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What Is a Criminal Psychology Degree?
Criminal psychology examines the thoughts, feelings, events, and behavior of offenders. Graduates with a criminal psychology degree often work in various branches of the criminal justice system, including law enforcement, the court system, and corrections. Other graduates work at mental health facilities, nonprofits, government organizations, or private practices.
Aspiring criminal psychologists often begin their educational journey with a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice, clinical psychology, counseling, or forensic psychology. Psychology and counseling programs frequently offer relevant concentrations in criminology or criminal justice. Criminal justice bachelor’s graduates earn an average salary of $56,000 annually, according to PayScale.
Criminal psychology students interested in careers as administrators, forensic psychologists, or academics often pursue master’s or doctoral degrees. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), psychologists enjoy promising job growth projections and earned an annual median salary of $80,370 in 2019.
Featured Online Programs
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Why Get a Degree in Criminal Psychology?
Criminal psychology degree programs often boast fascinating, interdisciplinary curricula that increase student understanding of society and criminal behavior. Graduates can pursue a variety of exciting careers that offer strong salary potential. The following list outlines several benefits of earning a criminal psychology degree.
Interesting Subject Matter
The popularity of media featuring crime analysis suggests that many people find the study of criminal behavior, treatment, and behavior interesting. Studying this subject matter yields expertise in individual psychology and social dynamics.
Students passionate about law enforcement, social justice, crime prevention, and/or offender rehabilitation and treatment often find criminal psychology careers rewarding and exciting.
Professionals already working within the criminal justice system can often qualify for promotions and higher pay by earning a criminal psychology degree.
Career and Salary Outlook for Criminal Psychology Graduates
Criminal psychology graduates can qualify for criminal justice careers across the three major areas of the criminal justice system: law enforcement, courts, and corrections. Some criminal psychology bachelor’s degree graduates pursue law enforcement careers, such as crime analyst and FBI agent. Salaries for these positions vary based on work experience and other credentials, but generally range from $47,000-$65,000 annually, according to PayScale.
Other criminal justice graduates work within the court system as victim advocates or forensic psychologists. Victim advocates often hold bachelor’s degrees and earn annual salaries averaging $35,415, while forensic psychologists need doctoral degrees and make about $69,855 annually.
Many criminal justice graduates advance their careers and salaries by pursuing advanced degrees or certifications that build expertise in specialized areas.
Victim advocates often work for nonprofit or governmental organizations, supporting victims of crimes. Victim advocates assist victims in creating exit plans and finding shelter, community resources, and medical help. Advocates may also accompany victims in court and educate individuals and communities about related issues. Employers typically require at least a bachelor’s degree in counseling, social work, or a related field.
These professionals analyze offenders’ mental health and behaviors to create treatment plans. This position typically requires at least a bachelor’s degree in psychology, social work, or a related field. Earning an advanced degree in criminology, psychology, or law can qualify case managers for leadership positions.
Tasked with gathering and analyzing criminal evidence, crime analysts may work in teams at crime scenes or in laboratories. These professionals enter, analyze, and report relevant data, including statistical data on crime rates within geographical areas. Crime analysts usually possess criminal justice-related bachelor’s degrees and excellent communication, analysis, and problem-solving skills.
These U.S. Department of Justice employees gather and analyze evidence of federal crimes. FBI agents usually work at regional headquarters or field offices around the country. These professionals can arrest suspects when necessary. FBI agents undergo intense physical training, and usually boast at least a bachelor’s degree. Advanced degrees can move these agents up the federal payscale and qualify them for promotion.
Usually holding doctoral degrees in psychology or counseling, these psychologists analyze crimes and criminals to make sentencing and treatment recommendations. Duties may include interviewing offenders, diagnosing mental health disorders, and creating reports for use by legal and/or mental health professionals.
The following interview with forensic psychiatrist Michael Welner illuminates an intriguing career path at the intersection of medicine, criminology, and psychology.
Read Our Interview with a Forensic Psychiatrist
Types of Criminal Psychology Degrees
Aspiring criminal psychology students typically pursue criminal justice degrees or degrees in psychology with concentrations in forensic psychology, criminology, or criminal justice. Bachelor’s degree programs take about four years of full-time study to complete. Graduates qualify for entry- and mid-level positions in corrections, law enforcement, and social work.
