One of the best features of working in the legal field is that you have the opportunity to help people in need.
Another great feature of working in law is that you can take many career paths. For example, you can go to law school to be an attorney or attend a law enforcement academy to become a police officer.
Two other pathways exist that have a lot in common: paralegal studies and criminal justice.
But what exactly are the differences between a paralegal degree and a criminal justice degree? In short, a paralegal degree is much more focused - you get this degree specifically to become a paralegal. A criminal justice degree is far broader. It can lead to a wide range of careers.
Let’s explore the similarities and differences between these degrees in more detail.
How are a Paralegal Degree and a Criminal Justice Degree Similar?
The first and most obvious similarity between these degree paths is the focus on law and legal studies. In fact, you might take a few similar courses as you pursue degrees in this field - more on that in a moment.
Another similarity is the types of degrees you can pursue. An associate's degree is a good option if you’re just beginning your collegiate studies. You can get an associate’s degree in either paralegal studies or criminal justice. It takes about two years of full-time studies to complete these degrees in both cases.
A bachelor’s degree is another option for paralegal studies and criminal justice. These degrees take four years of full-time studies to complete. Roughly half of the 120 credits required for graduation are general education requirements. These courses include topics like:
- Physical education
So, these courses can be the same for either degree. However, the major-area studies are where these degrees become very different. This is discussed in the next section.
A final similarity between these degree programs is that some legal-related courses might be the same.
For example, an introductory course in criminal justice is often part of the paralegal studies curriculum. As another example, students in both degree programs might take courses in legal ethics - an important subject that guides all legal community members' professional behavior.
How are Paralegal and Criminal Justice Degrees Different?
Though there are some similarities between these programs, many more features make them distinctly different. Some of the primary differences are outlined in the sections below.
You Don’t Need a Paralegal Degree to Be a Paralegal
A major difference between paralegal studies and criminal justice is that an associate’s degree or bachelor’s degree isn’t always required to work as a paralegal.
In fact, many paralegal positions are available for workers that have a professional certification in paralegal studies. These certificates might take a few months to a year to complete. Once finished, you can find paralegal employment.
This isn’t usually the case with criminal justice careers, though. For example, a common career choice for criminal justice majors is to work as a probation or parole agent. These positions require a minimum of a bachelor’s degree, so a certificate in criminal justice isn’t sufficient.
These Programs Have Different Focuses
Another feature that sets these degrees apart is the area of focus. While there are similar courses for both degrees, a paralegal degree focuses more on the practical and professional applications of legal work.
For example, paralegal students take courses in legal research and writing. This makes sense because paralegals often assist attorneys in researching case law and writing materials like opening and closing statements for trial.
Another common course is computer applications for law. This course explores the use of technologies like hardware and software that have special uses for legal purposes.
In contrast, a criminal justice degree focuses more on a general liberal arts education that explores criminal behavior, the criminal justice system, and the corrections system. So, rather than taking a highly specific legal writing course, a criminal justice student might take a criminal or civil procedure course.
Likewise, instead of taking a course specific to the application of technology in a legal setting, you might take a general computer science course to fulfill the graduation requirements for a criminal justice degree.
The Application of Knowledge and Skills Takes Place in Different Areas
As a paralegal, the chances are good that you’ll work in a private law office or for a public organization like the district attorney’s office. This means that you’ll apply what you’ve learned in a paralegal degree program directly to the field of law.
However, as a criminal justice graduate, it’s more likely that you’ll work in areas like policymaking, policing, or corrections. In other words, rather than working in a legal setting, you might drive decision-making about laws, enforce laws, or oversee the rehabilitation of those that have broken laws.
The Job Tracks are Much Different
As noted earlier, the career paths you can take with these degrees are very different.
When you get a certification or degree in paralegal studies, you’re working towards a career as a paralegal. The career path is very narrow!
But with a criminal justice degree, there are various paths you might pursue. For example, you could become a probation and parole agent. Your studies in criminal justice could also lead to a career in law enforcement.
Additionally, it is likely easier to switch jobs if you have a criminal justice degree than if you have a paralegal degree. For example, if you have a bachelor’s degree in paralegal studies and decide you want to become a probation agent, you’ll likely need additional schooling to meet most job requirements for the position.
However, if you’re a law enforcement officer with a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice and decide to become a probation agent, the transition should be quite smooth.
One Degree Has More Flexibility for Future Education
A bachelor’s degree in criminal justice is a good starting point for furthering your education. You might pursue a master’s degree in criminal justice, for example. Alternatively, you could use your criminal justice undergraduate degree to pursue a graduate degree in a different field, such as:
- Public Administration
- Forensic Science
You might also be able to pursue a graduate degree in counseling, business, or education.
With a certificate, associate’s degree, or bachelor’s degree in paralegal studies, your future educational options might be a little more limited.
Since paralegal studies are pretty specific, you might need to fulfill prerequisites before being admitted to a graduate program. This isn’t as frequent an issue with a criminal justice degree since the coursework is much more general in scope.
This isn’t to say that you can’t advance your education after getting a paralegal degree. You might just find that you have fewer options.
Which Path is Best for You?
A paralegal or criminal justice degree can lead to a very satisfying and rewarding career. But as discussed above, these tracks offer many different opportunities for learning and applying your learning in a work setting.
Now your task is to decide which of these paths is best for you and set a course for getting the education required for starting a career.