What Is Criminal Psychology?

Posted October 2019 by M.S. Broudy, B.A. English, B.A. Psychology; M.A. Social Psychology; Ph.D. Psychology; 10 updates since. Reading time: 9 min. Reading level: Grade 10+. Questions on criminal psychology? Email Toni at: editor@online-psychology-degrees.org.

What is criminal psychology? Criminal psychology is the study of the thoughts and behavior of criminals. It answers the question: Why do criminals do what they do? The study of criminal psychology has been glorified in popular cultures such as in television shows like Criminal Minds and CSI. However, what we see on TV does not always reflect the reality of life. Let’s examine the study of criminal psychology, see what it entails, and answer the question, “What is a criminal psychologist?”

What Does a Criminal Psychologist Do?


Yes, criminal psychologists can be profilers. They help federal law enforcement agencies create a psychological profile to help apprehend suspects. Unlike what you see on TV, however, a real-world psychologist is unlikely to go with police to confront suspects. Also, a high profile serial murderer only comes along once in a blue moon. Although a criminal psychologist may visit crime scenes, they are more likely to spend time in an office with case files or in a record room poring over analyses of possible suspects than they are at a crime scene. A large part of criminal psychology is looking over research and data relevant to cases. It can almost feel academic. Further, criminal profiling is only one possible aspect of their many duties.


Criminal psychologists will often use their expertise of human behavior to consult with law enforcement agencies and others in the criminal justice system on various aspects of a case. For example, they can help those in the criminal justice system ask appropriate questions during interrogation or give relevant information to help guide their investigation.


Assessment is another critical aspect of criminal psychology. Performing psychological testing to determine a suspect’s mental health is an integral part of the adjudication process. For instance, a psychologist might have to determine whether a suspect is in a stable mental state to stand trial. They might have to determine if they have the personality characteristics to fit the alleged crime.


Criminal psychologists might conduct research that has far-reaching practical implications on the study of criminology and the legal system. For example, psychologists have performed research on memory, eyewitness testimony, evidence collection, and confessions that have impacted how law enforcement professionals and lawyers proceed in criminal legal cases.

Court Testimony

Criminal psychologists often have to appear in court to provide expert witness testimony. They speak on abnormal psychology in a way a jury can understand. There are psychologists whose entire practice is based on giving their expert opinion. They base their judgments on testing they have conducted. They also use information from analyzing assessments and evidence provided by other professionals.


A crime psychologist may also be asked to provide psychotherapy for people that have committed crimes. Their role is to help their clients cope with the consequences of criminal behavior. They assist them in their rehabilitation so they can be productive members of society after they have committed criminal behavior.


A psychologist (criminal) can teach at the college level within a psychology or criminal justice department. Further, they can teach courses or present seminars at law enforcement training facilities, such as those run by a federal agency, such as the DEA, or the police.

Criminal vs. Forensic Psychology

What is the difference between criminal psychology and forensic psychology? Some people use the terms criminal and forensic psychologist interchangeably. People can identify as one or the other and engage in the same duties. However, there are some relevant distinctions between criminal and forensic psychology. If you are talking about profiling a criminal that is likely the realm of criminal psychology. Most assessment is done by a forensic psychologist but it is not impossible for someone who identifies as a criminal psychologist to perform testing. Criminal psychologists review a lot of research and data in determining the psychological makeup of criminals but many people who conduct experimental research identify as forensic psychologists. Another distinction is that forensic psychologists deal with all types of legal matters, including civil cases, while criminal psychologists focus on criminal matters.

Where Do Criminal Psychologists Work and What Do They Earn?

Where do criminal psychologists work?

Criminal psychologists have a number of career opportunities within the criminal justice system. They usually split their time between an office and court but can also spend some time in the field, in settings like crime scenes and jails. Some work for government agencies, such as the police or FBI. Others have their own practice and work as consultants to lawyers and law-enforcement agencies. Many criminal psychologists are affiliated with universities. According to the BLS, criminal psychologists on average earn $93,440, which is more than most other disciplines of psychology. A criminal psychologist salary will largely depend on where they work and their specific duties. If they work directly for a government agency, such as Homeland Security, then they are likely to earn less than as a private consultant. Additionally, someone providing assessment and court testimony at criminal proceedings is likely to earn more than someone who primarily performs research.

