Public Safety Degrees: Master's, PhD & Online Training Info

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Master's degree or PhDs in public safety can lead to careers in leadership, research, or academia in areas. Get the truth about the requirements, courses and career options, and find out what you can do with your training.
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Studying Public Safety: Master's and Doctoral Degrees at a Glance

Public safety professionals work in various industries to ensure efficient emergency response and minimize threats against the public. These jobs might be concerned with homeland security, public administration, public policy, criminal justice, finance, transportation and many other areas. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) predicted that emergency management directors would see a 13% increase in employment between 2010 and 2020. Job growth for occupational health and safety specialists should be about nine percent over the same period, according to the BLS.

Earning a master's degree in public safety can prepare you for jobs overseeing agencies and departments that mitigate risk and prepare response plans for large-scale incidents. These programs can be found in both on-campus and online formats, and most are designed for those already in the public safety field. Doctoral degree programs are difficult to find, and are more geared toward students who want to work in academia or public policy creation.

Master's Doctorate
Who is this degree for? Law enforcement, fire, disaster, emergency, and communications professionals who want to become leaders in crisis response People who want to become educators or executive-level leaders in the field
Common Career Paths (with approximate mean annual salary) -Emergency Management Director ($63,000)*
-Occupational Health and Safety Specialist ($67,000)*
-Security Policy Analyst (salary unavailable)
-Post-secondary Criminal Justice and Law Enforcement Teacher ($66,000)*
- Executive Positions in Security Agencies (salary unavailable)
-Consultant (salary unavailable)
Time to Completion Two years full-time 3-4 years full-time after the master's
Common Graduation Requirements -About 12 graduate-level courses
-Master's thesis or project
-Master's exams
-Online programs may require brief (weekend-long) residencies or orientations
-4-6 doctoral-level courses beyond the master's degree
-Weekend residencies for online programs
Prerequisites Bachelor's degree in a related field Master's degree
Online Availability Yes Rare

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

Master's Degree in Public Safety

Master's degree programs in public safety typically train professionals who already work in related fields - such as fire safety, homeland security, criminal justice, and public health - to lead their organizations. Many of these programs allow for flexible scheduling based on an online or accelerated format, which means you can keep your current job while bettering your career prospects. Some programs require students to be currently employed by a government or military agency to enroll.

The curriculum covers both theoretical information and practical applications that can help you oversee a team of security professionals during crises and as an administrator. These programs aim to give you the necessary skills to manage an organized, thoroughly assessed response to potential disasters. You may be expected to conduct research with the goal of becoming an innovator in the field of public safety.

Pros and Cons


  • Often offered in a flexible, accelerated format so professionals can pursue the degree
  • Learn how to protect communities from terrorism and disasters
  • Jobs can be found in public and private industries
  • Increased concern for public safety means job and career growth opportunities


  • Some programs require students to be currently employed by the military or a government agency
  • May need to work long and irregular hours
  • High levels of stress during times of crisis

Courses and Requirements

A master's degree program in public safety typically requires students to complete around 12 courses. In most cases, you can learn about the administrative aspects of managing public safety agencies. Many of these programs rely on case studies, experiences and other simulated situations to teach concepts. Some programs focus on homeland security, as well as cover terrorism issues and Patriot Act compliance.

Examples of typical courses in a public safety master's degree program:

  • Public safety administration and management
  • Risk management
  • Laws and ethics of public safety
  • Fiscal management
  • Human resources
  • Multiculturalism and diversity

In addition to the required courses, public safety master's degree students typically need to take research-based courses and complete a thesis in order to graduate. A capstone course that pulls together the theoretical concepts and practical methods you learn throughout the program may also be required.

Online Degree Options

Public safety master's degree programs can be found in entirely online formats. These programs are often designed for working professionals already in the industry, so flexible scheduling is common. In some cases, students must complete one or more residency requirements that will require you to attend some on-campus seminars at least once during your program. These residencies vary greatly, with some programs requiring students to spend two weeks per quarter on campus, while others require little to no face-to-face time.

