Criminal psychology is the study of criminal behavior, including the thoughts, reactions, intentions and willful actions of criminals. Though the term “criminal psychology” is sometimes considered to be interchangeable with “forensic psychology,” we consider it to be a sub-specialty of forensic psychology that specializes in working with police departments to catch criminals.
Criminal psychologists help law enforcement officers understand and catch criminals by providing them with criminal profiles. But, contrary to the depictions of TV shows, criminal psychologists rarely accompany cops when they arrest criminals, and many arrests aren’t made until after several months of investigation.
Criminal psychologists analyze crime scenes and, using their knowledge of criminal behavior, try to draw probable conclusions about the perpetrator’s age, size, behavior, occupation and gender. They can sometimes tell what type of psychological disorder a perpetrator might have. They can sometimes also determine other details, such as whether the perpetrator became more intense or agitated as the crime unfolded.
Related: Becoming a Criminal Psychologist
Most criminal psychologists also spend time testifying as expert witnesses in court as to whether a defendant is psychologically fit to stand trial or whether someone with a criminal history is at risk as a repeat offender. Some of them analyze polygraph material to determine whether someone is lying. Other tasks might include studying internet predators, interviewing people, investigating online fraud or performing research in a police lab.
Criminal psychologists are sometimes present at police interrogations in order to gain clues as to whether the person might have committed the crime. They sometimes administer psychological tests of various types. They also spend a lot of time researching the histories of suspects and offenders, and they must keep current with the latest research findings from other psychologists.
Types of Degrees
Degrees in criminal psychology per se aren’t available at the bachelor’s degree level, and few if any are at the master’s degree level, either. To get started, probably the best option is to get a four-year bachelor’s degree in forensic psychology. Another good option is to major in psychology and minor or double major in criminal justice.
Typical courses for a bachelor’s degree in forensic psychology include:
- Introduction to Criminal Justice
- Introduction to Psychology
- Introduction to Anatomy and Physiology
- Crimes against Children
- Law, Justice and Family
- Forensic Law
- Sociology of Deviant Behavior
- Statistics for Psychology
- Scientific Investigations in Psychology
- Abnormal Psychology
- Psychology of Personality
- Social Psychology
- Cognitive Psychology
Only a few entry-level jobs in criminal psychology are available with just a bachelor’s degree. Some mid-level jobs are available with just a master’s degree, but full-fledged criminal psychologists must have a doctoral degree.
Master’s degrees in forensic psychology are readily available, and they usually offer a concentration in criminology. Masters level programs are typically of two years consisting of on-job training along with theoretical work. Most programs focus on criminal behavior and explains research methods, assessment and psychotherapy techniques. At the master’s degree level, classes might include the following:
- Psychology of Law Enforcement
- Psychology of Terrorism
- Psychology of Criminal Behavior
- Eyewitness Identification
- Criminal Psychological Assessment
- Current Legal Issues in Criminal Justice
- Ethics and the Criminal Justice System
- Police Problem-solving Methodologies
- Advanced Abnormal Psychology
- Criminal Psychological Assessment
- Intellectual and Cognitive Assessment
- Projective Personality Assessment
- Objective Personality Assessment
- Family Violence and Dispute
- Empirical Crime Scene Analysis
- Advanced Forensic Assessment
- Personality Profiles of the Homicidal Offender
Master’s degrees take two years to complete, and doctor’s degrees take an additional two years and usually require an additional year of internship.
In a doctoral level program students are taught how to deal with different population groups like families, children, criminals and other victims. Students might also learn legal systems and how to compile their findings in an appropriate language that is used legally. Courses can include social and criminal psychology, neuropsychology, psychopharmacology, intelligence and cognitive testing, child crimes and human trafficking, mental health and public policy and Victimology.
Data from the US Bureau of Labor Statistics suggests that forensic and criminal psychology might be the fastest-growing industries in the field of criminal justice.
Criminal psychologists commonly work in state or local criminal justice systems, but can also work in research institutions, universities, medical examiner’s offices or can set their own private practice.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics website says that the median annual wage in 2012 for criminal psychologists (listed under “psychologists, other”) was $88,400. The mean hourly wage was $42.50.