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What Is a Criminal Justice Degree in the US?

majors
career planning
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By Matt Killorin
Published on August 18, 2022

Learn more about criminology and crime-fighting degree options at US universities.

An empty criminal court with lawyers at the open doors.

If you are an international student who dreams of making the world more just or safe, the United States has some of the best criminology and criminal justice programs available. But what’s the difference between the two areas of study, and which has better career options for you? Let’s take a closer look at criminology and criminal justice programs to better understand how they compare —  and learn which option aligns best with your future goals. 

How Are Criminology and Criminal Justice Programs Similar at US Universities? 

Criminology and criminal justice programs overlap and influence each other at many universities, and afterward on the job market. Many programs at universities and colleges across the United States combine criminology and criminal justice into a single degree option, especially at the undergraduate level. For instance, the University of South Carolina (UofSC) offers a BA in Criminology and Criminal Justice.

Perhaps the best question before choosing either criminology or criminal justice is whether you prefer thinking or doing. Of course, there is a fair share of both in each degree option, but criminology focuses more on the study of crime and may lead to a research-focused career (e.g., academics, professors, etc.). In contrast, criminal justice majors become hands-on participants within the criminal justice system (e.g., law enforcement officers, social workers, etc.).

Why Study Criminology or Criminal Justice in the United States? 

Students choosing criminal justice and criminology majors in the United States have a variety of opportunities to apply their degrees in research-based and real-world careers. As mentioned above, many become police or federal law officers, and others become forensic psychologists, victim advocates, data scientists, lawyers, and even college professors. There are several ways to use a degree in either study area, with job options beginning in academia and ending on the streets fighting crime face-to-face. 

Beyond career options and work environments, criminal justice and criminology degrees may appeal to students for altruistic reasons, such as a sense of civic duty or a desire to make the world safer. Many criminology and criminal justice majors work in youth services, nonprofit programs, and community organizations, while others work as detectives, anti-terrorism officers, and forensics specialists. 

Criminology and Criminal Justice Curriculum at US Universities

Criminology and criminal justice students are interested in problem solving, critical thinking, scientific methodology, and social science areas such as legislative policy, social theory, and civil justice. Students in US programs take classes that reflect these aptitudes and help strengthen them, while also taking niche courses covering technology, public affairs, law, and other specialized areas, especially at the graduate level. 

Many programs weave emerging crime-fighting technologies into the curriculum, such as the Bachelor of Science in Data Sciences for Justice, Law, and Criminology at American University (AU). Other programs include unique internship and work-study opportunities, such as the Law Enforcement Apprenticeship Program (LEAP) at Florida International University (FIU). LEAP combines classroom instruction with specialized police training and workplace experience to produce successful law enforcement professionals and future leaders in the field.

American University

American University’s undergraduate criminal justice program is ranked #17 by Niche, and the graduate criminology program is ranked #21 by U.S. News & World Report. AU offers two degrees that touch on criminology and criminal justice: a BS in Data Science and a BA in Justice and Law. Students may also pursue a combined Data Sciences for Justice, Law and Criminology (BS) and Justice, Law and Criminology (MS). Here are some examples of courses in each undergraduate focus: 

The following classes are among those required for the BA in Justice and Law: 

The BS in Data Science requires the same courses listed above, in addition to computer science-related ones including: 

Florida International University

Florida International University’s undergraduate criminal justice program is ranked #38 by Niche, and the graduate program is ranked #32 by U.S. News & World Report for criminology. FIU offers two undergraduate programs, a BS in Crime Science and a BS in Criminal Justice. The crime science track combines forensics, analytics, and computer science with the research and application of traditional criminology and criminal justice courses. 

Here are some examples of courses in the criminal justice BS:

  • Introduction to Criminal Justice

  • Criminological Theory

  • Research Methods and Analysis

  • Professional Development in Criminal Justice

  • Criminal Justice and the Constitution

  • Senior Capstone in Criminal Justice

And here are some of the additional courses for the crime science BS: 

  • GIS and Crime Mapping

  • Security and Crime Science

  • Survey of Forensic Science

  • Terrorism and Homeland Security

  • Cyber Crime

  • Fundamentals of Cybersecurity

University of South Carolina

The University of South Carolina’s undergraduate criminal justice program is ranked #35 by Niche, and the graduate criminology program is ranked #23 by U.S. News & World Report. UofSC offers a Criminology and Criminal Justice major, minor, and accelerated course of study at the undergraduate level.   

Here are some examples of courses in the BA program at UofSC:

  • Criminal Procedure

  • Research Methods in Criminology & Criminal Justice

  • Policing

  • Corrections

  • Sociology of Crime

  • Ethics in Criminal Justice 

  • Juvenile Delinquency

Careers for Criminology and Criminal Justice Majors 

We’ve mentioned several career options for criminologists and criminal justice majors. Now, let’s take a closer look at some of the most popular professional fields, including starting salaries in the US, India, Brazil, and China. Graduates with either criminology or criminal justice degrees are eligible for most of these positions. With this in mind, we have noted the degree option best suited for the role.

Law enforcement officer  

Degree

Criminal Justice

Starting salary in the US

$71,000 

Starting salary in China

¥178,720 

Starting salary in India

₹6,60,917

Starting salary in Brazil

R$85.340

Forensic science technician

Degree

Criminology

Starting salary in the US

$74,316

Starting salary in China

¥213,612

Starting salary in India

₹8,40,916

Starting salary in Brazil

R$101.647

Juvenile probation officer 

Degree

Criminal Justice 

Starting salary in the US

$62,372

Starting salary in China

¥179,282

Starting salary in India

₹7,05,769

Starting salary in Brazil

R$85.311

Criminology professor

Degree

Criminology

Starting salary in the US

$66,765

Starting salary in China

¥187,603

Starting salary in India

₹7,48,144

Starting salary in Brazil

R$94.362

Corrections officer

Degree

Criminal Justice

Starting salary in the US

$46,771

Starting salary in China

¥117,855

Starting salary in India

₹4,35,835

Starting salary in Brazil

R$56.277

Cyber security specialist

Degree

Criminology

Starting salary in the US

$111,474

Starting salary in China

¥463,186

Starting salary in India

₹15,57,022

Starting salary in Brazil

R$167.867

Source: Salary Expert, 2022

With a criminology degree, you may research socioeconomic factors that contribute to crime or decide you’d rather apprehend criminals in person. With a criminal justice degree, you are more likely to focus on one or more aspects of the criminal justice system, which includes law enforcement, courts, and corrections. Criminology may have more research opportunities and be academically oriented, whereas criminal justice is more focused and career-oriented. Don’t worry if you cannot decide — there are many combination programs at the undergraduate level in the United States. 

Shorelight advisors can help you find the right degree program for your goals >