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Studying Criminal Justice in the United States

Thursday | August 25, 2016 | by Colin A. Wiggins

A young student studying for criminal justice

Criminal justice is defined as “the system of practices government institutions make to uphold social control, deter and lower crime, or punish those who violate laws with criminal penalties and rehabilitation efforts.” It may surprise many that the study of criminal justice is relatively new, and didn’t exist until as recently as the 1920s. It evolved from criminology, which is an offshoot of sociology. In this post, I’m going to talk about three popular criminal justice degrees and the career options for each one.

Although there are many different programs of study under criminal justice at varying educational levels, such as corrections, criminal law, criminal procedures, legal research, and law and ethics, we’re going to look at the three most popular programs of criminal justice education: forensic psychology, forensic science, and cybersecurity.

Forensic Psychology

This program studies a combination of both psychology and the justice system. Forensic psychologists have to understand the law regarding testimonies, and how to appropriately interact with judges, attorneys, and legal professionals. They also may be called to testify as expert witnesses. For example, a forensic neuropsychologist would be asked to testify as an expert witness to discuss cases that involve the brain or brain damage, or to determine if an individual is competent enough to stand trial.

Most forensic psychology positions require further education after obtaining a bachelor’s degree. Students can pursue a master’s degree in forensic psychology, and can eventually go to medical school for a doctorate in clinical psychology. The professional opportunities in forensic psychology include academic research, law enforcement, correctional psychologist, legal trial consultant, and psychological evaluator.

Forensic Science

Forensic science is the study of collecting, preserving, and analyzing scientific evidence throughout the course of an investigation. Forensic scientists will typically work in one of two ways: out in the field collecting evidence at a crime scene, or working in a laboratory performing analyses on objects brought to them from other agencies.

For forensic science degrees, students can pursue two-year degrees, bachelor’s degrees, master’s degrees, and even work up to obtain a doctorate in forensic science. The two-year degree opens the door to entry-level positions or entrance into a bachelor’s program. The bachelor’s program will include further study in natural sciences, biochemistry, and toxicology. Then, for the master’s program, students begin specializing in ballistics (firearms), DNA analysis, and chemical technology. Finally, at the doctorate level, students can perform specialized research in one area of study. In addition to this specialization, doctorate-earners can teach at universities, manage labs and research centers, and be used as expert witnesses.

The job opportunities in forensic science are many, and can include: criminalistics (reconstructing a crime scene), toxicologist (screen bodily fluids, hair, and nails for substances), pathologist (conducts autopsies for cause and time of death), forensic anthropology (identify bones to discover background), and document examiner (analyze handwriting and signatures, restore and decipher documents).


Cybersecurity is a criminal justice field that is constantly changing due to threats to government and private computer networks, which means well-trained cybersecurity professionals are always in demand. In this area of criminal justice, individuals will study the technology, processes, and practices designed to protect networks, computers, programs, and data from attack. It involves identity management, risk management, and incident management. Two-year degrees in cybersecurity are usually specific to one of three specializations: network management, database security, and network administration. After obtaining a two-year degree, students can pursue a bachelor’s degree in cybersecurity, which includes further study in ethics, cybercrime, law and information, mathematics, and computer science. Then, for master’s degrees in cybersecurity, students typically study legal privacy, ethics in hacking, cryptography, data breaches, and recovery.

Studying criminal justice in the U.S. gives students an opportunity to get involved in exciting coursework that will lead to interesting and in-demand careers here in the U.S. and abroad. Students who study forensic psychology, forensic science, and cybersecurity often find themselves in successful careers as investigators, lawyers, medical examiners, doctors, chief security officers, and judges. A degree in criminal justice presents many possibilities for a rewarding future.


Colin A. Wiggins

Colin A. Wiggins is the International Admission Specialist at John Jay College of Criminal Justice/City University of New York.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of World Education Services (WES).