Police Science Degrees: Master's, PhD & Online Course Info

About this article
What will you learn in a police science degree program? Read about degree requirements, the pros and cons of master's and doctoral degrees and potential careers.
View available schools

Studying Police Science: Graduate Degrees at a Glance

Police science covers several different academic areas, such as policing, criminology and criminal justice. Students who earn a graduate degree in one of these areas may go on to pursue law enforcement careers, as well as administration, management or teaching positions in the field.

If you're interested in law enforcement jobs, keep in mind that the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) predicted a seven percent employment increase for police and detectives from 2010-2020, which is slower than the national average. State and federal positions will become increasingly competitive, and advanced degrees may be beneficial for candidates who wish to work for government agencies.

Master's and Ph.D. programs in law enforcement can also lead to post-secondary teaching positions. Job growth in this area is expected to be comparable to the average for all occupations at 17% from 2010-2020, according to the BLS.

Master's Ph.D.
Who Is This Degree For? - Individuals who want to work in police departments or other areas of law enforcement in an administrative or supervisory role
- Aspiring technical school or junior college teachers
Individuals interested in research, scholarship and teaching at the university level
Common Career Paths (with approximate mean salary) - First-line supervisors of police and detectives ($81,000)*
- Police and sheriff's patrol officers ($56,000)*
- Criminal justice and law enforcement professors ($66,000)*
- Criminal justice and law enforcement professors ($66,000)*
Time to Completion 1.5-3 years 3-6 years following master's programs
Common Graduation Requirements - Master's exams
- Thesis
- Required seminars
Most (or all) of the master's degree requirements plus:
- Qualifying exams
- Dissertation
Prerequisites Bachelor's degree Bachelor's or master's degree in police science, policing, criminal justice, criminology or related field
Online Availability Yes Yes

Source: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (May 2011 figures).

Master's Degree in Criminal Justice

Many master's programs accept students with undergraduate degrees in almost any subject. Some schools prefer applicants with bachelor's degrees in criminal justice or related fields. The technical and theoretical studies may be geared toward training for managerial and administrative roles within law enforcement agencies.

Some programs require seminars or other hands-on projects outside the classroom, as well as work in the police field. If you're currently employed, many programs offer classes at night and on weekends.

Pros and Cons

Pros

  • The degree is flexible, preparing you for a variety of positions, such as policing or leadership roles
  • You can prepare for advanced training, including a law degree or teaching credential
  • Graduates could have an edge in their job search among other students trained in policing, since many jobs in law enforcement require an undergraduate degree

Cons

  • May not lead to jobs with high enough pay to justify the cost of the degree*
  • On-the-job experience may be weighed more favorably than advanced education in police work*
  • Some career paths lead to dangerous or strenuous work environments*

Source: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics

Common Courses and Requirements

Some master's degree programs allow students to tailor their core courses to specific areas within law enforcement, such as forensics, management or homeland security.

Examples of courses you might take at the master's level include:

  • Criminology
  • Interview and interrogation
  • Criminal law
  • Drug enforcement

Criminal justice programs often require completion of a capstone course in which your skills are evaluated in a work environment. Master's exams may be required in order to graduate and are often taken upon completion of all required coursework.

You'll need to write a master's thesis based on your interests, usually after earning a certain number of credits or receiving permission from criminal justice department leaders. Some programs also require that students complete courses in research methods before starting thesis work. A proposal or outline may need to be approved before you can begin composing a draft.

Online Degree Options

Most programs are traditional or a hybrid combination of online and classroom courses. Fully online programs are available, with course requirements that are similar to traditional programs. Online programs may not require the same hands-on fieldwork as traditional programs, and therefore may be better suited to students training for administrative or teaching positions in police science. Programs that rely heavily on fieldwork, like those in policing, are not generally available in online formats.

Getting Ahead with This Degree

Effective oral and written communication is essential to many police and detective positions, according to the BLS. Most programs require various communication classes that are meant to help police science students understand crime reports and work cooperatively with diverse groups.

If elective communication courses are offered beyond the core requirements, students may benefit from taking them to strengthen their interpersonal communication skills. You may also consider specializing in a specific area of police work, which the BLS notes is how some professionals climb up the ranks.

Degree Alternatives

If you're interested in police science but want a career with a brighter job outlook, you may consider training to become a probation officer. You can prepare for this career through master's degree programs in related areas, such as sociology, psychology, social work or even criminal justice. The BLS predicted 18% growth in employment for all probation officers and correctional treatment specialists between 2010 and 2020. The BLS noted that job growth might be due to a number of professionals retiring from the field.

Ph.D. in Criminal Justice

Few law enforcement positions require a doctoral degree. Earning a Ph.D. in this field can prepare you for a university teaching career; you could also conduct research for government or private institutions. Doctoral programs typically emphasize theory, scholarship and development of specialized expertise.

Some programs offer full-time students a living stipend in exchange for contributions made to the academic programs via their research or time spent as teaching assistants. This option may not be available for students who have already earned a master's degree.

