What is a Criminal Psychologist?

Criminal psychology is a subfield of psychology that focuses primarily on understanding criminal behavior, thought patterns, and motivations. Criminal psychologists are those with formal training in this subfield. Let’s delve more into what that means.

What Do Criminal Psychologists Do?

Criminal psychologists can work independently as consultants or as an employee of an agency. Regardless, they will work closely with law enforcement, such as the police or FBI, in most cases.

Often, the criminal psychologist helps investigations by constructing a profile of a criminal. Sometimes this is done without a suspect identified to help police narrow down the type of possible suspects to search for in an open case. Other times, the criminal psychologist might interview an offender directly and give recommendations for things such as their ability to stand trial. Additionally, criminal psychologists are called upon to provide expert testimony in court cases.

As trained psychologists, they might also elect to conduct research, furthering our scientific knowledge of criminal behaviors. Some may also teach psychology, particularly courses involving criminal content, at universities or community colleges.

How Do You Become A Criminal Psychologist?

Ultimately, graduate level education, such as a doctorate (Ph.D or Psy.D) is preferred for criminal psychologists.

Although it is not mandatory, a good idea is to pursue undergraduate education in psychology for the bachelor degree. Most graduate programs will require introductory coursework in psychology, psychological research, and statistics prior to admission to a doctorate program. This is also true if one elects to pursue a master’s degree instead of or prior to a doctorate.

Given the focus on criminal behavior, studying criminal justice and criminology during the undergraduate years is also a generally good path. Students might minor in one of these fields, or even double major, depending on their school of choice and program offerings.

Once in a doctoral program, potential criminal psychologists can expect to spend around 5-7 years studying, conducting original research, crafting a dissertation, and assisting professors/peers with teaching/research projects. Coursework will vary some depending on the school and specific specialization chosen (some programs allow different tracks of study, letting students tailor their experience). Overall it can be expected that advanced statistics and research methods will be required, along with advanced study in psychology including but not limited to biological bases for behavior (neuroscience-based), developmental psychology, criminology, etc. 

Afterwards, licensure is required in order to actually practice as a criminal psychologist. Policies vary from state to state, so be sure to consult local regulations.

How Much Do Criminal Psychologists Make?

Like any job, there is variability in salary based on job location, specific job title, and years of experience. In 2009, the APA (American Psychology Association) found that top earners were making between $200,000 and 400,000 per year, while bottom earners were between $35,000 and 40,000, or even less! The middle wage stood between $60,000 and 70,000, however.

In other words, the amount that can be made will vary, generally increasing as one gains more experience in the field itself, but also depends on the specific job taken. For example, a seasoned, well-known criminal psychologist who works privately with a high consulting fee might make hundreds of thousands more per year than another who teaches criminal psychology at a university but does not actively practice.

Types of Criminal Psychology Jobs

Criminal psychologist. To be a practicing criminal psychologist, encompasses the many responsibilities discussed above, a doctoral degree is needed, along with necessary licensure. Note the criminal psychologist might work in a court, police department, government office, etc., or even work for themselves as a consultant. There are many possible paths to take, but they all center around working with the law enforcement and court systems closely.

For example, the criminal psychologist might primarily work as a profiler, constructing profiles based on interviews with criminals or perhaps based on clues from a crime scene (such as examining how a violent crime was committed in order to infer the type of person most likely to have been responsible).

Consulting is also a major component for many criminal psychologists. They can provide expert testimonies not only to the courts, but can speak with police officers and other regulatory agencies, lending them their unique perspective and giving advice on how to handle certain criminals, investigations, and the like.

Researcher. To conduct research in criminal psychology, a master’s degree can suffice, or even an undergraduate degree in psychology only. However, someone with a bachelor’s in psychology will serve as a research assistant of some type, collecting data, entering data, etc., but is unlikely to have independence in conducting their own original research without supervision and input from their superiors (usually the director of a research lab, who holds a Ph.D or similar). More freedom might be granted to an individual with graduate education, but is dependent on the type of position and research being conducted.

Professor. Some criminal psychologists choose to teach. This can be done in addition to their regular practice as criminal psychologists, or as a sole venture. A Ph.D is required to be a professor at the university level. However, a master’s degree is enough to teach at community colleges and as an adjunct at some universities. Typically, schools want the applicant to have prior coursework in whichever class is being taught (if the master’s degree focused on developmental psychology, for example, you are unlikely to be hired to teach criminal psychology).

What Kind of Work Environment Do Criminal Psychologists Have?

Generally, the criminal psychologist is not out and about at crime scenes all day gathering information. Most days are spent indoors, often in an office setting. However, sometimes they accompany law enforcement to crime scenes in order to provide their expert opinion and observe for themselves.

Depending on the type of work to be conducted, the locations can vary. Work might be carried out in prisons or jails (such as when interviewing incarcerated individuals), courts (for expert testimony), police stations, government offices (FBI), or even their own private offices.