Criminal Studies Degree Programs with Course Summaries

Read about associate's and bachelor's degree programs in criminal justice, forensic science and criminology. Find out what courses are included in these programs, and look at career options.

Essential Information

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. Three common areas of study for students interested in criminal studies include criminal justice, forensic science and criminology. Students can gain basic knowledge in these fields through 2-year associate's degree programs and 4-year bachelor's programs.

In a criminal justice program, students learn about 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 at ways to prevent crime.

Associate's Degree Programs 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 of criminal justice. Students explore theories and standard practices and gain an understanding of the functions of the criminal justice system. A high school diploma or equivalent is required for admission.

Program Coursework

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:

  • The U.S. criminal justice system
  • Criminal law
  • Law enforcement techniques and practices
  • Criminal investigation

Popular Career Options

Students who complete an associate's degree in criminal justice are prepared to train as police and law enforcement officers or for careers in corrections, private security or surveillance. Job titles might include:

  • Private security guard
  • Airport security guard
  • Corrections in-take clerk
  • Detention facility coordinator
  • Security manager

Continuing Education

Credits from a 2-year associate's degree may be transferable to a 4-year bachelor's degree. A bachelor's degree may be required for some criminal justice job titles, such as parole officer or corrections officer, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (

Bachelor's Degree Programs 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. A high school diploma or equivalent is required for admission.

Program Coursework

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 or the legal system. Topics covered might include:

  • Criminal law
  • Current issues in criminal justice
  • Ethics in the justice system
  • Police and the community

Employment Outlook and Salary Information

Employment for police and detectives is expected to grow at a slower-than-average rate during the 2010-2020 period, according to the BLS. Job opportunities with local police departments will be good. Individuals seeking state and federal agency jobs may face slightly more competition. In 2012, median salaries for police and detectives ranged between $55,270 for patrol officers and $78,270 for supervisor level positions. Jobs for corrections officers are also expected to grow at a slower-than-average rate during this same period. The BLS reported median salaries for corrections officers at $39,040 in 2012.

Associate's Degree Programs in Forensic Science

Forensic science is the application of the principles of science to law and criminal justice. An associate's degree program in forensic science teaches students to apply scientific principles to the investigation of crime. Many associate's degree programs are designed for transfer to a 4-year degree program, which is often the minimum requirement of forensic science employers.

Program Coursework

Students learn basic techniques for gathering and analyzing evidence. Courses might include:

  • Crime scene investigation
  • Criminal procedures
  • Anatomy and physiology
  • Principles of criminal justice

Popular Career Options

Students who complete an associate's degree in forensics science might consider training to become a police officer. Students might be eligible for some entry-level forensic science technician positions, although a bachelor's degree is typically preferable.

Continuing Education

Students in associate's degree programs in forensic science are encouraged to transfer to 4-year bachelor's degree programs. According to the BLS, forensic science positions typically require a bachelor's degree. Students with an associate's degree in this area might also consider continued study in criminal law or mortuary science.

Bachelor's Degree Programs 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. A high school diploma or equivalent is required for admission; previous coursework in biology, chemistry and physics is helpful.

Program Coursework

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

Employment Outlook and Salary Information

As the use of forensic science in criminal investigations and law enforcement increases, employment of forensic science technicians grows. The BLS predicts job growth of 19% during the 2010-2020 period. Median salaries in 2012 were $52,840 annually.

Certification and Continuing Education

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.

Bachelor's Degree Programs in Criminology

Criminology degree programs investigate the causes of crime and criminal behavior as well as the theories behind the criminal justice system. Students prepare for a wide range of careers in counseling, corrections, law enforcement and criminal investigation. For admission the candidate must possess a high school diploma or the equivalent. Prior coursework in psychology is helpful.

Program Coursework

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

A criminology degree is a broad degree that prepares individuals for a range of careers related to criminal justice. Graduates might find employment with governmental counseling agencies, government law enforcement agencies, court systems, juvenile courts and law enforcement agencies. Careers include:

  • Probation officer
  • Drug enforcement agent
  • Victim services specialist
  • Corrections officer
  • Police officer
  • Detective
  • Correctional treatment specialist
  • Investigator

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.

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