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What’s the Difference between a Criminal Justice and a Criminology Degree?

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If you are not sure what the difference between criminal justice and criminology is, that’s more than understandable. Obviously they both pertain to crime, and there is a fair amount of crossover between the two.

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Depending on who you ask, the difference between a criminal justice degree and criminology degree can be subtle; others will say their definitions are quite distinct. All in all, criminology and criminal justice do not mean the same thing.

Some colleges and universities offer either criminal justice OR criminology degrees OR both; while other schools will offer majors titled “Criminal Justice & Criminology” or the like, that combine the two subjects.

Let’s look at how the two disciplines are generally defined, as well as their curriculum and career outcomes.

What is Criminology?

Criminology is often considered a subfield of sociology; however, it can tie in with various other social and behavioral sciences, such as psychology, anthropology, psychiatry, economics and political science.

In basic terms, criminology seeks to understand what causes crime and what effectively prevents crime. It also studies the effectiveness of policies and correctional methods, and also society’s response to crime. There are a number of specialties within criminology, such as penology, young offenders, environmental, biological, cultural, and others.

What is Criminal Justice?

The criminal justice system comprises the entities that make up law enforcement, judicial or court systems and correctional systems. Studying criminal justice allows students to learn how each of these entities work and how they are applied to prevent crime, enforce laws, rehabilitate offenders and protect society.

Generally speaking criminology is more theoretical or academic than criminal justice—for example, criminology-based research can evaluate to ideally improve components of the criminal justice system.

But those who study criminal justice can also have the chance to put their “social scientist caps” on to look at concepts like criminal behavior, group dynamics…


Criminal justice and criminology degree courses will vary by college or university, as well as by degree level.

Also, it’s also not uncommon for there to be criminology courses as part of a criminal justice program, and vice versa.

Where there may be differences:

A Criminology degree may more focus on research, social sciences and special topics, such as race, gender, socio-economic class, religion, wrongful convictions, victimology, causes of criminal deviance and more.

A Criminal Justice degree tends to include some social science topics too, but also looks at the applied aspects of the criminal justice system, such as criminal investigations, the various court and correctional systems and their procedures, policing methods, conflict resolution and more.

Again, depending on the criminal justice school, there may be a fair amount of crossover between the two majors in terms of curriculum. And as was already mentioned, some colleges and universities offer programs in “Criminology & Criminal Justice.”

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On the surface, there may seem to be a distinct difference between criminology and criminal justice careers.

A criminologist is a type of sociologist who conducts research, analyzes data, educates and consults. They usually have a Master’s or Ph.D. degree and work for government, policy,  private, non-profit, law enforcement and other relevant agencies, as well as universities.

However, there are career opportunities for those with an undergraduate degree in criminology as well. These range from policy analyst or associate, research assistant and court program specialist to a youth services specialist and correctional counselor. (Some careers may require related experience on top of education).

However there are a number of careers that can be open to both those with a criminal justice or criminology degree, such as probation officer, border patrol agent, corrections officer, law enforcement officer and a range of other positions.