Criminal justice degrees and careers


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What is criminal justice?

The criminal justice system is comprised of the law enforcement agencies, the courts system, and the detention and supervisory agencies for offenders. These all work together to maintain society’s rule of law and order. It includes the criminal law which the accused is alleged to have broken, the law enforcement officers who arrest the accused, the court system that prosecutes and defends him, and how, if convicted, that person is punished.

Crime, unfortunately, never takes a vacation and criminal justice is constantly evolving to respond to the needs of society. Consequently, the demand for people to work in criminal justice and the range and diversity of career paths available continues to grow.

Criminal justice careers give you the ability to play to your strengths and use your specific skill set for the greater good. Whether you choose a career helping profile criminals as a criminal psychologist, supporting victims of crime as a victims’ advocate, or chasing down criminals as an FBI agent, you will have opportunities and experiences that just cannot be found in any other job field.

So, if law and the criminal justice system are your passions, and you want a great job with excellent perks and the opportunity to serve the community and make a difference to the lives of those you protect, get started on working towards your criminal justice degree today.

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Types of criminal justice degrees

Criminal justice degree programs allow students to gain new skills and experience at different levels from introductory to advanced. The range of what you can study is also very broad. Students can also study in different formats: on campus, online, or a combination of the two. There are also programs that enable you to study at a pace that suits your needs: full-time, part-time, or accelerated.

So, whatever your desired level of education in criminal justice, or the area that you want to work, and the pace at which you want to study there will be a criminal justice degree that meets your needs.

Here is a short overview of the degree options available at each level and what exciting career possibilities in criminal justice they can lead to.

Certificate in criminal justice

Students who aren’t ready to enroll in a full criminal justice degree program may want to take a less-expensive, quicker certificate in criminal justice.

Earning a certificate in criminal justice is an attractive option for students as it typically can be completed in under a year.

The cost of taking a certificate via an online program is around $1000. But there are other ways to study for the certificate, such as a community college that are less expensive.

What are the prerequisites for enrolling?

All programs generally require a high school diploma or GED, some schools may ask for a high school transcript, SAT or ACT results, and an admissions interview.

What will I study?

A certificate in criminal justice is intended to provide students with a basic introduction and understanding of topics such as criminal justice management, law enforcement, American courts, punishment and corrections, and policing.

Some program fields include:

  • Analysis of the criminal justice system
  • Criminal law
  • Criminal procedure
  • Legal issues in law enforcement
  • Police and community relations

Continuing education information

Students who obtain a criminal justice certificate often continue to an associate degree program. Community colleges that offer both options generally allow certificate graduates to transfer some of their credits to the associate degree program.

What jobs can I do with a certificate in criminal justice?

Criminal justice certificate holders earn approximately $16.00 per hour. Earning potential grows with relevant work experience and/or further academic degrees.

Correctional officers are responsible for enforcing the rules and regulations in a prison or jail. They supervise individuals who have been sentenced to serve time in a jail, reformatory, or prison or who have been arrested and are awaiting trial.

Bailiffs are law enforcement officers whose main responsibility is to maintain order during courtroom proceedings. Judges depend on bailiffs to enforce courtroom rules and maintain security during trials and other proceedings.

Armed security guards are private security professionals that are hired to protect an area, a person, or valuables from criminal activities

These act as security agents for casino or casino hotel owners. They observe patrons and employees for irregular activities such as cheating or theft.

A private detective is someone who investigates legal, financial, and personal matters verifying facts, and analyzing information. They also fact-check people’s backgrounds and trace missing persons.

Police officers enforce the law by arresting criminals and detecting and preventing crimes.

Associate degree in criminal justice

An associate degree can be a quick and cost-effective route to a better paying career. An associate degree in criminal justice can give students the knowledge and training needed for entry-level jobs in law enforcement, corrections, and security.

Most associate degrees can be completed in 2 years and introduce students to the core areas within criminal justice: criminal law, the American justice system, and corrections. With some field experience, you may be qualified for higher paying positions with better salaries.

The cost of an associate degree can vary according to several factors but using the national average of $142 per credit hour the cost of on-campus associate degree credits would be $8520 per year. Books, supplies, room and board, need to be added to that.

