Criminal psychology vs forensic psychology

Want to combine your passion for psychology with your interest in crime? Discover which of these career options is right for you.   

Criminal psychology vs forensic psychology


Criminal and forensic psychology courses have become more popular as primetime crime shows shine a light on both professions. 

While day-to-day life isn’t quite as glamorous as the silver screen would have us believe, these fields present challenging yet rewarding career options for the right person.

But what’s the difference between the two areas in Australia? We break it down, so you can understand which path is your calling. 

Let’s define criminal psychology and forensic psychology

Criminal psychology and forensic psychology are both subfields of psychology that deal with crime, the law and the justice system. 

What is criminal psychology?  What is forensic psychology?

Focuses on understanding a perpetrator’s mindset before they commit a crime

Analyses the aftermath of a crime 

Aims to understand the why behind crimes Explores crime prevention strategies and rehabilitation systems
Criminal psychologists... Forensic psychologists...
Primarily work with police and law enforcement agencies Primarily work within the criminal justice system to provide expert testimony in court
Focus on helping police narrow down the search for a perpetrator  Work to rehabilitate offenders and perform mental evaluations to determine if suspects can stand trial
Work to profile offenders based on age, type of employment, education and personality type Contribute their advice in a variety of settings, from child protection and family services to juvenile detention centres
Provide insight into perpetrator behaviour at the crime scene and in court, but will not accompany police to interrogate suspects Are not directly involved with the police in solving the crime

Take a closer look at what they do every day

You might be wondering, so what’s the difference? By looking at the day-to-day activities of each profession and their working environment, you can see what your career will look like.  

What does a criminal psychologist do? What does a forensic psychologist do?  
Evaluates and determines a perpetrator’s reason for offending Assesses a perpetrator’s state of mind and whether they're fit to stand trial
Provides a psychological motive behind crimes  Makes sentencing recommendations based on their risk of re-offending
Interviews perpetrators to learn about their family, early life and other factors that may have influenced their actions Assesses witness credibility, plus the consistency and accuracy of information across multiple sources
Evaluates crime scenes, witnesses and victims

Provides advice to police and legal representatives  on mental illness and criminal psychology

Profiles perpetrators to help police with apprehension Works with at-risk populations to minimise their risk of offending
Analyses a perpetrator’s state of mind before and after committing a crime  Acts as an impartial evaluator in domestic disputes, such as divorces and child custody cases
Helps jurors understand the mindset of a criminal Offers therapy to victims
Finds work in local, state and federal governments  Finds work with local, state or federal governments, plus hospitals, correctional facilities, private clinics and research institutions 
Has the freedom to work as an independent consultant  Has the freedom to work as an independent consultant   

Is a forensic psychologist the same as a criminal psychologist? 

While there are many similarities between the two, there are also plenty of differences.

Overall, a criminal psychologist works from inside the perpetrator’s point of view to understand their thoughts and motivations, while a forensic psychologist works externally and assesses how an offender’s behaviour relates to the law. 

Mapping out your study pathway

Psychology is a highly competitive field. Both professions require years of study and supervised training before you can hit the ground running. 

How to become a criminal psychologist How to become a forensic psychologist
Any career in criminal psychology starts with a Bachelor of Psychology or a Bachelor of Psychological Science with Honours. The first step to becoming a forensic psychologist is to complete a Bachelor of Psychology or a Bachelor of Psychological Science with Honours.
Once you have your undergraduate qualification, you’ll need to earn a Masters Degree majoring in psychology, a Doctor of Philosophy or a Doctor of Psychology.

Once you have your undergraduate qualification, you will need to earn a Masters Degree, a Doctor of Philosophy or Doctor of Psychology. It’s best to specialise in forensic psychology.

The final step is to complete 1-2 years of supervised practice so that you can apply for general registration with the Psychology Board of Australia.

Alternatively, you may choose to pursue endorsement in the area of forensic psychology (criminal psychologists will often do this in Australia as criminal psychology isn’t a specific endorsable area).
The final step is to apply for an endorsement in forensic psychology with the Psychology Board of Australia.

This involves completing 1-2 years of supervised training with a registered forensic psychologist. The length of your training is determined by the length of your postgraduate degree.

Which career should you study towards? 

If you love understanding the why behind actions and finding patterns in behaviour, then criminal psychology could be the path for you.

On the other hand, if you prefer to work on a wider scale, with at-risk populations, perpetrators, and victims, then forensic psychology might be for you.

In either role, you'll play an important role in keeping our community safe and ensuring justice is served. 


Start thinking about your first move now by exploring upcoming online psychology courses.



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