What criminal justice degree do you need to enter one of these two criminal justice careers?

Criminologists and Criminalists


If you want to get a criminal justice degree, you have to first know which criminal justice field you’re interested in. And there is some confusion between them.

For instance, when you hear the terms “criminalist” and “criminologist,” you have to admit that they are just a little bit confusing.

But they are quite distinct jobs, and no one with a criminal justice degree would ever mix them up.

Keep reading to learn the difference between criminalists and criminologists.

The Field of Criminalistics

Criminalistics is the forensic science of analyzing and interpreting evidence using the natural sciences. Forensic science pertains to all sciences applied to legal problems and helps law enforcement agents solve crimes. Criminalists examine physical evidence to reconstruct a crime scene. Physical evidence can be a weapon, a piece of clothing, a bloodstain or drugs. Fingerprints, bullets and shoe impressions are some of the important clues that criminalists analyze.

A criminalist is a person with a background in science, typically having at least a bachelor’s degree in an area such as chemistry, biology, forensic science or a criminal justice degree. Criminalists work in crime laboratories and at crime scenes.

Degree Specialties

Below are some of the forensic specialties that you can pursue with a criminal justice degree:

  • Firearms and Ballistics: Criminalists provide information to investigators about the caliber and type of firearms used in a crime. Scratches are left on bullets by the barrel of a gun so when a firearm is recovered, these marks can help identify the firearm and link it to a crime.
  • Trace Evidence: Criminalists also analyze trace evidence in fibers, hair, soil, glass, pollen, explosives, food and just about anything involved in a crime. No training will prepare criminalists for every kind of evidence they will encounter since each case is unique, but trace evidence is covered in all the best criminal justice degree programs.
  • DNA and Serology: Since the 1980s, DNA techniques have begun to be applied to forensic cases. Any tissue from the body carrying DNA may be used to identify a person. Increasingly, innocent people have also been released from prison based on DNA evidence analyzed by criminologists.
  • Drugs, Alcohol and Toxicology: Criminalists use their knowledge of chemistry to identify controlled substances in drugs and body fluids.

Forensic science includes the following specialty areas that you may also study in a criminal justice degree program:

  • biology
  • digital and multimedia sciences
  • engineering
  • entomology
  • odontology
  • pathology
  • physical anthropology
  • toxicology

Finally, criminalists may testify in courts of law, educating the judge and jury about the conclusions reached in the laboratory. Criminalists teach jurors about the techniques that were used in their analysis, the results obtained and interpretations derived from their conclusions.

Criminology in the Realm of Criminal Justice

Criminology is the scientific study of crime, criminals and corrections. A criminologist studies normal social behaviors and deviations from the norm. Criminologists are often academics who study crime and the law. They often have a criminal justice degree that helps them provide theoretical explanations of delinquent and criminal behavior, and they often specialize in criminal profiling, which helps investigators predict and profile the characteristics of unknown offenders.

Criminologists work with law enforcement agencies to develop profiles of particular types of crimes and gather statistics on crime rates. This helps law enforcement agents prevent crime before it happens, or may help them apprehend criminals once a crime has been committed.

A good criminal profiler needs to demonstrate creativity, analytical thinking and problem-solving. Criminologists generally need a criminal justice degree, preferably with a minor in psychology or sociology.

Degrees with a Focus on Criminology

Undergraduate criminal justice degrees include coursework in government, sociology, psychology, juvenile delinquency, criminal law, constitutional law and criminal theory.

Additional coursework includes forensics, abnormal psychology, corrections and statistics. Advanced criminal justice degrees are necessary for those who choose to teach or conduct professional research, and often for professional advancement.

Entry-level criminologists conduct data collection, catalogue information about the possible causes of crime and compile crime statistics. More advanced criminologists also analyze and develop crime prevention strategies.

Where Criminologists Work

  • Universities and government agencies employ professional criminologists for advanced teaching, and research and policy assessment.
  • Criminologists may work in universities teaching criminal justice, criminology, legal studies, law or sociology.
  • Federal and state justice agencies employ criminologists as research officers and policy advisers.
  • Criminologists are found in many different settings: airport security, corrections systems, probation or parole officers, drug enforcement agencies, FBI, TSA, Department of Homeland Security and other law enforcement agencies.
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