Criminal Psychology Careers

Overview

By Erika Price, PhD
Psychologist in session with her patient

What motivates someone to commit a crime? Which incarceration and rehabilitation methods are most effective? How can society help prevent incarcerated persons from re-offending after their release? A criminal psychologist attempts to answer all these intriguing questions using research-based techniques to investigate criminal cases, collaborate with prisons and police, and navigate the criminal justice system.

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 and punishment. While many people believe this is a job that resembles the crime-solving methods of characters on TV procedurals, the reality is far from it. In fact, criminal psychologists devote relatively little of their time to examining crime scenes and attempting to “get into the head” of a criminal perpetrator. Most day-to-day responsibilities are far more benign, collaborative, and interpersonal.

Broadly speaking, forensic and criminal psychology can be seen as a form of applied social psychology or applied social work. Psychologists in this field interact heavily with the bureaucracy of the legal system and devote much of their time to assessing a detained person and his or her incarceration environment. Criminal psychologists are often staffed within jails and prisons, helping to form treatment plans for offenders, or evaluating programs that already exist (such as mandatory drug treatment). While criminal psychologists do work with police and investigators as well, their primary concern is evaluating police methods and helping to improve a police department’s functioning at a broad, systematic level.

The Role of the Criminal Psychologist

A criminal psychologist's role within the criminal justice system often is to make psychological assessments of incarcerated persons, both formal and informal. These professionals are often hired to assess the accused person’s motivations, mental status and fitness for trial. The psychologist may be called on to evaluate parental fitness in child custody cases and interview children about their preferences and needs. Psychologists may also be tasked with interviewing children and other vulnerable populations who have been victimized.

Criminal psychologists may be asked to testify in court, providing information on factors such as a defendant’s competency or sanity, and can serve as an “expert witness” on a variety of relevant psychological topics. It should be noted, however, that very few criminal psychologists are involved in deeming defendants “insane”, or in assisting with an “insanity defense”. Criminal defendants are rarely deemed insane by the court system, and the so-called “insanity defense” is so unsuccessful and challenging that it is rarely attempted.

On the other side of the courtroom, criminal psychologists may assist with jury selection for either the prosecution or the defense. They may help attorneys form probing questions that are posed to potential jurors, and can assist in interpreting responses. After a verdict has been reached, a criminal psychologist can provide sentencing and treatment recommendations based on his or her assessment of the defendant.

In a jail or prison setting, these psychologists evaluate inmates, predict their risk of recidivism (re-offending), and make recommendations that can affect their parole status.  Some criminal psychologists work with offenders in a therapeutic capacity to modify problem behaviors and promote successful rehabilitation. They also work 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, which inform the investigations of police. These clues help investigators to focus and narrow their search. However, these professionals represent a minority of criminal psychologists.

Salary and Job Outlook

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According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) and the American Psychological Association Division 41, criminal psychologists have a median income of $42,230 and $35,000 at the outset of their career. The BLS reports that the median income overall is $92,110 and that eighty percent of psychologists with a PhD or PsyD earn between $42,230 and $120,670, so the prospects for wage growth are quite substantial.

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.

According to the BLS, employment of psychologists (including criminal psychologists) is expected to grow by 12% between 2012 and 2022, which is about as fast as the average for all occupations. According to the APA Division 41, careers in criminal psychology have grown steadily for the last three decades, and are expected to continue.

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.

Requirements

Education

To practice as a criminal psychologist, it is necessary to earn a graduate degree from a nationally accredited program. Most professionals in this field hold doctorates, but a master’s degree may be sufficient for some roles, particularly those outside of academia. Prior to graduate study, candidates must first earn a four-year bachelor’s degree, ideally with coursework in psychology and criminal justice. Internships are often provided that involve working in correctional facilities or police departments; these experiences give applicants a significant advantage and a wealth of useful experience.

There are several dozen graduate programs in forensic psychology across the US, including PhD and PsyD programs (click here for a recent guide to all programs). A PhD (Doctor of Philosophy) degree is more research- and theory-oriented, and requires a lengthy dissertation; the practice-based PsyD (Doctor of Psychology) is more oriented towards hands-on skills and is somewhat less illustrious. Dual-degree programs in law and psychology are also available.

Admission to a graduate program in psychology is quite competitive. A quick review of current program admission statistics reveals that applicants should have a GRE of at least 1000 and a GPA of 3.0 in order to be admitted to the average program, though competitive programs expect scores in the 1200 and 3.5 range, respectively. Students can strengthen their applications by working, volunteering, interning, or conducting research in the field of psychology.

Most programs offer some form of tuition assistance in return for work as a Graduate Research Assistant (GRA), which can help students build useful work experience and achieve research publication. The average PhD in forensic psychology takes 5 years to complete, though there is significant variation.

Training

Psychologists undergo clinical training during and after graduate school. This training involves therapeutic interaction, assessment, and psychological measurement, as well as a great deal of relevant coursework. Following the completion of required coursework and exams, criminal psychology students must complete an internship and, typically, a dissertation-level research project.

Following graduation with a PhD, master’s, or PsyD, the average forensic psychologist much achieve licensure. In order to qualify for licensure, candidates must complete a prescribed number of hours of supervised experience via an internship, preceptorship or residency, and may be asked to complete a state-level exam.

Licensing and/or Certification

Licensing is mandatory for criminal psychologists who provide forensic assessment and treatment. Rules and licensure methods 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, to ensure they are up-to-date on best practices and the latest research.

Necessary Skills and Qualities

Criminal psychologists rely on 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. An ability to interact and communicate with a wide variety of people, from police officers to judges to incarcerated persons, is essential to the psychologist’s success.

The forensics field exposes psychologists to potentially upsetting situations and subject matter, as well as moral quandaries and potential abuse. In some positions, psychologists may need to view crime scene photos and work closely with people accused of violent crimes. 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. A strong commitment to the ethics of their profession is essential, as forensic psychologists are often placed in morally gray situations with multiple stakeholders (including victims, defendants, lawyers, judges, and police officers).

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, and they may work for more lucrative, less dangerous clients.

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.

Work Environment

Criminal psychologists are employed by:

  • Private legal practices and consulting firms
  • Community mental health centers
  • State psychiatric hospitals and nursing facilities
  • Forensic hospitals
  • Community probation offices
  • Correctional facilities (short- and long-term)
  • Academic institutions
  • Police departments

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, depending on their employment capacity.

Most criminal psychologists work full time. Those in private practice generally have more flexible hours than those employed by institutions and agencies, and are more likely to work as consultants in civil court cases rather than in criminal justice directly.

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Further Reading

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