There are several different ways to approach a career in criminal psychology, but getting a university degree and taking on a range of work experiences are two of the most basic things you’ll need to do to get started. Criminal psychologists, also sometimes known as forensic psychologists, work in many different settings. Some are employed by police departments or national law enforcement agencies, while others work as private consultants, teachers, or analysts. Different jobs have different requirements, but education and basic field experience are almost universally essential.
To be successful, a criminal psychologist needs a lot of expertise when it comes to understanding the thoughts and mental health patterns of prisoners, witnesses to crimes, and those suspected of various wrongdoings. Some of what this professional knows can be learned on the job, but the bulk of it requires a more formal academic background. This almost always comes in the form of a university degree.
There is no single program needed to become a criminal psychologist, but it’s usually a good idea to get a degree in a field that’s at least somewhat related to what you want to do. Studying basic psychology is always a solid option, as is sociology; biology, chemistry, and criminal justice are compelling degree programs, as well. Though it can be possible to advance in the field with a degree in something completely unrelated — literature, for instance, or politics — setting the foundation for your career as early as possible will make your chances of finding the job you want much easier.
Not all criminal psychologists have graduate degrees, but most do. Further education is a chance to really focus in on a specific area, and is also one of the best ways to command respect and attention in the workplace. An undergraduate degree in psychology may open the door to a career with a police force, for instance, or as an investigator, but it will be very difficult to move up the rungs and be promoted to positions of more responsibility without further, more nuanced training. Graduate school is the best place for this.
Master’s and doctorate programs in psychology and sociology are usually the best places to study criminal procedure and forensics in depth, and most allow students to tailor their own learning and set their own curriculum, at least to an extent. Law schools and medical programs can also be helpful depending on what you want to do. It can be advantageous for someone who wants to work as a psychological consultant to a criminal court to have a legal background, for instance, and a person who works with the mentally ill in the medical ward of a prison or government-run hospital might find it advantageous to be trained as a physician or nurse.
No matter which path you end up taking, you’ll want to be sure that you stay focused. Look for a school that has a strong criminal psychology faculty, or that supports forensics research — both of these are clues that a school will give you the education you need. If you’re unsure about where to apply or how to choose between programs, it may help to talk to professionals who are already working in the kind of job you want. Many people who are already established in their careers are eager to help those who are just starting, particularly if all you’re asking for is basic advice.
It usually a good idea to begin looking for work opportunities or internships as early as possible, preferably during the summer or part-time during the year while you are a student. Many prisons, police departments, and community health organizations will hire university students as interns. The pay is often really low for these jobs, and many are actually volunteer-based. In most cases, though, they are valuable more for the experiences and connections they give rise to than the money that can be earned.
Earning excellent grades from a top program will look good, but no amount of book learning can take the place of actual hands-on knowledge. Work experience is one of the best ways to bridge the gap between the classroom and the real world, and actually participating in the field will help you figure out what you want to do once you graduate. Getting this sort of clarity early on can save a lot of trouble and confusion later.
Another good way to break into the field is to join one of the many student organizations dedicated to criminal psychology. Some of these are based out of specific university campuses, but others are regional, national, or even worldwide. Attending conferences is also a good idea. Many conferences offer free or discounted registration to students, and can be a great way to both learn about the career path and network with established professionals. Subscribing to scholarly journals and trade publications can also help you stay current with what is happening outside of academia.
Actually getting hired can be one of the hardest parts of your journey to become a criminal psychologist. Depending on how popular your chosen area of expertise is, there may be more candidates than there are jobs. In these cases, you should be prepared to branch out and look for work in fields that are similar — if you want to work in a juvenile detention system, for instance, working in a standard prison may be an alternative starting place, or if consulting with national law enforcement is your dream, starting smaller with a local police corps may be your next best option. The important thing is to get some sort of work experience that you can use to build towards your ideal position.
The Importance of Research
Criminal psychology, like so many scientific fields, changes almost constantly. New updates and discoveries change best practices, and professionals working in the field have to keep up with what is new and current. In order to be successful, you will need to stay informed of these trends, and depending on your field you may actually need to contribute to the research pool yourself. Publishing papers and conducting studies is a big part of the job for many people.
Continuing Education and Licensing
Finally landing the job you want may seem like the finish line, but most criminal psychologists juggle a range of professional responsibilities unrelated to their day-to-day jobs. Different places have different rules, but in most jurisdictions psychology professionals have to be licensed, which often involves a test or exam of some sort. You may also be required to participate in “continuing education” courses or lectures to keep your credentials current.