How to Become an Investigative Psychologist – Schooling and Career Guide [2024]

Last Updated: May 22, 2024

What is Investigative Psychology?

Investigative psychology is a relatively new area of applied psychology. Working within the criminal justice system, it is a specialist field within forensic psychology.

Psychologists in this field work with the police to help solve crimes by understanding the types of crimes and criminals. Different uses of violence, for instance, can tell investigative psychologists what personality types to look for in solving a crime. The science is useful in predicting how criminals might act after a crime such as serial killing, and that guides police toward individuals acting in incriminating ways.

Investigative psychology is closely related to forensic psychology, but is more concerned with police decision-making than with the court system and helping victims.

Investigative psychologists might be called upon to advise police on how to handle a wide range of criminals. To take an extreme example, a woman talking on her cell phone in traffic should be treated very differently from someone with a weapon threatening children in a school.

What Does an Investigative Psychologist Do?

In contrast to the historical ‘profiler’, the investigative psychologist makes ‘investigative inferences’ about criminals based on scientific facts, empirical evidence and psychological theories.

It essentially developed when psychologists felt that if they were to be asked to add value to an investigation or process within the criminal justice system, it should be based upon research, data and scientific theory rather than ‘gut instinct’.

Investigative psychologists often look for patterns within criminal behavior to develop theories about both the psychological and sociological characteristics of offenders – this may also involve linking different crimes to the same perpetrator.

Investigative psychologists work on cases of all levels of severity where such an approach may help an investigation, not just the most serious cases or those thought to involve psychopaths. As well as providing insight to an investigation around characteristics of the offender, they will often recommend strategies for the ongoing investigation, such as interview techniques etc.

Investigative psychologists may also be called upon to assess evidence given to police or courts, providing insight into the reliability of eyewitness testimony or corroborating/disputing the accuracy of testimony or confession for example.

In addition, they may be asked to give opinions on an offender’s likelihood of violence – again, any such ‘opinion’ will be based on empirical evidence and statistics alongside psychological theory.

Finally, investigative psychologists may be involved in other areas of legal investigation such as insurance fraud, corruption or invasion of taxes. They may also be asked for professional opinions in matters such as crowd control. In these respects, their involvement is usually preemptive – to help establish detection processes and identify problem areas for further investigation.

How Investigative Psychologists Help Police?

Investigative psychologists help police by providing insight into crimes and offenders that are based upon scientifically established facts and evidence. They can assist in crimes of all kinds, not just those seen as potentially committed by psychopaths.

Investigative psychologists can help police to make decisions throughout an investigation to ensure that police focus their efforts where it is most likely to produce results by providing insight into important personal characteristics or behavioral patterns of the offender.

Such insights might include: which factors of the crime are most important; in which area is the offender likely to live; and is the offender likely to commit another crime. This information means that police can target resources in the most appropriate areas, appropriate known criminals can be considered and relevant database searches can be carried out.

Related Reading: How to Become a Criminal Psychologist

These insights are all based on scientific reasoning from information already gathered and application of psychological principles. This gives a credibility to information gathered as a result, upon which a legal case may later be based.

Psychologists in this field are also able to provide police with insight into how to effectively interview witnesses and interrogate suspects based on their assessments of the individuals and the crime using tested psychological methods. They can also review interrogations and discuss likelihood of deception, credibility and honesty.

In addition, investigative psychologists can help police in a proactive way by discussing psychological theories and scientific findings regarding matters such as crowd control and public order.

What are the Education Requirements to Become an Investigative Psychologist?

After completing high school the future psychologist needs to enroll in a baccalaureate degree program. Universities typically look at high school transcripts when selecting applicants.

Many schools offer a Bachelor of Arts (BA) or Bachelor of Science (BS) in psychology with an concentration in criminal behavior, but a bachelor’s degree in general psychology will also provide a good foundation for the aspiring investigative psychologist.

A BA or BS can be earned in four academic years of full-time study. Most programs include 120 or more academic units, with at least 30 in psychology. Basic education courses include English, humanities, mathematics, foreign language, history, and political science.

Next step is to earn a master’s degree in psychology with a specialization in forensic psychology, criminal psychology or a related field.

After attaining a master’s degree the future investigative psychologist needs to enroll in a Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) or Doctor of Psychology (PsyD) program.

Doctoral candidates are required to choose a problem in investigative psychology  and design and carry out research to attempt to solve it.

When research is complete, the candidate is required to write a paper, or dissertation, explaining the problem, the methods used to carry out the study, results, and interpretation of results.

It should be acceptable for publication in a professional journal. The dissertation is then presented before a faculty committee who decides whether the study is worthy of a doctoral diploma. Doctoral degrees typically take 3 to 5 years to complete.

What are the Requirements for a Psychologist License?

Every U.S. state and territory requires psychologists to obtain a professional license before beginning practice. The candidate will have to prove that he or she has earned a Phd or PsyD from an accredited school.

Most also require candidates to perform an internship and to pass a test called the Examination for Professional Practice in Psychology. Some boards of psychology also require local tests according to their own state laws. Candidates should check the requirements listed for the jurisdictions where they plan to practice.

Going to Work

To find a career opportunity, investigative psychologists typically need to consult city, county, and state personnel offices.

Government hiring is usually a fairly slow process, so candidates should begin during their last years in graduate school. Lists of all available openings can be found online or in government personnel offices. A standard form is furnished and must be filled out in detail.

In addition governments can require a test to rank all applicants fairly, and those who test within the acceptable range become eligible for interviews.

Another career path is the academic one, conducting more research in investigative psychology and teaching the subject to new students. Universities list job opportunities at their websites.

A university in need of a new professor might look at school transcripts, publications, and professional recommendations from candidates’ professors.

Investigative psychology is a relatively new field that should become ever more vital. Research should continue to uncover more information on the workings of criminal minds and criminal behavior and workers in the field should become ever more adept at helping police assess situations and make wise decisions.

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