The field of criminal investigations is highly complex, with theoretical, ethical, and evolving real-world issues shaping the field and dictating the nature and structure of today’s laws. The criminal investigative process is highly influenced and regulated by laws regarding everything from evidence collection and forensics to criminal profiling and arrest procedures. Navigating the intricacies of evidence collection and analysis, public safety, and the law makes modern detective work more complex than it has ever been in the past.
It should come as no surprise then that among detectives, a formal education in criminal investigations and related fields, is no longer the exception, but the rule. Many law enforcement agencies at the federal, state, and local levels now either require criminal investigators to hold a degree, or strongly encourage it.
Many universities and colleges have well-established public safety and criminal justice departments in which a number of relevant majors are offered. Just a few of the most popular majors for today’s detectives include:
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Criminal Justice Degrees with Concentrations Relevant to Detective Work
One of the most popular degrees among criminal investigators is the Bachelor of Science in Criminal Justice, although just as many schools are now offering associate degrees in this field of study, as well. Although a criminal justice degree may differ slightly from one institution to the next, the basic foundation is the same.
A criminal justice degree allows students to establish a solid foundation and understanding of the criminal justice system and the current and evolving law enforcement issues, both of which allow them to become excellent problem solvers and leaders. Degrees in criminal justice are often offered with concentrations in such relevant areas as forensic science, crime scene investigations, forensic psychology, criminology and more.
Courses common to most criminal justice programs include:
- Deviance and social control
- Ethics in criminal justice
- Statistics in criminal justice
- Comparative justice systems
- A Forensic science overview
Why a Criminology Major is Relevant to Criminal Investigations
A criminology major—the science of exploring the criminal mind—may be offered as a stand-alone degree or it may be integrated into a criminal justice degree. Whether through an associate’s or bachelor’s degree program, the study of criminology allows students to understand the complex realm of criminal analysis and profiling, psychology, as well as environmental and social factors that contribute to certain criminal behaviors.
Undergraduate criminology programs provide a foundation for the study of criminology at the graduate level.
Typical courses found in a criminology degree program include:
- Criminal deviance
- Crime analysis
- Professional ethics in criminology
- Psychology of crime
- Criminal profiling
- Research methods
- Decision-making and problem-solving in criminology
How a Forensic Psychology Major Relates to Detective Work
The relationship between psychology and criminal investigations is a close one; so a Bachelor of Science or Bachelor of Arts in Forensic Psychology is an ideal degree for those with aspirations of becoming a detective.
A forensic psychology major focuses on the application of psychology in a number of areas as they relate to criminal behavior, criminal investigations and the law.
A degree in forensic psychology provides students with a solid foundation in the areas of:
- Psychological theory
- Human behavior
- Research methods in psychology
- Application of psychological principles to the legal system
Undergraduate degrees in psychology are common among those pursing graduate work in forensic psychology. They are also not uncommon among those who intend to go on to study law at the graduate level.
Common classes in a forensic psychology degree program include:
- Social psychology
- Psychology and law
- Abnormal psychology
- Psychology of criminal behavior
- Psychology research methods
- Introduction to criminology
Majoring in Police Science to Initiate a Career in Law Enforcement
Police science has become a popular major among those interested in careers in criminal investigations, as it addresses the challenges and responsibilities of the modern police officer and the relationship between public safety officers and modern society.
As such, an associate or bachelor’s degree in police science is designed to hone the management skills, communication skills, tools, and leadership skills necessary to respond as a police officer to societal needs.
Typical course requirements for a police science degree include:
- Demographic influences on policing
- Application of rules of evidence
- Police management and leadership
- Police ethics
- Emerging techniques and technologies of policing
The Relevance of a Sociology Major to Conducting Criminal Investigations
Sociology is a logical major for criminal investigators, as sociology is the study of social causes and consequences of human behavior. As such, a degree in sociology allows students to investigate the structure of groups and societies and how people behave and interact within the context of their societal settings.
The study of sociology addresses some of the most current issues of our time, and a degree in this field arms students with the scientific tools needed to understand the phenomena of sociology.
Typical courses within a sociology degree program often include:
- Social demography
- Deviant behavior
- Social research methods
- Sociological theory
- Social stratification
Majoring in Crime Scene Investigations (CSI)
Would-be detectives with an interest in crime scene investigations will find this course of study is directly relevant to a career in criminal investigations. A formal college degree in crime scene investigation educates students in the methods and techniques of criminal and homicide investigations and provides them with a framework in the practice and theory of collecting, identifying and properly handling physical evidence. A degree in crime scene investigation, whether at the associate’s or bachelor’s degree level, provides specific instruction in crime scene processing and analysis through the study of evidence collection and ballistics, as well as forensic science.
Major courses in a crime scene investigation degree often include:
- Legal foundations of criminal evidence
- Forensic chemistry
- Trace evidence analysis
- Forensic biology
- Impression evidence
- Crime scene photography
- Forensic fingerprint analysis
- Ethics in law enforcement
- Technology in law enforcement
Forensic Science Degrees and Detective Work
Forensic science involves the application of science to criminal investigations. As such, a degree in forensic science (usually an associate or bachelor of science) is a cross-disciplinary type of program, as it provides students with a framework in the biological sciences, physics, and chemistry and how they relate to the field of criminal justice.
Core coursework in this type of program includes study in DNA, physical evidence, trace evidence, toxicology, and latent prints. Typical classes include:
- Survey of forensic science
- Forensic evidence and ethics
- Introduction to criminalistics
- Forensic chemistry and microscopy
This type of degree also includes study in the natural sciences; as such, typical courses often include:
- General chemistry
- Organic chemistry
- College physics
- Cell structure and function
- Human anatomy and physiology