After a night of binging crime investigation shows, you wake up thinking about it.
Who did it? How could they commit such a terrible crime? You feel the pull to keep watching and find out more.
As your curiosity piques, you’re compelled to put the pieces together, feeling alive and fully present.
You wonder—should I do this for a living? Could I have a career as a criminal psychologist?
Wanting to solve problems and understand the reason why they happen is a part of being human, no matter how dark and twisted those problems are.
Becoming a criminal psychologist can be a rewarding and interesting career. In this article, we will explain what criminal psychology is, what a criminal psychologist does, and how to get started on the path to becoming one.
What Is Criminal Psychology?
Criminal psychology is the study of how criminals think and behave. Getting a degree in criminal psychology means working in some aspect of the criminal justice system.
A criminal psychologist or forensic psychologist may work with law enforcement, in the prison system, or for a nonprofit organization. Criminal psychologists must have a firm understanding of human thoughts and behaviors to understand why criminals do what they do.
Not all criminal psychologists are trying to catch criminals like the ones you see on TV. A criminal psychologist does much of the same work as a clinical psychologist but specializes in understanding the criminal mind.
As a criminal psychologist, you can also assist in the rehabilitation of criminals to help them reintegrate back into society. This involves working through a client’s past trauma and helping them learn new and productive ways to cope with life difficulties.
Criminal Psychology Degree Overview and Requirements
Typically, a criminal psychologist will have a graduate degree, but top psychologists in the field will have their Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology.
Of course, the first step is getting your bachelor’s degree.
You can pursue nearly any bachelor’s degree to become a criminal psychologist. So ask yourself: what’s interesting to me? Most criminal psychologists earn a bachelor’s degree in psychology or criminal justice. Few colleges even offer a bachelor’s degree program in criminology.
Looking for experience in jobs with a criminal psychology degree? After earning your bachelor’s degree, you can work in jobs such as:
B.S. in Criminal Justice Jobs
B.S. in Psychology Jobs
Training or Development Manager
Mental Health Worker
Child Protection Worker
Once you have your bachelor’s degree, you can apply to master’s degree programs. You have 3 options:
Master’s in Forensic Psychology
Master’s in Criminal Psychology/Criminology
Ph.D. or PsyD in Forensic Psychology*
*A Ph.D. tends to focus more on research and a PsyD more on practical skills.
Most criminal psychology and forensic psychology degree programs are similar in content and experience because of their accreditation. This means your degree will meet the high standard you need for licensure. Accredited programs will have a combination of coursework and internships so you gain valuable work experience while going to school.
Make sure the criminal psychology programs you consider have an active accreditation status, making it easier to get licensed and become employed after you graduate.
In an accredited criminal psychology program, you learn:
Legal system psychology
Court system and sentencing
Once you finish your degree program, you will work toward becoming a licensed clinical psychologist. Each state has its own guidelines for licensure.
Typically, licensure includes:
Supervised clinical hours
A licensing exam
An ethical exam
Once you become licensed in your state, you’re free to work full time under your own license without the guidance and supervision of another licensed psychologist. Next, you find your dream job in criminal psychology.
Criminal Psychology Job Opportunities
Numerous career paths are available for licensed criminal psychologists. While most criminal psychology jobs focus on criminal behavior, it’s up to you to choose which part of criminal psychology you want to work in.
Criminal psychologists serve in multiple roles based on their job:
Profilers look for patterns in communities where criminal activity is highest and in which people commit crimes. Your input helps local governments make decisions on how to keep people safe.
Researchers use data to study the ‘why’ behind crime to better understand how to stop crime before it happens. Your research can lead to the creation of social programs to help at-risk populations.
Consultants work with government agencies to examine crime scene evidence and evaluate criminals to determine their competency to stand trial. Often, this means serving as an expert witness in court.
Psychotherapists treat those who have committed crimes to help them cope with mental health issues and take accountability for their actions.
Some of the more common jobs criminal psychologists perform include:
Clinical Psychologist with the U.S. Justice Department
In this position, you work with inmates in the federal prison system. A criminal psychologist in the prisons will meet with inmates to address mental health concerns. Your responsibilities include determining if the inmate is competent to stand trial and overseeing the treatment of mental disorders.
Forensic Behavioral Health Therapist
You can work for a community mental health agency as a forensic behavioral health therapist. Typically, your clients will be referred to you when they are on probation or the court system considers them at risk. You will work with clients in both group and individual therapy sessions and help them heal from mental disorders, trauma, and substance use disorders.
Criminal Psychologist for Juvenile Justice
Working with a caseload of youth under the age of 18, you will help them transition out of juvenile detention centers. You will help your clients take responsibility for their actions and support their mental health needs. This work involves individual counseling, group counseling, and collaboration with families and community partners.
