Criminology is the study of crime from a societal perspective. Criminologists investigate why crimes are committed, who is committing them, what type of societal factors might be contributing to higher crime rates, and the best ways to predict, deter, and prevent future crimes.
While many criminology graduates might eventually enter the field of criminal justice, there is a distinct difference between the two disciplines. Criminology focuses on the things that lead to individuals committing crimes or acting in a criminal way, whereas criminal justice focuses primarily on the individuals who commit the crime.
Whether you want to help reduce crime rates, participate in criminal justice reform, prevent crime from happening, or ensure a higher quality of life, the study of criminology can make a real difference to people’s lives.
This page introduces the field of criminology and a guide to criminology degrees. Within, you’ll find the following:
- What does a criminologist do?
- Career outlook and salary information for criminologists
- How to become a criminologist
- Featured criminology degree programs
- Overview of criminology degree programs
- Other career paths for those with a criminology degree
What Does a Criminologist Do?
At a basic level, criminologists focus on two things: studying and analyzing data.
- Conducting research: Criminologists conduct research, using data to analyze crime patterns that could lead to preventing and deterring future crimes. Criminology data ranges from specific behavioral and biological profiles of those who commit crimes to geographical crime data.
- Developing theories: In order to effectively translate data into action, criminologists develop theories based on the research they conduct. These theories help others in the field understand crime patterns and improve their practices.
- Compiling and generating reports on crime statistics: While the research, data collection, and analysis are the first steps to be taken, criminologists must also take the information learned and create a report that is helpful to the audience. Reports might be created for colleagues, superiors, or even the general public.
- Investigating crimes and crime scenes: In many cases, criminologists will also work with data on a smaller scale, such as through individual crimes. In these cases, they won’t be working with large data sets, but rather with pieces of evidence from a crime scene or larger-scale crimes.
- Evaluating, analyzing, developing, and implementing criminal justice policies and procedures: Many who choose the public policy path utilize the research and data analysis skills described above, while also looking directly at specific policies and conducting research and analysis on how those policies affect crime.
- Program implementation: Criminologists also utilize their research and reports to implement programming that is appropriate for a specific population or geographic region. Those who carry out those recommendations must be systems thinkers, able to take action on a recommendation that came from a more theoretical standpoint.
Common Career Paths
There are many opportunities for criminologists to branch out and specialize in areas within the field. For example, criminologists can specialize in topics such as specific age groups, demographics, geographical areas, or types of crime.
Beyond looking at specific communities, a variety of career paths are available to criminologists, including:
- Law enforcement
- Criminal investigation for federal and state agencies
- Medical investigation
- Private investigation
- Other careers in sociology
Career Outlook and Salary Information for Criminologists
The demand for criminologists is expected to grow over the coming years, and with it, job potential in the field will also increase. Because the types of jobs available range so widely, salaries and job outlooks depend on the position and the degree you choose to pursue. Following are some median salaries for several of the career paths listed above.
How to Become a Criminologist
In order to become a successful criminologist, you’ll need to complete the following steps:
1Earn Your DegreeGetting a bachelor’s degree in sociology, psychology, criminology, or criminal justice can open the door to entry-level jobs in criminology. However, many employers may now require a graduate degree in those same fields – research the type of job you’d like to pursue before choosing which path to take.
2Get an InternshipSnag 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.
3Obtain a LicenseMany states and law enforcement agencies require criminologists to pass a licensing exam before they can begin their career.
4Pursue a Criminologist PositionJobs can be found within the FBI, ATF, at other federal, state, or local agencies, at police departments, in consulting agencies, and even at colleges and universities. (Note – not all positions will have the term “criminologist” in the title.)
5Join a Professional Association
6Stay on Top of Current EventsStay current with what’s happening in the field. Attending conferences to network and learn about new developments will not only allow you to build relevant contacts but also keep your knowledge of the subject up to date, too.
7Get an Advanced DegreePeople interested in becoming criminologists often pursue a master’s or doctorate degree. An advanced degree can provide the opportunity for greater responsibilities and a higher salary.
8Become a Sub-Field ExpertFind a sub-field in criminology to master. This will help you gain recognition, advance your career, and enjoy greater workplace opportunities.
Degree Programs in Criminology
While some associate degrees will provide entry into service positions within criminal justice, a bachelor’s degree or higher is often necessary to advance in the field of criminology. Criminology degree programs teach you to think critically and manage the ever-evolving nature of technology and data in the field.
A full-time bachelor’s degree in criminology can take at least four years to complete. However, if you already have an associate degree, a bachelor’s completion program focused solely on the criminology major could take as little as two years.
All bachelor’s programs require the completion of general education credits and criminology-specific major requirements. The study is multidisciplinary, with coursework covering areas such as psychology, sociology, statistics, data analysis, history, and public policy.
