Master’s in criminal justice program guide

HomeCriminal JusticeMaster’s degree in criminal justice

Introduction to criminal justice

Criminal justice is a wide-ranging term that covers the laws used to define and prosecute crimes and those institutions created to prevent crime, administer justice, and maintain social order.

The master’s degree in criminal justice is an advanced degree awarded to students who have successfully completed the program. This advanced degree opens up many career possibilities for career advancement in law enforcement, cybersecurity, emergency management, and other related fields or as preparation for doctoral programs. People who choose to study for advanced degrees in criminal justice tend to be people interested in ensuring safety and order in their communities from a management or policy-making perspective.

What is the difference between a master’s of arts (M.A.) and a master’s of science (M.S.) degree in criminal justice?

Criminal justice degrees are offered as either a master of arts (M.A.) or a master of science (M.S.). M.A. programs typically do not require students to complete a thesis. The programs are generally designed to prepare graduates for leadership and management positions within the criminal justice career field. M.S. programs often require a thesis that is geared towards preparing students to continue their studies with a doctoral degree, followed by a career in academia or research.

How long does the program take to complete?

Degree completion time varies based on the program requirements and the number of courses a student completes each term. However, most criminal justice master’s degrees require 30-40 credits and take 2 years of full-time study to complete. An online program can be completed more quickly if students take a full-time course with no breaks. Other programs offer part-time study options, which increase the expected graduation timeline but permit learners to combine their studies with other commitments. Fieldwork or a written thesis requirement may also lengthen the amount of time needed to finish your degree.

About a master’s in criminal justice degree


Precise entry requirements will vary according to the program, but the following are some typical admission requirements:


Most programs will require a bachelor’s degree. It does not necessarily have to be a bachelor’s in criminal justice as a degree in another field is acceptable.

Professional experience

Traditional on-campus courses generally admit students direct from a bachelor’s program, but some online programs prefer 1-3 years of professional experience from applicants who are already employed in criminal justice.

Minimum GPA

Most graduate schools require a minimum GPA of 3.0 out of 4.0.

GRE scores

Some schools may ask for GRE results, others may accept the GMAT instead of GRE scores.


Ask the registrar’s offices of where you have studied previously and ask them to send an official transcript directly to your intended program. A small fee will be asked for this service.

Letters of recommendation

You may have to provide letters of recommendation from previous professors and employers explaining your suitability to be admitted to the program

Application form

As part of your application, you will need to complete the college’s application form which can be found on the school’s website.

Application fee

Fees are generally between $50 and $75.

Program cost

Earning a criminal justice master’s degree calls for a considerable financial commitment, but the rewards of a higher salary and expanded career options make it worthwhile. The most recent figures from the National Center for Education Statistics show the average graduate tuition for public colleges and universities at approximately $11,300 and just under $24,000 for private, not-for-profit schools. Tuition rates, however, will vary considerably particularly for out-of-state students

Online students save on transportation and accommodation fees, although this can be offset by distance learning and technology fees that do not apply to students enrolled in brick-and-mortar programs.

Before deciding to take on a federal or private loan, you should look at what grants and scholarships you might be eligible for. If you are a working professional, your employer may help with a tuition grant in return for a pledge of continued employment. There are also military benefits for veterans.

What will I learn?

The foundational courses of criminal justice programs vary by institution, but most master’s in criminal justice have a set of core courses that explore the theory and methodology of crime and rehabilitation. These are combined with other subjects to cultivate the student’s research and analytical skills. Some programs also ask students to complete 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

This course explores the main research methods and statistical analysis used to study crime and its prevention. Areas covered include research methods, building hypotheses and creating theoretical models, designing surveys, collecting and analyzing data, and writing reports.

The correctional system and rehabilitation

This course focuses on correctional theories on retribution, deterrence, and approaches to rehabilitation including family, behavioral, and cognitive-behavioral therapy. Students also examine treatment approaches for special populations, including persons struggling with addiction or mental illness, risk assessment, juvenile and adult detention, probation, parole. Correctional law and the management of correctional facilities are also studied.

Policing in society

This course 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 multiracial society including issues of racial profiling, community-based policing, and the future of law enforcement.

Criminal law

This foundational course 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 and study the procedures that move cases through the criminal justice system.

Program concentrations

Master’s students in criminal justice typically choose a concentration to focus their training on a particular field within the profession in which they would like to work. 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:

Homeland security

This concentration covers the major components of national security and emergency response management. It looks at the responsibilities of government agencies concerning homeland security, risk assessment and its management, and their readiness to respond to threats both man-made and natural. The coursework also examines the causes and effects of domestic and international terrorism from political and religious perspectives. It is also possible to earn your bachelor’s degree in homeland security as a stand-alone degree.

