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Criminology vs. criminal justice degrees and career paths

Two criminal justice professionals working together

At a glance

  • Criminology and criminal justice are two sides of the same coin. Criminology focuses on criminal behavior and necessary protocols for enforcement. Criminal justice puts criminology into practice by homing in on enforcement and prevention.
  • Careers in criminal justice may include working as a police officer, corrections officer, bailiff, or probation or parole officer.
  • Careers in criminology may also include police and detective work or paths in psychology, corporate security or loss prevention.
  • University of Phoenix offers a Bachelor of Science in Criminal Justice Administration, which offers employer-aligned skills and can be completed online.

Criminal justice and criminology are two related fields, and many universities offer degree programs in both subjects. Though both can prepare you for security, public administration, corrections and legal careers, they focus on different topics. 

Criminology is a social science that concentrates on criminal behavior, the factors surrounding crimes and the steps necessary for effective enforcement and prevention. Criminal justice involves the hands-on application of criminology. It focuses more on implementing enforcement and prevention. 

These two degrees can put you on course for a career in security, corrections, investigations or the courts. However, a criminology or criminal justice degree will put you on a different path within the larger fields. It’s important to understand the similarities and differences between these two subjects so that you can choose the one that best fits your overall career goals. 

Here's a closer look at the fields of criminal justice and criminology. 



Criminal justice

Criminal justice is the “interdisciplinary academic study of the police, criminal courts, correctional institutions (e.g., prisons) and juvenile justice agencies, as well as of the agents who operate within these institutions,” according to Britannica.  

If you pursue a career in this field, you will likely work to prevent crimes, enforce the law or punish those who break it. You usually pursue these goals in law enforcement agencies, the courts or corrections. 

Criminal justice degrees are available at all postsecondary levels. Depending on your educational achievements, you could use a degree to pursue a career as a police captain or detective sergeant. Corrections and probation officers can also have a criminal justice education, as can people who work for other law enforcement agencies like the FBI or Department of Homeland Security. 

Finally, a criminal justice degree can prepare you for further education to become a lawyer or public administrator.


Salary ranges and career paths

Professionals in criminal justice careers earn different salaries depending on their area of focus. Here are some of the most common careers and the average salary for each. 

  • Police officers and detectives work to enforce laws and investigate crimes. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), police officers and detectives make $39,130 to more than $113,860. Federal agencies typically pay more than state and local employers. 
  • Corrections officers and bailiffs work in prisons and the court system. BLS puts the salary range at $25,680 to $81,360, with salary impacted by such factors as whether you work at the local or federal level.
  • Probation officers and corrections specialists ensure that criminals meet the conditions of their sentence and release. They earn $36,990 to $98,510, according to BLS.
  • If you choose a legal occupation, you will work within the court system. The salary ranges for most legal occupations are $61,490 to $208,000. This number is contingent on continuing your education at law school after earning a criminal justice degree, and whether you work at the state or federal level.

Salary ranges are not specific to students or graduates of University of Phoenix. Actual outcomes vary based on multiple factors, including prior work experience, geographic location and other factors specific to the individual. University of Phoenix does not guarantee employment, salary level or career advancement. BLS data is geographically based. Information for a specific state/city can be researched on the BLS website.

Related fields, such as forensic investigation, also require knowledge of criminal justice, but such specialties require additional training. 


Education requirements

The educational requirements for criminal justice careers vary depending on your career plans. 

Even if not required, a degree can help you pursue your career goals. 



Criminology is a social science, related to subjects like psychology. It focuses on the issues, causes and patterns related to criminal activity and crime. Also, the subject touches on the overall functionality and operation of the criminal justice system. 

Criminology is a broad field, with some professionals studying the effectiveness of law enforcement practices and systems, and others looking into the psychology and motivations of criminals. 

Criminologists can apply their knowledge in the field as investigators, detectives, profilers or analysts for law enforcement agencies. Criminologists may also work for organizations that focus on public policy. Additionally, a criminology degree can prepare you for private-sector jobs as a security or loss prevention specialist. 

Finally, criminology degree holders can move on to attend law school, become a psychologist or specialize in a field like forensics.  


Salary ranges and career paths

Criminologists can work in some of the same law enforcement careers as criminal justice majors. 

  • Criminology bachelor’s degree holders can work as police officers or detectives, earning between $39,103 and $113,860, annually. In some agencies, investigators first gain experience as patrol officers before moving to their desired position. 
  • Federal investigators and detectives typically need at least a bachelor’s degree. According to BLS, the salary range estimates for detectives and criminal investigators was $48,040 to $146,830, and the median salary for those in the federal executive branch was $114,040.
  • Clinical social workers earn a salary range of $33,020 to $85,820 per year, according to BLS. These professionals may be employed in child welfare or human services positions and require at least a bachelor’s degree, while some employers require a master’s degree or state license.

Salary ranges are not specific to students or graduates of University of Phoenix. Actual outcomes vary based on multiple factors, including prior work experience, geographic location and other factors specific to the individual. University of Phoenix does not guarantee employment, salary level or career advancement. BLS data is geographically based. Information for a specific state/city can be researched on the BLS website.

Criminologists may also find work in fields like corporate security or loss prevention. 


Education requirements

Criminology careers typically require a bachelor’s degree or postgraduate studies. 

  • A bachelor’s degree in criminology may be required by an agency for a career as an investigator, detective or analyst. 
  • A master’s degree in criminology or a related field could be necessary for administrative positions. 
  • Postgraduate studies are necessary if you wish to work as a forensic psychologist or lawyer or in an academic position.

Law enforcement careers require attending a police academy or other training program, regardless of your degree achievements. 


Criminal justice vs. criminology: Which should I pursue?

Criminal justice and criminology both focus on law enforcement, prevention and rehabilitation. However, degrees in these two specialties offer different career directions. 

If you want a job that focuses on hands-on law enforcement, a criminal justice degree is the better option. 

Both criminal justice and criminology majors can qualify for investigative and analyst positions. These positions are for people who want more analytical challenges. Though these professionals can work “in the field,” they are not usually on the front lines of law enforcement. 

Investigative jobs may require being on call and working anytime a crime is committed. Therefore, detectives may have more challenges with their work-life balance than patrol officers or analysts, who typically work scheduled shifts. 

Administrative positions in either criminal justice or criminology usually require a postgraduate degree, so you need to be prepared for a lengthy academic effort to reach these senior roles.

Interested in other criminal justice career paths? Then learn more about public administration roles that work to improve local communities!


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