil court proceedings, such as child custody cases, medical malpractice lawsuits, and mental competency hearings. 

In some cases, forensic psychologists are subpoenaed to testify on the stand, and in others they do so on a voluntary basis. They can help to answer nonfactual questions, such as fault, damage, negligence, and avoidability, either because they’ve been hired by one of the parties, the court appoints them, or as a witness.     

Criminal clinical psychology

Criminal psychology is essentially the science of criminal behavior, which means your primary focus would be on understanding why people commit crimes. Social, environmental, familial, psychological, and lifestyle factors are at play when it comes to crime, along with a plethora of other reasons. You’ll help to answer important questions, such as why does a burglar steal from people? And, how does the childhood of a murderer influence their crimes?

Police departments might ask criminal psychologists to interview offenders and offer their expert opinion, or alternatively, they might be required to conduct research to back up the testimony of a witness. Profiling is another key skill you’d use in the role, helping to create a detailed description of the type of person who police should look for in relation to a specific crime.  

Civil law

While forensics is usually associated with the criminal justice system, there are plenty of other settings where you can apply your skills. Civil courts are an example, usually in cases where a psychologist gives their opinion on whether a plaintiff should receive damages for emotional impairment or psychological distress. 

Guardianship issues, medical malpractice, personal injury, and employment litigation are some of the cases where you might need to offer expertise as a forensic psychologist.

Criminology

Criminology is the field of understanding the causes of criminal behavior and seeking to discover ways of preventing it. It’s the combination of criminal psychology and sociology, and it differs from the former because the main focus is on laws and their function within society, as well as how people that break them affect the wider community. The American Society of Criminology breaks the subject down into the following denominations:

  • Division of women and crime
  • Division of victimology
  • Division of policing
  • Division on people of color and crime
  • Division of international criminology
  • Division of experimental criminology
  • Division of life course and developmental criminology
  • Division on critical criminology
  • Division on corrections and sentencing

Juvenile justice

Figures from the APA show that a disproportionately large percentage of the young people in the juvenile justice system suffer from mental illness. Forensic psychologists work with young offenders in clinical settings as well as in court. Juveniles have specific needs and rights, and you’ll help to ensure these are met while working hard to help rehabilitate young people who get involved in crime.   

Forensic psychologist careers

Within the above specializations, there are a number of careers you can enter at bachelor’s, master’s, and doctorate level. While you don’t have to decide the exact career path you’ll take before you start an undergraduate degree, knowing what you want for the future can be a huge help.

Forensic psychology is a broad church, and psychology is even broader — so the sooner you know what you plan to do with your degree, the better. Here are some of the most popular, rewarding, and highest paying jobs for forensic psychologists in California:

Correctional counseling psychology

If you have at least a master’s level education in forensic psychology, you can work in correctional facilities using your specialist knowledge of mental health, crime, punishment, and the law to help make the world a safer place. In addition to offering counseling and treatment to inmates and ex-offenders, you’ll help develop programs that reduce reoffending and help ex-inmates reintegrate successfully back into society.

Victim advocacy

While much of the work forensic psychologists do is with the perpetrators of crimes, there are also opportunities to work with victims. Tragic events such as domestic abuse and sexual violence have a long-lasting, far-reaching impact on the people who experience them. Your responsibility as an advocate is to help them understand that it’s not their fault, explain their legal rights, attend hearings with them, and offer support across the entire legal process.

Jail supervision

Communication, problem solving, and conflict resolution are three of the most important skills a forensic psychologist would need in a jail supervision role. You’d work in detention centers, state penitentiaries, and juvenile jails, helping to keep inmates and staff members safe. Other responsibilities might include ensuring no contraband circulates in the facility, diffusing conflict, and overseeing daily activities. 

Crime analytics

Sorting profiles and detecting criminals is a huge job in a country as sprawling as the U.S., and crime analysts work directly with law enforcement using statistics and data to analyze and manage crime rates in specific locations. You’ll use geographic, economic, and demographic data to help the police draw conclusions and prevent future occurrences.

Administrative research, strategic findings, and tactical methods are all essential aspects of this research-heavy job. If you want to work in forensics but not directly with offenders, this is a great route.

Probation officer

If you’d prefer to work with individuals who are integrating back into society after a stint inside, you might choose a career as a probation officer. Having a master’s in forensic psychology is extremely useful for probation officers, who are expected to advise ex-offenders, evaluate the risk of reoffending, and determine release dates.

Many of the people you work with will have a strong desire to live a better life, and your understanding of the human psyche can help them find a meaningful existence without crime.

Police consulting

One of the most popular vocations for a forensic psychologist is a police consultant. In this job, you help police to solve crimes by creating profiles and interviewing suspects, as well as helping police officers and detectives understand the psychological motivations behind a specific crimes or set of crimes.

They also help police identify weaknesses in their communities so they can provide services that prevent future crimes.  

