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How to Become a Criminologist

September 6, 2023
4 min read


Reviewed by:

David Merson

Former Head of Pre-Law Office, Northeastern University, & Admissions Officer, Brown University

Reviewed: 09/06/23

If you’re interested in understanding the criminal mind, you may want to consider a career as a criminologist. To learn more about this profession and how to join it, read on.

A criminologist interviewing a witness

Common questions you’ll hear in documentaries or conversations relating to crimes are “how could they do something so horrible?” or “what kind of person is capable of committing such heinous crimes?”

Finding the answers to these questions can be difficult because they require you to have an understanding of the criminal psyche, which is why we have criminologists! Criminologists’ main responsibility is getting to the root of these questions to figure out why criminals commit the acts they do.

If grappling with these difficult questions intrigues you, this guide will go into further detail about how to become a criminologist, what their job entails, and the skills required to join this profession.

What Does a Criminologist Do?

The first part of deciding whether a profession is right for you is determining what the job involves. 

Criminologists aim to understand why crimes are committed and how they can be prevented. In an attempt to get into the mind of the criminals they study, this field intersects with sociology, psychology, and ethics. 

Criminologists spend the majority of their time in lab settings analyzing data, social patterns, evidence, profiles, and behaviors. They take two approaches to their studies:

  • Reaction: studies events that have already transpired to gather details and figure out why they happened
  • Prevention: uses predictive analyses to study crime patterns and behaviors to identify future criminals and prevent crimes from occurring

While a criminologist’s day-to-day tasks will depend on the crime they’re studying, they generally involve: 

  • Determining environmental factors influencing crimes
  • Administering interviews and surveys 
  • Identifying crime patterns and cycles
  • Creating policy recommendations
  • Collaborating with other law enforcement officials such as detectives
  • Organizing statistical data and presenting it to their team
  • Writing research papers sharing their findings from significant cases
  • Conducting studies on incarcerated criminals to understand the efficacy of these reform systems to make suggestions 

Since there are so many crimes for criminologists to study, they often specialize in either an age group or type of crime. Forensic criminologists, for example, are a popular specialty. These professionals combine hard sciences like chemistry with soft sciences like psychology to best understand criminals.

Steps to Becoming a Criminologist

Understanding criminal behaviour and predicting future crimes involves a high degree of skill and training. So, how long does it take to become a criminologist?

Aspiring criminologists can expect to spend at least four years learning about the criminal justice field and at least a couple years gaining experience with criminal cases before becoming independent criminologists. 

Here’s a step-by-step breakdown of how to become a criminologist:

Step One: Obtain a Bachelor’s Degree

The first and minimum educational requirement you’ll need to become a criminologist is obtaining an undergraduate degree from an accredited university. The majority of criminologists major in criminal justice, but majors in sociology and psychology are also common. 

Aspiring forensic criminologists may opt to join highly competitive forensic science majors or other science-based majors.

Regardless of the major you choose, you should gain significant coursework in each of these disciplines to become the most effective and qualified criminologist possible. For instance, while a major in criminal justice may help you understand the law better, you’ll have little knowledge of human behavior and the dynamics that affect it.

To ensure you gain a comprehensive education, take courses in psychology, sociology, and criminal justice, and hone your research and writing skills as well.

Step Two: Gain Research Experience

Considering a large part of your job as a criminologist will be conducting research and writing scholarly articles, it’s essential you develop these skills prior to entering the field. Having significant research experience on your resume will give you a competitive edge and ensure you’re prepared for a career as a criminologist.

Participating in psychology-related research will be the most beneficial for you, and will likely be the easiest for you to pursue considering your major. 

Step Three: Gain Work Experience

Criminologist positions will require you to have at least a few years of experience working in a similar field. Having prior experience interacting with criminals through an internship with local, state, or federal law enforcement agencies can boost your resume.

Step Four: Consider a Master’s Degree

Gaining a Master’s in Criminal Justice or Psychology is highly encouraged for students interested in becoming criminologists. This degree will allow you to gain more advanced training in data analysis, research, and writing. 

While many criminologists successfully join the field with just an undergrad, having a master’s degree can get you into the field quicker, as you will not need as much work experience to prove your qualifications. 

You will also have more opportunities, as large federal law enforcement organizations like the CIA or FBI typically require applicants to have master’s or doctorate degrees.

Step Five: Consider Certification 

Forensic criminologists in particular have various certification options that they can obtain through the American Board of Criminalistics once they’ve gained some experience in the field. These include certifications in:

  • Biological Evidence Screening 
  • Comprehensive Criminalistics
  • Drug Analysis
  • Forensic DNA
  • Molecular DNA
  • Field Testing
  • Foundational Criminalistic Knowledge

Criminologists of any speciality may also gain certification with a national institute before entering the field. Many criminologists opt to become Certified Criminal Profilers (CPPs) to enhance their skills in criminal profiling, which is an essential part of a criminologists job. There are several accredited institutions that offer this certification.

Important Skills to Become a Criminologist

Criminologists are expected to have a high degree of technical knowledge on criminal behavior, patterns, and influences. Aside from having advanced knowledge in the field, they’re also expected to have the following skills:

  • Attention to detail: to study all of the evidence and statistics involved in each case
  • Research skills: to gather and accurately analyze any information that can provide more insight into a crime
  • Analytical skills: to interpret and apply general theories about criminals to specific cases
  • Ethics: to handle sensitive information responsibly without bias while preventing emotions from interfering with cases
  • Interpersonal skills: to collaborate with others and know how to interact with criminals to obtain crucial information

The field of criminology requires patience and keen observation as well! It’s a field that is constantly expanding as these professionals make new discoveries. 

Drawing definitive conclusions in this field is difficult, so criminologists must be willing to study and analyze crimes for long periods of time to gain even a little more insight on criminals.

Criminologist Salary and Career Outlook

A pile of money

While the US Bureau of Labor and Statistics does not report on criminologists’ salaries in particular, they consider criminologists to be sociologists. Sociologists make an average of $92,910 a year. Criminologists may make more or less than this depending on their state, agency, and experience. 

There is expected to be steady job growth in this career over the next decade, but criminologist positions are competitive, especially if you’re applying to federal law enforcement agencies like the FBI.

FAQs: How to Become a Criminologist

This guide is intended to provide you with a comprehensive understanding of how to become a criminologist. In case you have any unanswered questions, here are the answers to frequently asked questions about this profession.

1. How Long Does It Take to Become a Criminologist?

It will take at least five years to become a criminologist: four years to complete a Criminal Justice, Psychology, Sociology, Forensic Science, or related undergrad and at least one year of field experience. However, most jobs will require you to have a Master’s degree as well, which will take one to two years to complete.

2. Is It Hard to Become a Criminologist?

Joining this field will require focus and dedication. You’ll be expected to complete at least one, but preferably two, challenging degrees and gain valuable research and work experience to join the field. These positions are also highly competitive, meaning you’ll have to have a stellar application to stand a chance of landing your dream job.

3. Do Criminologists Work for the FBI?

Yes, the FBI employs highly skilled criminologists.

4. Is Criminology a High Paying Job?

Yes, criminologists typically make around $90,000 a year, but can make more depending on the organization they work for.

5. Do I Need a Law Degree To Become a Criminologist?

No, fortunately you do not have to go through the arduous process of going to law school to become a criminologist. You only need an undergraduate degree at the minimum to join this profession, not a JD.

Final Thoughts

Criminologists play an essential role in predicting and decreasing crime. While joining this profession will require advanced training and experience, you’ll play a major role in making society a safer place! You’ll also get closer to answering the seemingly unattainable question: “why do people commit crimes?”

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