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What is the difference between Forensic Science and Criminology?

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I really love looking into criminal's cases, deaths, abductions, etc. However, I know, or I seem to understand, that Forensic Science is a branch of either Criminology or Criminal Justice. I would appreciate if someone would help explain if I can only do one or the other or if I can work for both? #criminology #criminal-justice #forensic-science

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Matthew L.’s Answer


Hi Diana. Great question.

Broadly speaking, "forensic science" is concerned more with the hard scientific aspects of the case (testing evidence, fingerprints, DNA, drug testing, computers, bullets, etc.), while "criminology" concerns the study and understanding of criminal behavior (the psychology and sociology of criminals and why they commit crimes). In my experience, criminal justice is a broader major than straight criminology and covers political science, criminal procedure, and other topics, but it seems to depend on the program. Criminology is a more specialized criminal justice degree.

A forensic scientist is generally someone who is trained and highly skilled in analyzing evidence. The evidence they analyze is usually (thought not always) collected by police officers, detectives, FBI agents or some other type of field investigator. What the forensic scientist does with the evidence depends on the type of evidence. For example, if a sample of suspected drugs (say heroin) was taken from a suspected criminal, the forensic scientist tests the drugs using the appropriate methods and procedures to determine if the sample contains heroin. If it does, the forensic scientist will likely prepare a report that will be sent back to the investigating agency for them to help make their case (hopefully the results help--it may also torpedo their case). Forensic scientists have to be very careful with how they perform the tests. They must be able to document everything they do and be certain that their process follows established procedures and methods.

Forensic scientists also have to be very careful to observe legal rules. Usually they will be working with evidence in criminal or civil cases. That means that the evidence has to be tracked through each step in the process. This is called "chain of custody" and if there is a "break" in the chain of custody (say that the forensic scientist takes the sample home over night before testing it), this can cause a problem and, if it's bad enough, it may mean the evidence is not going to be admissible in court. Evidence must be collected by the investigators in a careful and consistent manner according to established procedure and then provided to the testing facility. Usually this involves using sealed kits, secure lockers where evidence must be signed in and out, and possibly temperature or other environmental controls.

Forensic scientists will sometimes have to testify in court as to what they did in the lab. The criminal defendant (through his attorney) is entitled to confront witnesses against him. This includes lab techs. The attorney may cross examine the scientist on what he/she did, how it was done, methods used, machines used, whether procedures were followed, whether the chain of custody is complete, and so on. Forensic scientists need to be an expert in the processes, chemistry and machines they use or the criminal may go free on a technicality. The prosecutor may also call the forensic scientist to testify if the scientific issues are complex (like accident reconstruction, gunshots, toxicology, or blood work). Usually forensic scientists testify by way of their reports or affidavits, depending on the rules in the state where they work.

Forensic scientists might work in labs (like state labs or labs in a large city with a large police force), morgues, in universities, in private labs, in classrooms or out in the world at crime scenes. Their course of study in school relies much more on hard sciences like chemistry, biology, and statistics.

This is a good website on what forensic scientists do. www.aafs.org/students/choosing-a-career/what-do-forensic-scientists-do/

Criminologists, on the other hand, are people who have studied criminology in school. They learn about the causes of crime and sociology behind it. They study populations and collect data on all sorts of different sociological aspects, like urban vs. rural, ethnicity, the effects of drugs, domestic abuse, culture, and many other angles on crime and its causes. Criminologists seek answers as to the how and the why of what happens on the streets, in courtrooms, in police stations, and behind prison bars. Modern criminology has its roots in sociology and psychology but in the last 50 years or so has really come into its own as a unique field of study. Colleges now offer undergraduate and graduate degrees in this discipline.

Many people who have studied criminology may go into law enforcement at the local, state, or federal level. They become police officers, detectives, and criminal profilers. Some criminologists go into more academic pursuits like at a university or think tank and study criminal behavior and seek to explain why it happens and how to encourage less of it. They also teach, write, and speak on the topic. Here is a good site on criminology. www.detectiveedu.org.

