Criminal Psychology Schools and Degree Programs

What is Criminal Psychology?

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.

What is a Criminal Psychology Degree?

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.

What are the Career Opportunities?

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.

What is the Average Salary of a Criminal Psychologist?

The Bureau of Labor Statistics website says that the national median annual wage in 2021 for criminal psychologists (based on “psychologists, all other” category) was $98,010. The mean hourly wage was $45.51.

What Jobs Can You Do With a Criminal Psychology Degree?

Educator & Researcher

With an advanced degree in criminal psychology you may be able to seek employment as an educator and/or researcher at colleges, universities, or research laboratories. The knowledge that you acquire from your criminal psychology degree may help you teach criminal psychology classes to undergraduate and/or graduate students.

It may also allow you to use your psychological expertise to develop more effective ways to examine and evaluate the mental health of witnesses, victims, suspects, prison inmates and repeat offenders. Moreover, you may conduct studies on how to improve the legal process, how to develop more effective crime scene protocols and investigations and how to create more reliable criminal profiles so that cases can be solved faster.

Forensic Psychologist

Another career path you can take if you have a doctorate in criminal psychology is forensic science. This degree, along with a license and/or certification, can allow you to practice forensic psychology. With this degree you will be able to study the thought patterns, motivations and behaviors of criminals. You will spend the majority of your time interviewing, observing and assessing suspects, victims, medical experts and witnesses.

Related Reading: How to Become a Forensic Psychologist

You will also spend time perusing police reports, providing expert testimonies during court trials and developing cases studies that can be used to arrest suspects and/or build criminal cases. In some cases, you may provide counseling services to prison inmates and/or make recommendations on whether or not the offenders need more extensive mental health services.

Criminal/Crime Scene Investigator

With a bachelor’s or master’s degree in criminal psychology, you may be able to assist with criminal investigations. Your main responsibilities will be to: assess the mental processes (thinking patterns) of witnesses, the victim and the perpetrator, administer and analyze psychological assessments, provide criminal profiles to law enforcement, help attorneys select jurors for trials, evaluate crime scenes, provide expert testimonies and aid in investigations (law enforcement, the court, federal bureau of investigations and so on by helping them understand why the suspect could have or would have committed the crime).

In other words, your main duties will be to provide a psychological explanation as to what motivated the crime, whether or not the suspect was insane at the time and why early warning signs were missed. Your main goal as a criminal investigator will be to provide insight into the mind and behaviors of those involved in the case. To be successful in this career field, you must have a strong background in forensic science, criminal justice, criminal science and criminology.

Trial Consultant

A trial consultant offers their expertise to prosecutors and defense attorneys to help them prepare for a trial. Trial consultants can be experts in a wide variety of fields, from psychology to sociology to communications to law enforcement. Trial consultants use this expertise to perform any number of tasks, from helping lawyers prepare their opening or closing statements to working with witnesses to prepare them for testimony in court. For example, a trial consultant that’s an expert in verbal communication might coach a prosecuting attorney in their delivery of their statements to the court with the express purpose of increasing the impact of the attorney’s words on the jury.

Social Worker

If you decide to earn a criminal psychology degree or you already have a degree in criminal psychology, you may become a social worker with a bachelor’s degree. A background in criminal psychology may allow you to work for a prison, government agency and/or juvenile detention center. Your main responsibilities will be to provide assistance and support to felons and those who have a criminal record.

Your duties may include: helping these individuals find employment, outpatient mental health services, housing and/or obtain resources. Much of your time will be spent helping those recently released from jail or prison successfully re-enter society. You may also provide counseling services to children and adolescents who are at-risk for future criminal acts.

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