Forensic Science vs. Criminal Justice Degrees: Which is Best for Future Detectives?

  • Find a bachelor's degree

    Bachelors Degree Center is an advertising-supported site. Featured or trusted partner programs and all school search, finder, or match results are for schools that compensate us. This compensation does not influence our school rankings, resource guides, or other editorially-independent information published on this site.

Key Infor­ma­tion:

  • Foren­sic sci­ence degrees con­cen­trate on the tech­ni­cal and sci­en­tif­ic aspects of crime scene inves­ti­ga­tion, such as DNA analy­sis, bal­lis­tics, and evi­dence col­lec­tion. In con­trast, crim­i­nal jus­tice degrees empha­size the social sci­ence aspects, includ­ing crim­i­nol­o­gy, vic­ti­mol­o­gy, legal sys­tems, and inves­tiga­tive techniques.
  • Both degrees pre­pare you for careers in law enforce­ment, but with dif­fer­ent ori­en­ta­tions. Foren­sic sci­ence grad­u­ates may pur­sue roles like crime scene inves­ti­ga­tor or foren­sic ana­lyst, while crim­i­nal jus­tice grad­u­ates might become police detec­tives, crim­i­nal inves­ti­ga­tors, or inter­nal affairs officers.
  • The deci­sion between foren­sic sci­ence and crim­i­nal jus­tice should be based on your inter­ests and career goals. If you pre­fer the sci­en­tif­ic and tech­ni­cal side of inves­ti­ga­tions, foren­sic sci­ence is the bet­ter fit. If you’re more inter­est­ed in the legal, social, and psy­cho­log­i­cal aspects of crime, crim­i­nal jus­tice is the appro­pri­ate choice. Intern­ships and field expe­ri­ences can help clar­i­fy your decision.

As a detec­tive, it’s imper­a­tive to be high­ly famil­iar with crim­i­nol­o­gy, vic­ti­mol­o­gy, and inves­tiga­tive tech­niques. It’s also essen­tial to under­stand the process­es of data col­lec­tion and analy­sis, the chain of cus­tody, and tac­tics used to inter­view sus­pects. A high­er edu­ca­tion com­bined with detec­tive train­ing and expe­ri­ence can help you devel­op these skills and be a more effec­tive detective.

But, how do you get there?

First, the edu­ca­tion­al require­ments for detec­tives vary. For some, a foren­sic sci­ence degree is the best answer for meet­ing these require­ments. It gives you insights into the “nuts and bolts” of inves­ti­ga­tions, from ana­lyz­ing phys­i­cal evi­dence at a crime scene to using lab­o­ra­to­ry tests to deter­mine a suspect’s iden­ti­ty using DNA analy­sis. On the oth­er hand, a crim­i­nal jus­tice degree dives deep into the caus­es of crime, crime con­trol the­o­ries, and the legal under­pin­nings of investigations. 

In oth­er words, both degrees can be extreme­ly valu­able! Below, you’ll find a detailed com­par­i­son of the best degrees for detec­tives that will help you plan your career path.


Understanding Forensic Science

A foren­sic sci­ence degree focus­es on col­lect­ing and ana­lyz­ing crime scene evi­dence as an inves­tiga­tive tool. For exam­ple, foren­sic sci­ence pro­grams can teach you how to col­lect fin­ger­prints and hair sam­ples and exam­ine blood spat­ter evi­dence. Like­wise, you might learn how to con­duct bal­lis­tic analy­ses, review dig­i­tal data like phone records, and gain an improved under­stand­ing of the chain of custody.

You’re like­ly to take the fol­low­ing cours­es in addi­tion to the broad top­ics not­ed above:

Course TitleCom­pe­ten­cies Gained
Foren­sic ScienceAbil­i­ty to ana­lyze phys­i­cal evi­dence such as impres­sions, fin­ger­prints, and DNA; under­stand the role of phys­i­cal evi­dence in the pros­e­cu­tion of crim­i­nal cases.
Foren­sic ChemistryAbil­i­ty to uti­lize com­mon foren­sic sci­ence tech­niques and lab­o­ra­to­ry instru­ments to ana­lyze chem­i­cal and pat­tern evi­dence, such as microscopy, chro­matog­ra­phy, infrared spec­tropho­tom­e­try, and more.
Foren­sic BiologyLearn how to use bio­log­i­cal infor­ma­tion like DNA to iden­ti­fy pos­si­ble crime sus­pects; gain an under­stand­ing of genet­ics, immunol­o­gy, mol­e­c­u­lar biol­o­gy, and oth­er broad topics.
Foren­sic Sci­ence and the LawLearn how to apply a wide range of laws and evi­den­tiary rules to foren­sic sci­ence; under­stand the role of foren­sic sci­ence in the pros­e­cu­tion of crim­i­nal cas­es; gain com­pe­ten­cy in basic judi­cial processes.
Pro­fes­sion­al Issues in Foren­sic ScienceDevel­op an under­stand­ing of eth­i­cal issues in foren­sic sci­ence, includ­ing codes of con­duct, cred­i­bil­i­ty issues, and court­room proceedings.

