Criminal Psychology Vs. Forensic Psychology: What’s The Difference?

When most people think of criminal psychology or forensic psychology, they relate these terms to TV shows about law enforcement professionals who work in these fields solving gruesome crimes.
While the fields of criminal and forensic psychology can certainly be exciting, the day-to-day work of professionals in these roles is often different from what you might see on TV. These fields involve extensive research, one-on-one interviewing and data collection.
While these two areas of psychology have some overlap, there are distinct differences between criminal psychology vs. forensic psychology. So which career path should you consider? Read on to learn more.


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What Is Criminal Psychology?
Before learning how to become a criminal psychologist, you should understand what the field entails. Criminal psychology studies criminals’ thought processes and behaviors. Experts in this field seek to understand why criminals do the things they do.
Criminal psychologists often partner with law enforcement agencies to help profile criminals. This may involve reviewing case files and researching other information relevant to a criminal case. Criminal psychologists can also assist law enforcement in the process of interrogating suspects.
Criminal psychologists might be called on to give court testimony as experts since these professionals have a unique understanding of the criminal mind. Criminal psychologists can provide therapy to individuals who have committed crimes. They may also teach at the college level or in law enforcement settings.
What Is Forensic Psychology?
Forensic psychologists apply their understanding of their psychological specialties to legal situations. In practice, professionals in this field assess individuals who are involved in the legal system from a psychological perspective.
Forensic psychologists aid in investigations, conduct psychological research and create intervention programs. They may also specialize in areas such as civil, criminal or family casework. Forensic psychologists can be called on to give expert testimony in court as well.
For more information on this role, check out our forensic psychologist career guide.
Criminal Psychology vs. Forensic Psychology
Criminal and forensic psychologists both work with law enforcement to help solve crimes. Both areas of psychology seek to understand criminal behaviors and thought processes. However, the fields vary in their focus areas and their day-to-day responsibilities. Below we explore how criminal psychology differs from forensic psychology and how to become a psychologist in either field.
Education and Training
Learners who study forensic psychology explore subjects like psychology, social science and criminal justice. In contrast, aspiring criminal psychologists focus on understanding the criminal mind and take courses like substance abuse patterns and abnormal behavior.
Students with an undergraduate degree in either field can pursue careers in areas like corrections or advocacy. However, a career as a criminal or forensic psychologist requires a doctoral degree such as a Psy.D. or Ph.D. These doctoral programs typically require 100 credits, which can take four to five years to complete.
Many aspiring psychologists earn a master’s in forensic psychology or a criminal psychology master’s before pursuing their doctoral degrees.
Criminal and forensic psychologists, like all licensed psychologists, must pass a licensure exam and apply for licensure in the state where they intend to practice.
Roles and Responsibilities
Criminal psychologists focus more on criminal behavior; their work can include conducting research, evaluating behavior and writing reports. On the other hand, forensic psychologists’ work often involves civil and criminal law; these professionals may work in prisons, counsel at-risk youth or conduct academic research.
Work Environment
Criminal psychologists can work in the courts, social work agencies, mental health facilities and government agencies. Forensic psychologists can work in prisons, research centers, hospitals, medical examiner’s offices, forensic labs, universities and police stations. Both types of psychologists can work as independent consultants.
Salary and Job Outlook for Criminal and Forensic Psychologists
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) does not report specific data for criminal or forensic psychologists. However, psychologists who do not fall into the categories of clinical and counseling, industrial-organizational or school psychologists make a median annual wage of $102,900, according to the BLS.
Employment for these psychologists, including criminal and forensic psychologists, is projected to grow by 3% from 2021 to 2031, according to the BLS. This is slightly slower than the average projected job growth for all occupations nationwide.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) About Criminal Psychology vs. Forensic Psychology

Is criminal psychology the same as forensic psychology?

While criminal psychology and forensic psychology do share similarities, they are different fields that require different education and training. The former focuses primarily on understanding the criminal mind, and the latter focuses on investigating crimes.

What is the difference between criminology and forensic psychology?

Criminology is the study of crime and criminal behavior as seen through a psychological lens. Forensic psychology is the application of psychological clinical specialities to the legal arena.

What is the difference between forensic psychology and criminal profiling?

Criminal profiling involves building profiles of criminal perpetrators to help identify suspects. Forensic psychology applies psychological theories and practices to legal situations.