Guide to getting a master’s in criminal justice
Why study a master’s in criminal justice?
Martin Luther King famously said: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” While society frequently falls short of this ideal, those working in criminal justice strive to bring us closer to it. Criminal justice professionals are motivated by a deep need to serve and protect their community. They believe in the possibility of a safer world but know this vision must be grounded in reality. Therefore, they work within government agencies and institutions, helping to rehabilitate criminals, stop crime, and provide victim support.
If you are considering a master’s in criminal justice, you probably already know something about crime and the systems designed to stop it. With this degree you can build on that knowledge and move into specialist areas, such as criminal psychology, forensics, rehabilitation, and counterterrorism.
Core courses tend to focus on theory, rather than practical skills training. The aim is to provide a deep understanding of the criminal justice sector, teaching students to evaluate problems and analyze policies, because these are some of the key skills required to enter the higher-level criminal justice positions.
Read on to find out more about these roles and what to expect from a master’s in criminal justice program.
What can you do with a master’s in criminal justice?
A master’s in criminal justice is a highly versatile degree, both in terms of the courses available within it, and what you can do with the qualification upon graduation. The program can lead to career advancement in fields such as law enforcement, cybersecurity, and emergency management. Graduates go on to work in a wide variety of job roles, from intelligence analysts to criminologists.
A master’s in criminal justice is the perfect choice for individuals seeking administrative or management positions. For those who want to enter academia, this degree can also open the door to exciting research and teaching opportunities.
What skills are required to work in criminal justice positions?
High-level criminal justice roles tend to involve complex problems, thus excellent critical thinking skills are required. Clear-headedness and the ability to remain calm under pressure are also an advantage. These jobs can be both extremely rewarding and emotionally draining, especially when dealing with multiple cases simultaneously. Mental strength is almost as important as the knowledge of laws, legal codes, and court procedures. Criminal justice professionals often to find it difficult to switch off. Their passion for the work is admirable, but can also lead to burnout, so it helps if you can develop strong boundaries between your personal and professional personal life.
What are the financial benefits of a master’s degree?
The table below shows how the master’s degree in criminal justice performs economically. The figures are based on the earnings of employees 2 years after graduation. From a financial standpoint, a master’s in criminal justice is an excellent investment. On average, graduates earn almost $10,000 more than bachelor of criminal justice holders. This may be because some master’s students already work in the field. It could also be due to the master’s degree leading to roles with better pay. Either way, the statistics are positive when it comes to potential earnings, and this may be a significant factor when deciding on the right educational path for you.
Debt and earnings
Graduate degree premium
Earning over bachelors
Annual debt repayment
The figures above give an indication of the debt incurred by graduates, and their salaries 3 years after graduation. The table on the left compares median debt and median earnings. The right-hand table compares how much a master graduate earns over a bachelor graduate 3 years after graduation, after deducting median debt repayments.
What to look for in a master’s degree in criminal justice
It is important to consider accreditation when researching potential schools, because if you attend an unaccredited institution, you may be ineligible for federal financial aid. Look for schools with regional accreditation as this requires higher professional and academic standards. Some schools obtain specialized accreditation from the Academy of Criminal Justice Sciences (ACJS). Use the U.S. Department of Education’s online database to verify the accreditation status of prospective schools and programs.
Master’s programs often include a concentration that focuses on a specific area, so it is important to decide where your main interest lies. Examine the curriculum of prospective programs to ensure the concentrations on offer align with your career goals.
Examples of concentrations vary, but tend to include the following options.
This covers the major components of national security and emergency response management. It looks at the responsibilities of government agencies concerning homeland security, and their readiness to respond to threats. The course also examines the causes and effects of domestic and international terrorism.
Students learn how to prevent computer and internet-related crimes. Coursework may include detecting system vulnerabilities, digital forensics techniques, firewalls, computer hacking, electronic surveillance, data encryption, network systems, and security. Students acquire practical skills to apply cybercrime laws to digital crimes, such as fraud, identity theft, privacy violation, and child pornography.
