In a broad sense, criminology is the study of crime, criminals, their behaviour, and society’s definition of, and response to, crime and crime prevention, as well as how we treat criminals via corrections.
This fast-changing and booming discipline – which has been around since the 18th century – seeks to answer the questions: why does crime exist? And how best to treat it while diminishing its occurrence?
Criminology lies within the social sciences, and encompasses three main areas: law, sociology and psychology. Law, in this context, looks at how criminals are dealt with and defined; sociology looks at the social and cultural factors contributing to crime; and psychology looks at the criminal mind itself.
Without the comprehensive study of crime, criminals and the criminal justice system, we would have no basis with which to understand what motivates criminals to commit crimes, let alone how to best deal with criminals in a fashion that encourages their rehabilitation rather than recidivism.
Criminology is essentially about keeping communities safe and encouraging the wellbeing of society generally. Without it, law enforcement would be a blunt instrument, delivered without a true understanding of the motives behind crime, and therefore how to counter it. Criminology tackles both the causes and the effects of crime.
Criminologists investigate crimes, gather statistics on crime rates, develop profiles of particular offences and critically analyse the criminal justice system, its methods and effectiveness.
Criminologists are found in many different contexts, so the work can vary according to the setting and the individual’s skillset. You could be collecting data and collating statistics based on types of crime or the age of offenders, or writing and proofing reports about crimes and the possible causes of crime. You could have a hand in proposing improvements for the use of public resources, as well as developing effective crime prevention strategies. You may also be involved in crime scene investigations, or attending autopsies to ascertain exactly what happened at a crime scene. You could also be writing behaviour assessments and intervention plans for offenders with complex needs and histories.
Armed with a degree in criminology, there are many career paths you can take. It is often used as a launching pad for more specialised training in the field, or to complement existing professional experience or qualifications.
Graduates will find open doors in corrections and rehabilitation, in customs, criminal investigation, juvenile justice, forensic science, law enforcement, or research and policy analysis. This work operates on many levels, in local, state or federal government agencies as well as private agencies.
Criminologists are also employed in community-based organisations and initiatives, in youth and mental health work, counselling, social work, and in prisoners’ or victims’ rights. Or, for those who wish to more comprehensively understand the criminal mind, there are opportunities in psychology and psychopathology, in a public or private setting.
You could also take the academic route, teaching criminology in universities, or getting into research and policy analysis, with the chance to contribute to policy or the ever-growing body of literature in the field.
There is no one path to becoming a criminologist. Requirements for positions vary, but in most cases you’ll need either an undergraduate degree in criminology or a degree in sociology, psychology, or law, complemented with postgraduate study in criminology.
Sometimes relevant and sufficient work experience – say, experience as a correctional officer – can be a legitimate entry pathway to postgrad study. For example, you may have been a correctional officer and seek to apply for a postgraduate course in criminology.
By studying criminology you’ll develop a host of practical and theoretical approaches to the understanding of crime. Areas you are likely to study are criminal law, social psychology, fraud, the sociology of deviance, methods of punishment and penology, law enforcement, forensic science basics, criminological theory, crime patterns pertaining to age, gender and socioeconomic status, and victims of crime.
You’ll also likely be trained in research methods and social policy analysis, so you’ll have the practical research and critical skills to make your observations as accurate and as meaningful as possible.
To succeed in criminology, you need to be curious – curious about why people do what they do, and what drives them to break the law. You also need to be passionate about improving the wellbeing of communities, especially marginalised ones, through the prevention of crime, and addressing the behaviour and rehabilitation of criminals.
Depending on where you wind up, chances are you’ll need to have solid report writing skills, and have a good handle on how to develop and interpret statistics (both of which are skills you will develop as part of your studies).
Given its social scientific bent, you don’t necessarily need a science background, or even a law background; but if it’s a forensic, legal or psychological path you wish to take as a criminologist, then there are combined degrees out there where you can develop complementary skills in two fields at once. For example, a Bachelor of Criminology/Bachelor of Laws will give you knowledge and training in the two areas simultaneously, to expand your career options considerably.
Your qualification is your ticket to a fascinating world. You’ll learn about what makes us tick as individuals and as a society, and have a unique opportunity to make communities safer and make the criminal justice system a fairer and more effective place.
For a stimulating career, browse our criminology courses.