Criminal Psychology Degree and 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 mental state of offenders, 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.
Table of Contents
- Criminal Psychology Degree Requirements and Coursework
- Select Criminal Psychology Degree Programs
- Criminal Psychologist Career Information
- Becoming a Criminal Psychologist
- Job Description
- Salary and Job Outlook
- Additional Resources
- Frequently Asked Questions
Degree Requirements and Coursework
There are few degree programs in criminal psychology, as it is not a recognized area of specialty; therefore, students interested in pursuing a career in this field may wish to work toward a degree in clinical or forensic psychology with a specialization (also called concentration, specialty, or emphasis) in criminal justice or criminology. Alternatively, aspiring criminal psychologists may also pursue a degree in criminal justice with a psychology-related focus. Such concentrations can train students for the unique work that criminal psychologists do. To be accepted into a master’s degree program, most schools require some undergraduate coursework in psychology or a related field. Doctoral programs typically require that students have a degree in psychology and most include a master’s degree as part of the course of study. A minimum GPA of 3.0 and completion of the Graduate Record Examination (GRE) is typically required for admittance, as well as references and experience in the field of psychology or criminal justice.
Graduate programs in psychology with a focus in criminal psychology teach students about clinical methods, forensic psychology, criminal profiling, behavior, and criminal justice. Some examples of common coursework include:
- 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
Select Criminal Psychology Degree Programs
Traditional Master’s Programs
Tiffin University offers students a Master of Science (MS) degree in Criminal Justice with a 30-credit concentration in Forensic Psychology. This 42- to 43-hour MS degree may be a good option for anyone interested in pursuing further study in criminal psychology and 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. Past graduates of the program have been employed by the FBI, the Department of Homeland Security, The US Marshals Service, US Border Patrol, and other organizations. Tiffin’s MS program is led by faculty members who work in the field of criminal justice and 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 from a bachelor’s degree program with a minimum GPA of 3.0. No GRE scores are needed and students with work experience are given special consideration.
Another master’s-level option for students interested in this field of study is the University of Nevada, Reno’s Master of Arts (MA) in Psychology with a specialization in Behavior Analysis. Analyzing the behaviors of offenders is at the heart of what criminal psychologists do. This 36-credit master’s degree prepares students to enter the workforce and also prepares students to continue their clinical psychology study at the doctoral level with a focus on criminology and forensic psychology. The MA program includes courses such as Principles of Behavior, Behavioral Interventions, Behavior Management and Consultation, Analysis of Language, and Research Methods. Students must also complete a six-credit thesis to earn the degree. Graduates will have met the eligibility requirements to take the Board Certified Behavior Analyst exam from the Behavior Analysis Certification Board. Applicants must start with applying to the Graduate School by submitting transcripts, a completed application, and GRE scores; to apply to the Behavior Analysis program, three letters of recommendation, a curriculum vitae (CV), and a statement of purpose will be required.
Traditional Doctoral Programs
The John Jay College of Criminal Justice is a division of the City University of New York (CUNY) and offers a doctoral program in psychology for students interested in pursuing forensic and criminal psychology by requiring students to complete a special proficiency in clinical forensic applications and scholarship. The Clinical Psychology track can lead to certification as a professional psychologist and 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, in keeping with the mission of the John Jay College of Criminal Justice. The program includes 90 credit hours of coursework that 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.
The University of Nevada, Reno also offers a Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) in Psychology with a Behavioral Analysis concentration. Accredited by the Association for Behavior Analysis International (ABAI), 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. Unique to the University of Nevada, Reno’s program is its focus on historical behavior-environment relations. 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 and GRE scores; a personal statement, curriculum vitae (CV), and three letters of recommendation will additionally be necessary to apply to the behavioral analysis program.
St. Joseph’s University offers working students the flexible option of an online Master of Science (MS) 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 who want to enhance their skills and knowledge on the job. 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, Behavioral Analysis Ethics, and Behavioral Development. Graduates of the program may be eligible to become Certified Behavior Analysts by the Behavior Analyst Certification Board, as the Board has approved the course sequence of the program as preparing students to pass the certification exam.
