What is a Criminologist?

O. Wallace

A criminologist is a person who studies the behavior patterns, backgrounds, and sociological trends of criminals and those accused of breaking the law. This person’s work is very important to a range of different entities — police departments, courts, and community safety organizations are just a few — and the research he or she undertakes may both help prevent crimes and help others understand and work effectively with criminals. Most criminologists hold university degrees in sociology and criminal procedure, often at the graduate level, though the field is broad and professionals from a range of backgrounds and interests can often find a niche.

Criminologists can be called to crime scenes.
Criminologists can be called to crime scenes.

Breadth of Available Work

The criminology field includes many different specialties, which makes nailing down a “typical” member of the profession somewhat difficult. Depending on his or her focus, a criminologist may attend a crime scene, witness autopsies, or interview suspects; he or she may also help police develop a profile to catch a wanted criminal. Some professionals work for local and national governments doing research, while others operate as private consultants, employees of security companies, or law enforcement liaisons. These specialists may also work with lawyers and courts to provide expert testimony for trials, or they may be employed in a corrections system or prison to help rehabilitate convicts and develop crime prevention programs. A lot depends of individual interest and educational background.

A criminologist might be called upon to give expert testimony in court.
A criminologist might be called upon to give expert testimony in court.

Profiling Work

Profiling and data collection are central parts of the job no matter the specialty. A criminologist spends a lot of time studying crimes that have happened in the past, taking note of who committed the acts, when, and possibly also why. The main goal is usually to create a composite of a given criminal, taking psychological behavior, environmental factors, and economic indicators like education into account.

A forensic criminologist may be responsible for collecting fingerprints at a crime scene.
A forensic criminologist may be responsible for collecting fingerprints at a crime scene.

These collected statistics are then converted into active profiles that the police and others can use to help predict crimes and potentially dangerous situations, or at least understand something about why criminals do the things they do. In order for this information to be valuable, though, it must be precise, which means that some formal understanding of statistics and complex math is usually essential for people in this field.

Sociological criminologists may study how a person's living environment  impacts their behavior.
Sociological criminologists may study how a person's living environment impacts their behavior.

In very well known or high-profile cases, criminologists may spend time talking with the media, working with the public, and sometimes even doing things like writing books about their experiences and discoveries. Most of the time, though, the day-to-day work of this professional — even one involved in a sensational case — is far from glamorous. The collecting, cataloging, and researching legwork that goes into the job is usually done in isolation and can be quite tedious and slow.

Integration into Law Enforcement and Court Proceedings

Most profiling and reporting work is very closely related to police investigations and criminal trials. Criminologists may consult with arresting officers, share data with detectives, or help investigators puzzle out characteristics of people on a “most wanted” list. They are often called to appear as witnesses in court, as well, which can help judges and juries understand how certain crimes should be understood in a larger social context.

Research, Academic, and Teaching Roles

Some criminologists dedicate themselves to research, looking to understand trends on a more general level. Many of these professionals work in academia, usually teaching courses at the college or university level; others devote their lives to public service, working with community outreach centers or schools in high-crime areas. Outreach-minded crime experts help local leaders understand the patterns that lead to deviant behavior and, importantly, how to identify and even stop these trends.

Crossover With Related Professions

Criminologists have a lot in common with forensic psychologists and criminal analysts, and these three fields overlap in a number of important ways. The main differences come with respect to training and primary focus. Criminologists typically consider psychology in the course of their work and are often incidentally involved with piecing together crimes and solving police mysteries, but in most cases they are most concerned with the basic sociological pattern of crimes that unfolds over time. Their training is similarly focused more on statistical reasoning than criminal justice or psychological science.

Core Job Requirements

Getting started in the field almost always requires formal education in criminal justice, statistics, or mathematics. Most people get a bachelor’s degree in one of these areas, though an associate’s degree — as could be obtained from a community college — is enough in many places. Many of the most sought after and highly paid professionals have master’s or doctorate degree, as these advanced programs offer more opportunities for promotion and expertise-building. A lot depends on the individual and what his or her career ambitions are.

As important as academic learning is, however, it is rarely enough on its own. Criminologists typically do best when they have a genuine interest in human nature and a desire to help improve society. Good communication skills, a creative, analytical mind, and a strong ethical sense are essential as well.

A criminologist might gain experience by interviewing and following witnesses of a crime.
A criminologist might gain experience by interviewing and following witnesses of a crime.

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Discussion Comments


So if I would like to be a detective, would I need to learn criminology or not?


What school subjects do you need to get into university for criminology?


I am Greek and I'm interested in the master's degree for a criminologist investigator. I've graduated from the Law School of Athens. Is there a distance-master on this subject (criminologist investigator) in any European country? If not, where are there universities to study on this subject for free?


I am starting a criminology with law degree next month but haven't actually decided which field of criminology I would like to work in. Does anyone have any suggestions?


Can having ADHD or asthma stop me from becoming a crime scene investigator?


What are the requirements to study criminology?


I am studying Criminology in New Zealand and am enjoying it very much. But I have tried a paper in Psychology and hated it, as well as statistics. These are just areas not suitable for me.

What happens if someone has social skills, and loves sociology and criminology but not statistics?


who writes these facts?

I am doing a research paper and i have to write my resources and who the author is.


I'm from Pakistan, and did MSc in Criminology from UK. I have got 16 years of law enforcement experience, but I've been jobless since 2008.


how can i get started in the business?


where can i get a list of criminologists available jobs in australia and security officer?


I did my UG in psychology with six papers, PG in counseling psychology and psychotherapy and want to pursue my PHD in crime field. which area should i concentrate on if i need to become a criminal profiler?


where can i get a list of criminologists available in South Africa.


Am i eligible for msc criminology as i am a zoology graduate


How long does it usually take to completely finish school to become a criminologist?

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