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What is a Criminologist?

By O. Wallace
Updated Mar 02, 2024
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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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

Practical Adult Insights is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
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Discussion Comments
By anon348476 — On Sep 17, 2013

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

By anon333991 — On May 09, 2013

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

By anon290052 — On Sep 07, 2012

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?

By anon286905 — On Aug 22, 2012

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?

By anon276404 — On Jun 23, 2012

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

By anon261454 — On Apr 16, 2012

What are the requirements to study criminology?

By anon250031 — On Feb 24, 2012

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?

By anon215165 — On Sep 17, 2011

who writes these facts?

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

By deepredsea — On Jan 12, 2011

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.

By anon134471 — On Dec 14, 2010

how can i get started in the business?

By anon77638 — On Apr 15, 2010

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

By anon61418 — On Jan 20, 2010

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?

By anon38018 — On Jul 23, 2009

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

By anon37033 — On Jul 16, 2009

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

By anon24124 — On Jan 07, 2009

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

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