Criminology, Criminal Justice, Criminalistics: What’s the Difference?

Are you interested in criminal justice, criminology, or criminalistics? Use this guide to learn about each area of study and discover which field is right for you.

As a natural guardian, you have decided that it is your mission to protect society, prevent crime, and promote the greater good. You want to make a difference and are ready to get started on your path to becoming a true protector. Where will you start?

Because criminal justice is such a highly specialized field, your first steps will be to establish your career goals and choose the right training program. As you begin your search, however, you may realize that crime is a vast subject— There are many academic programs and fulfilling career opportunities available to you. You can choose to work in law enforcement, criminal behavior, forensic sciences, counseling, sociology or psychology. You can become a special agent or work behind-the-scenes in a crime lab. You can study criminal justice, criminology, or criminalistics. With so many options, how will you know which is the right path for you?

As a prospective student, it is important to understand the difference between criminology, criminal justice, and criminalistics. These are three popular fields of study that are all centered around law enforcement. Yet while they are very closely related, there are major distinctions between each academic discipline. Let’s take a closer look:

Criminal Justice

Criminal justice is the interdisciplinary study of the real-world criminal justice system: its police, its jails, and its justice. It is an overarching area of study that encompasses everything from law enforcement to court trials to corrections. Earning a criminal justice degree is a thoughtful academic choice for those interested in the larger spectrum of the field.

In a criminal justice program, you will learn how to detect crime, detain criminals, prosecute and imprison offenders. You will learn the ins and outs of criminal investigation, criminal justice reform, and profiling. You will develop the skills necessary for modern law enforcement, emergency response, and security.

Criminal justice degree programs are offered at a variety of education levels. At Goodwin College, you can earn an associate degree in criminal justice and gain the necessary experience for careers in:

  • Corrections
  • Customs and Border Protection
  • Drug Enforcement Agency
  • Federal Bureau of Prisons
  • Policing and Law Enforcement
  • Private and Personal Security Agencies
  • Transportation Security Administration


Criminology is considered the research-based side of the criminal justice field. In essence, criminology is the study of crime prevention, criminal behavior, and society’s reaction to crime. It explores the behaviors that lead a person to commit crime, the response that society has to certain crimes, and the factors that contribute to proper rehabilitation for criminals. For these reasons, criminology is considered a social science and directly correlates to the field of sociology.

A criminology degree is best suited for students who wish to pursue a career in education or research. Often, criminology graduates become government researchers, college professors, psychologists, or go on to study criminal law in graduate school. If you choose to study criminology, you also have the option of specializing in biocriminology (the study of biology in criminal behavior), feminist criminology (the study of women and crime), or penology (the study of the prison system).


Criminalistics, in contrast to criminology, is rooted in natural sciences. It is a more specific area of study within the field of criminal justice that involves the collection and analysis of hard evidence.

Otherwise known as forensic science technicians, forensic scientists, crime scene investigations, or crime scene technicians, criminalists are responsible for applying a range of scientific techniques to collect, analyze, preserve, and present physical evidence in criminal cases. Physical evidence may include firearms and weaponry, DNA/biological material, drugs and alcohol, food, fibers, fluids, and more.

Becoming a criminalist requires a great amount of on-the-job training and extensive education in chemistry, biology, and/or forensic sciences.

Which is Right for You?

If you are looking for a skills-based role in criminal justice, criminalistics may be for you. If you are considering becoming an educator, criminology may be the best choice for you. But if you are looking to become directly involved with law enforcement, you may consider enrolling in a criminal justice school.

Many schools today incorporate criminalistics and criminology into their criminal justice programs. So whether you prefer to study criminal justice, criminology, criminalistics, or a combination of the three, there is no doubt that an all-encompassing Criminal Justice School is a great place to start.

Learn more today by calling 800-889-3282 or visiting