Best Degree For Police Careers: Criminal Justice or Criminology?

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Key Infor­ma­tion:

  • Crim­i­nal Jus­tice Degrees focus on crime con­trol and pre­ven­tion, equip­ping stu­dents with prac­ti­cal skills for law enforce­ment roles like patrol offi­cer or FBI agent. Crim­i­nol­o­gy degrees con­cen­trate on under­stand­ing the caus­es of crime through research, mak­ing it ide­al for roles in research, pol­i­cy devel­op­ment, or high­er aca­d­e­m­ic pursuits.
  • Crim­i­nal jus­tice degrees devel­op inves­tiga­tive and com­mu­ni­ca­tion skills, while crim­i­nol­o­gy degrees enhance research and ana­lyt­i­cal skills.
  • Your degree choice should align with your career aspi­ra­tions—crim­i­nal jus­tice for direct law enforce­ment roles and crim­i­nol­o­gy for roles focused on crime the­o­ry and policy.

Work­ing in law enforce­ment is a tough job, but one that can be extreme­ly reward­ing. There are mul­ti­ple path­ways to help you real­ize your career dreams, mak­ing it eas­i­er to get the train­ing need­ed to work as a police offi­cer. Train­ing is impor­tant, too — not only in law enforce­ment prin­ci­ples. Edu­ca­tion for law enforce­ment also focus­es on com­mu­ni­ty ser­vice, effec­tive com­mu­ni­ca­tion, and safe­ty prac­tices, to name a few.

If you’re con­fused about the types of degrees for police work, you’re cer­tain­ly not alone! It’s com­mon to have ques­tions regard­ing which degree type — crim­i­nal jus­tice or crim­i­nol­o­gy — is bet­ter for a police career. This guide will help you make sense of these pop­u­lar degrees so you can get start­ed on your edu­ca­tion and work toward your career goals.


Understanding Criminal Justice

A crim­i­nal jus­tice degree focus­es on the con­trol and pre­ven­tion of crime. But you explore many oth­er top­ics in prepa­ra­tion for a career in polic­ing, such as:

  • Intro­duc­tion to Courts
  • Juve­nile Justice
  • Legal Issues in Corrections
  • Ethics
  • Crim­i­nal Law

Law enforce­ment degrees like this also focus on spe­cif­ic issues with­in crim­i­nal jus­tice. For exam­ple, you might take cours­es on fam­i­ly vio­lence, cyber­se­cu­ri­ty, and vic­ti­mol­o­gy. The extent of your stud­ies depends on the pro­gram, though. A two-year associate’s degree includes basic course­work in crim­i­nal jus­tice. Mean­while, a four-year degree expands on that with addi­tion­al required and elec­tive courses.

Crim­i­nal jus­tice degrees are extreme­ly pop­u­lar. No mat­ter what col­lege or uni­ver­si­ty you wish to attend, there is a very good chance you can major in crim­i­nal jus­tice. And once you grad­u­ate, many dif­fer­ent crim­i­nal jus­tice careers await you. You can work in cor­rec­tions, pro­ba­tion and parole, and, of course, law enforcement.

In fact, many of the most com­mon crim­i­nal jus­tice careers are in law enforce­ment, such as:

  • Patrol offi­cer
  • Sheriff’s deputy
  • High­way patrolman
  • FBI agent
  • Secret ser­vice agent


Understanding Criminology

Where crim­i­nal jus­tice focus­es most­ly on con­trol­ling crime, crim­i­nol­o­gy seeks to under­stand why crimes occur in the first place. Think of crim­i­nol­o­gy as learn­ing how to research crime and its caus­es, with crim­i­nal jus­tice as the appli­ca­tion of crim­i­no­log­i­cal research.

Crim­i­nol­o­gy is a very broad field encom­pass­ing stud­ies in soci­ol­o­gy, psy­chol­o­gy, and eco­nom­ics. Many crim­i­nol­o­gy degrees also dive into top­ics like his­to­ry, biol­o­gy, and sta­tis­tics, too. Pur­su­ing an associate’s crim­i­nol­o­gy degree means you’ll take foun­da­tion­al cours­es in top­ics such as Intro­duc­tion to Crim­i­nol­o­gy, Intro­duc­tion to Social Research, and The­o­ries of Deviant Behavior.

