Criminology Degree Programs
A criminology degree trains students to understand what makes criminals tick, as well as how to mitigate their negative impacts on society. Criminologists utilize many of the same skills as detectives, though their job is less hands-on and draws more on the fields of sociology and psychology than on forensic psychology. Their job isn’t so much to catch criminals as it is to predict criminals’ moves and work with local law enforcement to stay one step ahead of the bad guys.
With the recent popularity of such shows as “CSI,” “Brooklyn 99,” and “Dexter,” the field of criminology has become far more fascinating to the general public. As sociologists, criminologists study factors such as:
- When and where crimes are most often committed
- The reasons for criminal behavior
- The types of crimes most often committed
Criminologists may also research crime’s effect on society at large, and the government’s response to crime.
Criminologist Job Description
Criminologists usually work closely with both local and federal law enforcement offices. The idea is to help law enforcement professionals catch criminals more quickly, predict patterns of criminal behavior, and improve agency response to crime.
A criminologist may be called on by a small-town police department to help them solve a series of crimes or may earn their paycheck from the FBI. They may profile a suspect for a specific crime, or help analyze a string of related crimes by several individuals. Some criminologists specialize in a specific field, such as juvenile crime, crime prevention, criminal investigation, litigation, corrections, profiling, or private or government research.
Criminologists also have the opportunity to work in an academic settings including universities, where they conduct research and teach. Most criminologists have an undergraduate degree in psychology, sociology, or criminal justice; many also hold master’s degrees in criminal justice or criminology, though some focus in psychology or sociology instead.
How to Become a Criminologist
There are comprehensive and rigorous academic requirements to become a criminologist because the job involves evaluating and predicting behavior based on incomplete information. Follow these steps to become a successful criminologist:
1. Graduate with a bachelor’s in sociology, psychology, criminology, or criminal justice. You will probably have a much easier time getting a job if you have a graduate degree in one of those fields as well.
2. Get an internship with a police department, law office, state or federal government office, a community organization involved with the justice system, or a group that conducts research on relevant subjects.
3. Obtain a license. Many states/law enforcement agencies will require criminologists to pass a licensing exam.
4. Pursue a criminologist position. Positions can be found within the FBI, ATF, or other federal, state, or local agencies, at police departments, in consulting agencies, or at colleges and universities. (Note – not all positions will have the term “criminologist” in the title).
5. Join a professional association such as The American Society of Criminology, the International Society of Criminology, The Law and Society Association, or other groups serving the field of criminology.
6. Stay current with what’s happening in the field. Attend conferences to network and learn about new developments.
7. Get an advanced degree. People interested in becoming criminologists often pursue a master’s or doctorate degree. An advanced degree provides opportunities for greater responsibilities and a higher salary.
8. Become an expert in a sub-field of criminology. This will help you gain recognition, advance your career, and enjoy greater opportunities.
Criminology Course Requirements
For those with an interest in criminal pathology, a career as a criminologist could be highly rewarding. To get there, it’s recommended to graduate with a bachelor’s or master’s degree in criminology. Here are some topics you may study while working toward a criminology degree:
Study the laws criminals are breaking and the importance of bringing them to justice.
Psychology of Crime
This course dives into the basic understanding of why criminals behave the way they do. The truth is that many criminals behave the same way or very similar to each other and are motivated by the same social or psychological issues. Gaining an understanding of criminal psychology will serve you well as you try to predict criminals’ next moves.
Statistical and Computer Applications in Criminal Justice
Statistical and computer applications are used to supplement psychological studies when it comes to finding and predicting the behavior of criminals. Developing a fluency with crime statistics and an understanding of the computer programs used on the job as a criminologist is necessary.
Research Methods in Criminal Justice
A research class will likely be one of the last classes in a criminologist degree program. Research methods may sound like a dry description, but the truth is it’s closest to what you will be doing on a daily basis. The job of a criminologist is most like the job of a researcher, only the research you do is on current criminals and the time frame for your research is faster paced. A class in research methods will teach you the fundamentals of researching a case, writing a report and sharing information with colleagues.
In addition to taking these courses, most criminology majors also take an unpaid internship for class credit with a local police agency or other criminal justice organization. This internship usually comes near the end of your degree program and may prove to be even more educational than some of your courses. However, you will need the benefits of your education to understand the demands of the job.
