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How to Become a Profiler

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Criminal profiling—also referred to as criminal investigative analysis—occupies the intersection of psychology and law enforcement. These specialists untangle the behaviors, emotions, and personalities of suspected criminal offenders, basing their judgments on time-tested experience in investigative techniques with learned emotional detachment and patience. Although this career in often conflated with forensic psychology, they are distinct career paths. Psychology Today reports that criminal profilers typically have an extensive background in criminal justice and law enforcement as opposed to mental health training. Still, formal education in psychology is common, particularly for leaders in the field or those at top-notch organizations.

So what’s the history of this career which has inspired countless movies and TV dramas? The American Psychological Association (APA) reveals that early criminal profiling was used in the 1880s when British doctors George Phillips and Thomas Bond attempted to make inferences about the personality of Jack of Ripper. The formal emergence of the discipline, however, didn’t occur until 1972 when the FBI’s Behavioral Science Unit (BSU) was created. This organization began to investigate the rising tide of serial rapes and homicides across the U.S. through the examination of four crucial aspects of suspected criminals’ behavior: antecedent (i.e., before the crime occurred) tendencies, manner of crime, body disposal method, and post-crime comportment. Since then, the techniques of criminal investigative analysis have become more sophisticated, allowing the FBI to develop offender profiles in a range of crimes such as arson, hostage-taking, terrorism, child abduction, white collar crime, kidnappings, extortion, cybercrime, and serial sexual homicide, to name a few (FBI).

Before getting started, it’s important to mention that there are very few job opportunities available in criminal profiling. In fact, most of these professionals get their start as criminal investigators or experienced detectives and choose to transition into the role with extra training and employer demand. There are few crimes committed in the U.S. that require the skills and knowledge of a criminal profiler, and the scarcity of openings reflects this. Please note that people with graduate-level forensic psychology degrees may be more likely to become jury consultants, juvenile offenders counselors, expert witnesses, or professors in forensic psychology.

Read on to discover what to expect from this profession with respect to job responsibilities, as well as how to become a criminal profiler.

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Criminal Profiler Career Overview and Outlook

In an effort to elucidate the professional scope and responsibilities of criminal investigative analysts, the FBI produced a four-part series of articles detailing the relevant characteristics, skills, and formal training typical of successful profilers. Please note that these studies refer to profilers as criminal investigative analysts.

First, researchers identified a number of traits which are endemic to the discipline, including:

  • Strong intuition and analytical skills
  • Experience conducting investigations and research
  • Emotional detachment
  • Understanding of criminal minds and psychology

Among these, having investigative experience was one of the most crucial contributors to a professional’s competency, and therefore it may be advisable to work in law enforcement prior to becoming a criminal investigative analyst.

Second, the FBI has detailed the role of criminal profilers within law enforcement organizations worldwide. Rather than becoming directly involved in the investigation, these professionals may work at a distance, giving evidence-based advice to law enforcement by conducting:

  • Personality assessments
  • Cause of death analyses
  • Strategic interviews
  • Crime linkage analyses
  • Assessment and management of threats
  • Media and trial strategies
  • Expert testimony in courts
  • Geographic profiling
  • Multi-agency coordination

Steps to Becoming a Criminal Profiler

There are a variety of educational, experiential, and career paths to becoming a criminal profiler. Some of these aspiring professionals choose to enter a criminal profiler program while others join the ranks of law enforcement to cut their teeth on real-world experience in investigations. The FBI notes that there’s no true consensus in the field or literature for how people join this stimulating field. That said, ideally a candidate in criminal profiling has a mix of both formal didactic and empirical field training.

Here is one possible path to becoming a criminal profiler:

  • Step 1: Graduate from high school. Successful candidates in this profession typically excel in secondary (or postsecondary) courses in psychology, government, and may even volunteer through a local law enforcement agency.

    For example, Houston offers the Volunteer Initiatives Program (VIP) to qualified high school students across segments of its police department, and the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) provides similar opportunities. Interested students are encouraged to check with their local police department for internships and other openings to get experience in forensics, investigations, and criminal detection work.

