If you're fascinated by the legal system and want to play a role in catching the bad guys and exonerating the falsely accused, a career in criminal justice could be the right choice. A generalized degree in criminal justice focuses on the criminal justice system, law enforcement and legal philosophy. Forensic science is a sub-specialty within the field of criminal justice and has a stronger focus on science, chemistry and biology.
A degree in forensic science is a Bachelor of Science degree with a strong focus on evidence analysis and laboratory tests. A criminal justice degree is usually a Bachelor of Arts degree. Students in criminal justice focus on law enforcement theories and philosophies, the sociology of criminal behavior and best practices for law enforcement and legal workers.
Students pursuing degrees in forensic science focus primarily on sciences such as biology and chemistry. You might take classes in fingerprint analysis, crime scene investigations, DNA and blood stain evidence. Some schools, such as the University of New Haven, require students to declare a specialty in either forensic chemistry or forensic biology. Students pursuing degrees in criminal justice are more likely to take classes in sociology, the legal system, criminal prosecutions and public policy.
Forensic scientists typically work in a laboratory setting and may visit crime scenes to gather and process evidence. You might work on a crime scene investigation team, serve as an expert witness or administer laboratory tests for chemical substances. If you choose to pursue a degree in criminal justice instead, this could be precursor to a career in law enforcement and you will typically work directly with law enforcement officials, such as prosecutors.
There are several degree options for both criminal justice and forensic science. You can pursue an associate or bachelor's degree, but graduate programs are also available for each major. Forensic science can provide a strong background for specializing in fields such as toxicology, forensic psychology or pharmacology in graduate school, while a criminal justice degree can serve as preparation for law school or graduate work in sociology.
Van Thompson is an attorney and writer. A former martial arts instructor, he holds bachelor's degrees in music and computer science from Westchester University, and a juris doctor from Georgia State University. He is the recipient of numerous writing awards, including a 2009 CALI Legal Writing Award.