Criminal Psychology Degree Career Guide

Criminal psychology is not recognized as a specialty by the American Psychological Association (APA), but it is very similar to forensic psychology, which is recognized by the APA.1 Both forensic and criminal psychologists work as part of the legal system, but while those with a forensic specialty work with all areas of the law and court system, criminal psychologists focus on the criminals themselves, including their behaviors, mental health symptoms and diagnoses, and profiling.

Most criminal psychologists have doctoral degrees in clinical or forensic psychology and are licensed psychologists. They may have also done a post-doctoral study or research to further specialize in criminal behavior, criminal profiling, or other related areas.

Degree Requirements and Coursework

There are few degree programs in criminal psychology, as it is not a recognized area of specialty. Students interested in pursuing a career in this field can work toward a degree in clinical or forensic psychology with a concentration in criminal justice or criminology. The concentration helps to train individuals for the unique work that criminal psychologists do. To be accepted to a master’s degree program, most schools require some undergraduate coursework in psychology and possibly criminal justice. Doctoral programs typically require that students have a degree in psychology. A minimum GPA of 3.0 and completion of the Graduate Record Examination (GRE) is usually required for admittance, as well as references and experience in the field of psychology or criminal justice.

Graduate programs in psychology with a focus on criminal psychology teach students about clinical methods, forensic psychology, criminal profiling, behavior, and criminal justice. An example of coursework includes:

  • Adult Psychopathology and Treatment
  • Analysis of Criminal Justice Processes
  • Biological Bases of Behavior
  • Criminological Theory
  • Criminal Justice Interventions
  • Drugs, Addiction, and Crime
  • Juvenile Justice
  • Mental Health and Crime
  • Types and Characteristics of Crime

Profiles of Criminal Psychology Programs

There are a few programs offering master’s degrees in psychology with a focus on criminology or criminal justice. Employment opportunities are limited for individuals with only a master’s degree. Most jobs require a licensed psychologist, which means earning a doctoral degree in a recognized area of psychology.

Master’s Programs

Tiffin University: Tiffin University offers students an MS degree in criminal justice with a concentration in forensic psychology. This may be a good option for anyone interested in pursuing further study in criminal psychology, but the degree can also lead to a career working in corrections or probation departments, administrative positions for the government, or research alongside licensed criminal or forensic psychologists. Graduates of the program have gone on to work for the FBI, the Department of Homeland Security, The US Marshal Services, US Border Patrol, and other government organizations. Tiffin’s MS program is led by faculty members who work in the field of criminal justice and can bring real-world experience to the classroom. Coursework focuses on psychology as it relates to the judicial system. To be considered for admission students need to submit transcripts for a bachelor’s degree program with a minimum GPA of 3.0. No GRE scores are needed and students with work experience are given extra consideration.

University of Nevada Reno: Another master’s-level option for students interested in this field of study is UN Reno’s MA in psychology with a focus on behavior analysis. Analyzing the behaviors of criminals is at the heart of what criminal psychologists do. This master’s degree prepares students to work in some careers, but also to continue studying clinical psychology at the doctoral level with a focus on criminology and forensic psychology. The MS program includes coursework in the principles of behavior, behavioral interventions, behavior management, analysis of language, and research methods. Students must also complete a thesis to earn the degree. The University of Nevada Reno has several satellite campuses offering this degree to students at locations around the world. Applicants must start by applying to the Graduate School and submit transcripts, a personal statement of purpose, GRE scores, and three letters of recommendation.

Doctorate Programs

John Jay College of Criminal Justice: The John Jay College of Criminal Justice is a division of the City University of New York and offers a doctoral program in psychology for students interested in pursuing forensic and criminal psychology. The clinical psychology track can lead to certification as a professional psychologist and it gives students the specialized knowledge needed to work as a criminal psychologist. Students in this program train as clinical psychologists but also learn about criminology and criminal justice. The program includes 90 credit hours of coursework and emphasizes both research and professional practice and includes a dissertation and a one-year internship. The program prepares students to become experts in providing psychological services, conducting research, teaching psychological principles, and contributing to the application of knowledge in criminal psychology. The application process includes the submission of transcripts, GRE scores, letters of recommendation, and a personal statement. Practical experience is recommended as admission to this program is highly competitive.

