Hollywood often glamorizes the role of a forensic psychologist. With popular crime shows hitting prime-time television, false information may be spread about this area of psychological expertise.
While television may portray forensic psychologists as professional crimefighters who identify criminals by examining their personalities and behaviors, real forensic psychologists are professionals that apply clinical psychology practices in the legal world. If you are interested in pursuing a career in forensic psychology (aka criminal psychology) or want to understand what it means, learning more about the job description can be helpful.
What Is Criminal Psychology?
According to the American Psychological Association (APA), forensic psychology is the application of clinical psychology practices in the legal field. These practices may be assessing, treating, and evaluating people or situations and applying psychological knowledge. In some cases, criminal psychology involves research and experimentation.
Popular television shows often portray a forensic psychologist as a complex, brooding genius- someone whose mind is so advanced that they alone understand an unidentified serial killer's thought processes and motivations. Like the famous Sherlock Holmes, forensic psychologists might be portrayed as "psychological detectives" who can pick up on the slightest details to crack a complex case.
While this image can make for exciting storytelling, the career of a forensic psychologist is much broader and more administrative. Many criminal psychology professionals are not chasing criminals with secret-agent flair. They may be sitting in treatment offices, conducting research, working at desks, or helping others in their community.
These professionals spend significant time treating patients, assessing a person's ability to stand trial, working with crime survivors, and writing reports. They collaborate with the judicial system to reduce crime rates, help offenders re-enter society, and advocate for children in the case of family matters. They also work with companies to identify or prevent fraud and devise school safety plans. They might work with children, adults, criminals, innocent people, individuals, and groups.
On occasion, an expert forensic psychologist may consult on a high-profile crime. For example, during the trial for the murder of Arizona resident Travis Alexander, his accused killer, ex-girlfriend Jodi Arias, underwent an extensive evaluation to determine whether she was mentally fit to stand trial. You can find criminal psychology professionals like Dr. Reid Meloy who step in during serious tragedies to offer insight into the minds of those who commit heinous acts.
While forensic psychologists may publish books, interviews, and articles, their knowledge stretches far beyond crimes. A forensic psychologist is often most active in everyday legal situations, though there can be exceptions.
Are Criminal Psychology Professionals "Profilers?"
Sometimes, the term "criminal psychologist" or "profiler" is used interchangeably with "forensic psychologist." While the two roles are related, criminal psychologists or "profilers" are criminal psychology professionals who have dedicated their careers to understanding the minds of criminals.
These workers often work closely with offenders, study their behaviors, evaluate crime scenes, and give insight into motives. The duties of forensic and criminal psychologists overlap in some ways. However, someone who identifies strictly as a "criminal psychologist" may be employed with the police or FBI more than with legal agencies.
What Makes A Criminal Psychology Professional Different?
Forensic psychologists have the proper credentials to treat and work with patients. Clinical criminal psychology, the practice of treating patients directly, occurs in many facilities. Still, the motivation for working with one may differ from using a general practice psychologist.
Criminal psychology professionals use their unique combination of skills and education to assess individuals involved with the legal system. They might serve as an expert witness in a court case, conduct research, and evaluate people who are involved with the legal system, such as police officers, crime survivors, and people who have been arrested for a crime.
There may be a direct relationship with a court or a specific law in many cases. While they may help their patients work through mental illness or behavioral concerns like anger, anxiety, or depression, the reason might be purely legal.
What Is The History Of Criminal Psychology?
Although criminal psychology is a thriving career choice in modern society, history shows a slow beginning. While crime has existed presumably throughout human history, an appreciation for the relationship between the law and the mind wasn't heavily explored until the 1900s.
At the beginning of the 20th century, Hugo Munsterberg was the director of Harvard's Psychological Laboratory. In 1908 he wrote "On the Witness Stand," a book that explored topics like eyewitness testimony and crime prevention. While his ideas were controversial, his opponents could not ignore the potential value of introducing psychology into the courtroom. However, it took several practical cases to support that need.
One of those cases took place that same year. Louis Brandeis, a lawyer from Boston, worked on the case of Mueller vs. Oregon. He presented empirical research showing that long working hours impacted women's health. This research was the first time in US history that social science was used as part of a brief. The case opened the door for legal acceptance of social and psychological research, but it would still take some time to become standard practice.
From the early 1900s to the late 1960s, a formal path for criminal psychology was still evolving. While some cases, like Jenkins vs. the United States, promoted the use of psychology in the courtroom, many experts hesitated to replace medical doctors with those with degrees in psychology.
In 1968, psychologists Jay Ziskin and Eric Dreikurs formed the first criminal psychology professional association. Thus, the relationship between the mind and the law gained credibility and acceptance.
Today, criminal psychology plays a part throughout the legal system. Current research explores hot topics like false allegations, threat management, and the rights of terrorists. Some professionals expand their knowledge to other fields, like forensic neuropsychology, to offer their clients a medical and psychological perspective. They work to defend survivors as needed, including in class action lawsuits and military court-marshal cases. Some forensic psychologists also work as university professors.
How Do You Become A Criminal Psychology Professional?
Criminal psychology requires an advanced degree. To start on the path to this degree, you can first achieve a Bachelor of Science degree (instead of a Bachelor of Arts) to meet the prerequisites for further education. Many students pursue their degree in psychology with a minor or dual major in criminology or law. However, it may be advised to tailor one's academic path to what best fits their future career goals.
Upon earning a bachelor's degree, alums may pursue a graduate degree, such as a master's degree. Those looking to become psychologists must then receive a Ph.D. or PsyD. Instead of learning the basics about psychology, law, health, and science, graduate students often study theoretical and research-based practices. Their classes may include personality assessment, crisis counseling, ethics, and psychology practice.
