Criminal Justice vs. Criminology

Learn about career paths in criminal justice vs. criminology — two fields that seem similar but are more distinct than you might think.

Woman studying and Police Officer

To someone outside of either field, criminal justice and criminology may sound like two names for the same thing. It’s true there is a significant amount of overlap between criminology and criminal justice — but they are two distinct, if related, fields.

Anyone interested in a career that will help solve or prevent crime needs to understand the difference between criminal justice and criminology. Both fields have a wide range of career possibilities depending on your personal focus, but they are independent fields of study. It’s important to identify the right field for you before enrolling in either a criminal justice or criminology degree program. It’s also possible to find a degree program that gives you a solid foundation in both fields, allowing you to have the versatility to pursue different options and a well-rounded understanding that will serve you well in any career.

So what’s the right direction for you? That depends entirely on whether you’re hoping to pursue a career in law enforcement or study why crime occurs.

What Is Criminology?

Criminology is simply defined as the study of crime.1 It is related to sociology, and criminologists are social scientists who are engaged in studying various aspects of crime. Criminologists explore possible causes of crime, measure the effectiveness of crime prevention and punishment, and propose new methods for addressing crime.2

What Is Criminal Justice?

The field of criminal justice is about addressing crime in the real world. This includes apprehending and prosecuting criminals, corrections, and the court system — how crime is handled at all levels.3 Criminal justice is like the real-world application of the theory that criminologists study and explore.2 It includes law enforcement and the judicial system.1



  • Most criminology jobs require at least a bachelor’s degree. However, especially if you’re interested in the research-based side of criminology or are hoping to advance far in your career, you should expect to pursue a master’s degree or even a PhD in criminology.4
  • This is a research-heavy field that involves collecting and analyzing a great deal of data, so it’s helpful to have a solid academic background in math and statistics.4
  • There are sub-fields of criminology, including environmental criminology, if you are looking for a particular area that interests you most.2

Criminal Justice

  • You may be able to get a job in law enforcement, whether as a police officer or a dispatcher, with a high school diploma or an associate’s degree at minimum. However, many other positions require a bachelor’s degree or higher. Larger and better-paying law enforcement agencies, for example, expect you to have a bachelor’s degree when you apply.5 If you want to become a more specialized agent or a director or supervisor, a master’s degree will help you.6
  • A specialized degree in criminal justice that provides you with an overview of law, information technology along with some sociology and hard science knowledge can provide you with the skills needed to excel. Research the specific field that interests you so that you can select a specialized program that fully prepares you to become a leader in the field.
  • It’s important to understand different aspects of the justice system if you’re going to work in the field. Criminal justice programs teach you about law, investigations, evidence gathering and many other specialized topics.7

Job Titles

One of the tricky parts of trying to decide whether to pursue a career in criminal justice or criminology is that some career paths are open to people who have degrees in either field. If you are unsure about whether to get a degree in criminology or criminal justice, you may want to consider some of the career options that are available in each field.


  • Criminal psychologist
  • Intervention or rehabilitation planner
  • Private investigator
  • Police officer
  • Forensic/criminal/medical investigator
  • Expert (providing testimony in court)
  • Researcher at university, think-tank
  • Advisor to local, state or federal legislative bodies
  • Consultant for public policy

Criminal Justice2,3

  • Police officer
  • Park ranger
  • Game warden
  • Probation officer
  • Police dispatcher
  • FBI agent
  • Deputy sheriff
  • Detective
  • K9 officer or handler
  • State trooper
  • Immigration officer
  • CIA agent
  • Postal service inspector
  • Probation or parole officer
  • Victim advocate or witness assistant
  • Corrections counselor
  • Bailiff
  • Court clerk or paralegal

Whether you want to address crime directly or contribute to overall criminological theory, a degree from the online Master of Arts in Criminology and Criminal Justice program at Kent State University can prepare you to pursue a new career or advance along your current career path. This versatile degree program offers an interdisciplinary education that transcends the distinctions between criminal justice and criminology, giving you the tools you need to succeed no matter what direction you choose to take with it.


  1. Retrieved on November 3, 2019, from
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  4. Retrieved on November 3, 2019, from
  5. Retrieved on November 3, 2019, from
  6. Retrieved on November 3, 2019, from
  7. Retrieved on November 3, 2019, from
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