What is a Criminology Degree?

Criminology is a subfield of sociology. Criminologists study crime, the human factors and behaviors that make it happen, and its impact on society. Degree programs in the discipline include coursework in:

  • Criminal Law – the system of law concerned with the punishment of those who commit crimes
  • Psychology of Crime – understanding why criminals behave the way they do
  • Statistical and Computer Applications in Criminal Justice – to supplement psychological studies undertaken to identify and predict criminal behavior
  • Research Methods in Criminal Justice – the fundamentals of researching a criminal case, documenting case facts, and sharing information with colleagues and other professionals in the field

Studying criminology involves taking sociological, psychological, and economic perspectives to determine what makes criminals tick, with the long-term objective of staying one step ahead of the bad guys and supporting the work of law enforcement.

Program Options

Certificate in Criminology - Varying Durations
Certificate programs, typically offered by community colleges, provide instruction in the fundamentals of criminology and the criminal justice system. Topics addressed include the social and psychological aspects of crime; juvenile delinquency; the history of crime and the criminal justice system; research and reporting; forensic science and investigation; and special victims and special populations.

Students who undertake this training may find entry-level / assistant work in the field and/or eventually complete a degree program.

Associate Degree in Criminology - Two Year Duration
The principal difference between an undergraduate certificate program and an associate degree program is that at the associate level, the certificate curriculum described above is supplemented with general education requirements, such as English, communications, and mathematics. Employment opportunities for those with this degree are at entry level positions.

Bachelor’s Degree in Criminology - Four Year Duration
Bachelor’s degree programs provide students with a more in-depth examination of criminology and criminal justice. In addition to general education courses in the liberal arts and sciences, coursework delves into crime mapping and analysis; criminal behavior patterns; the effects of socioeconomic, sociocultural, and psychological influences on crime; juvenile delinquency; crime victims; crime prevention; law enforcement; criminal justice systems; and criminology research methodologies.

At the bachelor’s level, students are required to conduct a significant research project. At the end of this course of study, they generally qualify for mid-level and some middle management positions.

Master’s Degree in Criminology - Two Year Duration
Some master’s programs are designed to prepare students for advanced positions in applied criminology. Many, though, focus on developing research skills needed to subsequently pursue a doctorate in the discipline.

Doctoral Degree in Criminology - Four to Five Year Duration
Ph.D. programs in the field tend to focus on criminology theory and research methods, training students to be educators and researchers, often with university criminology and sociology departments; think tanks; and research institutes. At this education level, students commonly specialize. Among possible specializations are crime and drugs and criminal etiology (the cause or set of causes behind criminal behavior).

Degrees Similar to Criminology

Criminal Justice
While criminology is the study of crime, criminal justice is concerned with society’s response to crime. Criminal justice is an interdisciplinary major that explores every aspect of crime, the law, and the justice system.

Police Science
Degree programs in police science prepare students for all aspects of police and security work: patrolling, investigating, crime prevention, community relations, report writing.

Corrections majors study prison life and examine ways to improve how prisons work. The typical corrections curriculum covers controlling the cost of operating prisons, maintaining acceptable living conditions for inmates, and helping parolees returning to life outside prison.

Law Enforcement
This degree field addresses management practices and criminal justice and prepares students for leadership roles in law enforcement.

Forensic Science
Forensic science is an interdisciplinary field which combines science and criminal justice. Majors in the field learn how to collect and analyze evidence – blood, DNA, and other kinds of evidence – and how to effectively use it in a court of law.

Whereas criminology is the study of crime and criminals, sociology is the wider study of society, social institutions like religion and law, and the ways in which people live and work together.

The field of forensic anthropology – the study of human remains – is closely connected to that of criminology.

Social Work
Social work is about helping people solve and cope with problems and challenges in their everyday lives. While criminologists are focused on the behavior patterns of criminals, social workers diagnose and treat the mental, emotional, and behavioral issues of individuals from every walk of life.

The scientific study of the mind and behavior is the focus of psychology degree programs. In simple terms, psychology students study the way that humans and animals act, feel, think, and learn.

Essentially, because of its focus on the pathology of crime, criminology has a natural connection to law and the legal system. It therefore presents another potential course of study option for students interested in these fields.

Legal Studies
Students who pursue a legal studies degree are interested in examining the law and legal issues from the perspectives of the social sciences and humanities. They are intrigued by questions like, ‘How do we maintain civil rights while increasing protection against terrorism?’

