Criminology vs. Criminal Justice vs. Criminalistics: Your Guide to Finding the Right Field

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So, crime is your thing.

You’ve always loved a good mystery and you’re drawn to the challenge of understanding criminal behavior.

You tune in weekly to CSI, Bones, Criminal Minds and, when you’re in the mood for the real thing, Investigation Discovery. Maybe you’re even considering joining a criminal justice association to get a head start on making contacts in the field.

But in your search for the right degree program, you’ve come to a realization: Crime is a fairly broad subject.

At this point in your academic career it’s OK to daydream about being such-and-such special agent or working in the XYZ crime lab. Because whether you want to bust down doors, prosecute perpetrators or study bullet striations, earning a bachelor’s degree in a crime-related discipline might be the best place to start.

As you learn more about the hundreds of crime-fighting careers available, you’ll need to decide which degree will put you on the best path to achieve your personal and professional goals.

Having said that, our web analytics show that there is some confusion out there about the key words and phrases people are using to search for careers in criminal justice. In an effort to clarify that confusion, we’re offering a theoretical comparison of criminology versus criminal justice versus criminalistics.

Criminology deconstructed

Developed in the late-18th Century, criminology literally means “the study of crime.” Criminology uses behavioral sciences – e.g., anthropology, sociology, psychology and law – to analyze and identify the causes of crime and devise methods for its prevention. It sees criminal behavior as both an individual and social phenomenon.

The most common subdivisions within criminology include:

  • Biocriminology: the study of the biological basis of criminal behavior
  • Feminist criminology: the study of women and crime
  • Penology: the study of prisons and prison systems

Put simply, criminology is an academic discipline. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) lumps together the “criminologist” profession with that of a sociologist – or, someone paid to do academic research on human social behavior.

Twenty-eight percent of current criminologists hold a master's degree, according to a U.S. Department of Labor survey. A further 62 percent hold a doctorate or professional degree. Criminology-related jobs most often include government or nonprofit researchers and postsecondary instructors or professors.

The BLS also predicts an 18 percent increase in this particular job market through 2020. While a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice will get you started, an advanced degree in criminology is a must if you want to pursue this profession.

Criminal justice demystified

Put simply, the phrase “criminal justice” refers to America's overarching system of cops, courts and jails. It includes all of the institutions of government aimed at upholding social control, deterring and mitigating crime and sanctioning those who violate laws.

Criminal justice-related jobs can vary from attorneys and bailiffs to corrections officers and DEA agents. As such, the education levels needed to break into the field vary significantly.

But over the past 12 months, reported 2,681 new job postings for students holding a bachelor's degree in criminal justice. The five most popular jobs listed online include:

Students are also encouraged to join criminal justice professional associations to learn more about their specific area of interest and to start making contacts in the field.  

Criminalistics defined

“Criminalistics” refers to a specialized section within the larger field of forensic science. A criminalist is a person responsible for the “recognition, documentation, collection, preservation, and interpretation” of physical evidence from a crime scene. Criminalists are also required to testify in court about their scientific findings.  

Criminalists do not chase suspects through dark alleys or spend nights on stakeouts, despite what you might see on television.  “The lab people stay in the lab. They’re not out fighting crime,” said 18-year police veteran Kevin White in a recent blog post about crime show myths.   

The BLS classifies a criminalist as a “forensic science technician” but they are also referred to in the field as crime scene investigators, crime scene technicians or crime lab techs.

The most common specializations within the field of criminalistics include:

  • Firearms and toolmarks: Focuses on the types of firearms used in a crime and any scratches or striations on spent bullets
  • Trace evidence: A microanalysis of fibers, hair, soil, food, plastic bags and anything else that can provide information about the context of the crime.
  • DNA and Serology: Examines any tissue or biological material that may contain DNA.
  • Drugs, Alcohol and Toxicology: Uses a chemistry-based analysis to identify controlled substances in powders, pills and liquids and body fluids.

Those hoping to get into the field of criminalistics need a bachelor’s degree in a natural science including chemistry, biology or forensic science, according to the California Association of Criminalists. The BLS also adds that becoming a criminalist requires “extensive amounts” of on-the-job training and, if you’re planning to work for a police crime laboratory, being a sworn police officer.

The American Academy of Forensic Sciences offers a comprehensive list of colleges that offer accredited forensic science programs. 

The takeaway

They might sound similar and confuse you in a Google search, but our comparison of criminology versus criminal justice versus criminalistics shows that they’re actually completely different disciplines.

One is an research-based academic discipline (criminology) while the other is a profession rooted in natural sciences (criminalistics) ... and they both fall somewhere on the spectrum of careers within the larger criminal justice system.

If you’re curious about other professions within the realm of crime and punishment, download our 2013 Criminal Justice Career Outlook.

External links provided on are for reference only. Rasmussen College does not guarantee, approve, control, or specifically endorse the information or products available on websites linked to, and is not endorsed by website owners, authors and/or organizations referenced.

Jeff is the Content Marketing Editor at Collegis Education. He oversees all of the blog and newsletter content for Rasmussen College. As a writer, he creates articles that educate, encourage and motivate current and future students.

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