calendar_today 22 February, 2023

Woman holding folders in front of a buldingCriminal behavior is a complex phenomenon and ranges from large-scale political corruption and interpersonal violence to petty theft. The FBI estimates that more than 1.2 million violent crimes and 6.9 million property crimes occurred in the U.S. in 2019, and these numbers likely undercount the true prevalence of criminal behavior, which is not always reported to law enforcement. By digging into the details behind these figures, researchers examine the reasons for crimes, the long-term effects on victims, and the challenges that police and policymakers must confront.

The disciplines of criminology and criminal justice offer interconnected perspectives that can unlock valuable insights, resulting in safer and fairer communities. This article will explore the distinctions between these interrelated areas of study as well as the ways they complement one another. You will learn how pursuing a master’s degree in criminal justice or criminology can offer you the opportunity to lead improvements in public policy, community outreach, and law enforcement. We will also discuss the advantages of a well-rounded, multidisciplinary program that features skills and concepts from both criminology and criminal justice.

Criminology vs. Criminal Justice Quick Facts

Master of Criminal Justice Master of Criminology
Summary Criminal justice focuses on studying the institutions involved in crime prevention, law enforcement, and corrections and driving evidence-based crime policy. Criminology is an integrative academic discipline that draws upon insights from other social and hard sciences (including psychology, political science, public policy, and economics).
Skills Required
  • Qualitative research
  • Quantitative research
  • Analysis
  • Research
  • Statistical skills analysis
  • Evaluation
Average Salary Supervisor of Correctional Officers: $62,213
Compliance Officer: $71,656
Supervisor of Police & Detectives: $99,341
Detectives & Criminal Investigators: $83,637
Social and Community Service Manager: $74,006
Information Security Analyst: $102,606

Sources: PayScale, 2022; Lightcast, 2020-2023

What Is Criminal Justice?

Criminal justice focuses on studying the institutions involved in crime prevention, law enforcement, and corrections and driving evidence-based crime policy. These professionals may hold careers in federal law enforcement, cybersecurity, intelligence, victim advocacy, and fraud investigation. Research in this area highlights the strategies that most effectively promote public safety and reveal practices that may enable inequality, injustice, and abuses of power.

For example, Professor Jack McDevitt and Professor Amy Farrell at the Institute on Race and Justice in the School of Criminology and Criminal Justice at Northeastern University have worked with police departments to conduct a series of studies on racial profiling and other inequalities within the justice system. McDevitt and Farrell gathered two years of data on traffic and pedestrian stops in Kansas, looking for signs of systemic bias that indicate a need for policy changes.

Learning more about law enforcement policies and practices can pave the way for a variety of policy improvements within departments and agencies. Distinguished Professor of Criminology and Criminal Justice Anthony M. Braga led an initiative from Northeastern University’s Center on Crime and Community Resilience that trained police departments in procedural justice. This approach strives to build trust through treating the members of a community with dignity, listening to them respectfully, and maintaining neutrality when making decisions.

What Is Criminology?

Criminology is an integrative academic discipline that draws upon insights from other social and hard sciences (including psychology, political science, public policy, and economics) to analyze the underlying factors of illegal activities and criminals themselves. Criminology scholars delve into questions about where, when, and why crimes occur, as well as the consequences of crime for individuals, social groups, and communities. Their research may explore specific types of illicit acts like human trafficking or the sale of counterfeit pharmaceuticals that fail to meet medical standards.

The discipline encompasses fields such as victimology, which concentrates on the psychological effects that victims experience as well as their relationships with offenders and the criminal justice system. Criminology professionals use their research and statistical skills to better understand the diverse set of factors involved in crime. They serve as academic leaders, analysts in law enforcement agencies, and as research directors in correctional organizations.

A Master’s in Criminal Justice vs. Criminology

Despite obvious overlap between criminology and criminal justice, there are important differences to consider when looking to start or specialize in a career in these industries.

