What Criminal Psychologists Do

A criminal psychologist is a professional that studies the behaviors and thoughts of criminals. Interest in this career field has grown dramatically in recent years thanks to a number of popular television programs that depict fictionalized criminal psychologists, such as such as Criminal Minds and CSI. The field is highly related to forensic psychology and, in some cases, the two terms are used interchangeably.

What is a career in criminal psychology really like? Is it as exciting as it looks in all those television dramas? Continue reading to learn more about criminal psychologists, including exactly what they do, where they work, and the type of education and training it takes to enter this profession.

Job Duties

A large part of what a criminal psychologist does is studying why people commit crimes. However, they may also be asked to assess criminals in order to evaluate the risk of recidivism (how likely the person is to re-offend in the future) or make educated guesses about the actions that a criminal may have taken after committing a crime.

In addition to helping law enforcement solve crimes or analyze the behavior of criminal offenders, criminal psychologists are also often asked to provide expert testimony in court.

Perhaps one of the best-known duties of a criminal psychologist is known as offender profiling, or criminal profiling. The practice started during the 1940s during World War II. Today, organizations such as the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) use offender profiling to help apprehend violent criminals.

The goal of criminal profiling is to provide law enforcement with a psychological assessment of the suspect and to provide strategies and suggestions that can be used in the interviewing process.

So is the job really as dramatic and exciting as it is portrayed on television dramas like Criminal Minds?

"Criminal Minds portrays the psychologist as having a more active role than they really do," explained Marc T. Zucker, academic chair of the undergraduate School of Criminal Justice at Kaplan University, in an article for the school. "We all love the thrill of the chase and arrest; however, psychologists don't typically accompany officers with apprehensive suspects. In addition, many cases take weeks, months, or even years to solve, and very rarely are these cases as easy to piece together as they are on the show."

While the job may not be exactly like you see it portrayed on television, the realities of the job are far from boring. Dr. Keith Durkin, chair of the department of psychology and sociology at Ohio Northern University explains, "Careers in criminal psychology are never boring, and if you are educated in that field, it is great training for a huge range of jobs. You can do something different every day. You could work in counseling people who have committed crimes and need psychological assessment. Many psychologists are exploring computer-related fields, like studying Internet predators or helping investigate online fraud."

Work Environment

Many people who work in this field spend a great deal of time in office and court settings. A criminal psychologist might spend a considerable amount of time interviewing people, researching an offender’s life history, or providing expert testimony in the courtroom.

In some cases, criminal psychologists may work closely with police and federal agents to help solve crimes, often by developing profiles of murderers, kidnappers, rapists, and other violent individuals.

Criminal psychologists are employed in a number of settings. Some work for local, state, or federal government, while others are self-employed as independent consultants.

In addition to working directly with law enforcement and the courts, criminal psychologists may also be employed as private consultants. Still, others opt to teach criminal psychology at the university level or at specialized criminology training facilities.

Education and Training

In many cases, criminal psychologists start out by earning a bachelor's degree in psychology. After completing an undergraduate degree, some students opt to then enter a master's in psychology program. While there are some jobs in criminal and forensic psychology at the master's level, the U.S. Department of Labor reports that opportunities are limited and competition for these positions is often very fierce.

Entering a doctorate program after earning your bachelor's is another option. Job openings in this specialty area are more plentiful for those with a Ph.D. or Psy.D. degree in psychology.

To become a criminal psychologist, you should seriously consider earning a Ph.D. or Psy.D. degree in clinical or counseling psychology. In some cases, students opt to focus on a particular specialty area such as forensic or criminal psychology.

The Ph.D. (or Doctor of Philosophy) degree is typically more focused on theory and research, while the Psy.D. (or Doctor of Psychology) tends to be more practice-oriented.

No matter what type of degree you choose to earn, it will likely take about five years to complete and will include classroom work, practical training, research, and a dissertation. In order to become a licensed psychologist, you will also need to complete an internship and pass state examinations.


The typical salaries for criminal psychologists can vary depending on where they work and how much experience they have. According to Payscale.com, national salaries for criminal or forensic psychologists range from a low of $33,900 to a high of $103,000.

Criminal and forensic psychologists working for state and local governments, private practice, companies, and hospitals tend to have slightly higher average salaries, while those employed by the federal government and nonprofit organizations tend to have slightly lower annual salaries.

Is Criminal Psychology Right For You?

Before you decide if this is the right specialty area for you, spend some time considering your own capabilities and goals. Due to the nature of this profession, you may find yourself dealing with some truly disturbing situations. As a criminal psychologist, you may be called on to look at crime scene photos or interview suspects who may have committed horrifying crimes. Because of this, you need to be prepared to deal with the emotional distress that this type of work may cause.

One of the best ways to determine if this career is right for you is to talk to an actual criminal psychologist about what the job is like. Contact your local law enforcement department to see if they can connect you with a criminal psychologist in your area.

Was this page helpful?
Article Sources
  • Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2010-11 Edition.
  • Rosevear, P.D. (n.d.) Real-Life 'Criminal Minds': Would Criminal Psychology Be a Good Career Change for You?