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Criminal Psychology Degree Programs

It has been a common practice to label criminals as “bad” or “evil” people. Yet those definitions are way too simplistic, and they are not particularly helpful in finding ways to approach the issue of crime in our society.

Criminal psychologists seek to understand the psychology of crime and the reasons that criminals behave as they do. As a criminal psychologist, you will have the opportunity to contribute to bettering our approach to working with criminals and fostering change in our criminal justice system.

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What Is Criminal Psychology?

Criminal psychology is a branch of forensic psychology that deals with the thoughts and actions of criminals.

The wider discipline of forensic psychology focuses on the application of psychology to everyone who comes into contact with the legal sphere—whether victims or perpetrators, members of juries, witnesses, or police.

Criminal psychology is narrower in scope. It examines the thoughts, feelings, motivations, fears, and behaviors of only the criminal.

What Does a Criminal Psychologist Do?

A criminal psychologist studies, assesses, and interacts with people who commit crimes. 

Criminal psychologists work with professionals across the legal system, including law enforcement personnel and lawyers. Many criminal psychologists work for local, state, or federal law enforcement agencies. Others consult in private practice or teach at the university level.

The work of criminal psychologists can generally be divided into these categories:

  • Apprehend criminals
  • Aid in legal procedures
  • Provide mental health services to incarcerated criminals
  • Mitigate the occurrence of future crime

Apprehend Criminals

Criminal psychologists use a technique called “criminal profiling” to help law enforcement officials find the perpetrator of a crime. The goal of profiling is to identify the probable characteristics of a suspect. This, in turn, can guide law enforcement in narrowing their focus and help them avoid working merely on hunches.

Criminal psychologists use a number of tools to create a criminal profile. They examine the evidence from the crime. They look at statistics and research about similar crimes and criminals. They use their expertise in the workings of the criminal mind to synthesize these known facts to describe the type of person that police should be looking for.

Aid in Legal Proceedings

After a suspect is apprehended, criminal psychologists may be involved in most stages of the legal process.


  • Assess a suspect and provide expertise about whether the case should go to trial
  • Evaluate a suspect to determine if they are fit to stand trial


  • Guide attorneys in strategies for defending or prosecuting a suspect
  • Provide expert testimony


  • Test, assess, and evaluate criminals in jail
  • Aid parole boards in determining how likely an offender is to re-offend upon release

Provide Mental Health Services to Incarcerated Criminals

A recent report found that nearly 15% of men and 30% of women booked into jails each year—two million people—have a serious mental health condition. Providing services to these people is essential.

A criminal psychologist will perform tests and evaluations to determine the mental health services that an inmate may need. This might include counseling, dispensing medication, or possibly even recommending that an inmate be considered for a transfer to a mental health facility.

Providing these services can work toward the next goal of mitigating the occurrent of future crimes. Criminals whose mental health issues are addressed may be less likely to commit a crime in the future.

Mitigate the Occurrence of Future Crimes

Along with prison reform, crime prevention has become more and more of a focus in our society. Prevention no longer means simply giving long sentences. It means understanding crimes, criminals, and the dynamics of society and addressing the factors that lead to crime.

Criminal psychologists aid in this effort in a number of ways. They might specialize in researching behavior, motivation, and environmental factors that lead to crime. They may work with government agencies to form policy, provide crime forecasts, or pinpoint geographical areas that are ripe for criminal activity.

Criminal psychologists may also advocate for the rights of criminals.

“Jailing people with mental illness creates huge burdens on law enforcement, corrections, and state and local budgets. It does not protect public safety. And people who could be helped are being ignored.”

National Alliance on Mental Illness

Criminal psychologists can play a substantial role in reassessing the way society views and deals with criminals.

Criminal Psychologist Salary and Career Outlook

According to September 2019 data from ZipRecruiter, the median yearly salary of criminal psychologists is $78,881. Pay is higher or lower in certain regions—for example, average salaries are $86,000 in New York City but $73,000 in Birmingham, Alabama.