How Does One Become a Criminal Psychologist?

First, you need to obtain a high school diploma and an undergraduate degree, preferably a bachelor’s degree in psychology. It is necessary to go beyond a bachelor’s degree. Next, you need to seek an accredited master’s degree and possibly a doctoral program. A minimum undergraduate GPA over 3.0 ( and likely much higher) is probably needed to gain entry to a graduate program. Please note that criminal psychology is not recognized as an area of specialization by the American Psychological Association (APA). That means you are not going to be able to receive an APA approved graduate degree in criminal psychology. However, you can receive an APA approved degree in forensic psychology. If you do not enter a forensic psychology program, it is recommended that you get a degree in clinical psychology and then specialize in criminology or forensics. Although you can find work with a master’s degree, finding a job as a criminal psychologist usually requires a doctoral degree (Psy.D). In most states, the final step is to obtain licensure.

These days, more and more online programs are available to earn a psychology degree. These online programs allow students to study either part-time or full-time, whichever is most convenient.

Famous People In The Field Of Criminal Psychology

Although most criminal psychologists work behind the scenes, a few have gained notoriety for their role in apprehending high profile criminals or their contributions to criminal psychology. It should be noted that although not all of the following people are criminal psychologists by education, they all have performed or currently perform work consistent with a criminal psychologist.

Hugo Munsterberg

Munsterberg was an early pioneer in the field of criminal psychology. At the turn of the 20th century, Munsterberg published On The Witness Stand, a collection of essays which pointed out the inherent lack of reliability in witness testimony. Munsterberg revealed how psychological variables can interfere with people providing evidence in trials. The study of eyewitness testimony has continued in psychology with the work of noted researcher Elizabeth Loftus, among others. Munsterberg is also credited as one of the first people to study the importance of jury selection.

Thomas Bond

Thomas Bond is widely believed to be the first criminal profiler. He was a physician who examined the evidence of victims believed to be killed by Jack the Ripper. Based on his investigation, he made certain conclusions about the psychological and physical makeup of the murderer.

David Canter

David Canter helped British police solve the famous Railway Rapist case in the 1980s. He is believed to be the first person to use profiling to solve murders in England. He is also credited with creating investigative psychology, which combines psychological profiling with evidence  derived from empirical scientific study.

Saul Kassin

Kassin’s scientific studies of false confessions are now used internationally to determine the validity of police interrogation and the confession process. He is a distinguished professor of psychology at John Jay College of Criminal Justice. Kassin is a Massachusetts Professor Emeritus at Williams College, in Williamstown, MA.

John Douglas

John Douglas became famous working in the FBI’s serial crime unit. He was a profiler who worked on several high profile serial killer cases, including the Atlanta Child Murders and the Green River Killer. He was the model for Jack Crawford in Silence of the Lambs, a movie that spurred tremendous interest in criminal psychology. The current Netflix series Mindhunter is base upon his work.

The Importance of Criminal Psychology

Crime is like a pebble in a pond, affecting a swath of people whenever it is perpetrated. Finding those responsible and ensuring an accurate and ethical legal process has never been more critical. Through their invaluable work in crime psychology, criminal psychologists assist law enforcement in apprehending responsible parties and help further educate about the criminal mind.


Where can I study criminal psychology?
According to the National Center for Education Statistics, there are about 40 universities that offer a master’s and/or Ph.D. in criminal psychology. Before enrolling in a criminal psychology degree program, you should make sure it is accredited by the APA. APA is currently the only organization authorized to accredit psychology academic programs.

How much do criminal psychologists make? 

Criminal psychologists make an average annual salary of $54,000, though those with the most experience can make as much as $113,500 annual salary. This is according to the salary-reporting website Payscale.

What is the job outlook for criminal psychologists? 

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics expects jobs for psychologists, including criminal psychologists, to increase by 6% between now and 2031. This is about as fast as the average for all industries.

What are the requirements for becoming a criminal psychologist? 

If you are interested in criminal justice but don’t want a career in law enforcement, becoming a criminal psychologist might be a great choice for you. If your goal is to become a criminal psychologist, then your first steps are to earn a bachelor’s degree in psychology, or a category of psychology, and a master’s degree in psychology. Accredited advanced degree programs that are approved by the Health and Care Professions Council (HCPC) prepare students to begin their careers as clinical criminal psychologists.

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