A criminal psychologist often called a forensic psychologist, is someone who applies psychological theory and practice to the criminal justice world. If it sounds like an exciting career, you’re right!
While criminal psychology isn’t as “romantic” like TV shows and movies make it out to be, it is an attractive, fast-paced line of work. As a criminal psychologist, you can significantly impact many people’s lives, from victims of crime to law enforcement officials to people accused of crimes they did not commit.
The question, of course, is how to become a criminal psychologist. It can be a long journey, but it is well worth the wait.
Complete a Bachelor’s Degree
The first step in the process of becoming a criminal psychologist is to complete a bachelor’s degree program. Many students want to become criminal psychologists majoring in psychology. Others choose to major in criminal justice. Yet others might double-major in both, or major in one area and minor in another. It just depends on the career track you want to take.
For example, suppose your goal is to be a criminal psychologist that works for a law enforcement agency. In that case, double-majoring might be the best option. But if you want to open a private practice and offer your services as a criminal psychologist to clients, majoring in psychology at this point would likely be a better option.
In most cases, an undergraduate degree takes about four years to complete. If you add a minor or a double-major, you might add a semester or two to the timeline. Still, you should have no problem finishing your studies in about four or five years.
The coursework in a bachelor’s degree program is pretty broad. You will take general education courses – math, science, humanities, and so forth – and major-area courses. These courses, including required core classes and elective classes, focus on your particular major.
So, if you major in criminal justice, you might take courses in criminology, introduction to law enforcement, the court system, and criminal law, to name a few.
Look for Learning Experiences Outside the Classroom
For your undergraduate studies, it’s helpful if you seek out opportunities to learn about criminal psychology outside of the classroom.
This might be as simple as sitting down and talking about criminal psychology with a practicing criminal psychologist. You might also look for opportunities to job shadow, participate in a practicum, or participate in an internship.
The benefits you derive from these activities are many. You can apply what you’ve learned in class to real-world situations. You can see how professional criminal psychologists go about their day and apply psychological principles to their work. It’s also an excellent opportunity to network and connect within criminal psychology.
Additionally, getting some out-of-class experiences will help you get into a graduate program, which is the next step in the process of becoming a criminal psychologist.
Get a Master’s Degree
While a bachelor’s degree can help you get your foot in the door for entry-level positions in criminal psychology (e.g., as a research assistant), you will need a master’s degree to become a criminal psychologist.
In most cases, master’s degree programs in this field take two or three years to complete. These programs are much more advanced in their studies. You’ll find that the coursework you have to complete is much more high-level and focused on criminal psychology.
For example, in your undergraduate studies, you will likely take courses like Introduction to Psychology, which is a comprehensive course that doesn’t go into much detail about any particular topic.
Yet, in your graduate studies, you’ll take courses on specific topics – Criminal Profiling, for example – that dive deep into the knowledge and skills required to work in this field.
Most graduate programs in criminal psychology also include practicum and internship opportunities as part of the curriculum. This means that you will earn credits toward graduation while getting the chance to work under the guidance of an expert criminal psychologist.
In some cases, graduate programs will also require a thesis or capstone project. In either case, the purpose of these requirements is to allow you to conduct thorough research into a specific topic and demonstrate your understanding of criminal psychology concepts as a last step before graduation.
Get Licensed or Certified
For some criminal psychologists, it’s prudent to continue their education to get a Ph.D. However, a master’s degree is sufficient in many cases, particularly if you are licensed and/or certified.
Only some criminal psychology careers require licensure (e.g., if you work in private practice), so check with your state’s licensing board to see if it’s a requirement for your selected line of work.
Certifications, on the other hand, may or may not be required, but they offer you additional means of developing more skills and deepening your knowledge of criminal psychology. This is an obvious benefit to you and your clientele, no matter who they might be.
Certifications from professional organizations often allow you to add credentials to your title, like Certified Forensic Psychologist. Doing so gives you additional credibility and indicates to others that you have robust training in this field.