With a bachelor’s degree in criminology, you’ll be prepared to enter and develop a career across a variety of fields such as human and social services, public policy, juvenile justice, and forensics, as well as direct service positions such as security, probation, and police officers.
A master’s degree in criminology will help you develop the technical skills necessary to advance in the criminology field, alongside the critical and analytical practice needed to progress to management-level positions. A full-time master’s program typically takes two years to complete.
Each program offers something unique, but all are largely multidisciplinary. Many master’s programs are more generally focused, allowing students to hone their interests throughout the program. Some also offer specialization opportunities in topics such as forensics or cybersecurity. Programs often range from more theoretical courses, such as comparative studies in criminal justice or foundations in criminology, to skills-based courses, such as those dealing with statistics or computer applications in criminal justice. Many programs require at least 30 credit hours of coursework as well as either a master’s thesis or a practicum as a culminating project.
If you want to participate in the advancement of research in the field of criminology, a doctorate is essential. While many positions for a Ph.D. in criminology are based within higher education research institutions, there is an increasingly large number of criminologists now working in the private sector and the government.
Doctoral program completion varies widely and depends on the level of education you have upon entering. It requires strong self-determination and time management skills. Programs can take as little as four years but will often take five or more. The coursework involved is often similar to that of master’s level courses but may require that more classes are taken. In some programs, the Ph.D. track can also include completing a master’s degree along the way.
The most rigorous and variable part of the doctorate is the final dissertation, which is a multi-step process. It can take at least a year to complete and will involve proposals, proposal defense, data collection, various draft reviews, and dissertation defense.
Many master’s (and increasingly more bachelor’s) degree programs now offer online coursework. An online program is a great option if you’re already working in the criminal justice field, as you’re able to apply your coursework directly to your job. An online program can also have a huge advantage in flexibility and pacing. Additionally, it’s typically less expensive in the long run to complete your degree online, because you’re not spending your money on transportation or moving costs.
While online coursework has many advantages, it does also have its negatives. These can include spending less face-to-face time with students and faculty, and the challenges met when trying to gain hands-on experience in the field. However, online programs are increasingly finding ways to develop strong, cohesive communities as well as providing alternative ways for students to apply their coursework in the real world.
Other Career Paths for Those With a Criminology Degree
Some students who earn a degree in criminology will decide that they want to work in a public-facing position rather than in research. There are a number of such careers available, including:
- Federal law enforcement investigator
- Social worker
- Community development worker
- Prison officer
- Victim’s advocate
Spotlight: Featured Criminology Degree Programs
There are now so many options for criminology programs, that it can be difficult to narrow down the best one for you. The following list was compiled based on a number of factors, including various rankings and government databases such as the Department of Education’s Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS). Additionally, the list includes bachelor’s and master’s programs, alongside both on-campus and online courses.
University of Florida, Gainesville
The University of Florida’s criminology programs are based in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. The direction of study is rooted in liberal arts and designed to provide a well-rounded foundation of critical thinking based around societal issues pertaining to crime and the law. The theoretical approach to the coursework trains students to think critically and analytically, both of which are necessities in the field. Additionally, the B.A. program can be completed completely online, making the elite institution’s program accessible and flexible for all. Earning a bachelor’s degree at the University of Florida also prepares students for advanced degrees.
Degree Programs: B.A. in Criminology and Law, combined B.A./M.A. degree, M.A., Joint M.A./J.D., Ph.D.
Tuition: $129.18 per credit (residents) and $552.62 per credit (non-residents).
Online: This school rated highly as an online institution for a Bachelor of Arts in Criminology and Law.
University of Maryland, College Park
The University of Maryland’s Department of Criminology and Criminal Justice offers some of the top degree programs in the field. Focused on the three pillars of the criminal justice system — the courts, policing, and corrections. UMD is heavily research-oriented, even at the bachelor’s level. The department’s explicit mission is to be at the forefront of research in the field of “Criminology for the 21st Century,” which considers the changing and evolving nature of the topic. Located just outside Washington, DC, the school’s faculty are internationally recognized as being leaders in criminology and criminal justice.
Degree Programs: Bachelor’s, master’s, joint M.A./J.D., Ph.D.
Tuition: Undergraduate tuition: $8,651 per year (resident), $31,688 per year (out-of-state); graduate: $731 per credit hour (resident), $1,625 per credit hour (out-of-state)
Online: While the University of Maryland doesn’t offer online degrees in any of their criminology programs, there is a satellite campus in Shady Grove, Maryland for undergraduate studies and a master’s degree program in China in association with Nanjing Normal University Law School.
