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 is 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 instead of mental health training. Still, formal education in psychology is typical, particularly for leaders in the field of 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.
However, the formal emergence of the discipline 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 US by examining 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. According to the Law Enforcement Bulletin published by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), nowadays criminal profilers 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.
Before getting started, it’s important to mention that there are very few job opportunities available in criminal profiling. Most of these professionals 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 concerning job responsibilities and career pathways to becoming a criminal profiler.
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The career outlook for criminal profilers is strong and occupational statistics show the future demand is strong. The US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) doesn’t keep statistics for criminal profilers specifically. Still, it shows that from 2019 to 2029, private detectives and investigator careers will grow at 8 percent which is double the national average for all occupations (4 percent). In that same decade, the BLS predicts that 3,000 new private detective and investigator positions will be needed. Most positions require a high school diploma as well as work experience and on-the-job training.
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 several traits that are endemic to the discipline, including:
Among these, having investigative experience was one of the most crucial contributors to a professional’s competency. Therefore it may be advisable to work in law enforcement before 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:
In addition to on-the-job training, private detectives and investigators may be required to hold a private investigator (PI) license depending on state or local laws. Aspiring criminal profilers should research licensing laws in the states or municipalities where they intend to work.
There are a variety of educational, experiential, and career paths to becoming a criminal profiler. Some choose to enter a criminal justice program, perhaps focusing on criminal behavior. In contrast, others join the ranks of law enforcement to cut their teeth on real-world experience in investigations. The FBI notes there’s no true consensus in the field for how people join this exciting 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 (four years). 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 (four 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 before enrolling in the FBI Academy.
Furthermore, local police academies typically prefer candidates with some college experience. A wide range of programs 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 (three to five 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 US citizen; having some college (or military) experience; being at least 18 to 21 years old; having a driver’s license; and possessing no felony (or severe 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 before 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 FBI survey mentioned above 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). The survey also indicates that criminal investigative analysis training needs to be an ongoing process. Several programs 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 13-week criminal profiling program for senior special agents with at least eight years of work experience. Aspiring criminal profilers in this program must also complete the FBI’s Behavioral Analysis Unit (BAU) certification training. Courses include in-person and on-the-job training in psychology, behavioral science, crime scene analysis, and forensic science and pathology.
This program aims 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 worldwide 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 BAU and 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.
Optional: Attend an FBI Academy (four 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 (two to four 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 an area such as forensic psychology, criminal justice, or a related discipline.
Interestingly, although 45 percent of the survey respondents indicated that a degree isn’t necessary to conduct criminal investigative analysis, most (57.5 percent) stated that having investigative experience was crucial to succeed in this field. Other vital 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. Still, 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.
The BLS doesn’t have specific occupational data for criminal profilers but does show the average annual salary for detectives and criminal investigators is $89,300 (BLS May 2020). By comparison, PayScale.com, an aggregator of self-reported salary data, shows the average criminal profiler salary is $62,065 based on 19 reported salaries (Payscale 2021). It’s clear to see from these two sources that salaries vary widely depending on factors such as levels of education, years of experience, employers, and cost of living in a particular location.
Here are the salary percentiles for detectives and criminal investigators according to the BLS:
Interestingly, self-reported data from PayScale shows a wider range of salary percentiles:
Salaries depend on the type of employers as well. The BLS breaks down the five top-paying industries for detectives and criminal investigators as follows:
As well, the BLS shows the top-paying five states for detectives and criminal investigators:
It’s worth noting that the top-paying states for this occupation are states that have the highest cost of living. All five of the states above are in the top 10 most expensive states to live in, according to the Missouri Economic Research and Information Center (MERIC) index. This is a helpful resource to use when researching a career in another state.
Jocelyn Blore is the chief content officer of Sechel Ventures and the co-author of the Women Breaking Barriers series. She graduated summa cum laude from UC Berkeley and traveled the world for five years. She also worked as an addiction specialist for two years in San Francisco. She’s interested in how culture shapes individuals and systems within societies—one of the many themes she writes about in her blog, Blore’s Razor (Instagram: @bloresrazor). She has served as managing editor for several healthcare websites since 2015.