PhD in Criminal Psychology: Program Summary

Students who want to understand criminal behavior can pursue a degree in criminal psychology. Although there are currently no PhD programs specifically in criminal psychology, there are PhD programs in forensic psychology, a field that links psychology and criminal justice.

Essential Information

Forensic psychologists are professional psychologists whose findings are relied upon by courts for decisions on a variety of legal issues and cases. Most forensic psychology PhD programs are clinically focused, meaning that they teach students to work directly with patients. Students may learn to administer cognitive and personality tests or risk assessments to offenders. They work with the different populations encountered by forensic psychologists including criminals, families, children and victims. Programs also cover the U.S. legal system. Graduates of these programs are psychologists and must pursue licensure in order to practice.

Some doctoral programs are more research-oriented, meaning that they teach students how to create and conduct research studies and validate their findings. There is far less emphasis on clinical work in this type of program, although many of the same topics are covered. Graduates of this type of program do not usually work directly with patients. Many graduate programs require a final dissertation or research project.

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PhD in Criminal Psychology

Applicants should have at least a bachelor's degree, preferably in psychology or criminal justice. Students lacking the appropriate background will likely need to complete additional classes to make up the deficiency. Schools may require a minimum score on the Graduate Record Exam (GRE) and may also require a score from the psychology subject test.

Coursework includes general and elective psychology classes as well as classes in criminal justice. Usually there are some practical requirements, some of which may be completed at off-campus sites such as mental health clinics, hospitals or correctional institutions. Class topics can include:

  • Social and criminal psychology
  • Psychopharmacology
  • Neuropsychology
  • Psychopathology
  • Biological impacts on behavior
  • Mental health and public policy

Popular Career Options

From what is portrayed in popular television shows and movies, many people think of a forensic psychologist as someone who works for the FBI capturing serial killers. While this may be true for some forensic psychologists, it is not true for all. Forensic psychologists may help analyze eyewitness testimony or consult with family courts on child custody matters. Some career options can include:

  • Jury consultant
  • Public policy analyst
  • Victim advocate
  • Administrator
  • Researcher and teacher

Employment Outlook and Salary Information

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) career opportunities for psychologists in general are estimated to grow by 19% from 2014 to 2024, which is much faster than the national average for all careers. The BLS also reports that general psychologists earned a mean annual salary of $93,050 in 2015 ( As of January 2016, lists a median salary range of $38,833 to $107,764 per year for forensic psychologists.

Continuing Education

Students are usually eligible to become licensed psychologists upon completion of the program. Programs that are more research oriented may not meet state requirements for licensure and graduates of these programs, while psychologists, may not be able to work with patients, although they are well qualified to teach, conduct research and consult on criminal issues. Most states also require continuing education to maintain licensure. There are many ways of obtaining needed continuing medical education credits.

Ph.D. programs in criminal psychology offer students a wide range of options for entering this field, from clinical experience to more research-oriented courses of study. A Ph.D. in criminal psychology opens the door for a number of different careers in psychology, law and criminal justice.

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