  • Students who earn a master’s in criminal justice may study different issues and pursue alternate career paths from those working toward a criminology degree.
  • Criminology curricula tend to emphasize the research and statistical skills that help students build a deeper understanding of the individual, social, economic, and psychological factors involved in interpersonal violence and property crime. Courses may examine theories of place to understand how the relationships in a community either enable or prevent illicit behavior.
  • Criminal justice master’s programs lean toward providing an extensive grounding in the theoretical underpinnings and the practical functions of policing, courts, and prisons, allowing students to learn how these systems affect the lives of individuals, their families, and their communities. These programs also focus on ways to implement more effective practices for reform.

A Multidisciplinary Understanding of Crime

Students and professionals who are interested in starting or advancing in roles that address illegal behavior don’t have to choose between the two disciplines as they can benefit from a criminology and criminal justice master’s degree program. This program prepares students for a broad range of roles, but it can also allow them to gain a multifaceted perspective on the issues that are most relevant to a specific career path. Students develop skills in research design, data analysis, and qualitative inquiry, which lay the foundation for evidence-based policies, community engagement, and policing.

A master’s in criminal justice and criminology curriculum builds knowledge in topics such as:

  • Psychological and social scientific explanations for the causes of criminal activity and the impact on victims
  • Rooting out corruption and supporting greater accountability in law enforcement
  • Understanding how race, ethnicity, and gender affect the treatment of individuals in the justice system and society more broadly
  • Mapping incidents to uncover crime patterns and formulate community-based mitigation strategies
  • Stopping online fraud, identity theft, data breaches, and other cybercrimes
  • The causes of criminal violence on an individual, group, and societal level
  • Best practices for performing research and conducting evaluations
  • The social, economic, and psychological effects of incarceration
  • Identifying and protecting victims of human trafficking
  • International crime and policing in a globalized world
  • Drug addiction and initiatives to assist recovery

Professionals who grapple with the enormity of crime, its causes, and its consequences need expertise that is backed by rigorous research and practical experience. Northeastern University’s Master of Science in Criminology and Criminal Justice program engages with the full breadth of criminological inquiry and the criminal justice system, while providing specialized knowledge in fields ranging from cybersecurity to juvenile law. Bridging the gap between the disciplines of criminology and criminal justice can result in a more nuanced understanding of why illegal acts occur, what law enforcement and other agencies can do to promote positive societal change, and how professionals can contribute to a future that is safer and more equitable.

Career Paths With an MS in Criminology and Criminal Justice

Below are some of the careers you can pursue with an MS in Criminology and Criminal Justice. To learn about additional careers in the field, read What Can You Do with a Master’s in Criminal Justice? and What Can You Do with a Master’s in Criminology?.

Job description National median salary
Crime Scene Investigator
  • A crime scene investigator conducts investigations related to suspected violations of local, state, or federal laws.
  • Duties include using special procedures and equipment to physically examine crime scenes, such as burglaries, homicides, and traffic accidents.
Police Officer
  • A police officer protects individuals and property and maintains order by enforcing local, state, tribal, and federal ordinances.
  • Duties include investigating accidents, apprehending and arresting suspects, and patrolling specific areas.
Private Investigator
  • A private investigator gathers, compiles, analyzes, and reports information to their clients about individuals or organizations.
  • Duties include conducting surveillance, collecting evidence for clients, and interviewing people to gather information.
Probation Officer
  • A probation officer helps in the rehabilitation of law offenders in custody or on parole or probation.
  • Duties include developing treatment and rehabilitation plans and checking in regularly with offenders on progress.

Source: Lightcast, 2022.

About the Master of Science in Criminology and Criminal Justice at Northeastern University

Available on campus, online, or in a mixed modality, the Master of Science in Criminology and Criminal Justice (MSCJ) from Northeastern University examines all aspects of criminological inquiry and the criminal justice process. Students benefit from the extensive resources of a globally renowned research institution as they explore strategies to prevent crime, encourage societal equity and justice, and reduce harm in the justice system.

Our world-class faculty teach advanced skills in qualitative and quantitative research and analysis while providing foundational knowledge in criminological and criminal justice theories and individualized mentorship. The MSCJ curriculum, which can be completed in one year, offers students and professionals the knowledge and skills needed for leadership roles in policy making, research, analyst work, research directorships, and law enforcement. This program features a range of options for customization, including a cybersecurity concentration, the ability to complete a graduate certificate in a related field, and experiential learning.


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