Criminal Psychology Careers


By Veronica Hackethal
Psychologist in session with her patient

What motivates someone to commit a crime? A criminal psychologist attempts to answer this intriguing question by using research-based techniques to investigate criminal cases. As an expert in both law and psychology, a criminal psychologist (also known as a forensic psychologist) works closely with judges, attorneys and other legal professionals to analyze the psychological aspects of crime.

A criminal psychologist's role within the criminal justice system is to make psychological assessments, both formal and informal. These professionals are often hired to assess the accused person’s motivations, mental status and fitness for trial. They may be called on to interpret polygraph data, evaluate parental fitness in child custody cases and predict the risk of recidivism when prisoners come up for parole. They also testify in court, assist with jury selection and provide sentencing and treatment recommendations. Some criminal psychologists work with offenders in a therapeutic capacity to modify problem behaviors and promote successful rehabilitation, or with correctional facility staff for assistance with issues such as inmate mental health.

Criminal profilers (also called investigative analysts) represent a subspecialty within the larger field of forensic psychology. Criminal profilers analyze crime scene evidence in order to provide investigators with descriptions of unknown offenders. Drawing on their knowledge of human behavior and crime statistics, they make educated guesses about the offender’s age, sex, occupation, personal habits and behavior. These clues help investigators to focus and narrow their search.

Criminal psychologists play an important role in our justice system by aiding in the identification and apprehension of offenders, predicting the future likelihood of criminal behavior and ensuring that people accused of crimes receive fair, appropriate and humane treatment. These professionals take great pride in protecting public safety while enjoying the intellectual stimulation provided by this uniquely challenging field.

Work Environment

Criminal psychologists are employed by:

  • Private practices
  • Community mental health centers
  • State psychiatric hospitals
  • Forensic hospitals
  • Community probation offices
  • Correctional facilities 
  • Academic institutions 

They spend much of the workday interviewing people, performing assessments and conducting case research. They work closely with private lawyers, state attorneys, police officers, federal agents and the public defender's office. Most criminal psychologists work full time. Those in private practice generally have more flexible hours than those employed by institutions and agencies.



To practice as a criminal psychologist, it is necessary to earn a graduate degree from a nationally accredited training program. Most professionals in this field hold doctorates. Candidates must first earn a four-year bachelor’s degree. While no particular major is required, it’s a good idea to complete some coursework in psychology and criminal justice.

Admission to a graduate program in psychology is quite competitive. Students can strengthen their applications by achieving excellent grades in college and by working, volunteering or conducting research in the field of psychology. Most schools require candidates to achieve a certain score on the Graduate Record Examinations (GRE). Some doctoral programs require completion of a master’s degree prior to application.

There are two doctoral degrees in psychology: the research- and theory-based PhD (Doctor of Philosophy) and the practice-based PsyD (Doctor of Psychology). Dual-degree programs in law and psychology are also available. Criminal psychologists who hold a law degree generally earn more and have more opportunities for advancement.


Psychologists undergo clinical training during and after graduate school. In order to qualify for licensure, candidates must complete a prescribed number of hours of supervised experience via an internship, preceptorship or residency.

Licensing and/or Certification

Licensing is mandatory for criminal psychologists who provide forensic assessment and treatment. Rules vary by state. Usually, candidates must hold a degree from an accredited training program and have at least one year of clinical experience. Some states require passage of written and oral examinations. Board certification in this specialty is available through the American Board of Forensic Psychology. Candidates must hold a doctorate, meet rigorous education and experience requirements and pass written and oral examinations. To maintain licensure and certification, criminal psychologists must engage in continuing education throughout their careers.

Necessary Skills and Qualities

Criminal psychologists rely on their excellent analytical and observational skills when conducting research and assessing patients. They also benefit from excellent verbal and listening skills, as much of their job involves communicating with offenders and others involved in the criminal justice system.

The forensics field exposes psychologists to potentially upsetting situations and subject matter. They may need to view crime scene photos and work closely with people accused of horrendous crimes. A good dose of emotional stability coupled with excellent stress management skills will help these professionals cope in challenging and stressful situations and allow them to maintain professional objectivity.

Opportunities for Advancement

Criminal psychologists who hold dual degrees (in psychology and law, for example) are attractive to employers because they have a broad knowledge base and can function in multiple areas. Another path to advancement is specialization in an area of interest such as family, civil or criminal forensics. Criminal psychologists who go into private practice enjoy more flexible hours and increased responsibilities.

If you would like to gain the necessary education to pursue a criminal psychology career, we highly recommend that you check out our free School Finder Tool located HERE.


According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, psychologists (including criminal psychologists) earned a median annual income of $68,640 in 2010. Eighty percent earned between $39,200 and $111,810. 

Compensation of criminal psychologists varies by employment setting, education level, experience and geographic location. Professionals working in public and government settings usually earn less than those in private practice.

Job Outlook

According to the US Bureau of Labor and Statistics, employment of psychologists (including criminal psychologists) is expected to grow by 22% between 2010 and 2020, which is considered faster than the average for all occupations. 

Licensed and certified professionals should have no trouble finding work in the foreseeable future. At present, there are not enough qualified criminal psychologists in practice to meet the needs of the justice system. There is also a push underway to reintegrate criminal offenders into the community following custodial sentences. Criminal psychologists are therefore needed to advise these efforts and to provide direct services to inmates who are candidates for rehabilitation. Demand will be highest for criminal psychologists who hold doctoral degrees in applied specialties.

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