What are the prerequisites for enrolling?

Requirements vary from school to school, but most ask candidates to submit official high school transcripts or GED scores plus their ACT or SAT test results. A personal essay and letters of recommendation from teaching professionals, or relatives may also be requested.

What will I study?

In addition to general education courses such as math and English, students take courses on a range of essential criminal justice topics such as:

  • Criminal law
  • Criminology
  • Ethics and criminal justice
  • Juvenile justice
  • Quantitative methods in criminal justice

Depending on the program’s syllabus, students may be required to complete a practicum or internship; this is a practical supervised work-based experience. Alternatively, students may research a project in criminal justice and present a report.

Continuing education information

Although an associate degree in human services is a great way to start your career in criminal justice, you may want to continue your education and increase your employment prospects by enrolling in a bachelor’s degree program.

Associate degree holders can usually transfer credits from their associate’s program toward a full bachelor’s degree program. In that case, you could be able to gain your bachelor’s degree in 2 years rather than the usual 4 years.

What jobs can I do with an associate degree in criminal justice?

Holders of criminal justice associate degrees often qualify for diverse number of entry-level careers across the criminal justice spectrum. Some common careers for graduates are:

Forensic science technicians work with law enforcement to analyze crime scene evidence and investigate crimes on site. They also carry out analysis in a laboratory setting.

The annual median salary is $59,150.

Firefighters help protect the public in emergency situations. They respond to a wide variety of calls: as well as fires, they assist at road or other accidents, chemical spills, flooding, and water rescue. They are also commonly sent as first medical responders in a variety of emergency situations, especially in rural areas.

The annual median salary is $50,850.

Correctional officers supervise individuals who have been incarcerated or who have been arrested and are awaiting trial. Bailiffs maintain order during courtroom proceedings.

The annual median salary for a correctional officer is $45,180 – while a bailiff earns slightly more at $47,830.

Paralegals offer technical support for lawyers and help with a variety of client-related tasks such as maintaining and organizing files, conducting legal research, and drafting documents.

The annual median salary is $51,740 for both professions.

Police officers carry out general law enforcement duties to protect lives and property. Detectives gather facts and collect evidence of possible crimes.

The annual median salary is $65,170.

Bachelor’s degree in criminal justice

A bachelor’s degree in criminal justice opens a wide range of career opportunities. Bachelor’s students, unlike those on an associate program, can choose a criminal justice specialization so that you can tailor your degree to your career interests. Common specializations include cybersecurity, forensics, juvenile justice, and homeland security. 

Most bachelor’s degrees take 4 years, although there are some accelerated programs. Receiving a bachelor’s will increase your earning potential and help you qualify for higher-level posts.

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, the average cost of tuition and fees at 4-year postsecondary institutions during the 2018-19 academic was about $9,200 at public schools and just under $32,000 at private schools.

What are the prerequisites for enrolling?

These will obviously vary from one school to the next but basically a high school diploma and a minimum GPA of either 2.0 or 2.5 plus varied extra admission requirements – other ACT or SAT scores, a personal statement or letter of intent, plus possibly references from teachers or from employers if you are working.

What will I study?

Course core subjects focus on giving students an understanding of criminal behavior, the functions of the various parts of the criminal justice system, and ethical issues in criminal justice. 

Some examples of the types of courses a student can expect to take in most criminal justice bachelor’s programs are:

  • Introduction to the American criminal justice system
  • Criminological theory
  • Criminal investigations
  • Law enforcement
  • Ethics and diversity in criminal justice

Bachelor’s students in criminal justice can choose a concentration to direct their career toward a specialized field within the profession. There are many different concentrations available. The following outline some of the possible subjects:

  • Corrections
  • Criminal psychology
  • Homeland security
  • Victimology

Continuing education information

Having earned a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice, you may want to continue your education and increase your employment prospects by enrolling in a master’s degree program. This will lead to higher positions with more responsibilities. Another option, if you have found a particular field you like working in, is to earn a specialized criminal justice certificate in that subject. Earning this type of specialization can help you stand out with employers, showcasing your expertise in your chosen area.

What jobs can I do with a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice? 

