How to Become a Criminologist (Duties, Salary and Steps)

Are you a fan of crime shows like "You" and "Criminal Minds"? A career in criminology might be just for you.

Reviewed by Hayley Ramsey

How to become a criminologist

Criminological thought was born a few centuries ago, during the Enlightenment. The great “Age of Reason”, as it is known, saw philosophers theorize as to what drives an individual to commit a crime, and how — or whether — they should be punished.

In the late 1700s, theorists argued that acts of violence and misconduct are acts of free will, and that they can be deterred with “severe enough” punishments. Since then, society has made strides in better understanding people’s psychological landscapes, and knows there to be multiple factors that contribute to criminal behavior. Likewise, in many cases, rehabilitation and crime prevention strategies are considered more effective than punishment in limiting offenses.

If you’re fascinated by the prospect of advancing our collective understanding of criminal behavior, a job in criminology could be right for you. Below, we’ll be looking at what a modern-day criminologist does, what their work environment is like, and how you can become one.

What criminologists do

In simple terms, a criminologist is a social scientist who studies crime and assists in the creation of crime prevention strategies. By analyzing evidence and data relating to crime scenes, they attempt to gain insights into the psychological and sociological factors that drive people to criminal behavior.

As a result, their work is of vital importance in that it assists crime scene investigators, criminal profilers, policymakers, and law enforcement officials in handling offenses and preventing them from repeating.

To summarize, criminologists’ duties include:

  • Accompanying police officers and investigators to the crime scene and gathering evidence
  • Analyzing crime scene data and evidence to determine the nature and cause of the crime
  • Analyzing the offender’s social and biological background to gain insight into their behavior
  • Creating criminal profiles to help police officers identify potential offenders in the future
  • Compiling reports with various insights to help in the development of crime prevention methods
  • Making educated suggestions based on their findings on how to reduce recidivism, or the likelihood to reoffend

What the job is like

In this section, we’ll go over a criminologist’s day-to-day in more detail, so you can determine if this is the right type of career path for you.

Work environment

Criminologists commonly find employment in law enforcement agencies, and divide their time between the office and the field. When they’re out investigating a crime scene, criminologists search for clues, such as bloodstains, and gather evidence, such as weapons or DNA samples.

Back at the forensic science lab, they closely study the evidence and relevant data using specialized software. By piecing together different bits of information, they’re able to arrive at an answer: who committed the crime, why they did it, and how.

When they’re not working in the lab or the field, criminologists spend their time reading journals, preparing reports, and advising policymakers on reducing crime.

Work hours

Criminologists who work in police stations, government agencies, or legislative bodies typically work 40-hour weeks.

However, it’s not uncommon for these social scientists to be required to work longer or unusual hours, such as evenings or weekends, to finalize reports, visit crime scenes or watch autopsies.

Occupational hazards

In the field and in the lab, criminologists may be exposed to both chemical and physical hazards while looking for clues. Since the job also entails interviewing suspects and convicted criminals, criminologists often find themselves in the presence of dangerous perpetrators.

Aside from these hazards, that are more unique to the fields of forensics and law enforcement, criminologists are no strangers to overtime and the sedentary lifestyle. Long hours in front of the computer, combined with extremely high-stakes tasks and an irregular schedule can lead to an array of health problems.

Job satisfaction

Job satisfaction comprises various elements, like pay, job security, and work-life balance. Starting with the first one, experienced social scientists in the US can earn over $60 an hour according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). Though income isn’t everything, it certainly plays a big role in driving employee satisfaction.

Like a great salary, job security can also contribute to work satisfaction by offering people peace of mind. Since the law enforcement and criminal justice systems aren’t going anywhere, we can expect this career choice to remain popular in coming decades.

At the same time, working in the field of criminology can be quite stressful and demanding. Whether the perks and thrilling nature of the job are enough to counter its demands will largely depend on your personal needs and career goals.

Job market

While many jobs are slowly disappearing or losing ground to automation, not all professions are bound to share the same fate. To a large extent, future-proof jobs are the ones that will always require a human touch — and criminology belongs to this group.

The BLS backs this up, predicting social science occupations will grow at a steady rate of 4% in coming years. This will translate to 1,900 new jobs being created every year, on average, across the nation.

Currently, the states that employ the highest numbers of social scientists are Virginia (4,000), California (3,360), District of Columbia (2,590), New York (2,330), and Maryland (2,040).


Criminologists, especially the ones who have a few years’ worth of work experience, tend to earn a hefty income. According to the BLS, the median hourly wage for all social scientists across the country works out to $43.70.

The lowest 10th percentile of social scientists makes $24.15 an hour, while top earners make $64.06 every hour. With these numbers in mind, you could say that it’d almost be a crime not to pursue a career in criminology!

