What Criminal Psychologists Do

Job Description, Education, and Expected Salary

Male police officers standing behind crime scene tape
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In This Article

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

Criminal Psychologist Job Description

A large part of what a criminal psychologist does is studying why people commit crimes. They may also 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 also often provide expert testimony in court.

Perhaps one of the best-known duties of a criminal psychologist is known as offender profiling, also known as criminal profiling. Although the practice had been used informally for many decades, criminal profiling made its professional debut in the 1940s, when the U.S. Office of Strategic Services asked a psychiatrist to create a profile for Adolf Hitler.

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.

Psychologists don't typically accompany officers to interrogate apprehended suspects. Moreover, many cases take weeks, months, or even years to solve, and are rarely pieced together as quickly and irrefutably as they are on TV shows.

While the job may not be exactly like you see it portrayed on TV, the realities of the job are far from boring. In addition to profiling, criminal psychologists may counsel people who have committed crimes and need psychological assessment. Many psychologists work in computer-related fields, like studying internet predators or helping investigate online fraud.

Work Environment

People in this field usually work 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, rapists, and other violent criminals.

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

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.

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.

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.

No matter what type of doctorate degree you choose to earn, it will likely take about five to seven 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.

Salary

While there are jobs in forensic psychology at the master's level, the competition for these positions is fierce. While there were roughly 181,700 psychologists in the United States in 2018, around 18,300 of them were specialist psychologists, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. (The database doesn't have data for forensic psychologists specifically.)

In terms of income, salaries for specialist psychologists tend to be higher than in other fields of practice, with a mean annual wage of $95,610. In 2018, annual incomes ranged from $41,220 to as high as $127,510.

Specialist psychologists working for state and local governments or private practice tend to have higher average salaries, while those employed by the federal government or hospitals tend to have lower annual salaries.

A Word From Verywell

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. You may need to look at crime scene photos or interview people suspected of horrifying crimes. 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 a practicing 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.

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Article Sources
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  1. Ibe B, Ochie C, Obiyan E. Racial misuse of "criminal profiling" by law enforcement: Intentions and implications. AJCJS. 2012;4(1): 177-196.

  2. American Psychological Association. A career in forensic and public service psychology. Updated March 2014.

  3. U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Psychologists. Occupational Outlook Handbook. Updated September 4, 2019.

  4. U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Occupational Employment and Wages, May 2018: 19-3039 Psychologists, All Other. Updated March 29, 2019.

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