While many academic qualifications can prepare someone for a career in criminal psychology, it may be beneficial for a candidate to ensure their personality and skills are also a fit. The skills that might be beneficial for this role are strong communication, attention to detail, and critical thinking. In addition, a forensic psychologist may benefit from remaining objective in high-stakes situations. Moral or ethical views cannot sway their opinion about a patient or legal process.
The role also calls for resilience. A criminal psychology professional may regularly deal with complex topics like child abuse, domestic violence, substance use, and death.
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If you are struggling with substance use, contact the SAMHSA National Helpline at (800) 662-4357 to receive support and resources.
Professional Career Guidance Support For Criminal Psychology
There may be more to criminal psychology than meets the eye, and these professionals are found in various environments. While you might see a forensic psychologist working with detectives, you can also find many in hospitals, schools, businesses, or outpatient settings. Becoming a forensic psychologist can be an extended process. Still, many psychologists enjoy supporting and defending others and making a difference in the lives of survivors of crime.
If you are interested in pursuing a new career or unsure what path to take, consider contacting a career counselor for guidance. If you live in a remote location or feel most comfortable meeting with a therapist in the comfort of your home, you can also talk to an online therapist. Online therapy may be an ideal option for those looking for career counseling that meets their busy schedule. Research supports virtual therapy, proving it to be as beneficial as in-person options, with the potential added benefits of convenience and cost-effectiveness.
Platforms like BetterHelp can connect you with one of over 30,000 therapists and counselors to help you discover your path to a career that fits. When you sign up for an online platform, you can clarify your goals for treatment and the types of subjects you'd like to address, whether it is career counseling or discussing the mental health impacts of your job, among other subjects. This flexibility can benefit those who can't find a relevant provider in their immediate area.
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)
Below are a few of the most frequently asked questions about criminal psychology.
Is Forensic Psychology Dangerous?
Being a criminal psychology professional may not be as dangerous as it looks on TV. However, there might be more of an element of danger to the job than a traditional psychologist might face. As a forensic psychologist, you might be required to interview individuals who are impulsive and violent. In some cases, you might be interviewing them one-on-one in a prison. If a scenario arises where you feel uncomfortable in your capacity as a forensic psychologist, you may have to take steps to defend yourself. However, you may receive training on these scenarios if you work with an agency.
What Is The Difference Between A Forensic Psychologist And A Criminal Psychologist?
Criminal psychology have some aspects in common, but a few distinctions separate them. Forensic psychologists work with many aspects of the legal system. For example, they might work in criminal or civil law, interview survivors, counsel juvenile offenders, testify in court, or design treatment programs for at-risk youth.
The difference between a forensic psychologist and a criminal psychologist is that where a forensic psychologist might work with survivors and juries, a criminal psychologist works almost exclusively with criminals. They might work as criminal profilers with the FBI or the police, and a typical workday might involve interviewing criminals and constructing psychological profiles.
Do Criminal Psychologists Work With Serial Killers?
Some criminal psychologists may be called in to work with a serial killer. However, working with serial killers is not a guaranteed facet of a criminal psychologist's job. If a case arose where they were needed, they may be called in by the court, police, or prison staff.
Is Psychology Or Criminology Better?
The answer to this question may depend on your chosen profession. Both psychology and criminology are valid and respected fields of study, and they both have the potential to help the world, so it may not be possible to choose one over the other on an objective scale.
However, there are a few differences between these fields. Psychology is the study of the mind, whereas criminology is the study of crime. Being a criminologist and being a criminal psychologist is not the same. However, if you wanted to work as a psychologist in the legal system, you might prefer a career as a forensic psychologist. If you prefer to work with criminals, you might enjoy pursuing a career in criminology or criminal psychology.
What Is A Forensic Criminologist?
A forensic criminologist is someone who studies crime. Forensic criminologists focus primarily on the sociological aspects of crime rather than criminal psychology. One way to remember the difference between psychology and sociology is that psychology is the study of "me," while sociology is the study of "we."
Psychology examines the inner workings of the individual, while sociology studies the complex relationships between groups of human beings and the psychological, biological, and environmental factors that shape them. A forensic criminologist might study the social environment of a prison or town with high crime rates. They could then use their findings to inform law enforcement about their understanding of this criminal behavior related to forensic knowledge.
What Can I Do With A Criminology Degree?
Many people assume that a criminologist's job is the same as being a crime scene investigator (CSI). However, criminology careers may be more academic than hands-on. With a degree in criminology, you might work as an academic advisor in a prison or rehabilitation facility for juvenile offenders or a university or laboratory as a researcher. Many people with criminology degrees also work as probation officers, forensic science technicians, or jury consultants.
Is Criminology A Psychology Or Sociology Degree?
Criminology is a blend of psychology and sociology. A criminologist uses elements of both sciences to understand crime and criminal behavior. However, if you were to search for a criminology degree program at a university, criminology may be listed under the sociology department because it primarily examines crime through a sociological lens.
Is "Criminal Profiler" A Real Job?
Yes. Criminal Profiler is a real job. However, it can be highly competitive, and the supply of candidates may outweigh the demand for positions of this type.
Is "FBI Profiler" A Real Job?
Yes. Although there are some exceptions, FBI and criminal profilers are often considered to have the same career. It can be challenging to get a career as an FBI profiler, as the FBI has strict requirements for employment and may not be hiring.
How Do You Become A Profiler For The FBI?
If you want to become a criminal profiler for the FBI, know it may be difficult. This position within the FBI can be competitive. Many people start with experience in law enforcement or other criminology-related careers before applying. In addition, to be considered for the job, you must meet several legal and physical requirements. You may also undergo a lengthy interview process, investigation, background check, and orientation before being hired.
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