If you've ever watched a crime drama on TV, you've probably seen a criminal psychologist in action. However, do these professionals really work in the field as presented in the media? The short answer is, not always.

Criminal psychologists technically have the knowledge and licenses to work with law enforcement to “profile” and help apprehend people, but that’s just a small part of what they do.

Criminal psychology experts primarily work with victims and witnesses to help them cope with the fallout of a crime, provide training to law enforcement personnel on how to communicate with offenders, and serve as expert witnesses in court. They also study crime and its connection to psychological factors.

What Are the Duties of a Criminal Psychologist?

A criminal psychologist studies the behavior of criminal offenders to provide insight into their motivations. In some cases, they may also be involved in the treatment. Occasionally, criminal psychologists are consulted by law enforcement agencies to help solve crimes through profiling, but this is by far their least common task.

Criminal psychology jobs often include conducting interviews, administering psychological tests, and observing criminals in prison or during court proceedings. They use this information to help criminal law professionals conduct more thorough investigations and draw better conclusions.

Criminal psychologists may also testify in court as expert witnesses, especially in cases involving mental health issues. Law enforcement agencies can also hire them to develop more effective interrogation techniques. 

In addition to their work with law enforcement, criminal psychologists may also work in prisons, providing counseling to inmates and helping them reintegrate into society after release.

The Goals of Criminal Psychology

Criminal justice and psychology jobs have been more intertwined in recent years. As a result, the skills a criminal psychologist should possess have expanded, and no longer just include a thorough understanding of human behavior and its factors.

Some of the questions criminal psychologists attempt to answer through research are: Why do people commit crimes? What motivates them? What are the risk factors for people in danger of turning to crime?

In addition, those who pursue criminal psychology careers must have excellent communication and interpersonal skills. They will need to be able to build trust with both law enforcement and people in the prison system.

They must also have a strong sense of ethics and professional boundaries: After all, they will be dealing with some of the most dangerous people in our society, on both sides of the criminal justice system. 

On a more practical side, criminal psychologists need to have strong research skills to be able to analyze data effectively, infer meaning from it, and build convincing arguments.

Finally, criminal psychologists must be excellent communicators, both written and oral. This is necessary for providing compelling testimony in court or presenting their findings to law enforcement officials or their academic peers.

Criminal Psychology vs. Forensic Psychology

Before we go further into the background needed to apply for a criminal psychologist’s job, let us distinguish between criminal and forensic psychology. The main difference is the two fields’ scope: Forensic psychologists study and use their knowledge of psychology as it relates to the criminal justice system, whereas criminal psychologists focus on the study of criminal behavior.

So, if you're interested in studying why people commit crimes and working with criminals after they’ve been convicted, you take a criminal psychology course.

How Does One Become a Criminal Psychologist?

If you're interested in this challenging career, here's what you need to know: Criminal psychologists generally have either a clinical or forensic psychology degree from an accredited college or university, and many also have a criminal law degree.

Typically, undergraduate students take courses in criminal psychology during their degree programs. Many of these degrees open up internship opportunities that allow students to gain experience working with law enforcement agencies or in psychiatric hospitals.

After completing their undergraduate studies, aspiring criminal psychologists typically complete a MA in clinical or forensic psychology, depending on their BA, specializing in the psychology of criminal offenders. If they’re looking for a research or teaching position, these also require a Ph.D.

Again, since it’s not possible to get a Ph.D. in criminal psychology specifically, you could take criminal psychology courses as part of a doctoral program in forensic or clinical psychology.

Criminal psychologists typically work in law enforcement, prisons, or universities. Their job usually requires a full-time commitment and long working hours, including evenings and weekends, and lots of traveling to meet with clients or testify in court. However, it has decent earning potential, with an annual median salary of around $63,500.

What Are the Challenges Faced by Criminal Psychologists?

Criminal psychologists must deal with some of the worst displays of human behavior, including murder, rape, and child abuse, some of which require the death penalty.

In addition, a criminal psychologist must also deal with offenders who are often uncooperative, hostile, dangerous, or suffer from mental illness. As a result, criminal psychologists need to develop resilience to be able to deal with the emotional stress that comes with their job.

Finally, one of the biggest challenges criminal psychologists face is keeping up with the latest research: Staying abreast of new theories and findings is essential for providing accurate psychological evaluations.

Bottom Line

The psychology of criminal behavior is one of the most fascinating fields of study out there. Criminal psychologists aim to protect the rights and psychological well-being of both victims and people accused of crimes.

However, they do face many challenges, such as working in an adversarial system and dealing with distorted or cherry-picked evidence from the crime scene. Despite these challenges, criminal psychologists continue to make a valuable contribution to the American legal system and the realization of justice.