Criminal Psychology Degrees – How to Become a Criminal Psychologist


Criminal psychologists may be the most recognized type of psychologist, because of shows such as Law and Order and other crime dramas. Each week Americans watch as a professional analyzes a criminal and testifies in court about a defendant’s state of mind, mental health or lack thereof.

Criminal psychology is an important part of the justice system. Criminal psychologists talk to potential suspects or proven criminals in order to investigate their mental state, and many testify at trials as to the health of patients. With background in criminology as well psychology, these specialized psychologists are experts in mental states and behavior of criminals.

Someone who is drawn to crime novels might be the perfect candidate for this profession.  A desire to know the criminal mind – or just a healthy love of psychology and psychopaths – will come in handy.

What is a Criminal Psychologist?

A criminal psychologist, who is sometimes referred to as a forensic psychologist, works in an area the blends psychology with the field of criminal justice. Criminal psychologists often work with members of the judicial system, law enforcement, and other agencies and provide their expert analysis in a number of areas. Much of a criminal psychologist’s job is to conduct research, evaluate behavior, and write reports.

Criminal psychologists might evaluate the thoughts and behaviors of criminal offenders, determine the ability of the accused to stand trial, or provide expert testimony during a trial regarding the defendant’s mental state during the commission of the crime. Criminal psychologists may also work with victims of crimes to help them overcome the traumas associated with their experiences. Many criminal psychologists also work with offenders after they have been convicted in order to help rehabilitate them for eventual re-entry into the general population.

Why Do We Need Criminal Psychologists?

Criminal psychologists combine the disciplines of psychology and criminal justice. These highly trained professionals work closely with attorneys, law enforcement agencies, and others involved in civil and criminal cases.

While the scope of work for the majority of criminal psychologists is rather narrow, it is vital. Determining a defendant’s competency to stand trial is a primary area of work for criminal psychologists. They may also work with witnesses and victims to establish a timeline of events as well as develop a clear understanding of a series of events. They may also provide input as to whether or not a witness can be considered reliable.

Criminal psychologists are key players in the justice system. Combing empirical evidence with their education and vast training, criminal psychologists come to reasoned conclusions about witnesses, victims, and other aspects of civil and criminal cases. Because of the expertise of these professionals, the legal system can ensure that justice is served – that criminals are punished and citizens are protected.

What are the Educational Requirements to Become a Criminal Psychologist?

How should one start towards professional criminal psychology? Because a Ph.D. (or Psy.D.) is necessary, becoming a criminal psychologist will take years of challenging coursework as well as internships before a person can become the star witness for a trial.

Any career in criminal psychology begins by obtaining a bachelor’s degree in psychology. A degree in criminal psychology is available at some universities, but any degree is acceptable as long as a student can gain entry to a graduate school psychology program with the major they have chosen.

The right grad school for an advanced degree is not a quick decision to make. Many universities and colleges offer specialized psychology programs – criminal psychology being one. You can also opt for a Ph.D. or Psy.D. degree in clinical or counseling psychology with focus on forensic or criminal psychology. Research is important when picking the right school to obtain a Ph.D. Some universities prepare students to work for the FBI or prison system, and students should have an idea of where they’d like to end up in their career in order to choose the right school.

Talk to professors or professionals: Talking is something psychologists excel at. Talk to professors and professionals – they will often tell you which schools they believe are doing the best work and research. Often, talking to these people will give insight on which school is the correct choice.

Search the internet: Search the net for the top programs in criminal psychology. Try to narrow down results to schools that might have the program you need for your career goals.

Talk to admissions counselors: After you identify schools that could work, talk to personnel at the school. They can offer information about the programs offered, where their top graduates are now and other news that didn’t make the website.


PhD candidates must complete an internship in order to graduate, but getting an internship can be hard. Students and internships are matched up after a series of interviews with agencies – and students must take the internship offered. There are more doctoral candidates than internships, so it is often hard to procure an internship. Acing an interview is vital in the search for internships.

Licensure Hours

Licensure requirements vary from state to state. To become a fully licensed psychologist every graduate must complete a specified number of supervised hours of practice. This should be easy for criminal psychologists working in a prison or for the court system.

Training and Self-Development

Even after years of success – not to mention the obtaining of degrees, internships, entry level jobs and promotions – criminal psychologists should continue to develop professionally.

A great way to do this is by attending professional training, symposiums and conventions. If employed by a government agency, most likely training will be offered frequently. This job can be stressful and even harmful to one’s mental health, so it is important to be open to different kinds of therapy. Not only will it help to deal with what might happen in the line of duty, it is also helpful for any psychologist to be on the opposite end every once and a while.

What Do You Learn in a Criminal Psychology Degree?

  • Biology: Students will learn how organic factors such as genetics and other individual-level biological factors such as brain injury and physical trauma at different stages of the lifespan can impact human behavior and decision-making processes.
  • Psychology: Psychiatric disorders, mental state, perceptions, problem-solving abilities, coping skills, and life experiences are important influences in behavior and patterns of behavior. Students will gain insight about how patterns of behavior emerge, persist, and change across the lifespan based on the interrelationship between biological, mental, and environmental influences.
  • Sociology: Sociology is an important part of criminal psychology degrees because it contributes to students’ understanding of how societies view crimes and criminals; how legal structures relating to crime and punishment evolve; and the relationship between individuals and their society.
  • Criminology: It’s important that criminal psychology students understand how a society views crime, individuals who have committed crimes, and punishment. The study of criminal behavior—it’s causes, extent, management, and consequences—is an important part of a criminal psychology programs. Students will learn theories of criminal behavior from a variety of perspectives and understand how these approaches are used in the criminal justice system. 
  • The Legal System: Students will learn about the relationship between criminology and the legal system, related law enforcement and legal trends; the modern criminal justice; and how sociological influences contribute to modern perceptions of crime and legal approaches to individuals who commit crimes.

