Criminal studies is a broad field that includes study of the justice system, the science of criminal investigations and the nature and causes of criminal behavior. These programs are available at the undergraduate and graduate levels.
In a criminal justice program, students learn how the justice system functions in the United States. Courses cover topics such as ethics in law enforcement, criminal law and the police in the community. In forensic science programs, students take courses in crime scene investigation and learn to collect and preserve evidence. Criminology programs offered at the bachelor's level look at the causes of criminal behavior and ways to prevent crime. A high school diploma is usually the only educational prerequisite for these programs.
Associate's Degree in Criminal Justice
Associate's degree programs in criminal justice provide students with the knowledge and skills needed for entry-level careers in the field. Students explore theories and standard practices, and gain an understanding of the functions of the criminal justice system. Associate's degree programs typically require two years of full-time study and include general education requirements as well as professional coursework. Course topics might include:
- Criminal law
- Criminal investigation
- The U.S. criminal justice system
- Law enforcement techniques and practices
Associate's Degree in Forensic Science
An associate's degree program in forensic science teaches students to apply scientific principles to the investigation of crime. Many of these programs are designed for transfer to a 4-year degree program, which is often the minimum requirement of forensic science employers. Students learn basic techniques for gathering and analyzing evidence. Courses might include:
- Crime scene investigation
- Criminal procedures
- Anatomy and physiology
- Principles of criminal justice
Bachelor's Degree in Criminal Justice
A bachelor's degree program in criminal justice includes the study of crime and criminal behaviors as well as the criminal justice system. Students are prepared for a range of careers with municipal, state and federal agencies, or with private institutions. Programs usually require four years to complete. The curriculum covers the basics of the justice system, theories of criminal justice, criminal behavior and field techniques. Some programs provide specialized tracks in areas such as law enforcement, corrections and the legal system. Topics covered might include:
- Criminal law
- Current issues in criminal justice
- Ethics in the justice system
- Police and the community
Bachelor's Degree in Forensic Science
A bachelor's degree program in forensic science provides the foundation necessary for most careers in this field. Students learn the scientific and legal principles applicable to forensic science as well as investigative techniques. Programs prepare students for careers in crime labs and with law enforcement agencies. Previous high school coursework in biology, chemistry and physics are helpful for this program. The curriculum covers theories and principles as well as specific techniques used to analyze blood, DNA and other evidence. Coursework includes:
- Crime scene processing
- Crime scene reconstruction
- Analysis and lab work
- Forensic pathology
Bachelor's Degree in Criminology
Criminology degree programs investigate the causes of crime and criminal behavior and the theories behind the criminal justice system. Students prepare for a wide range of careers in counseling, corrections, law enforcement and criminal investigation. Prior coursework in psychology is helpful. The curriculum pulls heavily from the sociology discipline. Course topics might include:
- Criminal justice system
- Sociology and the law
- Criminal investigation
- Police management and administration
Popular Career Options
Criminal studies programs prepare individuals for a range of careers related to criminal justice. Students who complete an associate's degree in forensic science or criminal justice are prepared to train as police and law enforcement officers or for careers in corrections, private security or surveillance. They also might be eligible for some entry-level forensic science technician positions, although a bachelor's degree is typically preferable. Career options include:
- Private or airport security guard
- Corrections in-take clerk
- Detention facility coordinator
Graduates of criminology bachelor's degree programs might find employment with government counseling agencies, government law enforcement agencies, court systems, juvenile courts and law enforcement agencies. Some careers include:
- Drug enforcement agent
- Victim services specialist
- Correctional treatment specialist
Employment Outlook and Salary Information
As the use of forensic science in criminal investigations and law enforcement increase, employment of forensic science technicians will grow. For police and detectives, job opportunities with local police departments will be good, but those seeking state and federal agency employment may face more competition, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS).
Overall, the BLS predicts slower than average job growth for many jobs in the field during the 2014-2024 period. Police and detectives as well as corrections officers are expected to have 4% increase in employment, while forensic science technicians are projected to have a 27% job growth. As of May 2015, the median salaries for these professionals were $56,320 for forensic science technicians, $60,270 for police officers and detectives, $82,090 for first line supervisors of police and detectives, and $40,530 for corrections officers, as noted by the BLS.
Certification and Continuing Education
There are many careers in criminal justice that require advanced degrees. A bachelor's degree in criminology provides a foundation for students who are considering graduate degrees preparing them for careers as researchers, professors, government agents or lawyers.
Voluntary certification for forensic science technicians is offered by several professional organizations, including the American Board of Criminalistics and the American College of Forensic Examiners International.
Associate's and bachelor's degrees in criminal justice, criminology and forensic science are among the options for students interested in the field of criminal studies. Depending on the program completed, graduates have career options including a private or airport security guard, drug enforcement agent or victim services specialist.