The requirements for criminal profilers vary depending on where they work and what they do. Some, for example, start out as federal law enforcement agents and later complete intensive training in psychology and behavioral analysis. Others work as full-time psychologists but consult on criminal cases. Whatever their specialization, they must understand human behavior, criminal investigation and legal procedures; and be adept at spotting 'signature' traits of serial offenders.
Some profilers hold full-time jobs as practicing psychologists or psychiatrists or as professors of psychology. They review cases for local, state and federal law enforcement agencies as needed, primarily for complex or challenging crimes such as serial offenses or cold cases. They need at least a master’s degree in psychology, with some agencies preferring a doctorate in either psychology or psychiatry. They rarely have formal law enforcement or forensic training, but must understand basic legal and investigative principles. With this knowledge they can better understand what kind of information investigators need to pinpoint a suspect or motive.
Full-time profiling jobs are extremely limited within law enforcement. Most profilers work for the FBI, where they start out as special agents. The FBI does not allow candidates to apply directly for the position of criminal profiler. Instead, they must spend at least three years with the bureau investigating cases. After this they can apply to the bureau’s National Center for the Analysis of Violent Crime, which specializes in profiling. Most agents assigned to this unit have between 8 and 10 years of experience. Many agents complete undergraduate degrees in criminal justice or forensic investigation, later attending the police or FBI academy.
Profilers need strong analytical skills to successfully evaluate the often massive amounts of evidence involved in a criminal investigation. They must be adept in weighing the significance of individual pieces of information while also considering the big picture. They must also see past the surface details to uncover deeper meanings and hidden aspects of the crime. For example, they often begin by studying the victim to determine what attracted the suspect to him. They also scrutinize crimes for subtle patterns that could connect one incident to a series of seemingly unrelated events.
Patience is crucial, because it can take days, weeks or even months to create a psychological profile and understand the importance of each piece of the puzzle. Profilers often look at gruesome crime scene photos and read graphic testimony, requiring a strong stomach and the ability to maintain objectivity. They also need strong communication, people and teamwork skills because, while they spend much of their time poring over case files, they must also articulately share their findings in written reports or in meetings with investigators or prosecutors.
- Federal Bureau of Investigation: Special Agent Frequently Asked Questions
- The Bronx High School of Science: Psychology and Criminal Profiling
- truTV: The Art of Forensic Psychology
- Florida State University: Advice About a Career in Forensic Science
- The Pat Brown Criminal Profiling Agency: Criminal Profiling as a Career
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