Where Do Recent Graduates Work?

Getting a foot in the door is important, many times fresh criminal psychologists begin careers working for the county or state.  Police departments, hospitals, law enforcement agencies, and government agencies all might hire a criminal psychologist. Those who wish to work for special agencies, such as the FBI, will have to go through law enforcement and rise through the ranks.

Criminal psychologists are often paid witnesses in court – making thousands of dollars in the process.

Related: What Can You Do with a Criminal Psychology Degree

What is the Salary for a Criminal Psychologist?

As of March 2020, according to Payscale, the average criminal psychologist makes $58,246; the pay ranges from $30,000 per year to over $101,000.

The outlook for this profession is great – crime will always exist, and someone will need to be there to evaluate the criminals.

What are the Advantages and Disadvantages of Being a Criminal Psychologist?

The field of criminal psychology may look exciting on television. But is the job as glamorous as it appears? There are both advantages and disadvantages to becoming a criminal psychologist.


  • Diverse Roles and Career Option: Criminal psychologists may have different roles and work in varied capacities in criminal proceedings. Roles of criminal psychologists include advising police how to proceed, clinical evaluation of a defendant, and criminal profiling. Therefore, criminal psychologists may work in varied settings, such as correctional facilities, state and local law enforcement agencies, and academia. Furthermore, some criminal psychologists may choose to specialize further and work primarily in terrorism, human behavior, or cybercrime.
  • Solve Crimes: By analyzing the behavior of criminals, psychologists may help investigators identify perpetrators. Criminal psychologists may develop profiles of offenders and get violent individuals, such as rapists and murderers off the streets. Thus, playing a role in solving crimes and seeking justice for crime victims can be very rewarding.
  • Be a Part of Justice: Criminal Psychologists play an important role in determining if and to what degree an individual is psychologically fit to be held accountable for criminal charges. The legal and criminal justice systems often rely on the assessments of Criminal Psychologists in determining the mental fitness of a suspect to stand trial and mental factors that may have played a role in their commission of criminal acts.
  • Exciting Work: Working in the criminal psychology field can be an exciting career that often is connected to law enforcement, the legal system, the medical field, and the psychological sciences.
  • High Earning Potential: The top ten percent of criminal psychologists earn over $114,000 annually according to the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). The field also continues to grow due to a demand for criminal psychologists in mental health centers and law enforcement agencies. According to the BLS, the field of criminal psychology is expected to grow faster than the average of other occupations through 2024.


  • Lengthy Training: Education required includes an undergraduate degree, master’s degree, and doctorate program. It often takes eight to ten years to become a criminal psychologist. Since it requires so much schooling, training to become a criminal psychologist can also be costly.
  • Emotionally Draining: Criminal psychologists may have to evaluate criminal offenders and learn details of crimes, which can be gruesome. Continually dealing with people who are violent and learning about the trauma they inflicted on their victims can be upsetting and difficult to deal with. It can also be stressful to have to deal day to day with criminals while trying to remain objective.
  • Possibility of Patient Violence: Criminal psychologists often evaluate unstable individuals who may be dangerous. Psychologists who work with violent offenders need to be alert and diligent about their personal safety. Furthermore, criminal Psychologists often work directly with individuals who have committed serious crimes and may be dangerous or angry towards the institutions they blame for being caught or incarcerated. Criminal Psychologists risk becoming targets for dangerous individuals who are angry and have histories of violence.
  • It can be Boring: Modern media often portrays criminal psychology work as glamourous and exciting, in fast paced, high stakes environments with compelling individuals and exciting cases, but a lot of the work is fairly routine, paperwork intensive, and slow, with a significant amount of reading and research.

What Degrees and Careers are Similar to Criminal Psychology?

There are a few different careers, which are similar to criminal psychology including those listed below.

Forensic Psychology: Forensic psychologists apply psychology theories and techniques in the legal setting, such as a courtroom or correctional facility. For example, some forensic psychologists may work as expert witnesses during a trial or work with lawyers to assist with jury selection. Although forensic psychologists often focus their work on criminal cases, they can also be involved in civil cases, such as assessing emotional injury is a litigation case. Some forensic psychologists provide counseling, such as anger management classes, and other rehabilitation services to inmates. The minimum education required to work as a forensic psychologist is a doctorate. Most states also require licensure or certification to work in the field.

Correctional Psychology: Correctional psychologists work in the legal system with individuals who are incarcerated. Correctional psychologists diagnose and treat inmates with mental health issues. But their responsibilities may also be varied depending on the needs of the inmate. For example, they may work with inmates to help them adjust to prison life. They may also help inmates prepare for their release and integration back into society. In order to work as a correctional psychologist, the minimum requirement is a doctorate.

Behavioral Psychology: A behavior psychologist focuses on helping people change their negative or harmful thoughts, emotions and actions. They help identify negative patterns and thought processes that lead to poor choices and destructive behavior, such as addiction or criminal activity. Behavior psychologists work with patients to improve their emotional issues by implementing various behavior modifying techniques. Psychologists may work with various types of people including those with a criminal background. Similar to other types of psychologists, behavior psychologists must have a minimum of a doctorate to work in the field.

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