A bachelor’s degree in criminal justice will qualify you for a career in any of the three branches of criminal justice, such as:

Forensic science technicians assist criminal investigations by collecting and analyzing evidence. Technicians often specialize in either crime scene investigation or laboratory analysis.

The annual median salary is $59,150.

FBI agents are investigative officers with jurisdiction to investigate violations of federal criminal law. Any crime that crosses state lines falls within the jurisdiction of the FBI.

The annual median salary is $88,060.

Probation officers supervise people who have been placed on probation instead of being put in prison. They work to ensure that the offender is not a danger to the community and to help in their rehabilitation. 

The annual median salary is $ 54,290.

Paralegals perform support tasks for attorneys. They assist attorneys by preparing for hearings, trials, and meetings and by maintaining communication with clients.

The annual median salary is $51,740.

Information security analysts plan and implement security measures to protect an organization’s computer networks and systems.

The annual median salary is $99,730.

Master’s degree in criminal justice

A master’s degree in criminal justice enhances the employment possibilities and salary prospects to higher levels than those of bachelor’s and associate degree holders. Most master’s degrees in criminal justice take 2 years to complete. General courses such as criminology, research methods, and criminal law will broaden your criminal justice knowledge. While specialization options such as cybercrime, public administration, forensic science, and homeland security will allow you to focus on your chosen career path even more.

According to the National Center for Education Statistics the average graduate tuition for public colleges and universities at approximately $11,300 and just under $24,000 for private, not-for-profit schools.

What are the prerequisites to enroll in a master’s degree in criminal justice?

Candidates typically must hold a bachelor’s degree to enter a master’s in criminal justice program. Most programs do not require specific degrees, but if you hold a criminal justice-related degree, your chances of acceptance are higher.

Students who are enrolling in the master’s directly from a bachelor’s generally do not need criminal justice work experience. Applicants who are already in the workforce will enhance their enrollment chances if they have some professional experience in criminal justice.

What will I study?

Most master’s in criminal justice have a set of core courses that explore the reasons and methods behind crime and rehabilitation. These are combined with other subjects to nurture the student’s research and analytical skills. There may also be a final independent research project or thesis.

Some examples of the types of courses a student can expect to take in most criminal justice master’s programs are:

  • Research methods in criminal justice
  • The correctional system and rehabilitation
  • Policing in society
  • Criminal law

Master’s students in criminal justice typically choose a concentration to focus their training on a particular area within the profession. The following list outlines some of the possible concentration options:

  • Homeland security
  • Cybercrime and digital security
  • Forensic science
  • Public administration

Continuing education information

A master’s degree in criminal justice is considered the terminal degree in the subject. If you wish to continue your education, the options are to take a doctoral degree, which will most likely take you to the top leadership positions in criminal justice or into academia.

Another path is to become certified in a particular area in criminal justice and become a specialist in that subject.

What jobs can I do with a master’s degree in criminal justice? 

Earning a master’s degree in criminal justice can lead to high-level positions both in the field and in administration in local, state, and federal government agencies. There are also some specialized areas in technology and research that require professionals with a master’s degree. Graduates can also transition into practicing law or to become a professor. Some examples of positions for holders of a master’s in criminal justice are:

FBI agents investigate federal crimes and also play a role in maintaining security within the United States.

The average annual salary is $88,060.

Probation officers supervise people who have been placed on probation. Correctional treatment specialists refer eligible offenders to appropriate programs as well as monitor inmates’ progress. 

The average annual salary is $54,290.

Corrections office supervisors coordinate and direct the activities of correctional officers. They are responsible for maintaining security and discipline in correctional facilities, and ensuring the safety of staff, prisoners and visitors. 

The average annual salary is $63,730.

Criminologists collect and analyze data on criminal activity. Criminologists work with police forces and law makers to help develop plans for preventing crime or highlighting potential criminals.

The average annual salary is $83,420.

Emergency management directors prepare plans, procedures, and training for responding to natural disasters and other emergencies. They also help lead and coordinate the response during and after an emergency.

The average annual salary is $74,590.