Licensed clinical counseling

Graduates in clinical forensic psychology can work in a broad number of clinical settings, from addiction treatment centers to domestic violence refuges. If you want to work as a clinical forensic psychologist in California, you’ll need to obtain licensure.

To do this, you’ll need to complete an undergraduate and doctorate degree program in a relevant subject, in addition to taking several exams and submitting an application to the board.

Forensic social work

Forensic social workers use their in-depth knowledge of crime and human behavior to work as a link between offenders, the court system, and law enforcement, as well as working with victims. They help to determine appropriate treatment for people who are convicted of crimes, or those who suffer as a result of criminal behavior.

Additionally, a forensic social worker might evaluate offenders’ mental states, testify as an expert witness, and identify whether their clients are telling the truth about matters related to a specific case. 

Reasons to earn your forensic psychology degree in California

There’s no denying that California is an attractive place to live. With some of the best weather in world meaning you can expect sunshine practically all year round, and some of the most highly-regarded colleges in the world, there’s a lot to love about attending criminal justice school in California.

The state boasts one of the highest percentages of individuals with a bachelor’s degree or higher — so the schools must be doing something right. Plus, who knows? You might even count famous people as neighbors if you’ve got the resources to live in an exclusive area.  

Advantages of studying in California

Let’s take a look at some of the benefits of opting to study in California:

  • Career prospects: California has some of the best career prospects in the nation, with the highest average salary for forensic psychologists, as well as being one of the national leaders when it comes to employment in the field of forensics.
  • Networking: When you live, work, and study in California, you’re surrounded by huge companies and successful individuals. The high crime rate and dense population means that you’re never far away from a case study or forensic psychologists who help to solve crimes. Living in this state gives you access to some of the most hard-working and in-demand professionals in the industry, so make the most of the available networking opportunities.
  • Diversity: California attracts people from all over the world, which means you’ll meet people from all sorts of different places with all manner of backgrounds. Working among diverse populations might be more challenging in terms of there being a more complex social structure, but this is often seen as an advantage by keen psychologists with an interest in this field.
  • Healthy living: The Golden State is renowned for healthy living, which is essential for individuals who work in a forensic setting. You’ll spent time working people who commit crimes and the people who suffer as a result of them, which can take a toll on mental health. Making sure you take good care of your physical health is one of the best ways to ensure you’re emotionally heathy.
  • Entertainment: When you work in a high-pressure job — or even just studying an intense course like forensic psychologist, it’s essential that you take time out and unwind. California arguably has the best reputation for entertainment in America, and perhaps even the entire world. As such, you can contrast your high-powered school and job workload with beautiful scenery and plenty of fun days out. 
  • Large population, high crime rate and strict laws: California is one of the most populated and litigious states in the country, which means the crime rate is high and there’s high demand for forensic psychologists. 

Disadvantages of studying in California

Now you’re well versed in the main reasons for moving to California, it’s important to know that there are drawbacks as well. While it might be the perfect state for some people to advance their career as a psychologist, it might to be so great for others. Let’s take a look at why:

  • Cost of living: While salaries are higher than elsewhere in the United States, the cost of living is described as extortionate by some people who live in California. This could be an obstacle for people who are trying to be careful with money, because it could take up to a decade to get fully qualified and reach the full earning potential of a career in forensics. 
  • Traffic: When you work in a field that can be stressful, the last thing you need is to spend hours in traffic each day. Unfortunately, unless you live close to your college or workplace, there’s a good chance you’ll have to. While cities such as L.A., Sacramento, or San Diego are great to live in, they also have terrible traffic.

What to expect at a California school for forensic psychology

Studying forensics is a long-term endeavor, and most people will start out by learning about general psychology at undergraduate level, moving into a specialization once they get to a master’s or doctoral program. There are four main types of degree that you can achieve in psychology, and we’ll explore each of them in turn so you can decide which level is most appropriate for your current status.

Associate degree 

Associate degrees are growing in popularity, as they help people get further up the career ladder while upskilling, or provide a foundation for further studies. Psychology is one of the most popular, fast-growing subjects you can choose from. As the stigma around mental health dissolves and we gain a deeper understanding of how psychological issues can affect behavior, the demand for forensic psychologists continues to grow.

Bachelor’s degree

Once you get to bachelor’s degree level, you should start thinking seriously about the path you’re going to take in the field of forensics. You’ll have the opportunity to choose topics that focus on specialties such as criminology or criminal law, so it’s a good idea to narrow down your course choices at this stage, even if you study psychology as a broad subject. Some of the other options you might see at this level include:

  • Introduction to psychology
  • Developmental psychology
  • Cognitive psychology
  • Behavioral psychology
  • Biological psychology
  • Social psychology
  • Statistics
  • Abnormal psychology 

Graduate program

While it’s possible to enter the job market with an undergraduate degree in psychology, you’ll need to get onto a master’s or doctoral program if you want to reach the highest career heights of forensics. What’s more, you’ll need a graduate degree if you want to obtain licensure and practice in a clinical setting.

