The first step to stopping crime is understanding it—this is the essential role the forensic criminologist plays in our justice system.
A forensic criminologist is a detective assigned to investigate not just a single crime, but the nature of criminality as a concept.
As soon as you become one, it’s like you’ve started working on the case that has dominated headlines since society began. It’s interesting work, to say the least.
In this blog, we’ll answer questions about:
- What a forensic criminologist does.
- What the differences are between forensic criminology, forensic science and criminalistics.
- What the Canadian job market for criminologists is like in 2020.
- What kind of education you need to get a job in the field and what you can expect to learn in your studies.
- How Wilfrid Laurier University’s online BA in Policing and Criminology prepares you for a career in public safety.
So, where should we begin? As any good detective will tell you, it’s best to start with the basics.
What is a Forensic Criminologist?
The word “forensic” comes from a Latin word, forensis, which means “forum.” In Roman times, the forum was where criminal proceedings would take place before the public.
As with modern litigation, the victim and the accused (or their advocates) would each have the opportunity to state their case before a judge.
Today, the word forensic can be understood as any sort of inquiry that has to do with courts and the law. Meanwhile, “criminology” is the formal study of criminal behaviour.
What about the two words together then? That’s been a matter of some debate.
Accordingly, many scholars have proposed formal definitions of what “forensic criminology” means as a discipline:
- “[Forensic criminology is] the scientific study of crime and criminals for the purpose of addressing investigative and legal questions.” (Turvey and Patrick, 2010)
- “…the applied use of scientific and criminological research and analytical techniques for the purposes of addressing proactive and reactive investigative work, and for aiding legal cases and issues.”
Forensic criminologists are experts on criminality who work inside or in concert with the legal system. They work to prevent, solve or prosecute crimes including in police departments, corrections facilities or as expert consultants.
But they also work to further our understanding of the nature of crime itself, helping society to improve how it deals with this basic aspect of human nature.
In this capacity, forensic criminologists may be also employed by governments, insurance companies or other institutions vulnerable to crime.
It is therefore an applied discipline and not a purely academic one. It’s also worth noting that the science involved in criminology is primarily drawn from sociology and psychology, rather than the physical sciences like chemistry or biology.
Forensic Criminology, Forensic Science and Criminalistics
If you’re still wondering whether a forensic criminologist is the same thing as a CSI (crime scene investigator), the answer is no.
Before things get more confusing, it may be helpful to draw a distinction between what we mean here when we use common terms like “criminology,” “forensic science” and “criminalistics.”
Any scientific approach to the subject of crime and the law is technically a forensic science, but in practice when you hear the term, it is usually referring to the collection and analysis of physical evidence. Common examples include ballistics, fingerprinting and DNA analysis.
Criminalistics is an older term for physical forensic science that is still sometimes used interchangeably. You’ll hear it most often in reference to the work of police crime labs.
A forensic criminologist should have a basic knowledge of how physical evidence is collected and interpreted, but their work is focused on understanding behavioural patterns.
What is a Day in the Life of a Forensic Criminologist Like?
A day in the life of a forensic criminologist can vary a lot depending on the venue where they work.
Much as someone with an academic background in sociology may not style themselves professionally as a sociologist, criminologists in Canada have a variety of titles and responsibilities. (And that doesn’t include jobs that may involve criminology indirectly, like social work.)
In 2014, forensic criminologist Dr. Daniel B. Kennedy wrote in the Handbook of Forensic Sociology and Psychology about his own experiences, as well as new practice areas where insights from forensic criminology are becoming more useful.
Kennedy’s work as an academic focused on why inmates often commit suicide while in custody. After publishing some of his research, he became an in-demand expert witness in court proceedings.
If a police department or prison was sued following the suicide of a prisoner, Kennedy might be brought in by either the defence or the prosecution to evaluate whether the institution had done enough to prevent the death.
Eventually Kennedy’s practice expanded. A criminologist like Kennedy might be retained to weigh in on whether an employer is responsible for workplace violence, or if an apartment complex has met its obligations to tenants to provide adequate security.
The day-to-day work of a criminology consultant like Kennedy might include:
- Researching the circumstances of the crime (the who, what, when, where and why).
- Looking into the backmatter: what policies and procedures were in place to prevent crimes and protect vulnerable parties? Were these procedures followed correctly?
- Understanding the parties involved through direct interviews or accessing interviews conducted by primary investigators (police).
- Preparing reports to help clients plot their legal strategies.
- Preparing to testify in court as an expert witness.
Forensic criminology is undoubtedly good work for those who like variety in their professional lives.
One day might be spent working behind a desk in an office environment and the next might involve going out into the field to help inspect a crime scene or speak with witnesses.
Some criminologists even work as behavioural profilers, creating a “sketch” of the likely personality of a criminal that investigators can refer to as they home in on a suspect.
