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Criminology vs. Criminal Justice: What Is the Difference?

A degree may open the door to a variety of opportunities and diverse career paths. The degree programs offered at AIU will not necessarily lead to the featured careers. This collection of articles is intended to help inform and guide you through the process of determining which level of degree and types of certifications align with your desired career path.

If you’re intrigued by crime and criminals, you have probably wondered about things like what makes a criminal a criminal, what it takes to investigate a crime scene, or how our system handles and treats criminals and suspected criminals after a crime has been committed—and maybe you’ve even done some research to shed some light on these questions. But have you ever considered studying criminal justice or criminology to help you explore the answers to these and related questions? Do you know the difference between criminal justice and criminology? How do you decide whether pursuing a criminology degree or criminal justice degree is the better fit for you?

Criminology vs. Criminal Justice—The Essentials

Let’s start our discussion with some “official” definitions. Criminology can be defined as “the scientific study of crime as a social phenomenon, of criminals, and of penal treatment.”1 Criminal justice, meanwhile, can be defined as the “methods by which a society deals with those who are accused of having committed crimes.”2

So, what does criminology vs. criminal justice mean in plain language? Well, in plain language, criminology is focused on why criminals commit crimes. Criminal justice is focused on how those who have committed crimes (or who are accused of committing them) are handled—essentially, it is the study of our system of law enforcement.

When viewed in this way, you can see that these fields are more like two sides of the same coin rather than a “this vs. that.”

What Is a Criminology Degree?

As just noted, criminology deals with the reasons people commit crimes—it is primarily concerned with the “why” behind criminal acts. As a result, the courses in criminology programs tend to be focused on the people involved in crimes—perpetrators and victims.

Bachelor’s in Criminology degree programs generally include courses on criminology, sociology, victimology, criminal justice, juvenile delinquency, social deviance and research methods, among others. Master’s in Criminology degree programs tend to require advanced courses on some of these same topics, such as advanced research methods or advanced studies of criminological theory.

It is worth noting that the Bureau of Labor Statistics considers a criminologist to be a type of sociologist that focuses on crime, and sociologists typically need to have a master’s degree or Ph.D. to enter the occupation.3 In other words, choosing to pursue a criminologist career path will likely involve more than fulfilling undergraduate criminology major requirements—it will most likely mean committing yourself to pursuing a graduate-level criminology degree. Your willingness or ability to pursue a degree beyond the bachelor’s level should be an important consideration as you weigh the pros and cons of criminology vs. criminal justice.

What Is a Criminal Justice Degree?

As you might have guessed, there tends to be some overlap between criminal justice degree and criminology degree programs—as a result, you can expect to encounter both criminology courses and criminal justice courses in either type of program. However, instead of focusing primarily on the causes of crime and criminal behavior, the majority of courses in a criminal justice program will focus on the system of law enforcement—that is, what happens after a crime is committed.

American InterContinental University’s Bachelor’s Degree in Criminal Justice program includes core courses on criminology, criminal law, law enforcement, the U.S. court system, criminal-justice research methods, victimology and more. The program is offered in a general track and four specializations, giving you the option to tailor your classes to whatever interests you the most: Corrections and Case Management, Forensic Science, Homeland Security and Crisis Management, and Law Enforcement. If more than one of these areas interests you, then figuring out how to choose a criminal justice specialization could be a challenge—but focusing on your current and future academic and professional goals can help guide you toward a decision.

At AIU, you also have the option to pursue an Associate Degree in Criminal Justice program. The criminal justice courses in this program are designed to help you begin to build foundational knowledge and hard and soft criminal justice career skills. If you’ve been comparing the pros and cons of pursuing a career path in criminology vs. criminal justice and still don’t know which you prefer, an associate degree program—with introductory courses on criminology, criminal law, corrections and more—could offer the subject-matter exposure you need to help you decide which path forward is the right one for you.

Notably, the courses in our associate degree program align with the first two years of our bachelor’s in criminal justice degree program—a convenient feature if you decide to advance your education and pursue a Bachelor of Science in Criminal Justice.

How Long Does It Take to Earn a Criminal Justice Degree?

How long it takes to earn a criminal justice degree (or criminology degree) will vary depending on the type of degree program you’re pursuing. For instance, AIU’s Bachelor of Science in Criminal Justice is designed as a 48-month program, while our Associate of Science in Criminal Justice is designed as a 24-month program. However, the convenient online format combined with other individual factors, such as how many courses you take per session and whether you qualify for transfer credit or life experience credit, could shorten your time to graduation.

Potential Criminal Justice Career Paths

Pursuing a criminal justice degree program could help you expand your knowledge of law enforcement and related issues. But it’s important to understand that career paths in the field often require licensing, certification and/or training beyond what is provided in a criminal justice degree program. Police officers are a good example of this. Completing a bachelor’s degree program in criminal justice will not, on its own, help you prepare to pursue this occupation. To become a police officer, usually you must graduate from the agency’s training academy, complete a certain amount of on-the-job training and meet other basic requirements.4

On the plus side, unlike criminology careers (which tend to require a master’s degree or higher), you don’t necessarily need a master’s in criminal justice to prepare to pursue a criminal justice career path—unless you aspire to one day teach classes on law enforcement, corrections or criminal justice administration as a professor or postsecondary instructor.5

Criminology vs. Criminal Justice: What’s Your Next Move?

Maybe you’re currently working in a criminal justice career path and want to expand your knowledge of the field. Maybe you’re interested in examining criminal justice because of its social, political and pop-culture relevancy. Or maybe your motivation is something else. Whatever the reasons for your interest, AIU’s undergraduate criminal justice programs can offer you an opportunity to study the field of law enforcement and to explore certain aspects of the criminal mind—all while working to develop practical skills applicable to a number of potential career paths.

Get started on the path to realizing your academic goals by pursuing one of our convenient and flexible undergraduate criminal justice programs. With online, on-campus and hybrid attendance options, we help you tailor your learning experience to your lifestyle. Learn more about AIU’s Associate of Science and Bachelor of Science in Criminal Justice programs.


1 Merriam Webster, s.v. “Criminology,” https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/criminology (visited 5/20/2022).
2 Black’s Law Dictionary, Brian A. Garner ed., Abridged 7th ed. (St. Paul, Minn.: West Group, 2000), s.v. “Criminal justice.”
3 Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Outlook Handbook, “Sociologists,” https://www.bls.gov/ooh/life-physical-and-social-science/sociologists.htm (visited 7/13/2022).
4 Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Outlook Handbook, “Police and Detectives,” https://www.bls.gov/ooh/protective-service/police-and-detectives.htm (visited 7/13/2022).
5 National Center for O*NET Development, “25-1111.00—Criminal Justice and Law Enforcement Teachers, Postsecondary,” O*NET OnLine, https://www.onetonline.org/link/summary/25-1111.00 (visited 7/13/2022).

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