If you’re wondering which states offer the highest annual wages to their social scientists, it’s the following five: Virginia ($116,180), Maryland ($108,740), District of Columbia ($107,100), Connecticut ($105,380), and Washington ($97,930). So, it might be worth relocating to one of these states if you want to pursue this career.

Here’s a quick overview of the salary for a criminologist:

Criminologist Salaries

Essential skills and qualities

Working in criminology comprises a variety of different tasks, from reviewing journals to compiling reports to analyzing evidence. As such, it requires various different skills and qualities, like:

  • Analytical thinking — Working in criminology will require you not only to gather data, but to also interpret your findings and connect the dots.
  • Attention to detail — Whether you’re at the crime scene or in the office analyzing data, this job requires a high degree of meticulousness.
  • Mathematical skills — Criminologists are required to compile and analyze statistical data to uncover trends, make predictions, and suggest crime prevention strategies.
  • Communication skills — Strong oral and written communication is necessary, as you’ll be conducting interviews with law offenders, discussing your findings with colleagues, and advising policymakers.
  • Technological aptitude — Criminologists spend long hours in front of the computer. Therefore, they must demonstrate an interest in learning new technologies and the ability to do so fast.
  • Emotional intelligence — Criminology requires you to have a strong stomach and stay calm under stress. Emotional awareness will also help you ‘get in the shoes’ of the offender.

Steps to become a criminologist

In this section, we’ll look at how you can go from aspiring criminologist to qualified professional, step by step.

Step 1: Determine if it’s the right career for you

Before deciding on a major, you must consider both your current interests and long-term goals. For example, if you’ve got an inquisitive mind but not so much the stomach for poking around in a hair-rising crime scene, a degree in investigative journalism may be more suitable for you.

Career and aptitude tests, such as our own, CareerHunter, can provide you with an in-depth analysis of your strengths and personality traits, matching you to jobs that suit you. Doing this before picking a major is crucial, as it can help you discover other career options, aside from criminology, that you wouldn’t otherwise consider.

Step 2: Pursue a degree in criminology

Though an undergraduate program in criminology would be the obvious choice to start your career with, a bachelor’s degree in sociology or psychology can also make for a great stepping stone.

To get you started with your brainstorming, these are the top five universities in the US for an undergraduate degree in criminology, according to US News:

  • University of Pennsylvania
  • University of Florida
  • University of California – Irvine
  • Ohio State University
  • University of Maryland – College Park

The good news is that, even if your degree doesn’t turn out to be exactly what you dreamed of, it can still open the door to a series of jobs down the road. A bachelor’s program in criminology can find you work as a social researcher, detective, or probation officer, for example.

Step 3: Consider earning a graduate degree

Though not an absolute requirement, it’s very common in the industry to earn a graduate degree before looking for your first job. Typically, a master’s degree in criminology, criminal justice, or international criminal law can set you apart from other candidates.

Not only will a master’s degree deepen your knowledge further and teach you more specialized skills, it can also raise your starting salary significantly. In the criminal justice field, those with advanced degrees tend to earn 27% more than their peers who have only completed an undergraduate program.

Step 4: Get a license

As we’ve seen, there are multiple settings you could work in after you’ve earned your degree in criminology. Regardless of where you end up practicing the profession, though, licensure is likely going to be a requirement.

As each state has its own regulations regarding licensure, you will need to do some research to ensure you meet all necessary criteria before applying for work.


As a new criminologist, you will be expected to pass a background check before you can start working. Your criminal record must also remain clean throughout your career.

Step 5: Join an association

No matter what stage you’re at in your career development, it can be beneficial to join a professional association.

By joining a criminology, law, and society association, like the American Society of Criminology, you can stay up to date with the latest advancements in your field. Your membership will also grant you access to a wealth of resources and vast networking opportunities, all of which are crucial in climbing up the career ladder.

Since professional associations are often open to students, you can leverage your membership to start building your network and attending seminars before you’ve graduated.

Final thoughts

Criminologists play a crucial role in how we, as a society, understand and deal with crime. The more insights these social scientists arrive at, the better our communities become at reducing both new offenses and recidivism.

Right now, although the return-to-prison rate around the country seems to be on the decline, re-arrest rates remain high. When we look at these statistics, it’s obvious that criminologists are still very much needed — and that they sure have their work cut out for them.

To summarize:

  • Criminologists work in different settings, including correctional facilities, government agencies, and legislative bodies
  • As a criminologist’s knowledge needs to span multiple domains, from laws to psychology to data analysis, it’s common for these professionals to hold advanced degrees
  • Though an exciting profession with variation in its day-to-day, criminology is a demanding, high-stakes job that’s not suitable for the faint of heart

What are your thoughts now that you’ve learned more about this profession? Can you still see yourself working as a criminologist in the future? Let us know your thoughts in the comments section.