Criminal Psychology Degree vs. Forensics: There is a Difference

Criminal and forensic psychologies are two similar professions that play a role in the justice system. Despite the similarities, there are subtle differences in the professions. Criminal psychology attempts to understand the motivation behind criminal behavior. The criminal psychologist spends a lot of time analyzing the thoughts that drive a crime, including the criminal's intentions and reactions, to build a criminal profile. A criminal profile helps authorities conduct an investigation and allows them to identify possible suspects. Criminal psychology may play a role in a court case where professionals may be called upon to testify about the criminal's state of mind to help jurors make an informed decision on guilt or innocence of the defendant.

Forensic psychology is less involved in the motivation behind the crime and more interested in the mentality of the offender and the impact the crime has on the victims. A forensic psychologist helps determine the mental competency of a defendant to stand trial and may impact the determination if an offender will be a continued risk to society. Forensics studies the different psychological problems a victim may experience, such as post traumatic stress disorder (PSTD), anxiety, or depression. Insurance companies may use forensics to investigate if a death was accidental or suicide.

A criminal psychology degree will help prepare the student for forensic and clinical duties which may include counseling and therapy. It takes about five to seven years to complete the degree, where the person must earn a master's or doctoral degree in clinical, forensic, or counseling psychology. This program provides the knowledge and skills to evaluate and treat offenders, crisis intervention, victimology, psychopathology, personality assessment, and research methods. The study of victimology is one with which most people are not familiar, as it addresses why some people do not report crimes, the role some victims play in the crime, repayment, restitution, and government compensation of victims, and available services to prevent crimes and resist attacks. A course in victimology will also cover the social and emotional responses of victims.

Criminal psychology studies the application of psychological principles to the resolution of problems in the legal system. The student will learn about jury selection, stress that police endure, and different aspects of a rehabilitation program. Upon completing the program, graduates will either work directly with offenders and victims in a clinical setting or conduct research on criminal justice issues. There are many employment opportunities for people trained in forensics. Most people pursue career opportunities in the government, mental health, social service, and criminal justice settings.

Courses for a criminal psychology degree include social psychology, violence and aggression, abnormal behavior, drugs and society, human sexuality, comparative psychotherapies and therapeutic techniques, psychology and law, death and dying, research design and analysis in forensic psychology, and statistical application in forensic psychology. Let's take a moment to discuss what some of these courses include:

  1. A course in social psychology seeks to understand the influence people have on other's beliefs and behaviors. Topics may include group dynamics, self-presentation, social perception. and attribution.
  2. The psychology of violence and aggression examines major theories to explain violence, with special attention paid to individual and collective violence by the police, military, terrorists, and within schools and homes.
  3. Drugs and society covers the social, legal, economic, and psychological impact on our culture. The student will learn about the various types of drugs, recovery from addiction, diagnosis, and treatment and prevention strategies.
  4. Human sexuality will cover theories of attraction, sexual dysfunctions, sexual orientations, and the physiology and psychosocial aspects of the field.

Finding the Right College of Criminal Psychology

Criminal psychology is the field of psychology that involves the criminal investigations of offenders and the impact of the offense on victims. A criminal psychologist is interested to know the thought process and behaviors in why people commit criminal acts, such as serial killing, robbing banks, and child molestation. A criminal psychologist strives to understand the pressures that led to the crime and the reaction some people have afterwards.

When investigating a crime, a person trained in criminal psychology assists law enforcement officials uncover clues to help investigators identify potential suspects. These clues help develop a psychological profile to identify an offender and potential victims. Some expert criminal psychologists may testify at trials or be asked to interrogate a person of interest in a crime.

Some criminal psychologists work solely with children who commit crimes or who have been victims of a crime. The ways in which a criminal psychologist may assist a child is through clinical practice, assisting in criminal investigations, and testifying in court. These people tend to have degrees in child psychology with additional training in criminology and forensic psychology.

Criminal Psychology

Students may receive training in criminal psychology that can lead to a bachelor's, master's, or doctorate degree. The criminal psychologist is sometimes known as a forensic psychologist and if studying the criminal mind interests you, you may find this career exciting. Criminal psychologists can help prove a suspect's sanity in a case, testify in defense of victims of sexual abuse, or assess juvenile offenders on their actions. They may participate in child custody cases and other types of legal issues.

A criminal psychologist can earn between $35,000 - $82,000 a year, which may be low considering the amount of education and training required. Government salaries are typically lower than for individuals who have a private practice. This career can be rewarding in the ability to understand and help people in ways that most people do not understand. You may also be instrumental in ensuring social justice in the court of law, study crime prevention programs, participate in rehabilitation programs in prisons, and help select candidates for police work. Some criminal psychologists work in education, law enforcement, and government agencies such as the FBI and CIA.

To practice as a criminal psychologist, you will need at least an undergraduate degree in psychology and then a master's or doctorate degree in clinical or criminal psychology. After this training, you will need to be trained in forensic psychology through an accredited program. Licensure is not required of persons receiving a doctoral degree in forensic psychology. Some people also choose to get certified or licensed. The American Psychological Association (APA) provides accreditation to doctoral programs in clinical, counseling, and school psychology, which all states require for practicing psychologists. After receiving a master's or doctoral degree plus one year of field work, candidates are required to pass a state certification exam. Some psychologists then choose to become Board Certified by the American Board of Forensic Psychology. This will also require written, practical, and oral exams before being awarding the title of Diplomate.

With the growing interest in forensic psychology, more criminal psychologists are now made available. It is a diverse field, with many people specializing in other areas of psychology, such as developmental psychology, as well. This profession requires highly educated individuals committed to their careers. To become a practicing psychologist, you must have a doctoral degree. Most forensic psychologists begin as clinical psychologists and then study law and criminal justice.

There are differences in a PhD and PsyD in Forensic Psychology. A PhD in forensic psychology is less common than a master's degree, but will still give you the credentials you need to begin a career in the field. The PsyD will have less emphasis on research, but will work more with patients in a clinical setting.

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Last Updated: 05/11/2014

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