Criminal Psychologist Career Information
How to Become a Criminal Psychologist
A doctoral degree is required in all 50 states to become a licensed psychologist. In addition to a doctoral degree in clinical psychology, candidates for licensure must accumulate a certain amount of supervised experience and take the exams required by their state. In order to become a criminal psychologist, you will need to follow these general steps:
- Earn a bachelor’s degree and (optionally) a master’s degree in psychology or a related field.
- Earn an accredited doctoral degree in psychology with a focus in criminal justice or criminology.
- Accumulate the supervised clinical experience hours required by your state.
- Pass the exams required by your state board, including the Examination for Professional Practice in Psychology (EPPP).
- Apply for and receive a clinical psychology license from the state board of psychology.
- Begin practicing as a licensed social psychologist.
- Complete the continuing education requirements in your state in order to maintain your license.
Individuals pursuing degrees in criminal psychology and related fields have many opportunities for new careers as well as career advancement. A criminal psychologist might work in government, the justice system, mental health institutions, juvenile justice systems, or academic and research settings. Other criminal psychologists may work for specialty government agencies like the FBI or CIA or may work as independent consultants or expert witnesses or in educational and training facilities. In addition to possessing the required degrees, criminal psychologists must be good at observing behaviors, listening, and synthesizing information from multiple sources. They may give testimony in court cases, develop profiles of 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
*A doctoral degree is usually required for this job title.
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 2028.3 According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the median salary for psychologists working in government, which includes those criminal psychologists working for the FBI, CIA, and Homeland Security, is $96,870 per year.3 As mentioned, the APA does not recognize criminal psychology specifically but does state that forensic psychology, a related field, is currently growing at a fast pace.4 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
- American Psychological Association (APA) American Psychology-Law Society (Division 41): Affiliated with the APA, Division 41 focuses on the intersections of law and psychology and provides members with resources for careers, graduate programs, conferences, and more.
- American Board of Professional Psychology (ABPP): Any professional psychologist can be certified through the ABPP, although the organization does not have a specific certification for criminal specialties.
- International Association for Correctional and Forensic Psychology (IACFP): Membership is open to anyone with a degree in the behavioral sciences and members can network with other professionals and get access to educational resources.
- Society for Police and Criminal Psychology (SPCP): Brings together a wide variety of professionals working in the field of criminal justice to share resources and to promote the study of criminal psychology and criminal justice.
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 (ABPP), a doctoral degree is needed.2 The certification process also requires a one-year full-time, or two-year part-time, internship and postdoctoral 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?
Whether to pursue a traditional or online degree in psychology is up to each student. Online and hybrid options work particularly well for students who work full time and need flexibility in scheduling. Traditional programs are best for students who wish to attend school full time or who prefer in-person learning in a traditional setting. Keep in mind that most psychology degrees involve an internship component that will need to be completed in person regardless of the program format chosen.
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.
Are there master’s degrees in criminal psychology?
There are some programs offering master’s degrees in psychology with a focus on criminology or criminal justice, and others with a focus on behavioral analysis. Employment opportunities are more limited in this field for individuals with only a master’s degree. Many jobs require a clinical psychologist license, which includes earning a doctoral degree in a recognized area of psychology as well as earning supervised experience and passing state exams.
What is the difference between criminal psychology and forensic psychology?
While both criminal and forensic psychologists work in the broad field of law enforcement and both careers seek to understand the psychology of criminals and help solve crimes, criminal psychologists focus primarily on offenders and the factors that influence their behavior while forensic psychologists study not only offenders, but victims, witnesses, members of law enforcement, and others affected by crime. Thus, forensic psychology is a bit broader in scope than criminal psychology.
1. American Psychological Association (APA), Recognized Specialties and Proficiencies in Professional Psychology: https://www.apa.org/ed/graduate/specialize/recognized
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
4. American Psychological Association, A Career in Forensic and Public Service Psychology: https://www.apa.org/action/science/forensic/education-training