A law enforce­ment edu­ca­tion focused on foren­sic sci­ence can help you pur­sue many detec­tive-relat­ed careers:

  • Crim­i­nal Investigator
  • Crime Scene Investigator
  • Police Detec­tive
  • Arson Expert

In each career list­ed above, you’ll play an inte­gral part in inves­ti­ga­tions. The com­bi­na­tion of expe­ri­ence as a police offi­cer and your knowl­edge of foren­sic sci­ence tech­niques will make you an invalu­able mem­ber of the team.


Understanding Criminal Justice

Crim­i­nal jus­tice focus­es on the sci­ence of crime. You’ll learn broad con­cepts like the caus­es of crime, how police respond to crime and var­i­ous crime pre­ven­tion meth­ods, too. Like­wise, you’ll learn about pol­i­cy issues, cor­rec­tions, juve­nile delin­quen­cy, and the role of effec­tive com­mu­ni­ca­tion in policing.

If you choose this path, you’ll take cours­es like those out­lined below:

Course TitleCom­pe­ten­cies Gained
Intro­duc­tion to Crim­i­nal JusticeDevel­op an under­stand­ing of crim­i­nal jus­tice pro­fes­sions; acquire improved com­mu­ni­ca­tion skills and an appre­ci­a­tion of core legal com­po­nents of the crim­i­nal jus­tice system.
Polic­ing in the Unit­ed StatesGain insights into the his­tor­i­cal changes in polic­ing, its struc­ture and func­tion with­in gov­ern­ment, and broad con­cepts of pub­lic safety.
U.S. Judi­cial SystemAna­lyze the struc­ture and func­tion of the court sys­tem, includ­ing the roles and respon­si­bil­i­ties of police and oth­er pro­fes­sion­als in admin­is­ter­ing justice.
Vic­ti­mol­o­gyExplore the victim’s per­spec­tive in crim­i­nal jus­tice process­es; gain empa­thy for crime vic­tims and their expe­ri­ences; exam­ine risk fac­tors asso­ci­at­ed with victimization.
Crim­i­nol­o­gyExam­ine the­o­ries of crim­i­nol­o­gy, includ­ing the psy­cho­log­i­cal and social influ­ences on crim­i­nal behavior.

Crim­i­nal jus­tice pro­grams are con­sid­ered among the best degrees for detec­tives, and for good rea­son. The focus on prac­ti­cal polic­ing skills and a broad under­stand­ing of the law are essen­tial in per­form­ing every­day inves­tiga­tive work. With this degree, you might pur­sue any of the fol­low­ing detec­tive career paths:

  • Police Detec­tive
  • Crim­i­nal Investigator
  • Inter­nal Affairs Investigator
  • Pri­vate Detective

This is just a sam­pling of detec­tive careers you might pur­sue, though. Law enforce­ment careers are extreme­ly var­ied from one agency to the next.

Comparative Analysis: Forensic Science vs. Criminal Justice

In addi­tion to the basic infor­ma­tion pro­vid­ed about these degrees above, it’s use­ful to see a detailed foren­sic sci­ence vs crim­i­nal jus­tice cur­ricu­lum com­par­i­son to help you decide which is more appro­pri­ate for your spe­cif­ic career goals.

Foren­sic Sci­ence Cur­ricu­lum & SkillsCrim­i­nal Jus­tice Cur­ricu­lum & Skills
Cur­ricu­lum focus­es on phys­i­cal science.Cur­ricu­lum focus­es on social science.
Explores sci­en­tif­ic pro­ce­dures like DNA analy­sis used in crim­i­nal investigations.Explores crim­i­nal inves­tiga­tive pro­ce­dures like interviewing.
Empha­sizes the devel­op­ment of tech­ni­cal skills relat­ed to biol­o­gy, chem­istry, microscopy, and oth­er lab­o­ra­to­ry procedures.Focus­es on devel­op­ing skills relat­ed to effec­tive com­mu­ni­ca­tion, empa­thy, crit­i­cal analy­sis, and prob­lem solving.
Con­cen­tra­tions are avail­able in spe­cif­ic sci­ence appli­ca­tions, such as DNA analy­sis, odon­tol­ogy, and ballistics.Con­cen­tra­tions are avail­able in spe­cif­ic social and crim­i­nal sci­ence fields, such as foren­sic psy­chol­o­gy, crim­i­nol­o­gy, and corrections.

