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 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 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. 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, also known as 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.

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

While the job may not be exactly like you see it portrayed on Criminal MInds, the realities of the job are far from boring. In additions to profiling, you may be asked to counsel people who have committed crimes and need psychological assessment. Many psychologists explore 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 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. 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.

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.


While there are jobs in forensic psychology at the master's level, the competition for these positions is fierce. While there were roughly 166,000 psychologists in the United States in 2017, just under 13,000 of them were specialists psychologists, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

In terms of income, salaries tend to be higher than in other fields of practice, with a mean annual wage of $93,440. In 2017, annual incomes ranged from $64,120 in Chicago to as high as $141,890 in Los Angeles.

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.

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.

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.

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