University of California, Irvine
The University of California, Irvine offers not only high-quality in-person bachelor’s degree and Ph.D. programs, but an online master’s program geared specifically toward professionals already working in the field of criminology. The only component of the program that is not online is a five-day introductory immersion course, which takes place on-campus. With faculty experts in the field, the course of study is interdisciplinary and designed to create advanced-level skills and knowledge through coursework in leadership, research methods, and criminology theory.
Degree Programs: Bachelor’s, Master of Advanced Studies in Criminology, Law, and Society (online), Master of Legal and Forensic Psychology (online), Ph.D.
Tuition: $11,442 per year (resident), $40,434 per year (non-resident); graduate: $11,442 per year (resident); $26,544 per year — based on full-time enrollment
Online: This school rated highly as an online institution for a Master of Advanced Study in Criminology, Law and Society and the Master of Legal and Forensic Psychology degree programs.
Florida State University
Florida State University’s College of Criminology and Criminal Justice offers degree programs that lead to bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral degrees. In addition to their on-campus coursework, the college offers completely online-based bachelor’s completion and master’s degrees. Students can choose either a research-focused track or an applied track with a strong emphasis on statistics and computer applications in security and criminal justice.
Degree Programs: Bachelor’s (on-campus and online bachelor’s completion program), Master’s in Criminology (on-campus and online), Master’s in Computer Criminology, Joint Master’s in Social Work, Joint Master’s in Public Affairs, Ph.D.
Tuition: Undergraduate: $215.55 per credit (on-campus resident), $721.10 per credit (on-campus non-resident), $180.49 per credit (online resident), $686.04 per credit (online non-resident); graduate: $479.32 per credit (on-campus resident), $1,110.72 (on-campus non-resident), $444.26 per credit (online resident), $1,075.66 per credit (online non-resident)
Online: This school rated highly as an online facility for both bachelor’s and master’s degrees.
University of Nebraska, Omaha
With a focus on the sociological approach to criminal behaviors, the University of Nebraska’s criminology and criminal justice degree programs prepare students to enter many of the direct service professions in the field, including law enforcement, corrections, and victim’s advocacy. Additionally, there are opportunities to take a more research-focused track, especially for those pursuing master’s and doctoral degrees. The university’s faculty are internationally recognized for their research, teaching, and leadership in the top professional organizations. The school offers fully online degree programs at both the bachelor’s and master’s degree levels.
Degree Programs: B.S. in Criminology and Criminal Justice, M.A., M.S., M.S./Master of Social Work joint degree, Ph.D.
Tuition: Undergraduate: $9,522 per year (resident), $25,828 per year (non-resident); graduate: $7,696 per year (resident), $18,882 per year (non-resident)—based on full-time enrollment
Online: This school is rated highly as an online institution for bachelor’s and master’s degrees.
Michigan State’s School of Criminal Justice offers programs from bachelor’s to doctoral degrees, including three fully online master’s programs in criminal justice, law enforcement intelligence, and judicial administration. The programs are reflective of the school’s interdisciplinary approach, with over 30 faculty members working in a variety of areas of expertise including public health, history, environmental social science, law, and criminology. As a land-grant institution, the school is dedicated to translating theory and research into practice, which is reflected through their degree programs.
Degree Programs: B.A. in Criminal Justice, M.S. in Criminal Justice (on-campus and online), M.S. in Forensic Science (on-campus only), M.S. in Law Enforcement Intelligence Analysis (online), M.S. in Judicial Administration (online), Ph.D.
Tuition: Undergraduate: between $482 and $555 per credit (resident), between $1,325 and $1,385 per credit (non-resident); graduate: between $745 and $785 per credit (resident); between $745 (online) and $1,544 per credit (non-resident).
Online: This school rated highly as an online facility for master’s degrees in criminal justice, law enforcement intelligence analysis, and judicial administration.
Northeastern University’s School of Criminology & Criminal Justice uses a multidisciplinary approach to prepare students for working in both research-based and professional settings within the criminal justice system. The entire university is a fully integrated experiential learning model in which students at all levels—bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral—are guaranteed to graduate with not only a strong academic and theoretical foundation in criminology, but with practical experience, too. The bachelor’s degree program uses the co-op model, where students alternate between in-classroom learning and real-world experiences such as internships, service-learning, and research activities. The graduate programs promise to prepare students with current knowledge in the field, theoretical foundations, and the technical skills needed to advance in their careers.
Degree Programs: B.S. in Criminal Justice, M.S. in Criminology and Criminal Justice, Joint M.S./JD., Ph.D., Joint Ph.D./J.D.
Tuition: Undergraduate: $1,577 per credit (full-time course load is $25,225 per term); graduate: $1,295 per credit
Online: Northeastern doesn’t offer online degree programs at this time.