University of Nevada Reno: The University of Nevada at Reno offers both a master’s and a doctoral program in psychology and behavioral analysis. The PhD program trains students to work as licensed, clinical psychologists with an emphasis on behavioral analysis that can lead to a career in criminal psychology. The focus of the coursework is on human behavioral analysis from the perspective of psychology. Examples of courses include Radical Behavioralism, Research Methods in Applied Behavior Analysis, Behavioral Analysis of Language and Cognition, and Behavioral Interventions. In addition to coursework, PhD students spend 24 credit hours on research and completing a dissertation. To apply, students must submit a complete application to the graduate school that includes official transcripts, GRE scores, a personal statement, and letters of recommendation. Students must also apply specifically to the Behavior Analysis Program with a statement of purpose and letters of recommendation.

Online Programs

St. Joseph’s University: St. Joseph’s University offers working students the flexible option of an online master’s degree in criminal justice with a concentration in behavior analysis. The online degree option is a good choice for those already working in the justice system. These professionals may want to enhance their skills and knowledge on the job by earning an extra degree. This degree can also lead to admission to a doctoral program in psychology with a focus on criminal justice or forensic psychology. Examples of coursework completed in the program include Basic Principles of Behavior Analysis in Criminal Justice, Applied Behavior Analysis, Ethics in Behaviors Analysis, and Behavioral Development. Graduates of the program may be eligible to become certified as a behavior analyst by the Behavior Analyst Certification Board. The Board has approved the course sequence of the program as preparing students to pass the certification exam.

Criminal Psychology Job Description

Individuals pursuing degrees in criminal psychology and related fields have many opportunities for careers and career advancement. A criminal psychologist might work for the government, for the justice system, for mental health institutions, for juvenile justice systems, or in academic and research settings. In addition to possessing the required degrees, criminal psychologists must be good at observing behaviors, listening, and synthesizing information from multiple sources. Criminal psychologists may work for the court system, for law enforcement and government agencies like the FBI or CIA, or may work as independent consultants or expert witnesses or in educational and training facilities. They give testimony in court cases, develop profiles for criminals and help law enforcement find perpetrators of crimes.

What Jobs Can You Get with This Degree?

With a doctoral degree in criminal psychology or in clinical psychology with a concentration in forensic psychology or criminology, graduates can pursue a number of different positions. With a master’s degree, career options are more limited, but still available. Some of the jobs available to criminal psychologists include:

  • Academic researcher
  • Behavior analyst
  • Case manager
  • Criminal profiler*
  • Clinical and program director*
  • Criminal psychologist*
  • Criminal psychologist for the legal system*
  • Expert witness for the court system*
  • Forensic psychologist*
  • Law enforcement advocate
  • Rehabilitative counselor

*This job title requires a PhD or PsyD.

Frequently Asked Questions

Do I need a doctorate degree to be a criminal psychologist?

Yes, to be a certified psychologist with any kind of specialization, according to the American Board of Professional Psychology, a doctoral degree is needed.2 The certification process also requires a one-year full-time, or two-year part-time, internship and post-doctoral supervised practical experience. With a master’s degree in psychology or criminal justice, an individual has opportunities to work alongside certified psychologists and in other positions in the justice system in a support role.

Should I attend a traditional or online criminal psychology program?

For a doctoral degree in psychology, a traditional program is recommended. For a master’s program, an online degree can be a good option. It works particularly well for students who work full time and need flexibility in scheduling.

How long will it take for me to get a criminal psychology degree?

The length of any program depends on the degree. Most master’s programs take two-to-three years to complete, while doctoral programs take between four and six years to complete. Additionally, there may be another year or two of postdoctoral work in criminal psychology or for internships and guided experience.

Criminal Psychology Salary and Job Outlook

The outlook for jobs in criminal psychology is positive with projections suggesting that psychology positions generally will grow by 14% through 2026.3 The APA does not recognize criminal psychology specifically but does state that forensic psychology, a related field, is currently growing at a fast pace. According to the APA, entry-level salaries for bachelor’s and master’s degree holders in this field start at $35,000 to $40,000 per year, while salaries for doctoral degree holders start between $60,000 and $70,000 per year.4

Additional Resources

1. American Psychological Association (APA), Recognized Specialties and Proficiencies in Professional Psychology: https://www.apa.org/ed/graduate/specialize/recognized.aspx
2. American Board of Professional Psychology: https://www.abpp.org/
3. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Occupational Outlook Handbook, Psychologists: https://www.bls.gov/ooh/life-physical-and-social-science/psychologists.htm#tab-6
4. American Psychological Association, A Career in Forensic and Public Service Psychology: https://www.apa.org/action/science/forensic/education-training