Doctorate in criminal justice program guide

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Introduction to a doctoral degree in criminal justice

The study of criminal justice covers the laws, programs, and agencies created to inhibit criminal activity and hold criminals accountable for their misdeeds, maintain social order, and to help the victims of crime as much as possible.

A doctoral program provides a level of expertise that is rare and well-compensated. It will open up numerous possibilities for working professionals to build upon their current skills and move to the next level in their careers.

Holders of doctoral degrees in criminal justice can achieve high-level academic positions or work in research, public policy groups, or consulting firms and make a positive difference to a wide range of criminal justice-related organizations.

How long does it take to get a doctoral degree in criminal justice?

Students studying for a doctoral degree in criminal justice typically complete 40–60 semester credits, which takes around 2 years of study. There is also a dissertation or capstone project to complete which can take an additional 2 to 3 years. 

Some programs also require a residency, in which you work in a criminal justice field under a mentor for approximately one year. If you are taking an online program, you may be required to attend one or more residential seminars at different stages of your program.

What is the difference between a doctorate in criminal justice (DCJ) and a Ph.D. in criminal justice?

When starting on your doctoral degree, you will have a choice whether to study for a Ph.D. or a Doctorate in Criminal Justice (DCJ). Both offer a great many career options, some in education or research, some directly in the field.

A Ph.D. is usually more focused on theory and research it prepares students for advanced educational and research-oriented roles, such as postsecondary criminal justice teachers, survey researchers, and criminologists.

A DCJ is equivalent to a Ph.D. but focuses more on practice rather than research and looks to build leadership, policy-making and analytical skills. This helps graduates to be effective in the field on a day-to-day basis as administrators, executives, and consultants.

Dissertation research and capstone project

Students who elect to study for a Ph.D. in criminal justice are usually required to write 3 or 4 dissertations about the core course subjects. Later in the program, students are required to identify and research a significant problem in criminal justice. This is very often based on a concentration subject. Students are required to present and defend their dissertation findings.

Those studying DCJ programs will need to complete a capstone project. A capstone is a full-scale project that attempts to apply knowledge learned on the program to solve a problem in the criminal justice field. Students write a paper or create a portfolio and submit and defend the work before a committee.

How to choose a doctoral degree in criminal justice program

Whether you choose an online, on-campus, or hybrid course, one of the most important factors in selecting a course is that the program is run by an accredited institution.

A school’s accreditation status can affect the transfer of course credits, in addition to the student’s suitability to apply for federal financial aid. Most employers will also want to verify that a job candidate’s degree comes from an accredited program. So, before enrolling on a course, students should make sure that the school offering the program has earned national or regional accreditation.

Colleges and universities in the U.S. are endorsed by agencies recognized by either the Department of Education or the non-profit Council for Higher Education Accreditation, (CHEA). The accreditation process entails an in-depth appraisal of a school’s educational programs and student services to ensure that they meet particular standards.

What are the prerequisites to enroll in a doctoral degree in criminal justice?

Admission to doctoral degree programs is very competitive so candidates are advised to apply for a minimum of 5 to 6 programs. Prospective doctoral students should ideally start studying and gathering information about various programs as much as 1 year in advance. It is recommended that you talk with students, professors, and admissions advisors at each school. Students who are accepted on more than one program should select the school that best suits their long-term career objectives.

Applications for on-campus programs are similar to those for online programs; however, there may be additional steps involved for online programs. 

While entry requirements vary by institution, the following are some typical admission requirements:


All doctoral programs require a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice or a related field from a regionally accredited institution. A master’s degree is often also required but may be included as part of the doctoral program.

Professional experience

Some background in criminology, criminal justice, or sociology is preferred but is not essential.

Minimum GPA

Most schools require applicants to have a minimum 3.0 GPA.

Test scores

Many doctoral programs require applicants to submit official GRE scores; however, some schools will accept a master’s thesis as a substitute.


Applicants must submit official transcripts from all colleges. Transcripts can be requested through the admissions office and can cost a small fee.

Letters of recommendation

Applicants should submit up to 3 letters of recommendation from professors, managers, or co-workers.

Personal statement

Typically around 300 words, this should detail your goals, interests in criminal justice, and your special qualifications for the program.

Current resume

This should highlight the work and experience that you have that make you a suitable candidate for the program.

Application form

Applicants must complete the college application which can be found on the school’s website.

Application fee

Application fees range from $40 to $150, these are sometimes waived for alumni, employees, service members, veterans, and military spouses.

How much does it cost to get a doctoral degree in criminal justice? 

Earning a doctorate in criminal justice involves a substantial financial investment plus a considerable amount of time. However, a doctoral degree will place you at the very top of your profession in terms of positions, responsibilities, and salary.

The cost of a doctoral program in criminal justice varies widely depending on the type of degree and specific institution. 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. This can be reduced with scholarships, grants, or teaching assistantships to help pay for the degree.

Online criminal justice doctorates can offer more flexibility can be less expensive and allow you to earn an income. Students should expect to pay between $22,000 and $66,000 in total tuition.

Financial aid

There are funding options such as federal grants and loans, for assistance in paying for your degree. Your employer or even the school itself might also be prepared to help with funding assistance. The government offers loan forgiveness programs, and program-specific work such as research or teach assistance is common. Ph.D. level studies often have extensive scholarships available.

Doctoral degrees are typically seen as not only an excellent investment into your career, but also a significant personal achievement and a hallmark of expertise.

What will I study for a doctoral degree in criminal justice? 