In a bachelor’s degree pro­gram, though, you can take more advanced class­es and devel­op more spe­cif­ic skills that are applic­a­ble in police careers. These include cours­es like:

  • Diver­si­ty and the Law
  • Wrong­ful Convictions
  • Law and Society
  • Abnor­mal Psychology
  • Applied Data Science

Though there are sig­nif­i­cant dif­fer­ences between the types of class­es you take with these degrees, a crim­i­nol­o­gy degree still pre­pares you for a wide range of police-relat­ed careers. Most com­mon­ly, crim­i­nol­o­gy careers are in research and pol­i­cy devel­op­ment, such as Intel­li­gence Research Spe­cial­ist, Law Enforce­ment Pol­i­cy Ana­lyst, and Criminologist.

Comparative Analysis: Curriculum and Skill Set

Based on the infor­ma­tion pro­vid­ed ear­li­er, you can see the crim­i­nal jus­tice cur­ricu­lum vs crim­i­nol­o­gy cur­ricu­lum dif­fer­ences, as well as the skills these degrees typ­i­cal­ly help you acquire:

DegreeCur­ric­u­lar FocusAcquired Skills
Crim­i­nal JusticeCon­trol and pre­ven­tion of crimeInves­tiga­tive tech­niques, crime pre­ven­tion tech­niques, ana­lyt­i­cal skills, crit­i­cal think­ing skills, com­mu­ni­ca­tion skills, empathy
Crim­i­nol­o­gyCaus­es of crime, includ­ing bio­log­i­cal, psy­cho­log­i­cal, soci­o­log­i­cal, and eco­nom­ic factorsResearch skills, report writ­ing skills, pol­i­cy­mak­ing, analy­sis and inter­pre­ta­tion skills, crit­i­cal think­ing skills, under­stand­ing of ethics

The ques­tion is, how do the focus­es of these degrees and the skills they help you devel­op apply to police work?

As a crim­i­nal jus­tice grad­u­ate, your skills in con­duct­ing inves­ti­ga­tions, crit­i­cal think­ing, and analy­sis enable you to solve crimes. Like­wise, your enhanced abil­i­ty to com­mu­ni­cate, lis­ten, and have empa­thy for oth­ers helps you work more effec­tive­ly with vic­tims as well as with suspects.

A degree in crim­i­nol­o­gy pre­pares you for a dif­fer­ent kind of police work, though. The focus on research and pol­i­cy­mak­ing, for exam­ple, sets you up for suc­cess in guid­ing the devel­op­ment of oper­at­ing prin­ci­ples for law enforce­ment agen­cies. You might use your analy­sis and inter­pre­ta­tion skills to draw con­clu­sions about why cer­tain crimes occur — and can use those same skills to make sug­ges­tions about crime pre­ven­tion measures.

In oth­er words, the crim­i­nal jus­tice vs crim­i­nol­o­gy debate is less about which one is bet­ter and more about which one is best for what spe­cif­ic sit­u­a­tions? A crim­i­nal jus­tice degree is like­ly your best bet if you envi­sion a career in inves­ti­gat­ing crimes. But if you’re more inter­est­ed in the eti­ol­o­gy of crime, crim­i­nol­o­gy is a more appro­pri­ate choice.

Advantages and Limitations

Giv­en the details we’ve dis­cussed about each of these degrees, what are the advan­tages they pro­vide to you with a future career in police work in mind? Again, it’s less about com­par­ing them side-by-side as apples to apples and more about iden­ti­fy­ing the unique advan­tages they offer for dif­fer­ent police-relat­ed careers.