Doctoral degree in criminal justice

Criminal justice organizations of all kinds need leaders with advanced critical thinking, problem-solving, and research skills. This means that doctoral degree holders are qualified, and sought after, for the very highest-level positions in law, academia, or policy making. 

Students can study for either a doctorate or Ph.D. in criminal justice both involve rigorous training and research. A doctorate is a practical degree and used in the field, while a Ph.D. tends to be more research-focused and used more in academia. Both take at least 4 years to complete and require a capstone project or dissertation.  

The cost of a doctoral program in criminal justice varies widely depending on the type of degree and where you take the degree. In the 2019–2020 school year, the average cost of a full-time general doctorate was $11,380 per year at public institutions and $45,380 at private, non-profit institutions. There are many types of financial help that can reduce these fees.

What are the prerequisites for enrolling?

All programs require that you hold a master’s degree is from an accredited institution. However, there are some programs that will allow students studying for their master’s degree to combine this with earning their Doctorate.

What will I study?

This will depend upon whether you are studying for a Ph.D. in criminal justice or a doctorate in criminal justice (DCJ). A Ph.D. concentrates on creating research while a DCJ focuses on applying research to solve problems in criminal justice.

  • Standard core classes for both programs include:
  • Research methods in criminal justice
  • Criminal justice organizational leadership
  • Criminology
  • Corrections
  • Criminal law

What jobs can I do with a doctorate degree in criminal justice?

Graduates of doctoral programs often pursue careers in research, or in top leadership positions in governmental agencies and private companies. You will likely be in the highest salary range and working in positions such as:

Criminology is the scientific study of the social and psychological factors causing people to commit crimes. A criminologist role is to examine all aspects of crime and find ways to prevent criminal behavior and reduce recidivism.

The average annual salary is $83,420.

A survey researcher designs surveys and analyzes the data to provide factual information on which decisions can be made.

The average annual salary is $59,170.

College professors are educators who provide undergraduate and graduate education to students. Their principal duties include building a course curriculum, preparing course syllabi, presenting lectures, and mentoring students.

The average annual salary is $79,540.

College administrators oversee student services, academics, and faculty research at colleges and universities. Provosts and academic deans are two examples of college administrators.

The average annual salary is $95,410.


Whatever level of degree in criminal justice you want to take, one of the most important things to check before you enroll is whether the program is accredited. Accreditation means that the school or the program has been checked to ensure that its syllabus and teaching staff meet the required standards. If a program is not accredited, it can have serious consequences on your career.

Firstly, if you decide to continue with your education and take a higher-level degree you probably not be allowed to transfer credits from a non-accredited program to an accredited one. Secondly, if you are hoping for financial assistance to help you meet the tuition and other fees, this may not be possible with a non-accredited degree. Finally, prospective employers will want to know that your education and training is of the highest standard before offering you a position. So, they will want to know that you earned an accredited degree.

There are bodies that accredit schools and programs. If you want to check a program’s accreditation, the U.S. Department of Education can advise you on an institution’s standing.

Paying for a criminal justice degree

As with any degree course, you’ll need to be sure you can pay for the degree course you’re undertaking. Funding your criminal justice degree can take many forms, from federal aid through the FAFSA form, to private loans, state grants, and scholarships. Opting for online studies, either in full or as part of a hybrid online/on-campus program, can potentially save you money as well. This degree type is often less expensive than a fully on-campus program.

National Institute of Justice (NIJ)
The National Institute of Justice is an agency of the U.S. Department of Justice. Its objective is to research and develop tools for the criminal justice community to help them make informed decisions to reduce crime and improve the justice that is delivered.

American Correctional Association (ACA)
The National Institute of Justice is an agency of the U.S. Department of Justice. Its objective is to research and develop tools for the criminal justice community to help them make informed decisions to reduce crime and improve the justice that is delivered.

American Society of Criminology (ASC)
The National Institute of Justice is an agency of the U.S. Department of Justice. Its objective is to research and develop tools for the criminal justice community to help them make informed decisions to reduce crime and improve the justice that is delivered.

Crime and Justice Research Alliance (CJRA)
The CJRA is a centralized resource for research on crime and criminal justice issues. Policymakers, students, and the public can access research on crime and criminal justice issues via their website.