  • Step 2: Get a bachelor’s degree in forensics, criminal justice, psychology, or a related discipline (4 years). For those aspiring to  work in the upper echelons of criminal profiling such as the Behavioral Analysis Unit (BAU) at the FBI, criminal investigative analysts must have at least a bachelor’s degree prior to enrolling in the FBI Academy. Furthermore, even local police academies typically prefer candidates with some college experience. There is a wide range of programs that can qualify a person to become a criminal profiler, and students are urged to concentrate their coursework and training in areas such as law, criminal justice, crime scene analysis, forensics, psychology, sociology, and philosophy.
  • Step 3: Attend a law enforcement academy (3-5 months). Successful criminal profilers generally have extensive experience in investigations. Therefore, it’s crucial to get some hands-on training in the field. Qualifications for these agencies vary, but generally include being a U.S. citizen; having some college (or military) experience; being at least 18 (or 21) years old; having a driver’s license; and possessing no felony (or serious misdemeanor) convictions.
  • Step 4: Garner experience in the field (several years). Mary Ellen O’Toole, PhD—a prolific author, forensic behavioral consultant, and retired FBI profiler—reports that profilers in the BAU generally have seven to fifteen years of investigative experience prior to joining the unit.  
  • Step 5: Engage in ongoing training (varies). In its survey of experienced criminal profilers, the FBI found that respondents recommended several types of continued training for aspiring members of their field, including areas such as forensics, forensic pathology, human behavior, crime scene analysis, risk assessment, threat assessment, legal issues, interviewing skills, and crime typologies. Ninety-five percent of working criminal profiler respondents from the aforementioned FBI survey reported that training needs to stay in step with continuing education, whether it involves taking courses (85 percent), reading new knowledge and materials (47.5 percent), or performing additional case consultations (32.5 percent). It also was indicated that criminal investigative analysis training needs to be an ongoing process. There are several programs which can provide this training at various phases of an aspiring criminal profiler’s career.

    The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF) offers a competitive criminal profiling program which was developed in 1986. The aim of this program is to train behavioral profilers to support mainly arson and bombing investigations, involving hands-on training in investigative strategy, interviewing techniques, crime analysis, search warrant procedures, the delivery of expert testimony in court, and more. Upon completion of the intensive program, the prospective profilers become certified in criminal behavioral analysis.

    Another prestigious program is the International Criminal Investigative Analysis Fellowship (ICIAF) which accepts candidates from law enforcement agencies all over the world and comprises two sections: criminal investigative analysis and geographic profiling analysis. Please note that this is very competitive and accepts few candidates, who must have a minimum of 10 years experience, annually.

    Finally, for those lucky enough to be admitted to the FBI’s elite BSU and/or the National Center for the Analysis of Violent Crime, initial training is 500 hours or more, in addition to the expectation that profilers will join various professional organizations and attend conferences to keep their knowledge contemporary. For additional information on criminal profiler education, check out ForensicsColleges’ criminal profiler programs page.

  • Optional: Attend an FBI Academy (4 months). The competitive FBI Academy in Quantico, Virginia—offered to local leaders in law enforcement on an invitation-only basis—involves advanced training in law, forensic science, communications, behavioral science, and health.
  • Optional: Get an advanced degree (2-4 years). In a survey of top-notch criminal profilers, the FBI found that 87.5 percent held graduate degrees. Therefore, it may be advisable to pursue  a master’s or PhD in areas such as forensic psychology, criminal justice, and related disciplines. Interestingly, although 45 percent of the survey respondents indicated that a degree isn’t necessary to conduct criminal investigative analysis, a majority (57.5 percent) stated that having investigative experience was crucial to succeed in this field. Other important skills noted by these professionals included possessing an analytical mind (30 percent of respondents), having experience dealing with violent crime (22.5 percent), and open-mindedness (10 percent).

Above all, there are varied paths to becoming a criminal profiler, but the consensus is that having extensive investigative experience (i.e., working in law enforcement) is one of the typical cornerstones of becoming a successful criminal investigative analyst.