Most doctoral degrees in criminal justice programs include core courses that demonstrate how to apply theoretical and practical perspectives to law enforcement and criminal investigations.

The core coursework offered will vary from program to program but some typical subjects are:

Research methods in criminal justice

These courses are designed for doctoral students to learn to organize research initiatives within the criminal justice system. Topics include the scientific method of inquiry, the development of research questions, types of observation, pre/post-test designs, the importance of sampling, data analysis, statistics, ethical and contemporary issues in research.

Criminal justice organizational leadership

This course prepares students for leadership roles within the criminal justice field. Students examine the demands, ethics, and practices of managing organizations. Topics include organizational theory, stewardship models, management techniques, decision-making processes, conflict resolution, policy, and politics.


Criminology courses explore topics such as the role of law enforcement, and the psychological and sociological theories behind why people commit crimes, and criminal behavior patterns. Students discuss crime rates, crime prevention methods, plus strategies for improving public policies and programs.


This course examines how correctional practice and offender management has changed over time. It focuses on the efficacy of the correctional system in the US and the ethics of institutional corrections, alternatives to incarceration, rehabilitation, restorative justice, and strategies for improving the corrections system.

Criminal law

Criminal law gives students an overview of the U.S. criminal justice system. Students explore the principles of criminal justice including the burden of proof and due process. Students analyze various law enforcement and legal decisions and how they determine the way a case moves through the criminal justice system.

What are the concentrations in a doctoral degree in criminal justice program? 

Doctorate students in criminal justice typically choose a concentration to focus on a particular area within the profession. The possible concentration subjects available are extensive. Students should examine a prospective program’s curriculum to ensure that the concentration choices available align with their career goals.

There are many different concentrations available. The following list outlines some of the possible options:

Juvenile justice

Juvenile justice course examines the assessment and treatment of juveniles within the justice system. Students will evaluate programs and services for juvenile rehabilitation that are intended to reduce recidivism, or the likelihood of a repeated offense. The laws, ethical issues, and policies that guide the juvenile court and punishment are examined. Students will also look at the issue of ethnicity and racism in policing handling of youths and young adults in the juvenile justice system.

Behavioral sciences

A specialization in behavioral sciences bridges the gap between criminal justice and psychology. This concentration explores the different methods of assessing mental health, and the potential for violent behavior, the ethical issues involved in assessment, domestic violence, and sexual abuse crimes. Topics include victim testimony, trauma and psychological symptomatology, and the best practices in working with victims, prosecution, offender-specific treatment programs, and therapeutic and restorative justice courts.

Organizational leadership

This subject examines the role of ethics and policy in the criminal justice system. It is designed to prepare future criminal justice leaders to evaluate a variety of ethical issues and conflicts that are likely to arise in the field of criminal justice. Additional topics include information and communication, policy and politics, accountability and power, finance, and budgets.


A concentration in criminology examines the nature, extent, and distribution of crime. It analyzes the social context of criminal behavior and the legal and societal reaction to crime and criminals. Topics include the sociological, biological, political, psychological, and economic explanations for crime and criminal justice policies and practices. 

Cybercrime and digital security

This concentration gives students an advanced insight and training into cybercrime and the practical digital forensic techniques, legal practices, and policies related to cybersecurity risk assessment. Students analyze criminology theory and its applications for computer and internet crimes, including fraud, child pornography, and identity theft.

Career options with a doctorate in criminal justice

There are many career options for those with a doctoral degree in criminal justice. A criminal justice doctorate prepares graduates for high-level roles in law enforcement, teaching and research, and administrative roles in academia. 

Some of the most common fields for those with doctoral degrees in criminal justice are:

Sociologists who specialize in crime are called criminologists. These professionals use their sociological expertise to conduct research and study penal systems and their populations as well as evaluating the effects of different crimes. Criminologists and other sociologists generally must have a master’s or Ph.D. in a related field.

The average annual salary is $83,420.

Survey researchers design and conduct various types of surveys and then analyze the data they receive. Surveys researchers conduct surveys for a wide range of purposes, including government, health, social sciences, and education. Survey researchers come from a wide range of academic backgrounds and often need a master’s or Ph.D.

The average annual salary is $59,170.

Criminal justice professors design and teach courses in corrections, research methods, and the criminal justice system. They often continue to conduct research in their specialty area and publish their findings in scholarly journals. Most tenure criminal justice professors hold a Ph.D.

The average annual salary is $79,540.

College administrators with a doctorate can take administrative roles as department chairs, deans, and provosts and oversee academic policies, manage budgets, and monitor faculty research. 

Many college administrator jobs require a master’s degree, but some positions also require a doctorate plus previous experience as a college professor. 

The average annual salary is $95,410.

National Criminal Justice Association

The NCJA provides assistance to federal, state, local, and tribal justice agencies to increase the effectiveness of criminal justice agencies and programs. The organization provides members with updates to legislation, an online member community, access to free webinars and conference and training discounts.

Academy of Criminal Justice Sciences

The ACJS is an international association that fosters professional and scholarly activities in the field of criminal justice. Members may join a variety of sub-sections within the ACJS: including corrections, juvenile justice, and law and public policy. Members receive a monthly newsletter, journals, and discounts on the annual ACJS conference. Experts and mentors are also available to provide advice and evaluations to members.

The Crime and Justice Research Alliance

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.

National Criminal Justice Reference Service

The NCJRS online virtual library provides summaries of 225,000 research studies in criminal justice, juvenile delinquency and justice, and substance abuse. There are more than 80,000 online resources and all known Office of Justice Programs’ works.