As our program brochure discusses, most professionals with a background in forensic criminology end up working in related fields including:
- Addictions counselling
- Corporate security
- Customs and immigration
- Insurance/fraud investigation
- Private investigation
- Public safety education
- Social work
Many who work specifically as forensic criminologists, such as Dr. Kennedy, are consultants and less likely to earn a fixed wage.
Criminologists are a part of a broad workforce scope. As a result, direct information on current salary expectations and the number of job openings in the field is difficult to come by. Labour data pulled from Neuvoo suggest criminologists earn an average of $43.65 per hour, compared to an average of $26.15 per hour for most police officers in Canada.
Today, many criminologists earn an average of $85,118 per year.
It may also be useful to consider information from related disciplines to get an idea of how employable those with an education in forensic criminology are on today’s job market.
Meanwhile, sociologists (a professional umbrella which includes criminologists) make an average of $87,546 per year. These benchmarks provide a fair idea of the value of a criminologist’s skillset.
How are Canadian Forensic Criminologists Educated?
Almost all forensic criminologists in Canada have attained some level of post-secondary education. In criminology programs, there are many courses that rely on criminological principles, such as those in policing and social work.
As a future professional in the field, you’ll need to learn about the following concepts:
How do you access the body of knowledge in your field? And what do you need to know in order to be able to think critically about the information you read and collect?
The Justice System
How does the justice system function on a practical level? Who does it benefit? And what is the role of a criminologist once a case has proceeded to court?
Every criminologist needs a working knowledge of statistics—not only how to parse them for information but also to understand how they are collected and to identify any flaws in their methods. Statistics can be a very valuable tool but only when they are utilized with wisdom.
Theories of Crime
Why does crime happen? This is a social question that has been investigated scientifically since at least the 1700s. As a criminologist, you should have a sound understanding of how our thinking has evolved into today’s multiplicity of theories and approaches.
Psychology of Crime
Who commits crimes, and how do these people understand their actions? Delve into various understandings of criminal behaviour, from genetics to brain functioning, moral development to social learning.
Mental Health and Justice
How does mental health affect people’s likelihood to offend? How can authorities assess risk accurately and without resorting to stereotyping? And how can law enforcement and corrections prevent those in the system with diagnosed issues from reoffending?
Each university has their own academic curriculum. Some courses lean heavily on sociological theory, while others firmly situate their lessons in the context of crime prevention and investigation.
Laurier’s online Combined Honours Bachelor of Arts in Criminology and Policing has coursework that blends real-world theory and application, providing comprehensive undergraduate education for emerging law enforcement professionals.
Choosing the right undergraduate program is helpful for finding entry-level work in the field and provides a foundation for graduate programs.
Much like other social science professions, those who choose to work as forensic criminologists (rather than police officers) often pursue more advanced degrees in order to appeal to employers and build up their expertise.
Consider your career aspirations. If you aspire to use your knowledge of criminology to work as a detective or investigator with the police, you will have to work your way up the officer ranks for a number of years before you have the opportunity to apply.
Meanwhile, if you’d like to follow a path more like Dr. Kennedy’s, you should apply yourself to conducting original research as a graduate student and building an academic reputation.
Becoming a Forensic Criminologist
Working as a forensic criminologist does have its challenges, some of which may be emotionally taxing. Interacting with criminals means examining the details of their crimes and dealing with traumatic experiences.
Nonetheless, the work is interesting and rewarding. Unlike many other jobs, forensic criminology is necessary on a larger scale and has direct social impact.
Through your efforts, offenders will be taken off the street. In many cases, your work will also help to prevent future crimes from happening.
Leading with Laurier
Laurier stands out as an academic leader in the study of Canada’s security apparatus and law enforcement. The online combined Honours BA in in Criminology and Policing curriculum was created by public safety professionals and designed to prepare the next generation of criminologists.
With courses offered completely online and in a flexible format, you can learn in the comfort of your own home while building a useful professional network of students and faculty. Learn from a robust academic curriculum and touch lives through public safety.
1. Qtd. in Gotham, Kevin Fox and Daniel Bruce Kennedy. Practicing Forensic Criminology. 2019, Academic Press. Pg. 1-2. https://books.google.ca/books?id=Dc2aDwAAQBAJ
2. Kennedy, Daniel B. “Evolving Practice Parameters of Forensic Criminology.” Republished on Experts.com. https://www.experts.com/articles/evolving-practice-parameters-forensic-criminology-by-dr-daniel-kennedy
3. Neuvoo. “Criminology salaries in Canada.” http://neuvoo.ca/salary/?job=criminology
4. Government of Alberta. Sociologist. https://alis.alberta.ca/occinfo/occupations-in-alberta/occupation-profiles/sociologist/