Advantages of a Criminal Justice Degree

Like any career, work­ing in law enforce­ment requires you to have rel­e­vant knowl­edge and skills to do your job well. A crim­i­nal jus­tice degree pro­vides just that. As not­ed ear­li­er, you’ll learn how to com­mu­ni­cate effec­tive­ly, con­duct thor­ough inves­ti­ga­tions, and remain calm under pres­sure. Addi­tion­al advan­tages of this degree include the following:

  • Poten­tial for high­er pay
  • Broad­er set of skills for police work ver­sus hav­ing no degree
  • More career oppor­tu­ni­ties in police work ver­sus hav­ing no degree
  • Oppor­tu­ni­ty to gain spe­cial­ized skills (e.g., crime scene inves­ti­ga­tion, cyber investigations)
  • Deep­er under­stand­ing of the crim­i­nal jus­tice sys­tem, laws, and the courts

Whether you’re a patrol­man, a detec­tive, a foren­sic inves­ti­ga­tor, or some­thing in between, hav­ing a wide set of skills backed up by advanced knowl­edge of this field will be extreme­ly valu­able as you embark on your polic­ing career.

Advantages of a Criminology Degree

Per­haps the biggest ben­e­fit of a crim­i­nol­o­gy degree is the acqui­si­tion of hard skills that enable you to make informed deci­sions about crim­i­nal jus­tice-relat­ed issues. The empha­sis on research, writ­ing, and pol­i­cy­mak­ing, for exam­ple, pre­pares you to make pos­i­tive changes to the way com­mu­ni­ties are policed via pol­i­cy and admin­is­tra­tive-lev­el deci­sion-mak­ing. Like­wise, you’ll gain the fol­low­ing advan­tages by com­plet­ing a crim­i­nol­o­gy degree:

  • Broad qual­i­fi­ca­tions for crim­i­no­log­i­cal work (e.g., research, pol­i­cy­mak­ing, crime pre­ven­tion, aca­d­e­m­ic applications)
  • Holis­tic view of crime gives you greater per­spec­tive of why crimes occur and informs you of poten­tial ways to curb crime
  • Greater abil­i­ty to affect sys­temic change in polic­ing than with oth­er types of degrees
  • Sol­id foun­da­tion for con­tin­ued edu­ca­tion, such as a grad­u­ate degree in crim­i­nol­o­gy or a relat­ed field

Limitations and Challenges of These Degrees

The type of degree you have is only part of the equa­tion when it comes to pur­su­ing a career in law enforce­ment. In fact, many entry-lev­el posi­tions don’t even require a degree. For exam­ple, you can become a police offi­cer by gain­ing police career edu­ca­tion from your state’s police train­ing academy.

That being the case, one of the pri­ma­ry lim­i­ta­tions of get­ting a crim­i­nal jus­tice or crim­i­nol­o­gy degree is the expense. Accord­ing to the Edu­ca­tion Data Ini­tia­tive, the aver­age cost of an associate’s degree is $8,220, while a bachelor’s degree costs $36,436. A more bud­get-friend­ly alter­na­tive is to start your law enforce­ment train­ing at the police acad­e­my, pro­vid­ed you meet the police acad­e­my pre­req­ui­sites for admission.

Anoth­er sig­nif­i­cant lim­i­ta­tion is the time required to com­plete these degrees. Most stu­dents need two years to fin­ish an associate’s and four years to com­plete a bachelor’s degree. If you wish to pur­sue a high-pay­ing career in this field, you might need to get a master’s degree, too, which is anoth­er year or two of time and mon­ey investment.

Still, despite these chal­lenges, crim­i­nal jus­tice and crim­i­nol­o­gy are two of the best degrees for police offi­cers. You can pur­sue a wide vari­ety of law enforce­ment careers, meet or exceed the aca­d­e­m­ic-relat­ed police offi­cer qual­i­fi­ca­tions, and set your­self up for suc­cess as a knowl­edge­able pro­fes­sion­al in this field.

Ulti­mate­ly, the degree you choose should come down to your per­son­al inter­ests and strengths as well as your career goals in law enforce­ment. Tak­ing your time to make the most appro­pri­ate deci­sion now will ensure your edu­ca­tion aligns with those goals.