How to Become a Criminal Psychologist

Criminal psychology is a scientific field of study that involves applying psychological knowledge to the investigative process. The implementation of criminal psychology helps investigative agencies better fulfill their mission.

Criminal psychologists focus the bulk of their work on offenders. More specifically, they direct their efforts on learning why offenders commit offenses. Their research involves searching for answers through relationships, motivations, and psychological stressors in order to better understand the mind of the criminal. For example, how did a serial killer’s childhood environment influence his adult decisions? Or, what motivated a bank robber to begin robbing banks?

It is important to distinguish between criminal profilers and criminal psychologists. While criminal psychologists are licensed clinicians, criminal profilers are usually state and local police detectives with extensive experience.

The Role of Criminal Psychologists in Criminal Investigations

There are four major ways criminal psychologists are involved in criminal investigations:

Clinical: Criminal psychologists are often required to provide their clinical judgment. To do so, they utilize a variety of assessment and interview tools. Police departments then utilize the results of these assessments to assist them when conducting investigations.

Experimental: Many times, criminal psychologists perform research used to assist an investigation. This work may include conducting experimental tests for the purpose of illustrating a point, such as false memory and eyewitness credibility.

Actuarial: Criminal psychologists utilize statistics to inform a case. For example, they may provide the probability of an event taking place or the likelihood of an offender reoffending.

Advisory: Criminal psychologists serve as advisors for police departments, helping them determine how to best proceed with an investigation. For example, they may recommend the best way to interview an individual or cross-examine a witness.

Job Duties and Responsibilities of the Criminal Psychologist

Although profiling and interviewing offenders are likely the most high profile job duties of criminal psychologists, the responsibilities of these psychology professionals is much broader than that. The job duties of criminal psychologists often include:

Intelligence Analysis: Criminal psychologists involved in intelligence (crime) analysis examine the behaviors of offenders through victim reports, crime scene reports, etc. and compare the data with other similar crimes. The information gleaned from criminal psychologists allows police investigators to find links between the crimes and possibly link the same offender to different crimes.

Offender Profiling: Criminal psychologists working in offender profiling create psychological portraits of offenders. Using crime scene information, criminal psychologists draw conclusions about the offender’s personality and character, which allow police investigators to draw conclusions and adequately target resources when searching for the offender.

Interviewing: An important part of a criminal psychologist’s job involves interviewing witnesses, victims, or offenders as to collect reliable and accurate information about the case. Criminal psychologists employ a wide array of techniques to ensure the interviewing style they choose is the most effective, particularly regarding victims or children.

Rehabilitation of Offenders: Although most criminal psychologists work to ensure offenders are caught and brought to justice, they may also work with imprisoned offenders and provide the courts with valuable information regarding whether they are able to integrate back into society upon their release and whether they are likely to re-offend.

They spend much of their workday conducting research, performing assessments, conducting interviews, and providing expert testimony in the courts. Many criminal psychologists focus their careers solely on research, working for academic institutions and private research companies.

Forensic Psychologist vs. Criminal Psychologist: What’s the Difference?

Although a criminal psychologist is often confused with a forensic psychologist, and vice versa, these two professionals have distinct differences. The work of criminal psychologists generally occurs during the investigative process, while the work of forensic psychologists occurs during the court process.

For example, while forensic psychologists focus their efforts after an arrest and during the court process, criminal psychologists use their expertise to determine motives and create criminal profiles, which provides law enforcement with the information needed to locate and arrest offenders.

In other words, while both criminal psychologists and forensic psychologists work closely with the legal system, criminal psychologists evaluate and study what happened in the crime, while forensic psychologists evaluate why a crime happened.

While criminal psychologists work primarily with law enforcement, forensic psychologists work with a more diverse array of people, from attorneys and offenders to victims and their family members. Criminal psychologists work exclusively with offenders, while forensic psychologists work throughout the criminal and civil court systems.

How to Become a Criminal Psychologist

Similar to forensic psychologists, criminal psychologists are doctoral-trained, state-licensed practitioners. However, individuals who want to learn how to become a criminal psychologist often focus both their undergraduate and graduate psychology study on criminal justice or criminology, while forensic psychologists, on the other hand, tend to focus their psychology degree programs on clinical psychology with a forensic psychology specialization.

A typical degree path to becoming a criminal psychologist may look something like this:

  1. Bachelor of Science (BS)/Bachelor of Arts (BA) in Criminal Justice or Criminology
  2. Master of Science (MS)/Master of Arts (MA) in Clinical Psychology with a Criminal Justice or Criminology focus
  3. PhD or PsyD in Clinical Psychology: Criminology and Justice Studies

Upon graduation from a clinical psychology doctoral program with a forensic/ criminology focus, students are required to complete a course of practical experience, one of which must be a doctoral internship. The American Psychological Association (APA) accredits all doctoral programs in the U.S., as well as doctoral internships and post-doctoral fellowships.

Internship settings for students interested in becoming criminal psychologists may include:

  • State/local police departments
  • Governmental agencies
  • Correctional facilities/psychiatric hospitals

The exact requirements for state licensure as a clinical psychologist vary from one state to the next, but candidates for licensure can expect to take and pass the Examination for the Professional Practice of Psychology (EPPP), a national examination developed and owned by the Association of State and Provincial Psychology Boards (ASPPB). Some states also require applicants to take and pass a state ethics examination.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, criminal psychologists working as clinical psychologists earned an average salary of $74,030, while the top 10 percent earned an average of $113,640, as of May 2014.

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