Behavior analysis careers can go in some interesting directions. One of the most famous, though, is that of criminal profiler.
Criminal profilers are experts in psychology and criminal behavior who apply their knowledge and insights to understanding why and how crimes are committed.
They use that expertise both to help identify criminals through their patterns of personality and behavior, and to catch them by predicting those patterns.
Profilers also use their behavioral analysis skills in more general ways, like designing security systems and helping to advise law enforcement agencies on public policy and procedures.
Although profilers come from a wide variety of backgrounds, applied behavior analysts are particularly well-suited to the job. Their training in careful observation and behavioral analysis, with a high level of education behind it, gives them the essential skills to find and catch criminals through psychological analysis.
The Low-Down on How To Become a Criminal Profiler
Despite being a very well-known job because it features heavily in modern cop shows and movies, most people don’t have the first clue how to become criminal profilers.
Right from the start, it’s clear that anyone who wants to match wits with criminals has to have pretty in-depth training in how the criminal mind works. And that’s a natural fit for the field of applied behavior analysis.
Applied behavior analysts have the training and experience to evaluate the ABCs of human behavior to anticipate actions or explain motives. That means they have the expertise to look at the:
- Antecedent – The trigger or environment leading to a behavior
- Behavior – The action itself, prompted by the antecedent
- Consequence – The result of the action
Those three keys can be used to explain or understand the mysteries of criminal behavior. And that’s an understanding that helps put bad guys behind bars.
How hard is it to become a criminal profiler?
It is very challenging to become a professional criminal profiler. Although the jobs feature prominently in TV shows like Hannibal or Criminal Minds, they are a tiny fraction of all law enforcement jobs. Most agencies do not employ dedicated criminal profilers directly, but instead rely on partnerships with other larger agencies or the FBI.
On top of that, the great surge in popularity has made competition for these jobs fierce. You’re not the only person reading this web page right now. You’ll have to have a better education, better instincts, and stronger work ethic than all the thousands of other candidates out there… and then you’ll still have to get lucky to find a job opening.
What skills do you need to be a criminal profiler?
Criminal profilers have to have the rare ability to get inside the heads of people who are, by definition, abnormal. That’s something that can’t be taught.
But there are many other skills that are required or contribute to that talent that you can study and learn, including:
- Critical thinking
- Crime scene analysis
- Written and verbal communication skills
- Chemistry and physics
- Biology and anatomy
Step 1. Get The Right Education To Become a Criminal Profiler
Criminal profiling is work that happens almost entirely in your mind. That means your brain needs the right training to analyze and deduce profiles from the data you are given. And that means a top-notch education is the first step on your path to work in the world of criminal profiling.
Your studies will have to include courses such as:
- Behavior assessment
- Abnormal psychology
- Laws and legal procedure
- Criminology and rehabilitation
Many profilers earn bachelor’s degrees in criminology, psychology, criminal justice, or applied behavior analysis. If you are planning ahead, you can mix and match your education between the bachelor and master’s degree levels to get a broad mix of psychological, behavioral, and criminal training that tags all the bases for what a criminal profiler needs to know.
What degree do you need to become a criminal profiler?
Criminal profiling doesn’t have a specific professional career path with a particular degree requirement. You can find profilers working for different agencies that have everything from an associate’s degree in criminal justice all the way up to doctoral degrees in psychiatry.
Your best chances of getting a job as a criminal profiler come at higher levels of education, however. You should plan on earning at least a master’s degree in a relevant field if you want to take up profiling as a profession.
Step 2. Build Your Law Enforcement Skills
Not all profilers are sworn law enforcement officers or special agents, but many are. In any case, you’ll need to have strong knowledge of legal processes and policing to get a job as a criminal profiler. You will need to learn and understand:
- Rules of evidence
- Legal standards for charging and prosecuting criminals
- Constitutional rights
- Police procedure
That usually means getting hired as a police officer or investigator and attending police academy. Although you can find college coursework in these areas, particularly in degrees in criminology, they often focus on the theoretical side of the business. A criminal profiler has to be well-versed in the details of actual investigations, however.
