Forensic Psychology vs. Criminal Psychology: What’s the Difference?

Forensic Psychology vs. Criminal Psychology: What's the Difference?

We’ve all seen the crime shows and to put it lightly, we are obsessed. We know that the criminal’s very moves will be analyzed and tracked and in a matter of 60 minutes (with commercials) the good guys will triumph. But have you ever wondered if you would be fit for the job? We are going to look at two different areas of study that are sure to land you in that line of work, but probably not on a 60 minute drama. It takes a variety of knowledge and skill to process a crime scene appropriately and pursue legal action. Two fields of study that will land you in the midst of a crime scene are forensic psychology and criminal psychology. They may vary little in title but in actuality they perform two different functions.  So, what’s the difference between criminal psychology and forensic psychology?

The main difference between these two fields is the amount of schooling necessary to be successful and what side of a crime you want to investigate. There are more than just two sides to a story when it comes to crime scene processing and investigation.

The best outcome is when all sides come together to look at the big picture. A forensic psychology perspective is looking at all aspects of a crime: victim, perpetrator, witnesses, etc. This perspective is very valuable in a court setting where everyday citizens have to decide the fate of the alleged perpetrator. Forensic psychology offers up a little piece of everyone’s perspective.

On the other hand, criminal psychology works to understand the criminal mind specifically and what thoughts and experiences culminated in the behavior. Criminal psychology does not look at other perspectives such as the victim or witnesses. The primary concern is what is going on in the criminal mind? Criminal psychology is valuable in many ways but one in particular. It can look at behavior patterns that predict recidivism (will the criminal reoffend?).

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While there are many differences in these two fields there are common themes to both: working with law enforcement and the courts, familiarity with the law, and understanding the criminal mind. 

What ties these two together boils down to the basics of psychology. Why do people do what they do? 

All About Forensic Psychology

Understanding that the basis of your work is looking at and analyzing behaviors, choosing forensic psychology means you’re diving deep into the whole crime scene. You may work with the victim, lawyers, criminals, or witnesses in processing a crime scene and offering a science based perspective of the why. A forensic psychologist may also offer consultation to the court, law enforcement, or other treatment providers for the victim or offender. 

Forensic psychology is unique in that it evaluates the credibility of witnesses. This can help the jury decide during court matters which testimony they find valid or invalid. 

A forensic psychologist is going to be clinically trained in psychological methods such as assessment, diagnosis, evaluation, and treatment. In other words, forensic psychologists are familiar with the science side of psychology. As such, it’s a deeper dive into the why of human behavior and can help answer the question of, what do we do about it? There is a lot of value in the information forensic psychology can bring.

All About Criminal Psychology

Criminal Psychology vs. Forensic Psychology: What is Criminal Psychology?

Criminal psychology is criminal focused. It does not take into account the behavior or perspective of the victim or witness. Criminal psychology is more closely related to law enforcement and does not dive into the science aspects that forensic psychology does. Criminal psychology is helpful in that it can help law enforcement determine a motive for a crime. Criminal psychology can educate juries and inform attorneys. 

Criminal psychology is unique in that it can be used to predict criminality in future offenders. It’s not just a retrospective look on an event but can actually help to predict behavior and be more of a proactive approach. 

Criminal psychology can be used to build programs for offenders that focus on changing mindset and behaviors. The goal is to prevent crime and what better prevention than a proactive approach. 

How Much Schooling Is Required?

It depends on how deep you want to go in the field. For a criminal psychologist it is common to receive a bachelor’s in criminal justice with a concentration in psychology. Or you can go the alternate route and pursue a bachelor’s in psychology with a concentration in criminal justice. Criminal psychology can be around 4 years of study but you can always choose to further your education in that realm.

Forensic psychologists on the other hand may start out similarly but to be successful most need to continue their post graduate work and receive either a PsyD or PhD. This means they need to choose whether they want to focus on research or application of the material. Post graduate work means that you’ll be putting time into internships, applying to APA accredited universities, and performing lots of science based research. As a forensic psychologist you will be clinically trained to assess, evaluate, and offer treatment programs. 

Once you’ve completed your graduate degree your career can take off in research mode, treatment planning, building rehabilitation programs, victim advocacy, and more. 

What Are the Job Prospects in Each Field?

As a forensic psychologist you will be clinically trained in psychological practices. You will be able to counsel, evaluate, and assess clients in addition to offering or evaluating treatment programs. You will have a wide range of skills that could be applied even outside of the criminal field. Some forensic psychologists choose to work in mental health treatment centers, private practices, or for government agencies.

As a criminal psychologist you may have ample opportunity to put your skillset to work in local law enforcement agencies, the courts, or correctional facilities. You will not have training in clinical psychology for diagnosis and evaluation. Many clinical psychologists pursue law enforcement or social work.

Forensic Psychology vs. Criminal Psychology: What Does Each Pay?

The pay rate for a job in criminal psychology with a bachelor’s is going to land you somewhere in the range of $30k-$60k a year. As of the time of writing the job projection was on the rise. You can always make more if you choose to further your career by adding certifications, experience in the field, and pursuing higher education. 

Job prospects were also on the rise for forensic psychologists and the pay starts in the $70k range. Before you fill out your application to grad school consider the amount of schooling you’ll need and the time it takes. 

Which One Is Better: Forensic Psychology or Criminal Psychology?

The answer to that is that both are valuable and play important roles in the legal system. It all depends on what is needed for the legal system to play out fairly. Both disciplines work hard to ensure that behavior is understood – analyzed – and appropriate action takes place. Both forensic and criminal psychology play well together when looking at the criminal justice system. The biggest difference between both fields is how much study goes into one discipline over the other. 

We have now examined some of the differences between forensic psychology and criminal psychology. While both seek to understand human behavior; we see how their differences make each one uniquely valuable. 

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