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A Day in the Life of a Criminologist

“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.

Paying Your Dues

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.

Present and Future

Criminology is a relatively modern science, and emerged on two levels simultaneously. National interest in the cause and effects of criminal behavior sparked the FBI to commission a number of studies of federal crimes and criminals in the late 1960s and early 1970s. At the same time, economic and political pressure led urban police departments to commission studies on a much smaller level. The successes of these two endeavors in preventing crime became evident immediately. Criminologists face much the same demand as sociologists in general. Police departments are loath to lay off street officers compared with easily replaceable criminologists. Currently, applicants face a competitive market. This bottleneck of qualified candidates for limited positions is expected to continue into the foreseeable future.

Quality of Life


“Junior” or “assistant” criminologists are in charge of data collection, report proofing, and computer work. These years are marked by low responsibility, average hours, and average levels of pay. Much of the time is spent learning the specific methods, protocols and procedures involved in law enforcement.


Five-year veterans may have earned the title “criminologist,” depending on the size of the department and the opportunities for advancement. Most work as part of a team, assembling the data collected by more junior members and providing analysis. Their work is overseen by head or chief criminologists, but responsibilities (compared with the first two years) have skyrocketed. Satisfaction levels have increased, but so have hours. Field work is more common than in the early years, and many criminologists now are involved in discussions of policy and procedure, though few have any direct influence. Pay increases. Most of those who were going to leave the profession--a mere 15 percent--have left by this point, frustrated by the nature of the work in the first two years.


Professionals have, for the most part, become chief or head of criminology at their agencies. Many are project developers and manage staffs of junior criminologists, overseeing their research and directing projects through final report status. This position, while more financially rewarding, removes criminologists from one of the most attractive features of their profession: analysis. Many merely review what associates have written and offer advice and guidance. Satisfaction levels dip, but as members of law enforcement agencies, many criminologists benefit from liberal retirement policies.