Killers Behind Bars

Thinking about reading Criminology or Psychology at university?

Professor David Wilson and his colleagues at Birmingham City University offer their advice.

Killers Behind Bars

What is Criminology?

Getting into university

Some general books to read about Psychology before coming to university 

There is currently no A Level in Criminology and a number of students have therefore emailed to ask me what they can read if they want to prepare for undertaking a degree in Criminology at university, or who simply want to study the subject more fully. A smaller number have contacted me about books related to serial killing more generally and how they might "become an offender profiler".

I have asked two colleagues – Dr Lyndsey Harris and Professor Craig Jackson – to also provide some advice about studying Psychology at university and, in Lyndsey’s case, what you might like to say in your personal statement if you are applying to University. Lyndsey is the Course Director for the undergraduate programme in Criminology at Birmingham City University – although you will discover that a number of universities offer degrees in Criminology.



Professor David Wilson

Put simply, Criminology is the study of crime, although the roots of that study can encompass History, Sociology, Law, Anthropology, and Psychology - to name but a few academic disciplines. So, the best and easiest advice that I can give about introducing you to the subject is to read a newspaper and note how crime is reported in the press. What sorts of crimes dominate in these press reports? Why do you think that might be the case? What sort of language is used to describe these crimes and the people who commit them? Do different newspapers report on the same crimes in different ways? Are the crimes that get reported on in the press typical of the crimes that are committed in England and Wales?

To pursue these questions more fully and for a general book that you might like to consider, there is James Treadwell (2006) Criminology, London: Sage, which is a very accessible and "student-friendly" introduction to the subject area of Criminology. Please do try and remember that Criminology is both a theoretical and academic discipline as well as an applied subject. 

For those of you who are interested in serial killers more generally, I have written about this subject in a number of academic and "true crime" books. As an introduction the best place to start would be with David Wilson (2009) A History of British Serial Killing, London: Sphere, and you will be able to follow the guidance in that book for more specialised books about individual serial killers. 

A number of people have also written about how to "become an offender profiler". This is a very easy question to ask, but because what we call "offender profiling" encompasses a range of different approaches – including, for example, investigative psychology, crime scene analysis and geographic profiling – not an easy one to answer. Most profilers will be academic, clinical, or forensic psychologists, although some psychiatrists and some police officers also act as profilers. They will usually be employed by universities, hospitals, secure units or the police. They key point to note is that, at the very least, you will need an undergraduate and a Masters degree – most likely but not exclusively in forensic psychology – and probably also a PhD. That's why university is going to be important to you if this is really your ambition.

Getting into university

Dr Lyndsey Harris

Applying to university can seem a daunting task, particularly for mature students or for students whose parents have not experienced Higher Education. I hope the following points will help anyone who wishes to apply to read Criminology at university.

First, it is important that you spend some time researching which universities offer the type of course you wish to study. I would strongly advise all prospective criminology students to attend university open days and course specific applicant/visit days (This information is usually found on university web sites).

These days will enable you to ask questions, meet the lecturing staff and ‘get a feel’ for the institution. At the very least, you need to ensure you read the course prospectus, which will outline the core criminology modules you will be taught and what entry grades are needed. Institutions will have different entry grades and different sets of optional modules or in some cases, like at Birmingham City University, route ways which will enable you to combine Criminology with other social science subjects such as Psychology, Policing or Security Studies. 

Once you have decided that Criminology is the subject you wish to study at university, and which universities you wish to apply, you will need to complete a UCAS application form. This is where your research will be important as you will need to know what grades or specific subjects each institution will require/ will not accept. As Professor David Wilson highlights, Criminology is a ‘rendezvous’ subject, which means that it draws from a number of social science disciplines such as Psychology, Politics and Sociology. Consequently, applicants should usually be able to demonstrate an interest in the broad social sciences and a general interest in exploring why crime occurs. This does not mean that you must have studied a social science in further education; however, it may give you an advantage.

The most important part of the UCAS application form, and one that deserves a significant amount of attention, is the personal statement.  In this section the university admissions tutor is trying to find out about more about you. They are trying to distinguish you from other applicants.  

Essentially, you should demonstrate the following:

Why do you wish to read Criminology?

You need demonstrate that you have a desire to read the subject – this is where your research prior to application will be useful. How does your previous study relate to your choice to read Criminology? If you have no previous experience of studying a social science subject, what has led you to choose to read Criminology? Is it a book or a television programme that has ignited your interest? Do you have a long-term career aim?

How are you suited to the course? 

This is your opportunity to shine - use it! What are your skills and strengths? For example, are you a critical thinker? How have you demonstrated this in your previous studies? Admissions tutors also look for applicants to demonstrate what they would bring to the course – do you have organisational skills that may aid the development of a student society for example? Do you have any hobbies or interests that demonstrate effective team work or require initiative?

Do you have any relevant work experience?

Obviously it is difficult for students who wish to study Criminology to get access to things such as ‘shadowing a Criminologist for a day’! However, think outside the box: Good ideas for relevant work experience include: volunteering work for charity organisations that work with former offenders or victims of crime; or working in a solicitor’s office;  for local MPs  or councillors. This is also an opportunity for applicants who do not have the traditional academic qualifications to demonstrate relevant work experience that may result in some qualifications being subject to APEL (Accreditation of Prior Experiential Learning).

Finally a list of important things to remember when writing your personal statement:

Ensure there are no spelling mistakes and your statement is proof read for grammatical errors.

Do not name the institution that is your preferred choice.

Do not explicitly mention another subject that you are considering applying for in your personal statement, unless you can demonstrate the subjects are linked. For example: if you state something like ‘I am suited to the study of nursing/accountancy/law’ then it is not clear why you are applying to read Criminology. If you do intend to apply to a number of different courses you will need to keep your personal statement generic (not always the best option as universities are seeking the most committed and enthusiastic students). However, you could legitimately apply for a Psychology/Sociology/Politics/Criminology using the same personal statement if you mention how the study of crime is important within each of these disciplines.

Do not discuss reading material that you haven’t read! If you are required to attend an interview your personal statement will form the basis of the questions you may be asked.


Some general books to read about Psychology before coming to university 

Professor Craig Jackson

First it is important to know that in order to study Psychology at degree level, it is not always necessary to have taken it as a topic at A Level. Most Psychology courses have a mixture of students who did and did not take A Level psychology – and it rarely, if ever, shows which students are which.

What is perhaps more useful is to possess is an enquiring and critical mind regarding explanations for human behaviours, thoughts and attitudes. Psychologists attempt to understand, explain and predict a whole variety of behaviours and actions (that are not always consistent with our thoughts or feelings), from criminal offences, through to why we choose the friends we have, or why we do things that we know are bad for us. In essence, Psychology is a broad discipline that focuses on many areas, not just crime, and any University Psychology degree will require students to study a whole range of Core Psychology Topics before they can specialise in crime or other areas at a later date. To study behaviour we take a scientific approach – using data and observations – and not “intuition” that laypeople think psychologists rely on.

Some broad Psychological texts that are easy to access, informative and quite inspirational include:

Quirkology: The Curious Science Of Everyday Lives by Richard Wiseman.

Games People Play: The Psychology of Human Relationships by Eric Berne.

50 Psychology Ideas You Really Need to Know by Adrian Furnham.

This Book Has Issues: Adventures in Popular Psychology by Christian Jarrett and Joannah Ginsburg.

The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat by Oliver Sacks.