Forensic science focuses on the analysis and evaluation of evidence collected from criminal investigations. Students learn to analyze and identify chemical and human traces, and how to follow the proper protocol to sustain the integrity of the evidence chain. Local, state, and federal law enforcement, evidence processing, and procedures are also studied.
A concentration in public administration gives students an understanding of the management and administration systems in the agencies, departments, and organizations of the criminal justice system. Coursework focuses on legal and ethical issues and accountability, business finance and governance, public policy and outreach, organizational leadership skills, human resource management, and contemporary challenges in criminal justice administration.
Much of the master’s in criminal justice curriculum is theory-based, therefore this degree lends itself well to online study. With 46.8% of master’s in criminal justice programs offered online, there are plenty of options to choose from.
From a financial perspective, online and on-campus programs are quite similar. The statistics show little variation in earnings 2-years after graduation: $46,005 for online graduates, $44,862 for on-campus graduates.
Master’s in criminal justice
The above table shows the percentage of programs available either completely in person or fully online. Figures that do not add up to 100% indicate the existence of hybrid programs.
Best master’s in criminal justice programs
Below we rate the economic value of the master’s in criminal justice in comparison to other programs. Please review our methodology for more information on our metrics. Note that missing information is usually due to insufficient data.
Earnings: The median earnings of masters students 3 years after graduation.
Grad school premium: The marginal median annual earnings a grad student earns above a student with a bachelor degree in the same subject. The annual median debt repayment amount is deducted from this figure. For instance:
Graduate earnings: $100,000
Bachelor earnings: $45,000
Annual debt repayment: $15,000
Grad school premium = $100,000-$45,000-$15,000=$40,000
Debt: The median total debt of students graduating from the program, at the time of graduation.
Debt to earnings: Debt divided by earnings. The lower the better.
Economic score: The debt to earnings divided by the grad school premium percentage. The lower the economic score the better.
University of San Diego
San Diego, California
Grad school premium: $70,843
Debt to earnings: 0.3
Economic score: 0.12
Salve Regina University
Newport, Rhode Island
Grad school premium: $37,378
Debt to earnings: 0.2
Economic score: 0.13
Grad school premium: $52,479
Debt to earnings: 0.4
Economic score: 0.18
Columbia, South Carolina
Grad school premium: $13,279
Debt to earnings: 0.3
Economic score: 0.21
Utica, New York
Grad school premium: $39,415
Debt to earnings: 0.4
Economic score: 0.22
University of Houston-Downtown
Grad school premium: $35,601
Debt to earnings: 0.5
Economic score: 0.24
Columbus State University
Grad school premium: $25,054
Debt to earnings: 0.4
Economic score: 0.25
University of Chicago
Grad school premium: $44,357
Debt to earnings: 0.6
Economic score: 0.27
University of Maryland Global Campus
Grad school premium: $38,039
Debt to earnings: 0.5
Economic score: 0.27
Point Park University
Grad school premium: N/A
Debt to earnings: N/A
Economic score: 999,999.00
Concordia University-Saint Paul
Saint Paul, Minnesota
Grad school premium: $19,844
Debt to earnings: 0.4
Economic score: 0.28
How much does a master’s in criminal justice cost?
When it comes to program costs, a key metric is the median debt a master’s of criminal justice student incurs upon graduation. The table below shows how debt and repayment rates differ based on institution type.
Repayments are consistent across the different institution types, but graduates of for-profit colleges tend to leave with less debt. Thus, contrary to popular belief, public colleges are not always cheaper.
Of course, there are other factors to consider besides cost, but for most students, program fees play an important role in where they choose to study.
Debt to earnings
Debt to earnings
Debt to earnings
These figures relate to the median debt accrued by graduates of this degree program. Note how the debt and repayment rates differ according to the institution type.
Financial aid and scholarships for criminal justice majors
Paying for a master’s in criminal justice can be expensive. Fortunately, there are a range of funding options available. These include federal aid, state grants, scholarships, and loans. Typically, the first step is filling out the FAFSA form on the Federal Student Aid website. It is also useful to meet with the student financial aid service at your college, they can explain the options provided by the school. If you work in law enforcement you may also be eligible for loan forgiveness. Depending on the employer, your remaining debt may be written off after 120 months of payments.
