Master’s degree in criminology program and careers

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Introduction to criminology

A master’s degree in criminology can give you a deeper understanding of the motivations for crime and its impact on society. Many programs combine the subject with criminal justice, which looks at the structure of specific organizations in the U.S. and how they work together.

Criminology is a blend of many disciplines, particularly sociology, psychology and statistics. It looks at human behavior and communities as a whole while measuring crime rates. Combined with criminal justice, criminology also involves law, technology and science. It’s a field that appeals to those who are curious, like to solve problems and have a strong sense of ethics and justice.

There are master of science (M.S.) and master of arts (M.A.) programs available. An M.S. focuses more on evidence collection and technology while an M.A. involves critical thinking and looks at criminological theories. The majority of programs provide the opportunity to choose a concentration, which means you can specialize in areas such as law enforcement, homeland security or the legal system.

For the majority of career opportunities, you will need to complete a master’s in criminology program, although many students continue to the doctorate level especially if they plan to work in academia. The level of detail, research, practical experience improves your potential to progress in your career. It can also enable you to get more advanced or senior positions unsuitable for undergraduates.

Requirements

Most programs require a bachelor’s degree. However, many will accept applicants with a degree in a related field, so you can still earn a master’s degree in criminology if you haven’t studied the subject before. With a bachelor’s degree in a different field, you may need to take some prerequisite courses before beginning your master’s program.

Most programs require a bachelor’s degree from an accredited school and a minimum GPA of 3.0. Your application should include official transcripts, a personal statement and letters of recommendation ideally from academic sources.

Some universities require your graduate record examinations (GRE) score. It may also be possible to transfer credits from another master’s degree program. Specific information on transfers is available on most university websites under the admissions section.

Degree flexibility

Master’s degree programs in criminology usually take 2 years to complete. Part-time programs are available if you need to balance your studies with other commitments and usually take 3 years. Accelerated programs are also available and can be completed in 18 months.

The majority of programs are taught on campus, although there are hybrid and online programs available as well. An online program can offer different degrees of flexibility. Synchronous online programs have live classes that you need to attend at a particular time. Asynchronous online programs allow you to access the course materials at any time.

Cost of the degree

The cost of a graduate degree is affected by several factors, including the type of institution, the teaching approach and whether you are an in-state or out-of-state student. The average tuition at a public school is around $12,000 for in-state students. For out-of-state students, graduate school tuition can start at about $15,000 and go up to $50,000.

Costs for online courses can be lower, although you may need to pay a technology fee. You might find that there is a charge per credit hour instead of annual tuition. Prices per credit range from around $400 for in-state residents to about $1,100 for out-of-state residents.

 Financial aid

Graduate students seeking a master’s degree in criminology have several options for covering the costs. You can apply for federal government funding or receive a grant or scholarship from a private institution. Your school might offer support programs to subsidize your studies. Alternatively, you could assist professors and teach at the college to cover part or all of your tuition.

Coursework

As a graduate student, you have a basic understanding of criminological theories from your bachelor’s degree. A master’s degree builds on that knowledge and enhances your problem solving, communication and research skills. Examples of coursework are included below.

Theories of crime and delinquency

A critical analysis of criminological theories, research and current policy. You’ll explore the nature of crimes and what causes criminal behavior.

Law, justice and society

This course covers how the institutions of the justice system work in society. It examines how legal processes address social inequality and social problems.

Intelligence and national security

A global view of crime and U.S. policy. You’ll learn about crimes that cross borders, including cybercrime and industrial espionage, and how to use intelligence and counterintelligence for national security.

Research and data analysis in criminology

A course that demonstrates how to interpret data and research. It looks at crime detection techniques, methodology and the skills required to conduct research.

Ethics

This course focuses on decision making, policy and errors of justice in law enforcement, corrections and the courts.

Several master’s degree programs in criminology require a thesis as a culminating project, which usually accounts for 6 to 9 credits. Some programs have a non-thesis option, which require students to complete additional coursework. This track often includes a capstone project that involves research and real world experience.

Most programs encourage students to complete an internship in the field. Approximately 150 to 180 hours under the supervision of an industry professional is sufficient for 3 to 6 credits.

Program concentrations

A master’s degree in criminology provides an excellent opportunity to specialize. Potential concentrations include:

Global security

This concentration focuses on counterterrorism, international crime and homeland security. It also covers issues that impact other countries and regions and looks at security threats, policies and analysis.

Victimology

This specialization focuses on crime from the victim’s perspective. It includes how victims are treated, how they receive assistance and what their rights are. Victimology also examines the concept of restorative justice.

Policing

This concentration covers the history of police organizations, public safety, community relations and innovative strategies that could change the structure of law enforcement.

Corrections

This is for people who have or are seeking a career as a prison officer, warden or corrections specialist. It explores the concepts of parole, sentencing, probation and rehabilitation in a prison environment. 

Accreditation

Attending an accredited institution is crucial as it could influence your prospects for future study and employment. Criminology degree programs go through a peer review process to evaluate the quality of the instruction and materials.

Some master’s degrees in criminology are evaluated by the Academy of Criminal Justice Sciences (ACJS), a dedicated accreditation body. Most universities and colleges that provide criminology programs pursue accreditation through regional bodies or the Higher Learning Commission.

Career paths

A master’s degree in criminology can advance your existing career or open up new opportunities. Since it provides more experience and knowledge and allows you to specialize, holders of this degree can consider some advanced roles that require knowledge of security, policy and research.

A master’s degree in criminology could help you get a role as a federal agent for a number of organizations. If you have focused more on law enforcement, you could train to become an FBI or CIA agent. Alternatively, if your concentration was global security, then a position in Homeland Security may suit you.

These roles require detective work, an understanding of the law and policies and can be quite dangerous. They may also involve travel and working with many different organizations. The median annual salary for a federal agent is $88,819.

Another potential role with government agencies, intelligence analyst positions often involve travel and working with teams from multiple organizations. These roles are less dangerous than special agents and are typically based in an office.

This role might suit you if you were interested in the data analysis, research and technological side of criminology. You might also find an opportunity to work in a particular unit, such as cybercrime, if you took courses in that area. The median annual salary for this position is $71,008.

If you particularly enjoy the research aspect of your degree program, you might choose to pursue an academic or research institute position to review criminological theory and crime statistics.

Alternatively, if you gained experienced teaching while earning your master’s degree, you might want to continue in a similar role. The median annual salary for a postsecondary teacher is $79,540.

Continuing education

After you earn your master’s degree, you could consider a doctor of philosophy (Ph.D.). A doctorate can provide the opportunity to pursue research in a specific area of criminology and allow you to write and publish papers on the subject.

A Ph.D. in criminology is usually of interest to people who wish to gain an academic role as a professor, researcher or writer. Graduates could also choose to pursue less formal education, such as through training in their preferred areas of the criminal justice system.

Should you get this degree?

A master’s degree in criminology has many benefits. It can help you understand specific criminological theories and specialize in a particular area of interest. As a master’s degree holder, you’ll likely have more opportunities available to you, especially in terms of being considered for federal positions.

For those who are already working in the field, this degree could help your progress and seek promotion. It could mean a higher pay grade and more responsibilities in a managerial or supervisory position.

 Academy of Criminal Justice Sciences (ACJS) 

The accrediting body for bachelor’s and master’s degrees in criminology. It provides information about accredited schools.  

American Society of Criminology (ACS) 

A membership organization that focuses on crime measurement, prevention and consequences. It also has grants and funding opportunities