Criminal Psychologist with Law Enforcement
In this position, you can work for federal agencies like the FBI or local law enforcement. You work to reduce crime through criminal profiling and criminal analysis. By analyzing crime scenes and criminal behavior, law enforcement and the government can institute policies to better protect their citizens.
In this role, you will examine evidence and evaluate criminals, helping law enforcement catch and convict criminals. Being a criminal psychologist in this position also means providing expert testimony in court.
5 Reasons To Become a Criminal Psychologist
Is criminal psychology a good career? It can be! Consider how each of the reasons to be a criminal psychologist fits what you’re looking for in a career.
1. Make a Difference
Whether you get a job in a prison, a mental health agency, or law enforcement, you will help others live better lives. Sure, it’s difficult to offer compassion and remain objective, but incredibly rewarding to see the results of this interpersonal work.
2. Face New Challenges Every Day
You may start your day in your office by combing through a client’s file before interviewing them at the prison. Your afternoon could be providing expert testimony in court speaking about a client’s competency to stand trial. Criminal psychologists get to do interesting work which constantly changes based on the situation and the needs of the person they’re working with.
3. Explore Numerous Opportunities for Criminal Psychology Work
Not only is each day different in the work of a criminal psychologist, but you can work in many different settings. Imagine you spend two years working in a prison and want to apply for a job working with law enforcement. Your experience is an asset on your resume even though you were doing a different job.
4. Collaborate With Other Professionals
Teamwork is key to working in mental health, especially in criminal psychology. Depending on your job placement, you could work with police, doctors, lawyers, or city administrators. Also, in the field of mental health, you’re encouraged to collaborate to discuss cases and treatment plans with each other.
5. Enjoy Job Growth and Good Pay
The median annual salary for a psychologist in the middle of their career is over $102,000, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). Not only do criminal psychologists earn a good salary, but the BLS expects a 6% growth in the industry from 2021-2031.
Key Aspects for Choosing a Criminal Psychology Program
Does becoming a criminal psychologist sound like an interesting and rewarding career?
Then you need to know how to get started.
If you already have an undergraduate degree, you may be thinking about applying to graduate programs. Some master’s programs have a fast track to a Ph.D. or a PsyD and are done all at once. Others, like a master’s in criminology, will help you become a criminal psychologist in 2 years.
For those with a diploma and not a degree, you will need to start as an undergrad. Luckily, there’s quite a few ways to earn the bachelor’s you need to get started in criminal psychology.
When looking at online criminal psychology degree programs, consider the following:
Depending on the education you need to pursue, your timetable can vary.
Master’s + Doctorate Program
6 or more years
While this amount of time can seem daunting at first, it’s best to focus on all the knowledge and skills you will develop. Each phase of your path is filled with valuable experiences that shape the person you become and the career you have. Take advantage of it!
Keep in mind: you can enroll in either a forensic psychology or criminal psychology program in graduate school. Both programs focus on human behavior and understanding the criminal mind.
No matter which degree path and program you choose, make sure it’s accredited for two big reasons:
Accreditation ensures your credits will transfer should you change schools or programs.
Accreditation creates a clear and clean path toward licensure after graduation.
Cost can vary between schools and programs. According to the Education Data Initiative, the average in-state student in a 4-year program spends $9,377 per academic year on tuition alone. This averages to $312 per credit.
Look into the cost of different programs to see what’s right for you. While you can get financial aid like grants and scholarships to help cover your costs, it’s best to reduce the overall price of your education where you can.
Online vs. In Person
With the popularity of online programs in recent years, many students are no longer getting their degrees on campus. For virtual college to work, it comes down to the learner. Ask yourself—am I able to set goals and prioritize school work? If yes, online college may be a great fit.
Choosing to go to school online can help you save money in college. Online college is typically more affordable, plus you can choose where you live and when you work on school. An online criminal psychology degree may allow you to have a good college job and go to school part time.
Want to see if online college and criminal psychology are a good fit for you? Consider taking an Intro to Psychology course with Outlier.org. You’ll explore topics from consciousness to happiness to serial killers. World-class instructors from top schools like Columbia, Cornell, and NYU use real case studies to help you apply the concepts you learn.
With Outlier’s award-winning platform, you can learn at your own pace from the comfort of your own home. All courses are accredited and transferable, meaning you can take your credits with you to any school you choose.
For the low rate of $149 per credit, you can enroll in the Intro to Psychology course through Outlier and begin your journey toward becoming a criminal psychologist.
Degrees+: Discover Online College Unlike Anything You’ve Experienced
Outlier (winner of TIME Best Inventions 2020) and Golden Gate University (#1 school for working professionals) have redesigned the experience of earning a college degree to minimize cost and maximize outcomes. Explore a revolutionary way to earn your college degree: