Criminal Justice vs. Forensic Science

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Criminal justice and forensic science are two degrees often pursued by those with a sincere interest in and passion for the criminal justice system. Indeed, a degree in either of these fields can eventually lead to a career in law enforcement in a number of capacities, including crime scene analysis, crime scene investigation, or as a forensic science technician.

That being said, while there do exist certain similarities between these two areas of study, there are stark differences of which any aspiring student should be aware. As such, the following information provides an overview of the two fields of study, as well as a side-by-side comparison for additional convenience.

Similarities, Differences, and Overlap

Very often, schools that provide a program in criminal justice will list forensic science as a specialization within the former; as such, students at such an institution can obtain a degree in criminal justice with a focus on forensic science, and obtain a comprehensive knowledge of both. In other cases, however, the degrees offered will be separate, although there may be substantial overlap between the two.

Most importantly, the study of criminal justice and of forensic science focuses on the justice system in general. And furthermore, a significant amount of time in both fields will likely be spent on the study of crime and its numerous effects.

Beyond this, however, is where the two areas of study begin to differ. While the study of criminal justice focuses on crime, it hones in on the causes of the crime, any responses by law enforcement agencies, and prevention methods to consider and employ in the future. As such, a student pursuing a degree in criminal justice can expect to take courses on law and legal theory, law enforcement philosophies and theories, sociology and criminal behavior, and others related to criminology. A developed understanding of concepts within each of these subfields can help a student of criminal justice apply this to real-world situations, and perhaps even obtain future employment as a police officer or detective, an FBI agent, an immigration officer, or any other member of a law enforcement agency.

In contrast to this, those studying forensic science will also examine crime, yet from an entirely different perspective. This field of study focuses on the application of science and scientific methods to understand all aspects of a crime, including the perpetrator and the causes. Those studying forensic science are certain to take courses in physical sciences, such as biology and chemistry, as well as others related to DNA and fingerprint analysis, crime scene procedure, and other types of forensic analysis. Because those working in the field of forensic science routinely interact with members of law enforcement, students will also likely take courses on forensic case reporting and investigation techniques. Although there is no one career path for a student of this field, possible future options include employment as a forensic pathologist, a toxicologist, an evidence technician, or even an intelligence analyst, depending on what level of education that student pursues.

It is readily apparent that a degree in criminal justice is more focused on the theory of crime, prevention, and its repercussions on society, while forensic science maintains an emphasis on the physical remnants of crime and their importance as evidence. Indeed, it is possible to view a criminal justice program as more akin to a social science, wherein students focus on law and sociology; while forensic science retains similarities to a lab science program with a greater emphasis on physical evidence analysis, crime, and legal procedures related to crime scene investigation.

These two fields of study do overlap, however, in that they are both concentrated on crime, its effects, and its causes, as well as the actions that can be taken thereafter to pursue justice. Finally, while both of these fields of study are often considered synonymous with crime scene investigation (CSI), this is not the case. Indeed, while all three of these fields share significant overlap, a degree in crime scene investigation is more specific. While a CSI program may draw from both criminal justice and forensic science, those interested in working in CSI should expect to undergo additional training in investigative techniques. As such, anyone specifically hoping to work as a crime scene investigator should understand the steps to becoming a CSI before making a final decision.

Side-By-Side Comparison

The following contains a side-by-side comparison of the fields of criminal justice and forensic science, which includes information on future coursework, available specializations, possible career options, and more. Anyone hoping to obtain a degree in either of these two fields should become familiar with this comparison before deciding on which path to take.

Criminal Justice Forensic Science
How do the fields define and differentiate themselves? Criminal justice examines the theory of crime, as well as its causes and effects. It generally focuses on a sociological aspect of crime when examining law enforcement and prevention. Forensic science is a field that utilizes existing scientific methods to examine a crime and its evidence to provide information on its perpetrators and causes.
What department is the program typically part of within the educational institution? This varies based on the institution; in some schools the criminal justice program may be found within the department of criminal justice or criminology, while in others it maybe housed within the school of public affairs, and in others still it may be contained within the department of political science. The forensic science degree may be part of the department of criminal justice or criminology, although students should be expected to take courses in departments related to natural sciences and lab work.
What bodies of knowledge will studies focus on in pursuit of their degree?