Leadership careers in criminal justice and psychology often require a master’s or doctoral degree. Master’s degrees usually take about half as long as doctoral degrees to complete, so many students in this field pursue master’s degrees to qualify for career and salary advancement. However, top-level criminal psychologists need a doctorate. The BLS projects a favorable job growth of 14% for psychologists during 2018-2028.
Bachelor's Degree in Criminal Psychology
Traditionally paced bachelor’s programs in criminal justice typically require about 120 credits and take four years to complete. Applicants typically must hold a high school diploma (or equivalent) and submit transcripts and ACT or SAT scores. Graduates can pursue jobs such as victim advocate, crime analyst, or correctional case manager. Bachelor’s degrees related to criminal psychology include:
BS in criminal justice
BS in psychology with a forensic psychology concentration
BS in criminology and criminal justice
Master's Degree in Criminal Psychology
Criminal psychology-related master’s programs typically require applicants to hold a bachelor’s degree with evidence of coursework in related fields. Other requirements may include GRE scores, letters of recommendation, and related professional experience. Traditional master’s programs take about two years to complete and include supervised internship experiences.
Graduates can pursue further study through a doctoral program or professional roles such as correctional treatment specialist or substance abuse and behavioral disorder counselor.
Credit requirements vary, but many criminal justice-related Ph.D. programs entail 90-130 credits, including a dissertation project, and take between 4-6 years to complete. Graduates typically pursue careers as forensic psychologists.
Many criminal psychology doctoral programs require applicants to hold a master’s degree and/or professional experience in related fields. Application requirements usually include letters of recommendation, GRE scores, and official transcripts. Titles vary for doctoral programs in this field, but may include:
Ph.D. in criminal justice
Ph.D. in justice, law, and criminology
Ph.D. in forensic psychology
Concentrations in Criminal Psychology
Students interested in law enforcement or investigative careers often look for degrees in criminal justice with a concentration in forensic psychology. Aspiring psychologists who plan to counsel victims and/or offenders may opt for psychology or counseling degrees with concentrations in criminal justice or forensic psychology.
Common criminal justice concentrations include the following:
Crime scene investigation
Available psychology program concentrations may include:
Criminal Psychology Certifications
Undergraduate and professional certificates often take less than a year to earn and cost under $5,000. Earning an undergraduate certificate can help students qualify for entry-level jobs in criminal justice.
Graduate certificates typically feature criminal psychology classes in a specialized field or skill area, and usually require students hold bachelor’s degrees in related fields. Full certification and/or licensure by the professional organizations listed below entails multiple steps and requirements beyond education requirements.
Criminal psychology course offerings differ by program, school, and degree-level, but most programs include the foundational courses described below. Courses in this field typically focus on crime origins, best practices for crime prevention, and offender treatment. Some courses draw on diverse disciplines, including counseling, law, biology, and sociology.
Criminal psychology program curricula typically require completion of core psychology coursework, concentration-related electives, and capstone projects and/or internships. Internships typically involve supervised hours working directly with clients in a relevant clinical setting, such as a jail, juvenile center, nonprofit agency, or mental health clinic.
Psychology of Criminal Behavior
This course surveys criminology and psychology theory. Students gain an understanding of motivating factors, effects, and prevention methods for criminal behavior. Topics may include mental disorders, socioeconomic and cultural variables, and social control mechanisms. This foundational course prepares students for more advanced study of criminal behavior and treatment.
Psychology of Violence
Incorporating research and theory from multiple disciplines, psychology of violence courses explore the origins, types, and consequences of aggression and violence. Students deepen their understanding of violence and violence prevention, and examine how current understandings shape media representations, law, and public policy. This course helps prepare students for careers working with violent offenders.
Forensic psychology illuminates the intersections of psychology and law, examining critical topics such as insanity pleas. Geared toward aspiring forensic psychologists, this course teaches students how to conduct psychological assessments, testify in court as expert witnesses, and make sentencing and treatment recommendations.
This course gives an overview of counseling as a profession and surveys foundational psychotherapy practices. The class prepares students for counseling work by covering skills, procedures, and practices for intakes and initial interviews, assessment, relationship-building, and termination.
Advanced Abnormal Psychology
This course trains students to recognize and address abnormal behavior. Abnormal behavior includes psychoses, neuroses, schizophrenic disorders, and character disorders. Students learn the best treatment methods for each cluster of behaviors and issues.
Selecting Your Criminal Psychology Program
Students should consider several factors when researching prospective criminal psychology programs. The following list outlines several key considerations for learners.