Paralegal Studies
A degree in paralegal studies prepares students to work under the supervision of a lawyer or court. Coursework in these programs includes legal research, record keeping, investigations, and documentation and writing.

Skills You’ll Learn

Criminology is a multidisciplinary field of work. It involves the study of crimes and their causes, effects, and social impact. Its scope enters the realms of psychology, sociology, research methodology, and data collection and analysis. It is not surprising, therefore, that the education programs that teach the discipline leave students with a diverse skill set:

Communication and Interpersonal Skills
Communicating often complex concepts and findings, both verbally and in writing, is an integral part of the criminologist’s responsibilities. As well, the capacity to work effectively within groups and with people from diverse racial, ethnic, cultural, and gender backgrounds is essential in this field.

Understanding of Human / Social Behaviors
In studying the behavior patterns of criminals and the impact of crime on society, criminology students naturally develop a certain competency in interpreting how and why humans conduct themselves as they do.

Throughout the process of earning a degree in criminology, students are frequently reminded of the concept of right versus wrong and the fundamental standards of society. It follows, therefore, that they cultivate a strong ethical sense and respect for the law.

Research Proficiency, Critical Analysis, and Problem Solving
Coming to an understanding of the pathology of crime and determining why criminals do what they do is a long process. It involves painstaking research and analysis of often large amounts of data to recognize behavioral patterns and solve the problem at hand.

Information Management / Technology
The tools of research and analysis in the criminology field are becoming increasingly sophisticated, involving both local and global databases, information systems, and technologies. Furthermore, the influx of cybercrime requires that criminologists be comfortable working in technology-driven environments.

What Can You Do with a Criminology Degree?

Independent Contracting with Police Stations
It is quite common for criminologists to work as independent contractors on a case-by-case basis for police stations and other law enforcement agencies

Independent Contracting with Banks and Other Private Firms
Banks and other financial institutions sometimes contract criminologists in a consulting role to assess the vulnerability of their buildings and overall security infrastructure, and to make recommendations concerning prevention of loss and fraud. They may also enlist the services of a criminologist to examine evidence and determine how a crime occurred on their premises.

Independent Jury Consulting
Lawyers frequently rely on criminologists as expert witnesses to support their cases in both criminal trials and civil litigation.

Policing, Law Enforcement, and Investigation
Criminology majors often find full-time employment with police departments. While some may take the traditional path and work as police officers or detectives, others seek to apply their knowledge of criminal justice, evidence handling, and data management in crime scene investigation positions.

Corrections / Prison Systems
Working in prison systems is a natural fit for criminologists. Having studied criminal behavior and crime patterns, they are valuable resources in the corrections environment.

Government agencies at the federal, state, and municipal levels are significant employers of criminologists. In the United States, for example, criminologists working with the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) conduct research on and coordinate undercover operations on drug dealers. Other agencies whose staff include criminologists are the FBI, the CIA, the Transportation Security Administration/Border Patrol (TSA), and the Department of Justice (DOJ).

Forensic Science
A career in forensics is a popular choice for criminology graduates who are willing to undergo graduate level (Masters and/or Doctorate) education specific to the forensic field they pursue. This is a diverse sector with positions in the following categories:

  • Arson Investigation – analyzing arson and explosions
  • Computer Forensics – searching computers for evidence of criminal activity
  • Crime Scene Photography – taking crime scene photos to preserve evidence
  • Document Examination – examining handwriting, printing, ink, and other documents for evidence
  • Forensic Accounting – examining financial records to identify criminal behavior
  • Forensic Anthropology – investigating crimes by examining human remains
  • Forensic Art – producing artwork for crime investigation; example: police sketches of subjects
  • Forensic Biology – examining DNA, blood, bodily fluids
  • Forensic Chemistry – chemical analysis of evidence
  • Forensic Engineering – examining physical evidence for signs of criminal activity
  • Forensic Nursing – reducing the consequences of violence by treating victims of assault and other crimes
  • Forensic Social Work – working with offenders with mental health problems in secure hospitals and in the community
  • Forensic Toxicology – studying bodily fluids to uncover evidence that toxic substances may have been involved in a crime

Education and Research
Universities, colleges, police academies, and credentialing services hire criminology majors to teach and provide training. Some positions may be focused on a specific area, such as substance abuse, domestic violence, victims’ rights, or bullying. At the university level, a graduate degree is typically required for both teaching and crime research roles.


See which schools are the most and least expensive.

Read about Tuition