Cybercrime and digital security

Students learn how to prevent computer and internet-related crimes. Coursework examines 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

Forensic science is a concentration that focuses on the analysis and evaluation of evidence collected from criminal investigations. Students will learn to analyze and identify chemical and human traces and how to follow the proper protocol to sustain the integrity of the evidence chain and writing reports. Local, state, and federal law enforcement, evidence processing, and procedures are studied.

Public administration

A concentration in public administration in criminal justice gives students an understanding of management and administration systems concerning agencies, departments, and organizations in the criminal justice system across the public and private sectors. Coursework focuses on legal and ethical issues and accountability, business finance and governance, public policy and public outreach, organizational leadership skills, and human resource management, and contemporary challenges in criminal justice administration.

What you can do with a master’s in criminal justice

Completion of a master’s degree in criminal justice can open doors to employment opportunities 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 maybe a bachelor’s degree but a master’s will help pave the way to a leadership position and higher income.

Below are descriptions of 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 many opportunities for specialization.


The average annual salary is $88,060.

Probation officers and correctional treatment specialists help the rehabilitation of 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 needed for advancement to more senior positions.


The average annual salary is $54,290.

These professionals coordinate and direct the activities of correctional officers and deputies. They usually work in institutions 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 degree is needed for more senior positions.


The average annual salary is $63,730

Criminologists study crime causation in the context of society as a whole and make recommendations to law enforcement and public policy and practice. Criminologists may work either in the field or in more traditional research settings such as research labs, government agencies, gathering, analyzing, interviewing criminal offenders, and compiling reports to better understand crime and develop effective ways of dealing with it.

A master’s degree in criminology is required for these positions.


The average annual salary is $83,420.

They develop plans and procedures for when an emergency arises. Emergency management directors oversee training and disaster drills for staff, volunteers, and local agencies. When an emergency does arise 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


The average annual salary is $74,590.

Career advancement in criminal justice

To continue your education and move beyond middle and upper management and into the very top leadership and academic positions, then a doctorate in criminal justice could be the best move you can make.

Another way to improve your career outlook through specialization is to gain professional certificates or licenses in specific areas in criminal justice.

How to choose a master’s degree program

Master’s degrees in criminal justice can be taken via online learning or in a traditional brick-and-mortar setting. These on-campus programs often attract students who are already enrolled in an undergraduate course. A distance learning master’s is an adaptable and convenient option for students whose professional or family commitments stop them from enrolling in an on-campus program. Distance learning programs often appeal to working professionals looking to advance in their professions or change careers.

Career goals

While most master’s programs cover fundamental topics such as research methodology and data and statistical analysis, the specializations available in coursework will vary widely from program to program. Depending on the program students may be required to submit a research or capstone project or complete an internship. The specializations chosen and projects undertaken will very likely determine the direction of your career path so, when selecting a criminal justice master’s program, make sure that your career goals and particular interests are compatible with the program’s course offerings and requirements.

Time availability

Your availability for studies will affect the time you need to complete all the master’s degree requirements. Full-time students can typically achieve this in 2 years. Some full-time online degrees may be completed in as little as 18 months, or 3 or more years with part-time enrollment.


The cost of a master’s in criminal justice varies enormously depending on the type of program and location. Tuition rates may vary considerably between public and private institutions and especially across state borders for out of state students. Some online programs offer a flat tuition rate regardless of your state of residency.

On-campus students will need to factor in housing, transportation, food, and other expenses on top of tuition and fees. Although, there may be work-study or other on-campus employment opportunities.


Accreditation is one of the most important factors to consider when choosing a master’s in criminal justice. Students should look for schools with accreditation from regionally accrediting agencies recognized by the Council of Higher Education Accreditation. While some schools may hold national accreditation, regional accreditation is the most prestigious form of accreditation and requires higher professional and academic standards.

In addition to regional or national accreditation, some schools obtain specialized programmatic accreditation from the Academy of Criminal Justice Sciences (ACJS) for their bachelor’s and master’s degrees in criminal justice. This accreditation means the program is recognized for both its quality and effectiveness. Students can use the U.S. Department of Education’s online database to verify the accreditation status of prospective schools and programs.

Students who attend unaccredited schools may not qualify for federal financial aid. Additionally, regionally accredited schools generally only accept transfer credits and degrees from other regionally accredited institutions. Accreditation can also be important for employers when looking to hire.

Financial Aid

Paying for a master’s in criminal justice degree doesn’t have to break the bank. A range of financial aid options, such as federal aid, state grants, private scholarships, and loans are readily available. The money you invest into your education is likely to pay for itself time and time again through job advancement and personal experience gained.

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.

American Correctional Association

The ACA is a professional organization for all individuals and groups, both public and private, that work as professionals in corrections. Members can take the ACA’s online education courses and earn additional correctional certification. The association’s conferences give members the chance to network with industry professionals, take part in workshops that develop leadership skills.

Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI)

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 considered one of the top crime-fighting agencies in the world.

National Institute of Justice

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.