Students should look for programs that offer specializations or concentrations relevant to their career goals.
Many programs offer part-time and/or accelerated options. Students should consider their professional and personal obligations before deciding on an appropriate degree timeline and attendance pace.
Online vs. In-Person
Many working adults benefit from the flexibility of online programs, while others prefer the structure and engagement of in-person programs.
Programs at regionally accredited schools meet rigorous academic standards and expand employment, financial aid, and education opportunities.
Students should consider a university’s resources before committing to a program. Potential resources include counseling, career, and financial aid services.
Schools offering extracurricular clubs, institutes, and events may provide a richer, more social, and more well-rounded educational experience than schools without them.
Top programs may provide a more rigorous education and garner more attention from prospective employers than lesser-known programs.
Some schools provide salary data for program graduates. Compare these statistics across different schools to help choose a program with positive returns on investment.
Larger schools typically boast a larger alumni network, although a small but active local network also has great value.
Should You Get Your Criminal Psychology Degree Online?
Increasingly available and popular, online education allows busy adults to go back to school while still working. Many working professionals earn online degrees to qualify for career transition or advancement.
Students can choose from hundreds of online criminal justice degree programs. Online learning gives students the flexibility to balance their studies with personal and professional obligations. However, online students need high levels of self-discipline and accountability to work independently and manage time effectively.
Full-time programs require considerable time and energy, so professionals with demanding jobs often choose part-time program options. Meanwhile, students wishing to expedite graduation often choose accelerated programs.
Accreditation for Criminal Psychology Schools and Programs
Accrediting agencies approved by the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA) evaluate schools and assign institutional accreditation based on various academic quality measures. The federal government only grants financial aid to qualifying students attending accredited institutions.
CHEA’s regional accreditors impose more rigorous standards than national accreditors, so the former holds higher prestige. Regionally accredited schools only recognize degrees and credits from equivalently accredited schools, so students planning to earn advanced degrees should bear this in mind. Regional accrediting agencies include:
Criminal psychology degree programs may also hold programmatic accreditation by the American Psychological Association, a major professional organization that sets standards for the discipline.
Frequently Asked Questions
How long will it take to complete a criminal psychology degree?
Bachelor’s programs in criminal psychology usually require 120-130 credits and take four years of full-time attendance to complete. Master’s programs traditionally take two years and doctoral programs take about five years.
How much will I make with a degree in criminal psychology?
Salaries vary by factors like degree, position, and experience. Bachelor’s degree graduates in social work positions often make around $40,000 annually, while specialized federal employees often make twice as much. Licensed psychologists with doctoral degrees average close to $70,000, annually, according to PayScale.
What kind of jobs can you get with a criminal psychology degree?
Criminal psychology degree-holders often work for the government, in law enforcement roles, or in social work or mental health roles. Bachelor’s degree graduates can qualify for jobs including victim advocate, correctional case manager, and FBI or DEA agent. Graduates of doctoral programs often work as criminal or forensic psychologists.
What is the difference between criminal psychology and forensic psychology?
Often used interchangeably, criminal psychology often focuses more specifically on criminal behavior, while forensic psychology examines forensics, psychology, and crime.
Do you need to be licensed to be a criminal psychologist?
Licensure or certification requirements depend on the nature of the psychologist’s patient interactions. Clinical psychologists need licenses to practice.
Scholarships for Criminal Psychology Programs
Students can take advantage of financial aid opportunities to help offset the costs of tuition, such as grants, loans, and scholarships. Scholarship funds may come from various sources, including school programs, professional organizations, private donors, and governmental programs. We highlight several scholarships for criminal psychology students below.
Violet and Cyril Franks Scholarship
Who Can Apply: This scholarship supports graduate students working on research projects that aim to reduce mental illness stigma. Applicants need to be in good standing at an accredited university, demonstrate commitment to stigma issues, and hold IRB approval for their research.
Who Can Apply: Master’s or doctoral students enrolled in or planning to enroll in Ph.D. programs may apply for this scholarship. Candidates receive nominations from psychology departments at member schools.
Who Can Apply: Current American Psychology-Law Society student members belonging to underrepresented groups (including first-generation college students) and/or conducting psycholegal research on diversity can apply.
Who Can Apply: Qualified graduate students studying forensics at accredited graduate schools can apply. Applicants must boast good academic standing, AAFS or AFBA affiliation, and leadership experience.