“Being a criminologist is exciting,” wrote one respondent. “It’s interesting,” said another. “It’s unpredictable,” ventured a third. The number of adjectives that describe the world of the criminologist would fill more than a page, but one thing is certain: Few occupations require that people be as skilled on both a detail level and a large-picture level as that of criminologist. A criminologist studies normal social behaviors and how certain factors influence deviation from that norm. They work with and often for law enforcement offices (both local and federal), analyzing the behavior and methods of criminals for a variety of reasons: to increase the chances of criminals being apprehended; to predict patterns and motives for behaviors in certain demographic groups; and to assess the responsiveness of crime to various methods of law enforcement. These duties border on the territory of the statistician, and many of the same skills are required of the criminologist, but the additional analytic component of psychological insight and sociological patterns of behavior make this profession unique.
Criminologists’ duties can be as distant from police work as reviewing a pattern of behavior among a certain demographic group and writing a profile of the pressures that increase that behavior. Or they may involve going to crime scenes, attending autopsies, and questioning potential suspects to see if they fall into the general psychological profile constructed of the suspect for that crime. One criminologist said the work can be “gruesome,” but the type of personality that likes the intellectual task of understanding patterns and deviations from patterns is well challenged in this profession; a number of respondents included the word “fascinating” in their description.
Many cited the intellectual challenge and their fellow law-enforcement officers as the two most positive features of their profession. It is important to note that the opportunity for advancement in this career is limited to the sphere of employment; in other words, if you are hired by a state law enforcement agency, you can rise within that agency, but few move from state agencies to federal agencies, or vice versa. Some members of the profession feel that criminologists are at a distant remove from the actual process of law enforcement. “Sometimes it feels that I write reports that no one ever reads,” mentioned one frustrated three-year criminologist, but for the most part, enthusiasm for the profession is high and most enjoy the hard and varied work this profession can bring.
There are comprehensive and rigorous academic requirements to become a criminologist because the job is academic in nature, as much of criminology rests on evaluating and predicting the foundations of behavior based on incomplete information. The overwhelming majority of criminologists are sociology and psychology majors. Coursework should include statistics, writing, computer science, and logic. While many enter the profession with only a bachelor’s degree, a significant number continue for graduate work in the behavioral sciences, and those who wish to teach are expected to pursue a doctorate in psychology or sociology. Since most criminologists are employed by law-enforcement agencies, background and security checks are standard. Employers look for candidates who have demonstrated responsibility, creativity, and logical thinking. Criminologists must know how to design and construct sound research projects. Written examinations are required in a number of states to license criminologists, so check with your local law-enforcement agency for requirements in your state and county.
Criminologists work closely with many law-enforcement officers, and the few who leave often pursue a variety of law-enforcement careers. Criminologists become police officers, FBI agents, and state medical examiners more often than any other careers. A number use their psychological training as springboards to careers as therapists, psychologists, and counselors.