Criminal Justice vs Forensic Psychology: Which Is Right for You?

police officer on duty

New college students often have difficulty choosing a major. It can be challenging to decide, for example, whether you want to major in criminal justice or forensic psychology. Both degree programs will give you a thorough grounding in foundational knowledge and skills that will prove useful in your future career. In addition, you will acquire valuable transferable skills, such as critical thinking, communication and servant leadership, which are essential for careers of all kinds. However, there are major differences between a criminal justice degree and a forensic psychology degree. Use this guide to help you decide which program is the right fit for you.

Examining the Modern Criminal Justice System

Pursuing either a criminal justice or forensic psychology degree will provide you an opportunity to work within the criminal justice system. However, graduates of these two majors work in different roles within the system. It can be helpful for students to develop a basic understanding of the modern criminal justice system before deciding which type of role they would like to pursue.

The modern criminal justice system in the United States consists of various federal, state and local government agencies and institutions. It has three branches: law enforcement, the court system and corrections. Law enforcement officers are charged with arresting suspected offenders. The court system then tries the defendants and may find them either guilty or not guilty. If they are found guilty, the offenders may be transferred to the corrections system to serve a period of incarceration or probation.

Taking a Closer Look at a Criminal Justice Degree

Earning a criminal justice degree takes students through a well-rounded program designed to familiarize them with all three components of the criminal justice system. This program is an ideal choice for students who plan to work in law enforcement, the court system or the corrections system. Students will explore topics such as the following:

  • Professional responsibility and ethics in the criminal justice system.
  • The respective roles of the police, the courts and the corrections system.
  • Civil and criminal laws.
  • Crime control through due process and public policy.

This program primarily focuses on how laws can be established and enforced for the purpose of finding criminals, prosecuting them and rehabilitating them to make communities safer.

Considering a Forensic Psychology Degree

Although forensic psychologists also work within law enforcement, the court system or corrections, their role is distinctive. Forensic psychology programs focus not on laws and their enforcement but rather on criminal behavior, victimology and trauma. In other words, a forensic psychology major will explore the intersection of the criminal justice system with psychology. Students are likely to explore topics such as the following:

  • Theories of and motivations for criminal behavior.
  • Traumatic experiences across the lifespan, plus assessments, treatments and applied ethics.
  • The nature and causal determinants of human behavior.
  • Social, cultural and group factors that affect individual behavior.

A forensic psychology degree can be an ideal choice for students who appreciate science and are motivated to apply scientific principles to make communities safer.

Evaluating the Jobs Available to Criminal Justice Majors

A wide range of career paths is available to graduates with a criminal justice degree, including positions in law enforcement, the court system or the corrections system. These jobs may be at the federal, state or local level. Consider these examples of law enforcement careers:

  • Local or state police officer
  • Security guard
  • FBI agent
  • Deputy sheriff

In addition, the court system offers career options. For example, bailiffs are responsible for maintaining order in the courtroom. Essentially, they are security guards who may sometimes require law enforcement training. You might also consider working for prosecution or defense attorneys. You can become a paralegal without going to law school.

The corrections system also provides plenty of opportunities. Consider the following:

  • Probation or parole officer
  • Prison warden
  • Correctional officer

Exploring the Jobs Available to Forensic Psychology Majors

In order to call yourself a forensic psychologist, you will need an advanced degree, such as a PhD. However, it’s possible to land an entry-level job in forensic psychology with only a bachelor’s degree. The possibilities include the following:

  • Forensic case manager: Help inmates and former inmates access resources and support systems that facilitate their rehabilitation goals.
  • Victim advocate: Provide emotional support and practical help to victims of crime.
  • Social and community service manager: Implement and administer programs that support the needs of a community, such as by working to reduce recidivism rates.

If you’re having trouble visualizing yourself in one of these roles, consider talking to a career counselor at your school. You might even connect with alumni who were criminal justice or forensic psychology majors to find out how they have used their degrees in their professional lives.

Whether you decide to major in criminal justice or forensic psychology, you can find the right degree program for your career aspirations at Grand Canyon University. We are committed to the success of our students and alumni, and we offer extensive student support services designed to help you pursue your dream job. Click on the Request Info button at the top of your screen to explore the Bachelor of Science in Justice Studies program  or the Bachelor of Science in Psychology with an Emphasis in Forensic Psychology program.

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 Grand Canyon University. Any sources cited were accurate as of the publish date.

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