What to expect from a master’s in criminal justice program
The criminal justice sector is continuously changing in reaction to world events. It is an area that rarely stands still, and topics covered in the master’s program tend to reflect that. For example, students may learn about issues like use of force, police discretion, and racial profiling. Other topics are built into the curriculum as and when they arise, ensuring the subjects covered always remain relevant.
There is also a focus on developing an interdisciplinary perspective, with students being encouraged to notice how and where criminal justice intersects with other subjects. Besides this, the development of critical thinking, communication, and research skills, form a large part of the curriculum. Most master’s in criminal justice require 30-40 credits, and take 2 years of full-time study to complete.
What are the admission requirements for a master’s in criminal justice?
While admission requirements vary between schools, programs tend to require some or all of the following from candidates who wish to be accepted onto the course.
- Bachelor’s degree – This does not necessarily have to be in criminal justice, a degree in another field is acceptable.
- Professional experience – Traditional on-campus courses usually admit students direct from a bachelor’s program. However, some online programs prefer/accept 1-3 years of professional experience in criminal justice.
- Minimum GPA – Most graduate schools require a minimum GPA of 3.0.
- GRE scores – Some schools ask for GRE results, others accept the GMAT.
- Transcripts – Ask your previous school’s registrar’s office to send an official transcript to your intended program.
- Letters of recommendation – You may have to provide recommendations from previous professors and employers explaining your suitability for the program
Will I have to complete a thesis for a master’s in criminal justice?
Criminal justice programs offer different study tracks, so students can choose whether to complete a thesis or not. Examples of study tracks include:
Students complete a mixture of core and elective courses. The remaining 6-9 credits required are achieved by completing a written thesis, the focus of which will be agreed upon with your supervising professor.
Students complete the core courses, but also additional electives to make up the credits a student on the thesis track would receive. Before they graduate, students need to complete a comprehensive exam that includes questions on various areas of the criminal justice system.
Enhanced coursework option
Again, students complete a mixture of core and elective courses. They also complete additional coursework in lieu of the thesis or exam. This coursework is often, but not always, related to advanced research methods.
What type of courses are there in a master’s of criminal justice?
Typically, core courses explore the theory and methodology of crime and rehabilitation. These are combined with other subjects to improve the student’s research and analytical skills.
Examples of core courses that might be included in a master’s in criminal justice program include:
Research methods in criminal justice
This explores the main research methods and statistical analysis used to study crime and its prevention. Areas covered include research methods, creating hypotheses and theoretical models, designing surveys, collecting and analyzing data, and writing reports.
The correctional system and rehabilitation
This focuses on correctional theories of retribution, deterrence, and approaches to rehabilitation including family, behavioral, and cognitive-behavioral therapy. Students also examine treatment approaches for special populations, including people struggling with addiction or mental illness, risk assessment, juvenile and adult detention, probation, and parole.
Policing in society
This examines the social control of policing, police power, and activities carried out by law enforcement officers. Topics include surveillance and investigation techniques, methods of law enforcement, policing in a multi-racial society, including issues of racial profiling, community-based policing, and the future of law enforcement.
This covers the theory, history, and practices of law enforcement, the court system, and corrections. Students examine the basic tenets of the criminal justice system, such as the burden of proof and due process. They also study the procedures that move cases through the criminal justice system.
As well as core courses, students are required to study a series of electives. The number of electives a student needs to take varies between programs, and also depends on which track a student has chosen within that program. Typically, optional courses run for around 8-weeks. The electives on offer may cover subjects such as:
- race and gender
- the death penalty
- youth justice
What type of master’s degrees are there in criminal justice?
There are 2 options to choose from when deciding on a master’s in criminal justice program:
- Master of Arts (M.A.) in Criminal Justice
- Master of Science (M.S.) in Criminal Justice
The programs are quite similar and, on occasions, interchangeable. Both prepare graduates for leadership and management positions in the criminal justice sector. The program a student decides to pursue usually depends on the curriculum that most appeals to them.
