Become a Criminal Psychologist: Education and Career Roadmap

Watch this video to learn how to become a criminal psychologist. Discover the career requirements, education, training and licensure information, and experience required for starting a career in criminal psychology. View article »

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  • 0:00 Criminal…
  • 1:59 Earn a Bachelor's Degree
  • 3:05 Earn a Graduate Degree
  • 4:00 Gain Experience
  • 4:36 Obtain Licensure
  • 5:35 Complete Continuing Education

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Video Transcript

Criminal Psychologists

Criminal psychologists, also known as forensic psychologists, are mental health professionals who work within the justice system. As a criminal psychologist, your duties will include creating suspect profiles for law enforcement agencies, diagnosing offenders who might be criminally insane, overseeing jury selections, testifying in legal cases, and even evaluating children in custody hearings. In this field, you're likely to work full-time during normal business hours.

Criminal psychologists may accompany police offers to crime scenes in order to help evaluate evidence. Moreover, with crimes believed to be perpetrated by serial murderers, criminal psychologists may be invited to help assess and discover patterns and decipher clues. Due to the potentially dangerous circumstances involved in law enforcement, many criminal psychologists, especially those employed by the FBI, will undergo firearms training.

Career Requirements

Degree Level Master's degree, Ph.D., or Psy.D.
Degree Field Criminal psychology, forensic psychology, clinical psychology
Licensure and Certification A state-issued license is required; voluntary certifications available
Experience 1-2 years of professional experience; can be started during college
Key Skills Strong intuition, analytical, observational, problem-solving, and verbal and written communication skills; patience; ability to empathize with and console relatives of victims; ability to identify and interpret patterns
Salary (2016)* $59,093 (Median salary)

Sources: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), The Society of Police and Criminal Psychology,*

A master's degree, philosophical doctorate or psychological doctorate in criminal psychology, forensic psychology, or clinical psychology is required to enter the field. A state-issued license is also required. Voluntary certifications exist as well and may improve one's career outlook. In addition,1-2 years of professional experience, which can be started during college, is also recommended. Some of the key skills needed include strong verbal and written communication skills, analytical skills, observational skills, patience, problem-solving skills, the ability to empathize with and console relatives of victims, strong intuition skills, and the ability to identify and interpret patterns. Criminal psychologists can expect to earn a median salary of $59,093 per year as of January 2016, according to

Earn a Bachelor's Degree

Aspiring criminal psychologists begin their education by earning a bachelor's degree. No specific area of study is required, though concentrating studies in psychology or criminal justice may be beneficial. Students might choose to take courses in human behavior, psychoanalysis, crime detection, forensic science, and criminology to prepare for graduate school.

It may also be a good idea to volunteer in a forensic setting. According to the Society of Police and Criminal Psychology, students pursuing a degree in criminal psychology may benefit from volunteering in a forensic setting, like a parole office or abuse shelter, to gain hands-on experience. Additionally, volunteering may help a student stand out when applying to graduate schools.

Prospective criminal psychologists should also consider participating in an internship in a forensic or criminal setting. An internship can help a student gain valuable experience. Other relevant settings can include mental hospitals or court service centers. Some schools may even require completion of an internship in order to graduate.

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Earn a Graduate Degree

Criminal psychologists are generally required to obtain a master's degree, Doctor of Philosophy, or Doctor of Psychology. Master's degree programs generally take two years of graduate-level study to complete, while doctorates usually entail five years of graduate-level study and may include a year of postdoctoral clinical training.

Some schools offer programs specifically in criminal or forensic psychology, while others offer programs in clinical psychology with an emphasis or concentration in forensic psychology. Either option will satisfy licensing and certification requirements as long as the school is accredited. Toward the end of a doctoral program, students are typically required to submit a dissertation derived from research conducted throughout their studies. A dissertation is generally not required in psychological doctorate programs, though students often complete practical work.

Gain Experience

In order to obtain mandatory state licensure, criminal psychologists must typically have at least a year of experience in the field. Experience can be gained through clinical practicums, internships, or residencies. Universities typically assist students in finding institutions to gain the necessary work experience. This experience may be conducted through government agencies at the city, state, or federal level; private consulting firms; hospitals; prisons; courts; or police departments. Experience is usually gained under the supervision of a licensed criminal psychologist.

Obtain Licensure

All criminal psychologists who work in counseling or clinical settings must meet their state's licensure requirements. In most cases, state licensing boards require psychologists to hold doctoral degrees, complete an internship, and have at least a year of professional experience. Applicants must then pass an exam to obtain licensure and may have to take additional classes to renew licensure regularly.

Successful candidate should also consider becoming board-certified. While certification is not required in this field, obtaining voluntary certification can help a criminal psychologist stand out as a professional in the field. Certification is administered by the American Board of Forensic Psychology. To become certified, criminal psychologists must have 1,000 hours of postdoctoral experience or training in addition to 100 hours of specialized forensic psychology training. Candidates must then pass a set of written and oral exams to become board-certified.

Complete Continuing Education

Continuing education can help a criminal psychologist stay current with industry trends and changes in laws while ensuring the value of his or her expertise to the criminal justice system. Additionally, continuing education is often required to renew licensure and certification. The American Academy of Forensic Psychology offers approved continuing education workshops covering topics such as contemporary issues in forensic psychology.

In summary, in order to become a criminal psychologist, prospective workers must earn a bachelor's degree, complete a graduate degree, gain experience, obtain licensure, and complete continuing education workshops.

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