How to Become a Criminal 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 suspected criminal offenders’ behaviors, emotions, and personalities, 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. 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 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 investigating 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. To bridge the gap between current deficits in criminal profiling, an article published by the National Institutes for Health (NIH) has offered a revolutionary framework: CRIME. This ground-breaking approach offers crime scene evaluations and research relevance that can be paired with investigative or clinical opinions; methods of investigation are provided as well for maximum uniformity when it comes to profile development – thus increasing accuracy within this practiced field overall.

Before getting started, it’s important to mention that criminal profiling offers few job opportunities. Most of these professionals start as criminal investigators or experienced detectives and choose to transition into the role with extra training and employer demand. Few crimes committed in the U.S. 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 offender 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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Criminal Profiler Career Overview, Outlook, and Salary Data

The career outlook for criminal profilers is strong and occupational statistics show the future demand is strong. The US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS 2023) doesn’t specifically keep statistics for criminal profilers. Still, from 2022 to 2032, private detectives and investigator careers will grow by 6 percent, which is faster than the national average for all occupations (3 percent). In that same decade, the BLS predicts that 2,300 new private detective and investigator positions will be needed. Most positions require a high school diploma, work experience, and on-the-job training.

To elucidate criminal investigative analysts’ professional scope and responsibilities, 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:

  • 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. 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:

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

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.

Criminal Profiler Salaries – How Much Do Criminal Investigators and Detectives Make?

The BLS doesn’t have specific occupational data for criminal profilers but does show the average annual salary for detectives and criminal investigators is $95,930 (BLS May 2023). By comparison, (2024) shows the average annual criminal profiler working for the United States government earns an average salary of $87,266.

It’s clear from these two sources that salaries are similar, but also 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:

Detectives & Criminal Investigators United States
Number of Professionals Employed 106,730
Annual Mean Wage $95,930
10th Percentile $50,670
25th Percentile $64,830
50th Percentile (Median) $91,100
75th Percentile $116,170
90th Percentile $154,360

Interestingly, (2024) shows the following salary percentiles:

  • 10th percentile: $81,157
  • 50th percentile: $87,266 (mean)
  • 90th percentile: $97,738

Salaries depend on the type of employer as well. The BLS breaks down the five top-paying industries for detectives and criminal investigators as follows:

Industry Employment Annual mean wage
Federal, State, and Local Government 39,480 $121,770
Postal Service (Federal Government) 480 $111,930
Psychiatric and Substance Abuse Hospitals 40 $89,490
Local Government, excluding Schools and Hospitals 44,480 $82,880
Colleges, Universities, and Professional Schools 290 $77,310

In addition, the BLS shows the top-paying five states for detectives and criminal investigators:

State Employment Annual mean wage
Alaska 130 $121,770
Hawaii 430 $121,000
Maryland 980 $119,900
New York 9,030 $118,350
California 10,980 $115,910

It’s worth noting that the top-paying states for this occupation are states that have the highest cost of living. All five states above are in the top ten most expensive states to live in, according to the Missouri Economic Research and Information Center (MERIC 2024) index. When considering a relocation for work, this is a helpful resource to research the cost of living in a particular state.

Steps to Becoming a Criminal Profiler

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 consensus on how people join this exciting field. That said, ideally, a candidate in criminal profiling has a mix of 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) psychology and government courses 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. The Bureau of Justice Assistance (BJA) provides a list of police departments nationwide with similar programs. 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. Students are urged to concentrate their coursework and training in 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).

Prolific author, forensic behavioral consultant, and retired FBI profiler, Mary Ellen O’Toole reports that profilers in the Behavioral Analysis Unit 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 must be ongoing. 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 completing 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 at least ten years of 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.

Step 6: 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 16 weeks of advanced training in law, forensic science, communications, behavioral science, and health.

Step 7: Optional: Get an advanced degree (two to four years)

In an older 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 being open-minded (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.

Chief Content Strategist

Jocelyn Blore

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.