One significant difference between the M.A. and M.S. is that M.A. programs do not usually require students to complete a thesis. M.S. students often complete a thesis that is geared towards a career in academia or research.
What careers can I have with a master’s in criminal justice?
A master’s degree can lead to jobs across the criminal justice spectrum. Graduates can pursue academic or research-focused careers, as well as leadership positions in police or corrections departments. In some positions the entry-level requirement may be a bachelor’s degree, but a master’s can help pave the way to a higher income.
Below are some common careers for criminal justice master’s graduates:
These highly trained law enforcement agents investigate violations of federal criminal law. They are responsible for investigating a wide range of scenarios, from organized crime groups to terrorism. Any crime that crosses state lines falls within the FBI’s jurisdiction. FBI agents are usually assigned to a field office or regional headquarters, and there are opportunities for specialization.
Median salary: $56K
Probation officers and correctional treatment specialists help to rehabilitate offenders in custody, or on probation or parole. Typical duties include interviewing and evaluating offenders, creating treatment plans, providing resources including counseling, mental health, and addictions treatment, housing, and job placement, and fulfilling reporting and court responsibilities.
Probation officers and correctional treatment specialists usually need a bachelor’s degree, although a master’s degree is often required to advance to more senior positions.
Correctional officer supervisorMedian salary: $64K
These professionals coordinate and direct the activities of correctional officers and deputies. They usually work with incarcerated offenders or in parole departments. Supervisory duties often include training, assigning tasks and caseloads, and performance evaluation. They are responsible for ensuring the safety of staff, prisoners and visitors. A career as a corrections supervisor may begin with a bachelor’s degree, but a master’s is typically preferred for more senior positions.
Emergency management directorMedian salary: $76K
An emergency management director develops plans and procedures for when an emergency arises, often overseeing training and disaster drills for staff, volunteers, and local agencies. During an emergency, these directors lead the response and coordinate local, state, and federal law enforcement and public protection agencies. Most emergency management directors work for local or state governments, while some work in private businesses and organizations.
A master’s in criminal justice is an excellent investment, from both a financial and personal development standpoint. Graduates often progress to prestigious leadership positions in corrections, law enforcement, or federal government. Alternatively, a student might continue their education by entering academia, where their research can help to shape the future of this continuously evolving sector.
Frequently asked questions
Is it worth getting a master’s in criminal justice?
Yes, a master’s in criminal justice can increase your job prospects. Statistics show that, on average, master’s degree holders earn over $9,000 more per year than bachelor degree holders.
How long does a master’s in criminal justice take?
Most master’s in criminal justice programs take 2 years to complete. For part-time students, the duration can be significantly longer. Opting for an online program may also increase the study time.
What jobs can I get with a master’s in criminal justice?
Candidates with a master’s in criminal justice are eligible for many positions in the criminal justice sector, including management and administrative roles. Specific jobs available to master’s degree holders include law enforcement officer, private investigator, victim advocate, and probation officer.
How much money does a master’s in criminal justice make?
The average salary 2 years after graduation is $45,608. This can increase significantly with further experience and on-the-job training.
What is the difference between a master’s of criminal justice and master’s of criminology?
A master’s of criminal justice takes a broader view of law enforcement, with a focus on how the criminal justice system is structured. A master’s of criminology tends to center around why people commit crimes, from both a psychological and sociological perspective.
The ACJS 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. Experts and mentors are available to provide advice and evaluations to members.
The ACA is a professional organization for all individuals and groups that work in corrections. Members can take the ACA’s online education courses and earn additional certification. The association’s conferences give members the chance to network with industry professionals and to take part in workshops that develop leadership skills.
This federal agency is responsible for a variety of intelligence, national security, and law enforcement activities. A major employer of criminal justice degree holders, the FBI is among the top crime-fighting agencies in the world.
The objective of this U.S. department of justice agency is to research and develop tools for the criminal justice community, to help them reduce crime and improve the justice system.