Job growth for all types of psychologists is faster than average. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) expects there to be 14% more jobs in 2028 than there were in 2018. The BLS doesn’t provide figures on criminal psychologists specifically. However, with two million people possibly struggling with mental illness being booked into jails each year, and a growing recognition of the importance of providing inmates with mental health services, the need for criminal psychologists will likely only become more acute.

How to Become a Criminal Psychologist

You’ll need a doctorate and state licensure to practice as a criminal psychologist. Here’s what your academic journey might look like.

Bachelor’s Degree

There are few bachelor’s degree programs specifically in criminal psychology. Many people begin by pursuing a general psychology degree. Make certain the program provides the necessary courses to meet the requirements for admission to a graduate program. Expect courses in counseling, memory and cognition, personality theories, social psychology, development psychology, mental illness, and, of course, deviant behavior.

If you can find a B.S. in forensic psychology program (which is often a concentration of a general psych program) that meets your requirements, you will delve deeper into criminal behavior. Topics may include the sociology of deviance, investigatory work, and the psychology of criminals.

You might also consider majoring in criminal justice—especially if you’re planning on getting a master’s in psychology before getting a doctorate. Criminal justice majors explore criminal law, ethics, the corrections systems, and the court system. A related B.S. major is criminology, which is a subset of sociology that looks at factors behind crime. Classes might cover policy, civil liberties, and power dynamics.

Master’s Degree

A master’s degree isn’t always required to get into a doctorate program. However, while some Ph.D. and Psy.D. programs accept applicants with just a bachelor’s, getting your master’s degree can help you pick up psychology prerequisites for your doctorate.

There are a number of master’s programs in forensic psychology, which is typically the degree that pre-doctorate students in criminal psychology earn. Check the coursework in these programs to see if they include specialties that interest you. Note that even if you can’t find the perfect program, your master’s dissertation can provide you with an opportunity to specialize.

Doctoral Degree

While again there are generally no specific degrees in criminal psychology, you have several options for getting your doctoral degree.

You can enter a criminal justice program that has a concentration in criminal psychology. This degree will prepare you to work within law enforcement as a criminal psychologist.

Another option is to get a degree in forensic psychology with a concentration such as criminal justice or victimology.

Once again, it is important to explore the kinds of coursework a doctorate program includes in order to decide the best program for you.

Doctorate programs generally require you to write a dissertation and complete an internship, which typically lasts one or two years. These components of a doctorate program can provide you with expertise specifically in criminal psychology.

Get Licensed

Just like clinical psychologists, criminal psychologists need to be licensed to work with patients. Though licensure varies by state, most states require a doctorate and a passing score on the Examination for Professional Practice of Psychology (EPPP). The EPPP tests in several areas:

  • Understanding the biological, social, cultural, and cognitive reasons for behavior
  • Knowing how to assess, diagnose, and treat patients
  • Knowing how to conduct research
  • Being conversant with ethical and legal issues

Licensure is mandatory; board certification is optional. Getting board certified indicates you have met the standards for the profession. It may help your resume stand out and qualify you for higher salaries.

To qualify for certification by the American Board of Forensic Psychology, you must have a doctoral degree in psychology, be licensed to practice, complete at least 100 hours of education and 1,000 hours of practical experience, and pass an exam.


  • American Board of Professional Psychology: The ABPP runs the American Board of Forensic Psychology, which administers the board certification test for criminal psychology.
  • American Psychological Association: This membership organization is the definitive word on psychology. Psych students can look at job listings, search a publication database, and download the APA style guide to use on their research papers.
  • Journal of Criminal Psychology: The Journal of Criminal Psychology is an online publication that comes out four times a year. You may be able to get access to articles through your college.
  • Society for Police and Criminal Psychology: The SPCP is a membership organization open to all. It holds a yearly conference and publishes the Journal of Police and Criminal Psychology.