Depending on the nature of your degree, you may need to take a final “capstone” course utilizing all of the study you’ve done up to that point and preparing you for the real world as a criminologist. For advanced degrees, this is less of a course requirement and more like a thesis study that will require a dissertation before your college professors.
Criminologist Salary and Career Outlook
Salaries for criminology careers can vary widely based on education, credentials, experience, and responsibilities. Criminology careers are most commonly found within the “law enforcement” branch of the criminal justice system, though some criminologist jobs are also available in the courts or corrections. Others may be available within academia or in the private sector. Below are a few national salary range estimates for typical careers in criminology.
- Police Detective – Police detectives work to apprehend lawbreakers, investigate criminal cases, and solve crimes. They observe and interview suspects, interview witnesses, examine physical evidence, write reports, and may be called on to testify in court or before a grand jury. Detectives had a median annual salary of $62,960 in 2017. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $35,780, and the highest 10 percent earned more than $105,230.
- Special Agent – These criminal investigators work for the FBI, Secret Service, Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), US Border Patrol, US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), or other state and federal agencies. They investigate suspected or alleged criminal violations of federal, state, or local laws to determine if evidence is sufficient to recommend prosecution. A special agent’s median annual salary was $79,970 in 2017. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $42,880, and the highest 10 percent earned more than $135,530.
- US Marshal – The Marshal Service is responsible for apprehending wanted fugitives, providing protection for the federal judiciary, transporting federal prisoners, protecting endangered federal witnesses, and managing assets seized from criminal enterprises. In 2018, the starting salary for a US marshal was $45,371. Salaries align with the federal pay scale and depend on federal grade and step. In 2017, a US Marshal earn a median salary of $79,970. In some states, the top salary for a US Marshal was approximately $135,530.
- Forensic Technician – Forensic technicians apply scientific knowledge and methods to help police investigate crimes. They collect and preserve physical evidence from crime scenes, including blood and other fluids, fingerprints, human tissue, fibers, shell casings, and other weapons-related evidence. Forensic technicians have a median salary of $67,850. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $33,880 and the highest 10 percent earned more than $95,600.
- Forensic psychologist – Forensic psychologists apply various disciplines, including psychology, criminal justice, and law, to develop psychological profiles of criminals. They conduct research and examine crime scene evidence for clues to the offender’s physical characteristics and motivation for committing the crime to help direct law enforcement officials toward potential offenders. They also recommend effective strategies for interrogating suspects. The Bureau of Labor Statistics does not publish salary data specifically on forensic psychologists; however, the closest related profession–traditional psychologist— reported a median salary of $77,030 (BLS, 2018).
- Criminology consultant – Criminology consultants teach, provide consulting services, and conduct research on criminal behavior. They collect and compile data on attitudes and behaviors based on interviews, analysis of crime scenes and crimes, and other methods. They analyze, organize, and write reports on their findings and provide it to a client, agency, and/or publish the research in academic journal or other media. According to the BLS, management analysts and consultants have a median annual wage of $87,840.
Frequently asked questions regarding the criminology profession:
What is a forensic criminologist?
Forensic criminologists study the hard evidence of a crime, the behavior of criminals, and the processes that make the criminal justice system work. They try to understand the mind-set of the criminal when the crime took place and, using evidence, attempt to reconstruct the crime and the sequence of events leading up to it.
What do you need to do to become a criminologist?
To become a criminologist, you’ll want to pursue a BS degree in criminology, psychology, criminal justice, forensics, behavioral science, or sociology. You’ll want to try to get an internship and/or job that gives you valuable real-life work experience. Some jobs may require an advanced degree and/or extensive experience. A doctorate may be required for advanced research jobs and professorships.
You’ll also want to join a professional organization, such as the International Society for Criminology, the American Society of Criminology, or The Academy of Criminal Justice Sciences to continue to increase your knowledge and skills.
What jobs are there for criminology?
Look for a job with a police department or agency like the FBI, Secret Service, Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), US Border Patrol, US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), or other state and federal agencies. A criminology career path may also be available through the court system or in academia.
In the end, criminology can be a rewarding and interesting line of work, especially for those with a natural inclination to analyze trends and criminal behavior. A criminologist helps to end crime sprees and catch criminals at large. Watching shows such as “CSI” may not fully prepare you for this line of work, but with the proper education, training, and inclination, a career as a criminologist can be the perfect fit for many individuals.