Getting into one of these degree courses is competitive and challenging, especially in a state as popular as California. Statistics, research methods, and research are some of the most important aspects of a master’s in psychology. 

The most advanced degree you can earn is a Ph.D., which allows you to practice independently and gives you an advantage over others in practically any career in forensics. At this level, you’ll immerse yourself in real-life situations, gain experience working in a clinical setting, and learn the most advanced concepts in the field.

Getting a license

To get a license to practice clinical psychology, you must first meet the educational requirements stipulated by the Licensing and Registration California Board of Psychology. You’ll need to demonstrate two years, or 3,000 hours, of supervised clinical practice, in addition to taking the state’s pre-licensure classes.

The subjects you’ll cover include: aging and long-term care training, detection and treatment of alcohol and chemical substances, spousal or partner abuse assessment, and human sexuality. 

Next, you’re expected to sit two exams, the Examination for Professional Practice in Psychology and the California Psychology Law and Ethics Examination. After you get your pass results, you can request your license.

Top forensic psychology degree programs in California

The highest rated school in the world by the Times and U.S. News & World Report for psychology, Stanford, is located in California — we’ve opted to focus on colleges that offer specific forensic psychology courses. That said, many students select a general psychology degree at undergraduate level and then opt to specialize in forensics, criminology, juvenile justice, or another related field at graduate degree level.

Let’s take a look at the best schools in California that offer degrees in forensic psychology: 

Alliant International University

At Alliant International University, students can choose to study a Ph.D. or a Psy.D., depending on the career route they want to pursue. The latter prepares you to take the clinical approach to forensics, which means it gets you ready for the licensure exam. Some of the specializations include domestic violence, sexual offenses, legal research, and the criminal justice system. On the other hand, a Ph.D. is ideal for individuals who are more interested in the theory behind forensic psychology.

With a small student population of 3,871 students, there’s a low student to teacher ratio, so students get plenty of time and attention from course leaders. The school is affordable in relation to other California universities, and the acceptance and graduation rates are 66.7% and 87.5%, respectively.  

California Baptist University

California Baptist University is a mid-sized college that offers a master’s degree in forensic psychology, as well as other relevant courses to budding psychologists. You’ll cover a variety of topics, including legal research and writing, psychopathology, forensic evaluation, crisis intervention, victimology, and criminal evidence. To get into this course, you’re required to take prerequisite courses, such as statistics, abnormal psychology, theory of personality, and human behavior.

The acceptance rate is 78%, and the graduation rate is 58% — and there’s the option to study online or in-person. 

Azusa Pacific University

Azusa Pacific University is one of the more expensive colleges on the list, but it has an impressive graduation rate of 70%. It offers an array of doctoral level degree courses in forensic psychology, as well as giving learners the unique opportunity to specialize in family forensic psychology. The school has a medium-sized population and an acceptance rate of 67%. 

The Chicago School of Professional Psychology at Los Angeles

The Chicago School of Professional Psychology at Los Angeles has two masters’ level degree programs in forensic psychology, including one with a specialization in police psychology. You can get on the pathway to licensure by obtaining either degree, and there’s the option to move into a doctorate degree in clinical forensic psychology at this school. If you study the Psy.D. full-time, expect to spend a total of four years working through your practicum, dissertation and internship.   

This school has a small population of 2,999 students, which means there’s ample room for every learner to get plenty of hands-on attention from tutors. It’s an exclusive school with an acceptance rate of 13%, and the graduation rate is estimated at 70%.

California State University, Chico

California State University, Chico, is a mid-to-large-sized school that’s great for anyone who’s interested in studying forensic science, with almost 20 courses in forensics available. What’s more, there’s a full forensic recovery lab on-site, which gives students first-hand experience with case work, human remains identification, and dental analysis. 

This school is one of the less expensive options in California, with an acceptance rate of 72% and a graduation rate of 68%. 

Palo Alto University

At Palo Alto University, you can study towards a Ph.D. in clinical psychology, with a specialization in forensic psychology. You’ll spend a year getting practical experience in your chosen field (corrections, for example) and write a dissertation. There’s also a student group focused on forensic mental health and a speaker series in forensics. 

Palo Alto is a small school that costs significantly less than most of the other courses on our list. It has an acceptance rate of around 30% and a decent graduation rate of 79%. 

Even though your studies are the just the beginning of your career in forensic psychology in California, they have the potential to set you up for you entire career. If you enter an undergraduate course without any idea of where you see your future, that’s fine. You’ll get a feel for which subjects appeal most to you as you work through your course, and be ready to choose a specialization at graduate level.

No matter where you’re currently at, California is an excellent place for qualified psychologists to work and study.

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