Study Criminal Justice: Master's Degree, PhD & Online Course Info

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Master's degrees and Ph.D.s in criminal justice can lead to careers in administration, academia or research. Get the truth about the requirements, courses and career options, and find out what you can do with your criminal justice degree.
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Criminal Justice Master's and Ph.D.: Degrees at a Glance

Although earning a graduate degree in criminal justice might seem like a great way to begin a career, the majority of jobs in the field only require a bachelor's degree. If you already work in the field, a master's or Ph.D. in criminal justice typically serves to advance your career. Additionally, either degree can prepare you to teach at the college level or perform research. If you have a bachelor's degree in another field, a master's or Ph.D. in criminal justice could prepare you to enter the field as a probation officer or corrections specialist, or it could prepare you to take on administrative positions in law enforcement or corrections. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) expects an 18% job growth for parole officers and corrections specialists and a 17% growth for post-secondary teachers during the 2010-2020 decade (www.bls.gov).

Master's Ph.D.
Who is this degree for? Individuals interested in advancing their current career in criminal justice or just starting a career in the field People who want to work in academia or research
Common Career Paths (with approximate mean annual salary) - Probation officers and correctional treatment specialists ($52,000)*
- First-line supervisors of police and detectives ($81,000)*
- Government agency managers ($85,000)**
- Post-secondary criminal justice and law enforcement teachers ($66,000)*
Time to Completion Two years of full-time study Five years of full-time study
Common Graduation Requirements - Approximately 16 courses or 36 credit hours of study
- Thesis or comprehensive exam
- Internship
- Approximately 90 credit hours of study
- Comprehensive exams
- Dissertation
Prerequisites Bachelor's degree from accredited school and completion of basic criminal justice coursework; prerequisite coursework requirement may be waived with understanding that student completes additional coursework prior to beginning master's degree courses Master's degree from accredited school and completion of advanced criminal justice coursework; this requirement may be waived if the program is a joint master's and doctoral degree program
Online Availability Yes Yes

Sources: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (May 2011 figures), **U.S. Office of Personnel Management (January 2012 figures).

Master's in Criminal Justice

Master's degree programs in criminal justice are often housed within specific criminal justice or social science departments. These programs often require that you have a bachelor's degree and have completed some coursework in criminal justice prior to admission. In general, these programs aim to instruct you on the theory and application of criminal justice policies both nationally and internationally. To that end, available programs often include a combination of lecture courses and hands-on training in the form of internships. Many programs also incorporate investigations of actual case materials and lectures by guest speakers knowledgeable about the field.

Pros and Cons

Pros

  • A master's degree may help you advance into higher-level careers in the field
  • Many programs include internships
  • Some programs provide opportunities to network with individuals currently working in the field through guest speaking engagements

Cons

  • Employers do not typically require a master's degree for positions in the field, meaning you may be applying for the same job as someone with a bachelor's degree
  • Specializations in a specific field of criminal justice are not usually offered at the master's level
  • Probation officers and correctional treatment specialists often must be on-call and work long hours

Courses and Requirements

Generally, master's degree programs require two years of study. These programs are designed to provide a foundation for advancement in current positions in the field or as stepping-stones for doctoral programs. Course topics that you may study include:

  • Law and forensic science
  • Globalization of crime
  • Crime causation
  • Criminal justice management
  • Criminal justice ethics

In any program, you will likely need to either pass a comprehensive exam or write a thesis to graduate. Internship opportunities are usually offered, but are not required curriculum components.

Online Degree Options

Online master's degree programs in criminal justice are widely available. These programs are available entirely online and do not usually require you to attend courses or other events on campus. They differ from in-person programs in that they do not offer internship opportunities and vary more widely in the time it takes to complete them since you can attend classes at your convenience.

Stand Out with This Degree

If you're looking for a way to stand out in the field, consider joining Alpha Phi Sigma, the national criminal justice honor society. To join, you usually must have completed a portion of your degree and fill out an application. You may also want to join any student criminal justice associations offered through your school. Joining the honor society or a student association will demonstrate your commitment to the field.

If you're considering attending a doctoral program, you might want to consider completing a teaching assistantship. In these assistantships, you'll help professors instruct other students. Completing an assistantship can demonstrate your dedication to teaching to doctoral admission councils.