Developing the hands-on feel for investigative work necessary to become a criminal profiler means learning directly from experienced law enforcement professionals.
On top of that, becoming a sworn officer also puts you on the path to fulfilling step three.
Step 3. Get Real-World Investigative Experience
Education and academy training only take you so far in preparing to become a criminal profiler. You’ll soon find that reality is much stranger than any of the case studies you get in college or the academy. Crime scenes are messy, witnesses are forgetful, and crime labs are often behind schedule.
You’ll have to put your training into practice out on the mean streets to really hone your behavioral profiling skills.
The ideal positions to make this happen are investigative. Becoming a detective usually means working your way up through the ranks, however. But even good beat cops have plenty of opportunities to hone their behavioral analysis techniques by observing petty criminals, studying patterns of crime in their patrol sector, or watching more skilled investigators at crime scenes.
You might also be lucky enough to land an internship to help you get real-world behavior analysis skills. Work in prisons, with parole boards, or directly with law enforcement agencies can all bridge this gap.
Step 4. Consider Certification Options in Behavioral Analysis
There is no single, widely recognized certification in criminal profiling that you can earn. The popularity of the field today has resulted in a lot of low-quality, fly-by-night certifications from dubious agencies that are just looking to make a quick buck off naive college kids.
Mixed in with those are a few special purpose certifications, like the McAfee Institute’s Certified Criminal Profiler certification that focuses on cybercrime, or the American Board of Professional Psychology’s specialty certification in Forensic Psychology.
In the world of applied behavior analysis, the one important cert to pick up is the Board Certified Behavior Analyst (BCBA) from the Behavior Analysis Certification Board.
You don’t technically need BACB certification to become a criminal profiler, but it is a mark of expertise in the field that employers like to see. It demonstrates that you have taken the right coursework, built up more than 3,000 hours of fieldwork, passed an intensive examination, and have committed to keeping up your education and training to stay on top of the field.
Step 5. Find a Job as a Criminal Profiler
Once you’ve done all the hard work of preparing yourself to become a top-notch criminal profiler, you get to the hardest part: finding a job in the field.
As you have probably noticed by now, there are not a lot of these jobs out there in the first place and the competition is fierce.
If you’re already working in law enforcement as a part of step three, then it can make a lot of sense to work your way up the ladder within your agency to profiling jobs.
The FBI is probably the largest single employer of criminal profilers in the country. To get a job with the elite Behavior Analysis Unit, you need to become a Special Agent through the tough Special Agent Selection System (SASS) and get through the rigorous FBI Academy in Quantico.
Qualifying through SASS requires:
- Holding at least a bachelor’s degree
- Being a U.S. citizen
- Being eligible to achieve a sensitive compartmentalized information (SCI) security clearance
- Being between 23 and 36 years old
- Having at least two years of work experience
- Complying with FBI drug policy
- Meeting strong fitness standards
Even once you’ve become a special agent, however, you’re not guaranteed a profiler job. But once you are in the door, you can apply to take additional in-house training directly from BAU that will put you on a path to transfer into the unit eventually.
No matter where you end up working, profiling is a rewarding career that will challenge you and help keep your community safe.
Is being a criminal profiler dangerous?
No. Profilers do not regularly engage in surprise shootouts in creepy basements with their subjects while rescuing captive victims from the bottom of old wells. Most profiling work happens in drab office buildings where the greatest risk is probably accidentally spilling scalding coffee on yourself.
How to become a criminal profiler like on Criminal Minds?
Let’s be straight here: jobs in criminal profiling are nothing like the TV shows. There are no real-life criminal profilers like Jason Gideon or Emily Prentiss. The FBI’s Behavioral Analysis Unit is real and engages in valuable forensic profiling work for cases from around the country, but the members of the unit rarely leave FBI headquarters and they spend the bulk of their time on cases that are far less sexy than the serial-killer-of-the-week you see on TV.
The unit has only 15-20 members, generally behavioral psychologists. In addition to crime analysis, they work on generic threat assessments, developing interview strategies for other agents, advising on trial strategy, and informing Bureau media strategy.