How these degrees pre­pare you for work as a detec­tive might be best under­stood with a cou­ple of examples.

Let’s assume you get a foren­sic sci­ence degree as part of your police detec­tive train­ing. In the course of inves­ti­gat­ing a crime like a mur­der, you can rely on the crime scene inves­ti­ga­tion tech­niques you acquired to devel­op the­o­ries as to what hap­pened, such as how the vic­tim was mur­dered, when the offense occurred, poten­tial mur­der weapons, and the like.

In this case, your tech­ni­cal sci­ence skills help inform your inves­ti­ga­tion and pro­vide direc­tion for pur­su­ing pos­si­ble sus­pects. Then, once a sus­pect is iden­ti­fied, you’ll have first-hand knowl­edge of the evi­dence against them to work toward an arrest in the case.

If, on the oth­er hand, your crim­i­nal inves­ti­ga­tion edu­ca­tion is in crim­i­nal jus­tice, you’ll have a dif­fer­ent set of skills to employ through­out the inves­ti­ga­tion. For exam­ple, crim­i­nal jus­tice degrees heav­i­ly empha­size the role of com­mu­ni­ca­tion, build­ing trust, and inter­view­ing tech­niques. Armed with these skills, you will be adept at glean­ing infor­ma­tion from vic­tims, wit­ness­es, and poten­tial sus­pects to build the­o­ries about what hap­pened, when, and why.

Clear­ly, each degree pre­pares you well for detec­tive work. As you con­sid­er foren­sic sci­ence careers and crim­i­nal jus­tice careers, con­sid­er how the ori­en­ta­tions and focus of these degrees impact how you car­ry out your day-to-day duties. More specif­i­cal­ly, it’s impor­tant to con­sid­er your per­son­al inter­ests in these fields. Let’s explore this con­cept fur­ther below.

Choosing the Right Degree for You

In com­par­ing foren­sic vs crim­i­nal jus­tice degrees, your areas of inter­est should play a cen­tral role. If you’re par­tic­u­lar­ly skilled in sci­ence-ori­ent­ed course­work and want to incor­po­rate that into your work as a detec­tive, the foren­sic sci­ence route is clear­ly the bet­ter option. How­ev­er, if your inter­ests are in the social sci­ence aspects of detec­tive work — legal con­sid­er­a­tions, social and psy­cho­log­i­cal influ­ences of crim­i­nal behav­ior, vic­ti­mol­o­gy, and so forth, a crim­i­nal jus­tice degree is the bet­ter choice.

But what if you’re unsure which option inter­ests you the most? Intern­ships and oth­er field expe­ri­ences dur­ing col­lege can be extreme­ly help­ful in clar­i­fy­ing the direc­tion you want to go with your stud­ies. Even a sim­ple job shad­ow­ing expe­ri­ence in which you fol­low a foren­sic sci­ence-focused detec­tive and a crim­i­nal jus­tice-focused detec­tive can be infor­ma­tive for your degree deci­sion. Pur­sue these expe­ri­ences ear­ly in your col­le­giate career so you have time to adjust your degree plans as needed.

It’s also worth tak­ing extra cours­es or pur­su­ing cer­ti­fi­ca­tions to expand your skill set in both areas. For exam­ple, if you major in foren­sic sci­ence, you might take a few class­es in crim­i­nal jus­tice to get the social sci­ence per­spec­tive. Alter­na­tive­ly, if you grad­u­ate with a crim­i­nal jus­tice degree, a cer­tifi­cate in Crime Scene Analy­sis pro­vides you with some basic inves­tiga­tive skills to help you be a more effec­tive detective.

The impor­tance of an inter­dis­ci­pli­nary edu­ca­tion, as described above, can­not be under­stat­ed. The lines between foren­sic sci­ence, crim­i­nal jus­tice, and oth­er relat­ed fields are becom­ing increas­ing­ly blurred. This is due in large part to expand­ing foren­sic tech­nolo­gies and improved inves­ti­ga­tion method­olo­gies employed every day in crim­i­nal investigations.

Now and in the future, becom­ing a detec­tive will increas­ing­ly involve acquir­ing tech­ni­cal and prac­ti­cal skills in mul­ti­ple areas. Even if your career is focused more on one area than the oth­er, hav­ing at least a basic knowl­edge of the oth­er field will not only make you a bet­ter detec­tive but it will also make you a more informed and valu­able mem­ber of the inves­tiga­tive team.

You can learn more about these degrees and career fields by talk­ing to your guid­ance coun­selor or aca­d­e­m­ic advi­sor. It’s also worth vis­it­ing web­sites of pro­fes­sion­al orga­ni­za­tions relat­ed to these fields and con­nect­ing with pro­fes­sion­als who can give you real-world guid­ance on how to become a detective.