The Study of Psychology and its Relationship to Criminal Justice Careers

Criminal justice careers put knowledge of psychology to work. An added attraction: they don’t usually require a doctoral degree. As such, they can be good options for individuals who hold bachelor’s or master’s degrees in psychology. Students should be aware, though, that criminal justice is a broad field, and that both the duties the expected education level can vary widely.

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The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that positions in corrections treatment and probation typically require bachelor’s degrees in behavioral science, social work, or related fields, and that advancement may depend on earning a master’s in social work, psychology, or criminal justice (

Forensic psychology is a graduate discipline, but people can sometimes enter the field on the strength of a master’s; to have the most opportunity, they will need education on a par with that of clinical psychologists.

Criminology, too, often requires a graduate degree.

As for law enforcement, some agencies don’t require a college degree; their own training program may suffice. Some federal agencies are very selective, and seek both formal education and a demonstrated set of skills. Those who have their sights set on the FBI may face some very stiff competition!

Application of Psychology to Criminal Justice

Criminal justice requires skills in analyzing, applying research, and reporting findings. These skills are developed, to varying degrees, in liberal arts study. So what is it about psychology that makes it an especially good fit?

Psychology study develops knowledge of adaptive and maladaptive human behavior across age groups and in different social contexts. It helps students understand the various factors that influence decision making: the good decisions as well as the bad ones.

Some programs focus on applied human behavior and develop skills for direct service. Students may get some experience with counseling and case management. This can be useful for corrections treatment providers who are responsible for putting together plans that discourage recidivism. After all, people with addictions and mental disorders don’t always show up in treatment centers. Economic situation, family stability, and even gender play a role in whether problems are detected in a mental health practitioner’s office or a corrections setting.

Parole and probation officers are also responsible to the public; they are instrumental in determining whether an offender or accused person can live in society without posing a threat. The role can include some assessment – and assessment is one of the fortes of the psychologist.

Coursework Options

Some undergraduate psychology programs include a specialization or formal concentration in criminal justice. There may be an interdisciplinary component, with coursework in police process and the legal system. Students who do not pursue a criminal justice specialization can still plan their curriculum to provide a broad knowledge and skill base. They may pair psychology with a complementary minor. Psychology coursework could include psychopathology, social psychology, developmental psychology, multicultural psychology, rehabilitation, and addiction psychology.

College-level internships can be invaluable in securing post-college employment. A psychology student may work in a legal or corrections setting even if there is no formal concentration in criminal justice. Seattle Pacific University, for example, lists the Washington Department of Corrections, Josephine County Juvenile Justice, and Seattle Municipal Court among past internship sites.

Criminal Justice Careers with a Psychology Background

These are some of the criminal justice career paths pursued by those who have studied Psychology at the Undergraduate level an/or Graduate level.

Additional Resources

The American Psychological Association has resources for psychologists and psychology students who are interested in criminal justice. Division 18: Psychologists in Public Service, has a section on criminal justice. Division 18 has provided resources for students (

Division 9: The Society for the Psychological Study of Social Issues ( and Division 41: American Psychology-Law Society ( may also be of interest.