Getting Ahead with This Degree

Because many fields employ emergency management directors and other related public safety officials, you could choose to specialize in areas such as power supply, medical, or governmental services, which all employ a significant number of these professionals, according to the BLS. You can also become a Certified Emergency Manager through the International Association of Emergency Managers.

With an increased reliance on technology in all sectors, an understanding of cyber security protocols could benefit emergency management directors. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) offers a Certified Cyber-Security Training program, and some schools offer non-credit, comprehensive cyber-security courses. Additionally, emergency management agencies can send leaders to FEMA's Center for Domestic Preparedness to learn how to respond to disasters involving hazardous materials, including radiation.

Other Degrees to Consider

If you're computer savvy, you could also earn a master's degree in information technology and security. These programs train you to protect data and computer systems from various threats, and you can learn how to assess risk and respond to threats against large companies and agencies that rely on digital technologies. According to the BLS, computer and information systems managers should see an 18% employment growth between 2010 and 2020. As of May 2011, these managers made a median salary of about $118,000.

PhD in Public Safety

Doctoral degree programs in public safety aren't common, but there are a few options if you'd like to become a recognized leader and innovator in the field, or if you'd like to teach other professionals how to effectively manage public emergencies. These programs are designed for those with experience and education in law enforcement, criminal justice, emergency management, corrections and other related areas. Graduates of these programs can often find work in academia or take on executive-level roles in various industries.

You can often choose a specialty or area of concentration in a public safety or similar PhD program. For instance, you might enroll in a public policy and administration doctoral degree program and choose a specialty in emergency management. Additionally, you can find the rare disaster science management PhD program. As a doctoral student, you must usually take some core classes and complete a dissertation of original research and analysis. Residency weekends may require you to pay for your own travel expenses and an additional fee on top of your tuition.

Pros and Cons


  • Online programs with short residencies exist
  • Internships, research assistantships and other hands-on experiences are sometimes available
  • Develop an area of expertise for consultancy through dissertation research


  • PhD programs in public safety are rare
  • Many jobs can be obtained with a master's degree
  • Graduates who become professors may not make much more salary than those who work in the field and have master's degrees*

Source: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Common Courses and Requirements

Public safety PhD programs typically require a series of core courses, research courses and specialization courses. The core courses can give you a foundation in the theories and practical implications of emergency management administration. Research courses are designed to prepare students for the in-depth inquiry required of a dissertation. You can typically select a specialty from options such as organization and leadership, society and environments, policy and planning or health systems and public health. Each of these can give you expertise in disaster planning and response in the respective area.

Some typical required courses include:

  • Statistics and research
  • Public policy and analysis
  • Organizational leadership
  • Ethics of public safety policy

Much of the coursework is geared towards the final dissertation, which must be presented and defended prior to earning the doctoral degree. Seminars may also be required.

Online Degree Options

While PhDs in public safety are rare, the programs that are offered often allow students to complete much of their studies online; however, these are typically for-profit schools. Even if you enroll in an online program, you will probably have to complete periodic on-campus residencies.

Getting Ahead with This Degree

Many of the internships offered to master's degree students are also offered to doctoral students, and these can give you contacts in the field and high-level training. In addition to internships and other training, many PhD students try to get their research published in peer-reviewed journals and other publications. Getting published can help in finding jobs in academia, pubic agencies and private organizations. Advanced emergency management training is offered by FEMA for executives and other public safety leaders.

Since technology and communications are increasingly important, having a deep understanding of these fields may help your career options. You could earn a graduate certificate in cyber security through FEMA or learn about technical communications through the National Public Safety Telecommunications Council. Additionally, since those with a PhD often teach, you could earn a graduate certificate in online teaching to help meet the demand for qualified Internet-based instructors.

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