Pros and Cons

Pros

  • Job security in secondary education after reaching tenure, at which point professors cannot be fired without just cause*
  • Flexibility to focus on specific areas of policing or criminal justice, such as forensics, criminology or terrorism
  • Pride and authority go along with being considered an expert in your field

Cons

  • Teaching experience may be required post-graduation, so many graduate students work as teaching assistants while pursuing advanced studies
  • Coursework is intense, and it may be difficult or impossible to continue working while studying
  • May take up to 7 years to earn tenure*

Source: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics

Courses and Requirements

Some programs award master's degrees as part of doctorate programs, while other programs are designed for students who have already earned master's degrees. Students with a master's degree may pursue a doctorate part-time if they must continue working while enrolled in school.

As a doctoral student, you'll typically take courses in research methods, statistics and criminalistics; many class topics may be similar to those in master's programs. Most doctoral programs culminate in a dissertation on the topic of your choice. In order to receive your degree, you'll need to present your dissertation findings to a group of faculty members.

Online Degree Options

Online programs in criminal justice or other police science fields are rare but do exist through accredited schools. You should ensure that a degree earned online will be appropriately considered by the institutions for which you hope to work after graduation. Access to faculty is essential while writing a criminal justice dissertation, so you should make sure that online programs allow you to contact teachers via phone or e-mail.

Stand Out with This Degree

Doctoral degree recipients typically pursue teaching positions, according to the BLS. While hiring institutions are impressed with advanced education, they may look for some indication that applicants are good communicators and effective teachers. Working as a teaching assistant while studying can give you opportunities to gain essential teaching skills.

Popular Schools

  • Online Programs Available
    1. Kaplan University

    Program Options

    Master's
      • Master: Criminal Justice
      • MSCJ: Leadership & Executive Management
      • MS in Homeland Security and Emergency Management
      • MSCJ: Corrections
      • MSCJ: Global Issues in Criminal Justice
  • Online Programs Available
    2. Grand Canyon University

    Program Options

    Master's
      • MS in Criminal Justice: Law Enforcement
      • MS in Leadership: Disaster Preparedness & Executive Fire Leadership
  • Online Programs Available
    3. Colorado State University Global

    Program Options

    Master's
      • MS - Criminal Justice and Law Enforcement Admin
  • Online Programs Available
    4. Colorado Technical University

    Program Options

    Master's
      • M.S. - Criminal Justice
      • Master: Management - Homeland Security
      • Master of Science in Homeland Security - Emergency Management and Public Health
      • Master of Science in Homeland Security
      • Master of Science in Criminal Justice - Homeland Security
  • Online Programs Available
    5. Saint Joseph's University

    Program Options

    Master's
      • MS in Criminal Justice - Federal Law Enforcement Track
      • MS - Criminal Justice
      • MS Criminal Justice with Homeland Security Specialization
      • MS in Criminal Justice - Intelligence & Crime Analysis Track
      • MS Criminal Justice with Behavior Analysis Specialization
      • MS in Criminal Justice - Behavior Management Track
  • Online Programs Available
    6. Indiana Wesleyan University

    Program Options

    Master's
      • Master of Public Administration - Criminal Justice
  • Online Programs Available
    7. Northcentral University

    Program Options

    Master's
      • MBA - Homeland Security
      • Master of Science in Organizational Leadership - Criminal Justice
      • MBA - Criminal Justice
  • Online Programs Available
    8. Utica College

    Program Options

    Master's
      • Master of Professional Studies in Cyber Policy and Risk Analysis
      • MS in Data Science: Financial Crime
  • Online Programs Available
    9. Herzing University

    Program Options

    Master's
      • MBA Dual Concentration: Project Management and Public Safety Leadership
      • MBA Dual Concentration: Healthcare Management and Public Safety Leadership
  • Online Programs Available
    10. Southern New Hampshire University

    Program Options

    Master's
      • MS in Criminal Justice
      • MS in Criminal Justice: Public Safety Administration concentration
      • MSM in Emergency Management
      • MS in Criminal Justice: Advanced Counterterrorism & Homeland Security concentration

Featured Schools

Kaplan University

  • Master: Criminal Justice
  • MSCJ: Leadership & Executive Management
  • MS in Homeland Security and Emergency Management

Which subject are you interested in?

Grand Canyon University

  • MS in Criminal Justice: Law Enforcement
  • MS in Leadership: Disaster Preparedness & Executive Fire Leadership

What is your highest level of education?

Colorado State University Global

  • MS - Criminal Justice and Law Enforcement Admin

What is your highest level of education?

Colorado Technical University

  • M.S. - Criminal Justice
  • Master: Management - Homeland Security
  • Master of Science in Homeland Security - Emergency Management and Public Health

Are you a US citizen?

Saint Joseph's University

  • MS in Criminal Justice - Federal Law Enforcement Track
  • MS - Criminal Justice
  • MS Criminal Justice with Homeland Security Specialization

What is your highest level of education completed?

Indiana Wesleyan University

  • Master of Public Administration - Criminal Justice

What is your highest level of education?

Northcentral University

  • MBA - Homeland Security
  • Master of Science in Organizational Leadership - Criminal Justice
  • MBA - Criminal Justice

What is your highest level of education?

Utica College

  • Master of Professional Studies in Cyber Policy and Risk Analysis
  • MS in Data Science: Financial Crime

What is your highest level of education completed?