Additionally, pursuing training in the technical aspects of criminal justice can help you stand out in the field. Some schools offer collaborative technology labs that allow students to work together on projects using numerous multimedia tools, including computers and video cameras. Other schools offer cyber crime specializations within their degree programs. In these programs, you'll learn about computer security, digital forensics, networks and cyber crime. This type of training may also be available in summer programs.

Ph.D. in Criminal Justice

Criminal justice doctoral degree programs focus on research and are designed to prepare you for careers in research or academia. In addition to a set of core criminal justice courses, the curricula in these approximately three-year programs may also include a set of courses in one or more specializations. Examples of specializations include organizational leadership, juvenile justice and behavioral science. While in the program, you may complete research related to your chosen specialization, if any. These programs generally do not include internships, but are open to individuals who already work in the field and those interested in a career change.

Pros and Cons

Pros

  • A Ph.D. prepares you for a career in academia or research so you'll have additional career options
  • You might be allowed to specialize in a specific area of criminal justice
  • Post-secondary teachers may have summers off to pursue other interests or conduct research

Cons

  • You must have master's degree for entry into many programs, which requires you to complete two additional years of graduate study prior to beginning work on your doctoral degree
  • You could spend nine years or more in post-secondary study to earn your Ph.D.
  • Programs are extremely research- and writing-focused, with little or no internship opportunities available

Courses and Requirements

Generally, criminal justice doctoral programs require the completion of approximately 90 credit-hours of study over a three-year period, if not longer. Generally, these programs include instruction in qualitative and quantitative research methods, statistical analysis and research design. Courses in these programs cover topics such as:

  • Advanced statistical applications
  • Special problems in research methods
  • Teaching at the college level
  • Program evaluation and policy analysis
  • Theories of crime

To earn your Ph.D., you must complete all required coursework and write a dissertation. Passing comprehensive exams is usually required to be admitted to candidacy and begin working on your dissertation.

Online Degree Options

Online doctoral programs in criminal justice are typically available at for-profit schools, but you may also find online or hybrid programs offered by nonprofit and public schools. These programs may be focused on human services or public safety and offer specializations in criminal justice. Typically, they include the same curricula as in-person Ph.D. programs.

Stand Out with This Degree

To stand out against the competition, specialize your studies and research in a unique subfield of criminal justice. Consider current issues in the field as well as under-researched issues to make your dissertation and work eye-catching to employers.

You may also want to consider becoming proficient in the technology that is being integrated into the criminal justice field. In 2009, the National Institute of Justice established its technical research agenda. This agenda included providing support for the identification of useful technology and developing technical standards for criminal justice technology. Areas of focus included biometrics, DNA forensics, court technologies and pursuit management. Completing coursework or writing a dissertation on one of these topics may provide you with additional insight into these technical aspects of the field, which may make you more attractive to employers.

Popular Schools

  • Online Programs Available
    1. Northcentral University

    Program Options

    Doctorate
      • Doctor of Business Admin - Criminal Justice
      • PhD in Business Admin - Criminal Justice
      • Doctor of Business Admin - Homeland Security: Leadership & Policy
      • PhD in Business Admin - Homeland Security: Leadership & Policy
  • Online Programs Available
    2. University of the Rockies

    Program Options

    Doctorate
      • Doctor of Psychology - Criminology and Justice Studies
  • Online Programs Available
    3. Colorado Technical University

    Program Options

    Doctorate
      • Doctor of Management Criminal Justice
      • Doctorate: Management - Homeland Security
  • East Lansing, MI

    Michigan State University

  • Fargo, ND

    North Dakota State University

  • Hattiesburg, MS

    University of Southern Mississippi

  • Omaha, NE

    University of Nebraska at Omaha

  • Chicago, IL

    University of Illinois at Chicago

  • Walden University

  • Little Rock, AR

    University of Arkansas at Little Rock

Featured Schools

Northcentral University

  • Doctor of Business Admin - Criminal Justice
  • PhD in Business Admin - Criminal Justice
  • Doctor of Business Admin - Homeland Security: Leadership & Policy

What is your highest level of education?

University of the Rockies

  • Doctor of Psychology - Criminology and Justice Studies

What is your highest level of education?

Colorado Technical University

  • Doctor of Management Criminal Justice
  • Doctorate: Management - Homeland Security

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University of Southern Mississippi

University of Nebraska at Omaha

University of Illinois at Chicago