The best master’s degrees in criminology

HomeCriminal JusticeThe best master’s degrees in criminology

Introduction to criminology

Universities often combine the disciplines of criminology and criminal justice to come under the one department. This combination provides a lens to look at the psychological motivations and sociological impact of crime – the role of the law enforcement and the justice system.  Many programs also explore political factors, the role of the victim, and investigation techniques.

A master’s degree is the optimal level of education for a career in the criminal justice system. Typically, this degree allows you to concentrate on a specific area, such as victim advocacy, security management, or homeland security. These programs also equip you with more skills and a greater understanding of criminal theories than bachelor’s degrees.

Besides a passion for justice, you’ll need analytical and problem-solving skills, the ability to communicate clearly, and a strong foundation in research to succeed in this field. You’ll find programs that offer a master’s of arts (M.A.) or a master’s of science (M.S.) in criminology. 

Career options with this degree

A master’s degree in criminology can lead to many potential roles including:

  • criminal investigator
  • senior corrections officer or supervisor
  • security consultant
  • detective
  • post-secondary criminology lecturer
  • federal agent
  • customs and immigration officer
  • policy adviser for state and federal government  

A master’s degree may help you progress to a more senior position in your existing career or to gain roles that aren’t open to those with undergraduate degrees. The capstone projects that are part of the program give you hands-on experience, and your fellow students and professors provide excellent networking opportunities.

You may want to continue your education to a doctorate degree in criminology, which is possible after you earn your master’s degree. This route is often chosen by those who wish to pursue a career in research, theory,  policy or academia.

Top 10 criminology programs

  • Lasel University

    Lasel University Newton, Massachussets
    Lasel University

    Lasell University offers an M.S. in criminal justice through its graduate and professional studies school. The 4 program concentrations to choose from are – emergency and crisis management, homeland security and global justice, violence prevention and advocacy, and a self-designed option.

    The degree can be earned online or as a hybrid approach with some classes on the Newton campus in Massachusetts. The degree requires 36 credits for completion. Coursework includes critical legal issues in criminal justice, transnational crime, advanced applied forensics, victimology, and crisis communication. The program culminates in a research project or internship.

    Lasell doesn’t offer the opportunity to earn a Ph.D. It’s one of the smaller institutions on our list, with around 1,700 students enrolled full-time. The school is accredited by the New England Commission of Higher Education (NECHE).

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  • Arizona State University

    Arizona State University Phoenix, Arizona
    Arizona State University

    The Watts College of Public Service and Community Solutions at ASU is known for its criminology programs. The 2 master’s degrees are the online M.A. in criminal justice and the on-campus M.S. in criminology and criminal justice, taught at the downtown Phoenix campus.
    The programs require between 33 and 39 credits for completion. There are opportunities to choose between courses on policing, courts, and corrections, as well as the freedom to choose electives worth 6 to 12 credits. Through the online program, there’s an opportunity to specialize in corrections management, law enforcement administration, or homeland security.
    Coursework includes research methods for criminal justice, applied data analysis in criminal justice, and statistical tools for criminology. Students are asked to complete a theory and practice project or a thesis towards the end of the program.
    The school is accredited by the Higher Learning Commission. ASU is a large school; the downtown Phoenix campus, where the program is taught, has around 10,000 students. It’s possible to progress to a Ph.D. in criminology and criminal justice at ASU.

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  • Lindenwood University

    Lindenwood University St Charles, Missouri
    Lindenwood University

    Lindenwood University is a medium-sized school with a full-time enrollment of around 7,500 students.The criminology program is offered as an M.S. in criminal justice administration, which is available online, as a hybrid, or on-campus at St. Charles, Missouri. The accelerated program is offered over 5 terms and prepares graduates for leadership roles in criminal justice organizations.

    Students are required to complete between 33 and 39 credits, and there’s a foundation course in criminal justice for those without a degree or previous experience in the field. The coursework explores ethics, criminal justice leadership, constitutional law, police administration, and corrections administration. The program includes a capstone project. The school doesn’t offer a doctoral program in criminal justice.

    The school is accredited by the Higher Learning Commission, and the status of the program, with 5 terms, is currently pending approval.

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  • University of California, Irvine

    University of California, Irvine Irvine, California
    University of California, Irvine

    The Irvine campus of the University of California is a large and active place with around 35,000 full-time students.The department of criminology, law, and society (CLS) at UCI delivers a master of advanced studies (MAS) in criminology law and society. This 2-year online program incorporates a campus-based introduction course and requires a total of 52 credits.

    The coursework includes police, courts, and corrections, public policy and criminal justice, immigration in the U.S., hate crime, and preventing errors of justice. Students also learn about research methods and are asked to apply them in the second year when completing a capstone project.

    The school and its programs are accredited by the Western Association of Schools and Colleges (WASC). The school also offers a Ph.D. program in criminology, law, and society.

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  • Southern Illinois University

    Southern Illinois University Carbondale, Illinois
    Southern Illinois University

    With a student population of approximately 12,000 full-time students, SIU offers an on-campus M.A.degree in criminology and criminal justice. If you’re earning your B.A. at SIU, you can apply to the accelerated program to include the M.A. and graduate in 5 years. The traditional program, which is completed over 2 years, has both thesis and non-thesis tracks which respectively demand the completion of 36 and 33 credit hours.

