Criminology vs. Criminal Justice

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Have you ever considered pursuing a career as a detective, police officer, correctional officer, or FBI agent? What about studying the psychology behind criminal behavior or advising government agencies on issues like public safety and crime prevention? If you answered yes to either of those questions, you could benefit by earning a degree or certificate in criminology or criminal justice — two overlapping but separate fields that deal with different aspects of crime.

So how is criminology vs. criminal justice different? The discipline of criminology focuses on analyzing the causes and consequences of crime, with the end goal of preventing more future crimes. By comparison, criminal justice deals with investigating crimes, enforcing the laws, and upholding the legal system. While criminology involves researching theories and advising policymakers, criminal justice is all about putting practical solutions into action. So which of these paths is the right option for you, and what other differences should students be aware of? Read on to learn more about how criminology differs from criminal justice, or chat with our friendly admissions counselors to learn about the accredited criminal justice programs offered at National University.

What is Criminology?

Criminology is considered a sub-discipline of sociology, a field that deals with studying social structures and how they function. Criminology delves into human behavior to discover the drivers, thought processes, and motivations behind criminal acts, with the aim of understanding — and ultimately, preventing — them.

In short, criminologists strive to understand the underlying factors that contribute to crime. This enables them to make expert, evidence-based recommendations to policymakers, who can then address the issue of crime more effectively and successfully in their communities.

There are numerous careers that you can explore with a degree in criminology. Other than criminologist, some additional examples of careers in criminology include:

  • ATF, CIA, DEA, or FBI agent
  • Criminal investigator
  • Law enforcement officer
  • Researcher
  • Victim advocate

What Is Criminal Justice?

The U.S. criminal justice system is composed of three elements: law enforcement, corrections, and the courts. Criminal justice careers and degree programs encompass these fields, which means students will generally transition into careers like:

  • Fraud analyst or financial examiner
  • Forensic analyst or investigator
  • Parole or probation officer
  • Police officer or police supervisor
  • Security or correctional services officer

While criminology peers deep into the data and social patterns underlying crimes, criminal justice seeks to apply this knowledge and put solutions into practice. Depending on their profession, people within the criminal justice field might be responsible for apprehending criminal suspects, prosecuting people who have been charged with crimes, or supervising parolees, prison inmates, or people who are on probation.

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What’s the Difference Between Criminology and Criminal Justice?

After reading this guide, you should understand that there are many key differences between criminology and a criminal justice degree. So, if you’ve been wondering, “Should I major in criminal justice or criminology?” here are a few key points to consider regarding the education requirements, career opportunities, and necessary skills for each. 

Education Requirements

Education requirements vary depending on what sort of career you intend to pursue. For example, becoming a law enforcement officer with a high school diploma or equivalent, such as a GED, is generally possible. However, other careers in criminal justice or criminology may require you to hold a master’s or even doctorate degree, especially if it involves a leadership position. For example, a master’s degree is typically the minimum education required to become a prison warden.

Career Opportunities

There is frequent overlap between criminology and criminal justice in terms of the career paths that a student can pursue. For example, it is possible to become a police officer with a criminology or criminal justice background since a diploma, or GED is generally sufficient to meet the educational requirements. Examples of criminology and criminal justice careers include but are not limited to, correctional officers, prison wardens, police officers, private investigators, investigative reporters, crime lab analysts, information security analysts, and even financial examiners.

Hard and Soft Skills

If you plan on entering a career in criminal justice, such as law enforcement, you need to be comfortable dealing with high-stress, fast-paced, potentially dangerous situations and environments. On the other hand, if you’re more interested in a research-focused career developing new theories, it’s essential to be equipped with excellent writing, communication, and organizational skills, along with an interest in data analysis. In either case, you’ll need to be an adept problem-solver skilled at critical thinking, possessing the ability to work on teams and the motivation to work independently, depending on what the situation calls for.

What Will I Learn in Criminology?

As you’ve been learning throughout this article, criminology is a branch of sociology that also takes cues from the related discipline of psychology. (For a deeper dive into that topic, explore key differences between sociology and psychology, or read about some sociological theories of crime.)

Because criminology focuses on the causes, theories, and impacts of crime, criminology coursework typically deals with the same subjects. Course topics become more specialized as students reach the masters or doctoral level. Depending on the program, students majoring in criminology might study issues like public policymaking; developmental, social, or abnormal psychology; theories of crime and punishment; and data analytics or other courses related to gathering and interpreting research.

law books

What Will I Learn in Criminal Justice?

Compared to criminology, which deals with behavioral research and crime prevention, criminal justice is more focused on investigating, prosecuting, and punishing criminal acts. As a result, students in criminal justice programs learn about different aspects of the justice system, including law enforcement, the court system, and corrections. 

Here are a few examples of the courses that are currently offered as part of NU’s criminal justice curriculum for graduate, undergraduate, and doctorate students:

  • Doctor of Criminal Justice Program
    • Ethics and Criminal Justice
    • Public Budgeting and Finance
    • Quantitative and Qualitative Research Design and Methodology
    • Management Issues in Justice Agencies
    • Statistics
    • Theory in Justice Administration

Depending on which program they enter, students who graduate successfully will achieve outcomes like understanding the factors and patterns behind juvenile delinquency; knowing how to navigate different leadership and management styles within the criminal justice system; the ability to distinguish between ethical and unethical policies and behaviors; and cultivating the skills to develop complex government policies and budgets.

Which Is Better, Criminology vs. Criminal Justice

When it comes to comparing criminal justice against criminology, neither type of career or degree is objectively “better” than the other — it simply depends on which field makes more sense for you. There are a variety of factors that you’ll need to carefully weigh and consider to make that decision, including your career aspirations, financial goals, personal interests, talents or skills, and finally, logistical factors like what sort of environment you want to work in.

In short, criminology is better for some students, while criminal justice is better for others. But what if you still can’t decide? In that case, you may be able to find a degree or certificate program that combines elements of both disciplines.

For example, National University’s comprehensive Master in Criminal Justice Leadership prepares students to take on a wide range of professional roles within the fields of criminal justice administration, along with research and development. Likewise, students who enroll in our doctorate program have the opportunity to specialize in one of four areas: policing, public administration, homeland security, or organizational leadership, which is also offered separately as an academic major. Additionally, our criminal justice programs incorporate courses in criminology as part of the curriculum, ensuring that online and on-campus students receive a well-rounded education.

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Start a Career in Criminal Justice

If you’re passionate about combating crime, building safer communities, and creating a more equitable justice system, consider exploring a career in criminal justice or criminology. Through National University’s online and on-campus degree programs, you’ll develop the skills to pursue a wide range of exciting and rewarding career paths, such as crime scene investigator, law enforcement officer, forensic analyst, or Homeland Security agent.

Degree programs at National University are fast-paced but flexible, combining a rigorous four-week course structure with the convenience of optional online study. Our criminal justice programs include the Certificate in Criminal Justice Administration, the Bachelor of Science in Criminal Justice Administration, the Master in Criminal Justice Leadership, and the Doctor of Criminal Justice, in addition to many other graduate and undergraduate programs. Scholarships and financial aid are available to all students who qualify, including the Year of You Scholarship worth up to $7,500. Earn your degree, launch your career, and make a positive difference for others. Contact our admissions office for more program details, or start your online application today

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