As to whether you should do one or the other or both, it really depends on what you like to do and what you're good at. If you really love the harder sciences (math, chemistry, statistics), or you like working behind the scenes (like in a lab, working with computers, or on the street taking samples), you might want to explore forensic science. That involves lots of testing and analysis. I would say this more the "who" (DNA, fingerprints) and "how/what" (poison, gun shot, what type of drug) aspects of the crime. You'll be figuring out if the guns match, if the suspected drugs that were seized were actually illegal drugs, what the blood alcohol level was when they were driving, or if someone was poisoned what they were poisoned with and how they were poisoned. That sort of thing.

If, on the other hand, you are really attracted to the psychological and sociological aspects of the case--the big "why"--then criminology may be more your bag. If you really like getting inside the bad guy's head and figuring out who killed someone or where to find the guy on the run or, God forbid, who he/she might kill or harm next, criminology may be your bag. This tends to be more of a public-facing role. You do a lot of the street work to collect the evidence, talk to the witnesses and find the bad guys than a forensic science types do. If you're a hands on type person who is not shy, this may be the job for you.

To find out what you really want to do and what the jobs are like, you should try to find some professionals to follow. Talk to your local police station. See what kinds of degrees they have (some likely studied criminology, some criminal justice, some maybe just went to the police academy). They can tell you what their careers have been like. You may be able to even do a ride along. You should also contact the state crime lab and the FBI and see if they have any opportunities to shadow lab techs, profilers, or agents for a day so you can see what they really do.

I suggest you also contact a nearby university or two and see if they have forensic science and/or criminology programs. Sit in on a class. Sit down with a professor and ask your questions (this their field and professors love to hear themselves talk). Be especially sure to ask them where they see these fields going on the future. What are the trends and how can you get out in front of the trends and be the graduate that every agency wants. If they see the future of criminology as being dominated by artificial intelligence and using algorithms and computers in profiling, then seriously consider studying that if you like it. Figure out what problem(s) future police departments and labs will have and be the solution to that problem. You'll get a job no problem.

I'm not sure how effectively you will be at combining the two fields. Their work is pretty different. However, in my experience as an attorney and prosecutor, I would say that a detective or FBI agent has to know a lot of both fields. They have to really understand the bad guys and how they think, plus they know (or should know) a lot of the science and techniques behind it. I have worked with a ton of experts who were police officers but chose to specialize in a particular area (like accident reconstruction or computer forensics). They get additional training and become the experts in those specialties for their departments. I have worked with a lot of these guys in court over the years.

I don't really know of any forensic scientists who become criminologists. The "why" does not matter so much to them and, at least in Michigan where I live and practice, these guys are in the lab and don't seem to get out much. In the thousands of criminal and civil cases I've been in charge of over the last 25 years of practice, I can think of only a handful where the forensic scientists testified or came out of the lab, and that was usually because they had made some bad mistake (mislabeled a test tube, screwed up the chain of custody, got a really weird test result that the other side's expert disputed, etc.). If there was nothing out of the ordinary in the testing, I never saw them. If you become a medical examiner or toxicologist (requires an MD, medical doctor degree), then you get to testify and get involved in more of the sciency stuff. They testify a lot. But that's a ton of school.

If you feel like you want to teach in either area, that should be no problem. If you like to write and lecture, this would be a great fit.

Above all, find what you love and do that. Never pick a career because it sounds cool, looks fun on TV, or pays a lot of money. You'll never be happy.

Matthew L. recommends the following next steps:

  • Call the FBI or the state crime lab and see if you can shadow someone there who works in the lab. See how you like it.
  • Research both fields and figure out which one best matches your strengths and interests.
  • For criminology, call your local police agency or sheriff department and see if you can shadow a detective. See what they do every day. Find out what the detectives and officers at that agency majored in when they went to college.
  • You could also check with a local university and see if they have a criminology and/or forensic science program. Sit in on some classes. Talk to the professors and find out where the fields are heading in the future. Plan for that and get a jump on the trend.