    Coursework includes criminological theory, criminal justice research, and data analysis and interpretation in criminal justice.

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  • Kent State University

    Kent State University Kent, Ohio
    Kent State University

    This school is accredited by the Higher Learning Commission and has a relatively large population, with around 22,000 full-time students.The college of arts and sciences at KSU in Kent, Ohio, offers an M.A. in criminology and criminal justice through its department of sociology. Only available online, the program has 4 concentrations being global security, corrections, policing, and victimology.

    The minimum number of credits required to complete the program is 33 and core courses include law, justice and society, intelligence and national security, justice institutions, and theories of crime and delinquency. KSU doesn’t offer a doctoral program in criminology.

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  • University of Missouri

    University of Missouri St Louis, Missouri
    University of Missouri

    Along with its top bachelor’s degree program, UMSL also offers an excellent opportunity to earn an M.A. in criminology and criminal justice. The program is taught in a traditional in-person format in the evenings, making it accessible for those already working. The program has a thesis and a non-thesis option.

    A minimum of 30 credits is required to complete the program. This includes 12 core hours and 9 non-core criminology hours, which can be used for research in the thesis option, and 9 other electives. Coursework includes criminological theory, methods, statistics, violence in America, policing, and courts.

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  • Georgia State University

    Georgia State University Atlanta, Georgia
    Georgia State University

    The M.S. in criminal justice is delivered by the Andrew Young School of Policy Studies at GSU. The 2-year program is taught on-campus at the Atlanta campus. It focuses on crime analysis and the use of research methods and statistics to explore and understand crime theory and criminal justice practices.

    The minimum number of credits required to complete the program is 36, and coursework includes legal aspects of criminal justice, research methods and statistics in criminal justice, ethics, correctional issues, and law enforcement issues. Students can complete internships that entail 180 hours of fieldwork.

    After you’ve earned your master’s degree, you could choose to progress to a Ph.D. in criminal justice and criminology at GSU. The school is accredited by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges (SACSCOC). The university has around 25,000 full-time students.

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  • University of Maryland

    University of Maryland College Park, Maryland
    University of Maryland

    The department of criminology and criminal justice at College Park is known for its undergraduate and graduate programs in the subject. There is a range of options, including a joint M.A. and Juris Doctor (JD) program, a traditional M.A. in criminology and criminal justice taught in person, and an online M.S. with a specialization in criminal justice management.

    The traditional course requires 30 credit hours, while the online management program needs 36. Coursework for the M.A. includes criminal justice, criminological research, criminology, and thesis research. The M.S. includes core courses on management and concentration modules on correctional administration, security management, and issues in criminal justice leadership.

    The department provides the opportunity to continue your education through a Ph.D. in criminology and criminal justice. The school is accredited by the Middle States Commission on Higher Education (MSCHE). UMD is a large school with an enrollment of around 36,000 full-time students.

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Career options with degree holders

While many entry-level positions are open to holders of a bachelor’s degree, you typically need a master’s degree to progress or access key roles in prestigious organizations. Here are some of the areas and roles that may be available to you with a graduate degree:

Correctional officers

There’s a projected growth of 4% for correctional specialists between 2019 and 2029. A master’s degree in criminology can help you to get to a more senior role as a supervisor or a prison warden. In this role, you’ll deal more with the organizational side, including implementing policy. Although there may be physical aspects to this stressful role, it can be rewarding.

The median annual salary for these positions is $88,699.

Law enforcement

A master’s degree may help you beat the competition when it comes to a role in law enforcement. Typically, this degree will open up pathways towards jobs at federal agencies or working in intelligence. For example, you could work as a special agent investigating federal crimes, where the median annual salary is $88,819.

Another potential role is as an intelligence analyst. The median annual salary for this position is $70,942. Between 2019 and 2029, there’s a projected growth of 5% for detective and investigative roles. 

Other roles

As a holder of a master’s degree in criminology, you may be eligible to continue your research in an academic post, or to become a secondary teacher, sharing your knowledge with others. This position might be appealing if you already have experience in law enforcement, corrections, or within the justice system. The median annual salary for the job is $79,540, and a 9% growth is predicted between 2019 and 2029.

Future prospects

Many master’s degree holders choose to progress in their careers once graduating. It can open up more senior positions in your existing field or enable you to move into areas that are more rewarding and offer more responsibility. Since many programs allow you to specialize, they create the opportunity to develop the expertise and skills to work in homeland security or complex political environments.

Other students choose to continue their education to the terminal level with a Ph.D. Further education brings the greatest level of understanding of the subject, which can lead to more research, influencing policy at the highest level, or an academic position where you teach students.

Financial aid

Many students seek federal financial aid through the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) form. Alternatively, several in-person graduate programs offer teaching assistant roles to graduate students that can help to pay tuition costs, other institutions have programs that waive fees and provide accommodation in return for teaching work.

Another option would be to apply for a scholarship or a grant, such as the George Watt Prize, which is an essay competition regarding sociological and political subjects, which is awarded to graduate students. Scholarships and grants can contribute from $200 up to around $3,000 towards degree costs, tuition, and other expenses.