Overall, those pursuing a degree in criminal justice will likely encounter the following areas of study:

  • Sociology
  • Legal theory and philosophy
  • Law and law enforcement methods and theory
  • Criminal behavior and criminology
  • Ethics
  • Corrections

While a student of forensic science will likely take classes related to criminal justice, he or she should expect to be exposed to the following subjects as well:

  • DNA, blood stain, and fingerprint analysis
  • Toxicology
  • Forensic case reporting
  • Forensic anthropology, microscopy, and chemistry
  • Criminal procedure and crime scene investigation
  • Forensic pathology
What specializations, if any, are formally available as part of the program? In some cases, students may be able to specialize in forensic science while pursuing a degree in criminal justice. Other specializations include corrections, policing, homeland security, emergency management, cybercrime, and criminal behavior. Sometimes forensic science itself is offered as a criminal justice specialization, although in such cases the program tends to emphasize breadth of forensic understanding, whereas standalone forensic science degrees tend to emphasize lab science related to evidence. Specializations might include DNA and serology, toxicology, or death investigation.
What established occupations will students be prepared for after receiving a degree? After obtaining a degree in criminal justice students will be prepared to work in various law enforcement positions, including as police officers, FBI agents, homeland security or immigration officers, or even border patrol officers, many of which are described in detail by the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). A forensic science degree may allow a student to pursue employment as a forensic toxicologist, a crime scene or forensic science technician (as described by the BLS), or an intelligence officer, among a number of other vocations.
Are there additional educational opportunities available after pursuing an undergraduate degree in this field? Upon obtaining an undergraduate degree in criminal justice, students may choose to pursue a graduate degree, either in criminal justice, or a number of other fields, including law, philosophy, or sociology. Myriad educational opportunities exist after obtaining an undergraduate degree in forensic science, such as graduate programs in forensic science, cybersecurity, digital forensics, and other related fields. Undergraduates may also go on to pursue medical degrees if they are interested in a career as a forensic pathologist or forensic psychiatrist, for example.
What emerging occupations will students be prepared for after receiving a degree? Because of the importance that future technology plays in our society, emerging jobs in the field of criminal justice will include those in computer forensics, as well as positions related to homeland security and private security. Emerging positions available to those with a degree in forensic science may include cybersecurity and digital forensic specialists, as well as overall employment related to computer forensics.
Name eight schools that offer online degrees in these fields.

The following is a list of eight schools that offer online degree programs in criminal justice:

The following is a list of eight schools that offer online degree programs in forensic science:

Bottom line: specifics of each. While the field of criminal justice is expansive and encompasses a large array of topics, students in pursuit of a degree in this area of study should expect to become intimately familiar with the criminal justice system, as well as legal theory and philosophy, methods of law enforcement, sociology and law in general. Overall, a degree in this field of study prepares a student for a career in any number of areas within criminal justice (particularly with further specialization), but most commonly in law enforcement, corrections, or homeland security. Overall, the study of forensic science focuses on the analysis of physical aspects of a specific crime in order to determine the crime’s causes and perpetrators. As such, a student pursuing a degree in this field of study will develop extensive knowledge of subjects such as chemistry and biology, toxicology, DNA analysis, forensic anthropology and microscopy, and forensic pathology, as well as forensic reporting, evidence collection, and evidence maintenance. In sum, a degree in forensic science will likely prepare a student for a career as a forensic analyst, crime scene technician, forensic toxicologist, DNA analyst, or other vocation related to the field of forensics.

Willow Dawn Becker

Willow is a blogger, parent, former educator and regular contributor to When she's not writing about forensic science, you'll find her blogging about education online, or enjoying the beauty of Oregon.