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Criminal Psychology vs. Forensic Psychology: Which Is Right for You?

Popular TV shows such as “Criminal Minds” and “CSI” have created specific notions about forensic psychology and criminal psychology. This has led to some misconceptions about the day-to-day work of forensic psychologists and criminal psychologists, both of whom are important in law enforcement. While both jobs are exciting and offer variety in their daily tasks, environments, and clients, it is important for all prospective criminal and forensic psychologists to have a clear understanding of each profession before diving into a degree program.

Forensic psychologist interviews a witness

While real life isn’t always as glamorous as TV, those hoping to work in either of these professional capacities can expect to make meaningful contributions to the safety of the community through an understanding of the mechanics of crime.

While there are many similarities between these jobs, there are also distinct differences between forensic and criminal psychologists, including the roles they play in law enforcement, the education required, and the career possibilities. Those considering either of these professional paths should acquaint themselves with these differences, as well as how each profession operates in law enforcement and the criminal justice system.

Criminal Psychology Overview

Criminal psychologists seek to understand the motivations of criminals and develop a psychological profile to understand or apprehend them. They examine individual criminal behaviors and diagnose any mental health conditions. They frequently step into the courtroom to provide expert testimony. Other duties include counseling individuals who have committed crimes or evaluating their risk of recidivism.

Becoming a criminal psychologist requires a doctorate in psychology and a license to practice. These professionals have usually completed postdoctoral study or research in criminal behavior or profiling. Criminal psychologists often come from a law enforcement background, bringing skills learned in the field to graduate programs, where they refine their psychological profiling abilities. There are many other positions in this field, however, and many who study criminal psychology go on to work in social service or in a field related to law enforcement, often as corrections and probation officers, or as police, fire, emergency, and ambulance dispatchers.

Criminal Psychology Salaries and Job Outlook

PayScale reports the average criminal psychologist’s salary is around $58,000 as of August 2019. Although the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) does not keep specific data on criminal psychologists, it projects employment for psychologists of all kinds to grow 14% from 2016 to 2026, much faster than the national average for all occupations (7%). Opportunities in the field and the average rate of pay vary across the country and in conjunction with individual experience. Other jobs in this field, like probation officers and correctional treatment specialists, offer $53,020 annually according to the BLS, while jobs like police, fire, and ambulance dispatchers are growing at an average rate, and pay $40,660 annually.

Forensic Psychology Overview

To understand the difference between a criminal psychology and forensic psychology degree, it’s important to understand how each field fits in the criminal justice system as a whole. Forensic psychology is a broad field that applies the principles of psychology to the criminal justice system and law. Forensic psychologists consult with law enforcement to integrate psychology into both criminal and civil legal matters. Their duties can include selecting juries, evaluating witnesses, and conducting mental health evaluations.

During undergraduate study, many forensic psychologists major in psychology or forensic psychology and go on to complete internships and postgraduate training in law enforcement. Becoming a forensic psychologist requires a PhD or a Doctor of Psychology (PsyD), though there are many entry-level opportunities in the field, including as a victim advocate, corrections specialist, or probation officer. In these professional paths, individuals can gain a thorough understanding of the philosophy, standards, and processes of the judicial system.

Forensic Psychology Salaries and Job Outlook

PayScale reports the average forensic psychologist’s salary is around $67,000 as of August 2019. Again, while the BLS doesn’t keep data on this specific profession, it projects employment for psychologists of all kinds to grow 14% from 2016 to 2026.

There are multiple possible jobs available for those wishing to work in this field, including forensic psychologist and forensic psychiatrist. While each of these roles requires a doctorate, with an online Bachelor of Arts in Forensic Psychology, graduates can pursue entry-level work in corrections, law enforcement, social work, or psychiatry.

Similarities Between Criminal Psychology and Forensic Psychology

Criminal psychology and forensic psychology are both strongly connected to law enforcement. Each profession supports investigations, whether criminal or civil. It is the aim of professionals in both fields to work with law enforcement to understand the psychology of criminals and solve crimes. Professionals in each of these fields benefit from academic study and practical experience in criminal justice.

Differences Between Criminal Psychology and Forensic Psychology

When comparing criminal psychology vs. forensic psychology, it’s important to understand key differences, both between the careers themselves and the typical paths that lead to each. From the education required to what their daily work looks like, there are some points of divergence between these two paths.

Educational Requirements

An undergraduate degree in forensic psychology, such as Maryville University’s online Bachelor of Arts in Forensic Psychology, equips students with an education that blends psychology, social science, and criminal justice, giving them a comprehensive understanding of the modern forensic psychology landscape. Although both criminal and forensic psychologist roles require advanced education, there are many opportunities for those who do not want to earn a PhD or PsyD. Students with a bachelor’s degree may find work in corrections or advocacy, for example.

In contrast, the criminal psychology field focuses more specifically on understanding the mind of a criminal. Criminal psychology courses often include abnormal behavior, substance abuse patterns, behavioral statistics, and adolescent psychology. Criminal psychology is typically not offered as a degree program itself but rather as a part of a bachelor’s, master’s, or doctoral program in criminology or psychology.

Career Path and Scope

While criminal psychology focuses on criminal behavior, forensic psychology includes criminal and civil law, work in prisons, at-risk youth counseling, and academic research.

Forensic psychology requires the assessment of a wide array of people, including victims of crime, witnesses, attorneys, and law enforcement. Graduates of forensic psychology degree programs can also become jury consultants, juvenile offenders counselors, expert witnesses, and more. Those who go on to earn an advanced degree may become forensic psychologists or even forensic psychology professors.

Graduates of criminal psychology programs work specifically with criminals and those investigating them in the justice system, as opposed to victims or juries. Aspiring criminal psychologists may find work in corrections, criminal profiling, and psychology. In each of these fields, criminal psychology majors are able to flex critical thinking and observational skills to meet legal protocol as well as work with individuals with mental health disorders, keeping them safe, as well as the community at large.

Criminal Psychology vs. Forensic Psychology: Which Is Right for You?

Those excited by understanding the inner workings of a criminal’s mind, including motivation, mental health, and background, should consider pursuing a career in criminal psychology. Alternatively, individuals with an interest in the justice system and the many applications of psychology within it should consider pursuing a degree in forensic psychology. Forensic psychology degrees offer a broad range of coursework in psychology, criminal justice, and social science, helping students expand their expertise and prepare to apply their education in a wider range of fields, including policing, law, corrections, and social services.

Through Maryville University’s online Bachelor of Arts in Forensic Psychology, you’ll build a foundation to apply the science of the mind in the court system and beyond. This program blends experiential learning opportunities and practical coursework to give you a comprehensive understanding of today’s forensic psychology landscape.

Sources:
American Psychological Association, “The Criminal Mind”
American Psychological Association, “What Is Forensic Psychology?”
Houston Chronicle, “Criminal Psychologist vs. Forensic Psychologist”
Houston Chronicle, “Roles of Forensic Psychologists”
Maryville University, Online Forensic Psychology Bachelor’s Degree
PayScale, Average Criminal Psychologist Salary
PayScale, Average Forensic Psychologist Salary
Psychology Today, “Law and Crime”
U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Police, Fire, and Ambulance Dispatchers
U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Probation Officers and Correctional Treatment Specialists
U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Psychologists