Criminal justice is a multidisciplinary field that integrates sociology, criminology, the physical sciences, political science, and psychology. Because of the broad nature of the discipline, criminal justice professionals can occupy diverse roles, including law enforcement officers, victim advocates, forensic investigators, and criminal rehabilitation specialists. They can focus their academic training in areas like homeland security, which prepares them for careers as emergency management directors. These leaders protect lives from natural and human-made disasters.
The criminal justice field as a whole continues to expand, thanks to a growing focus on national borders and global terrorism. This latter development represents a particularly severe challenge to individual and community safety. Fortunately, students pursue criminal justice degrees in large numbers -- over 132,000 in 2016, according to Data USA. By earning advanced credentials, candidates prepare themselves for leadership positions in the criminal justice field.
Criminal justice career opportunities grow to meet the urgent demands for skilled administrators, researchers, and specialists. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects a 7% increase for police and detectives and an 8% increase for emergency management directors from 2016 to 2026. Private detective and investigator positions stand to grow 11% and forensic science technicians will benefit from a staggering 17% expansion during this same time frame.
Educational Paths to a Career in Criminal Justice
The following sections detail four degree levels students may pursue to prepare for criminal justice careers. Associate and bachelor's programs provide foundational coursework and key skills students need for success in the job market and graduate studies. By earning a master's or doctoral degree, candidates can occupy high-ranking and specialized positions in areas like management, dedicated research, and postsecondary teaching. As an alternative to campus-based programs, students can engage in remote learning at each degree level.
- Associate Degrees
Associate degrees in criminal justice provide students with an introduction to the field. The curriculum consists of at least 60 credits, which learners typically complete in two years. Candidates who pursue accelerated online tracks take eight-week courses year-round and graduate in about 18 months. Colleges and universities also enable students to expedite program completion by granting transfer credits for certain standardized test scores. Students can also receive credits for relevant professional experience, including basic police, parole, probation, and corrections academy training.
Criminal justice students take core classes in American government, English composition, and critical thinking. Associate programs introduce students to the scope and effects of crime in the United States. They delve into theories of delinquency and criminal behavior. Candidates also examine the U.S. justice system, which covers law enforcement, judicial processes, and correctional operations. Learners may round out their associate training by exploring more advanced topics, like criminal law and juvenile criminal justice.
With an associate degree, students can access entry-level criminal justice careers. Opportunities abound in the law enforcement sector and include police officer, correctional officer, and private investigator. Private security guard, gaming surveillance specialist, and fire inspector represent other lucrative positions. Graduates may also pursue careers as paralegals and legal assistants, positions that the BLS projects will grow 16% between 2016 and 2026. PayScale places the median annual salary for associate degree holders in this field at $45,000.
- Bachelor's Degrees
Like associate tracks, bachelor's programs in criminal justice help students develop core competencies needed for professional success. They also offer opportunities for further training through advanced classes, concentration options, and practicums. Bachelor's degree plans comprise a minimum of 120 credits, which candidates usually complete in four years.
Higher education institutions often offer two-year accelerated tracks to all students, but they typically target distance learners for this format because they understand that this group largely comprises working professionals and returning students. Degree completion tracks provide students another method to accelerate their program, where associate degree holders often benefit from direct-transfer pathways if they enroll in an in-state university.
Criminal justice bachelor's degree plans usually include required classes in criminology, judicial administration, and legal traditions. Students learn how to write professional documents and research guidelines and best practices. They also delve into correctional programs, complex incarceration theories, and alternative rehabilitation methods through community-based programming. Bachelor's programs enable learners to specialize their degree in fields like crime scene investigation, homeland security, and legal studies. Undergraduate training typically culminates with an internship that allows learners to gain hands-on experience and develop career connections.
Careers for criminal justice majors include social services positions like guidance counselor, child safety advocate, and social worker. Graduates who want to pursue law enforcement positions can use their bachelor's credentials to obtain leadership positions with higher pay. They may also apply for federal positions with the FBI and CIA. Forensics represents an exciting area for criminal justice professionals. According to PayScale, bachelor's degree holders in this field earn a median annual salary of $54,000.
- Master's Degrees
Master's programs in criminal justice build on the core competencies of associate and bachelor's degrees, training students in specialized skills relevant to their particular career path. Most students complete the typically 30-credit degree plan in two years. Accelerated tracks and degree completion programs also exist at the graduate level, allowing students to engage in intensive training and graduate in as little as 12 months. Colleges and universities, especially those that offer online programming, generally allow students to fulfill at least 50% of degree requirements through transfer credits.
Required coursework for master's programs often focuses on managerial concepts. Students take classes in criminal justice planning and program evaluation. They train in data analytics, learning to gather, assess, and present complex information to aid organizational strategies and decision-making processes. Degree candidates fill out the remaining credits with career-oriented electives, internships, and research-focused capstone projects.
At the master's level, criminal justice careers center around leadership positions. In addition to the aforementioned emergency management director career, students are well-prepared to occupy similar roles in security management, public administration, and human resources. They can apply their skills globally, working as cyberterrorism specialists and federal intelligence officers.
According to BLS employment projections, master's degree holders earn over $12,000 more in median annual salary than professionals with bachelor's credentials. They also benefit from a significantly lower unemployment rate. To bolster their career opportunities, criminal justice professionals can obtain optional certification and licensure. The International Association for Identification operates certificate programs for crime scene investigators, analysts, and other professionals in the field.
- Doctoral Degrees
As terminal credentials, doctoral degrees in criminal justice provide students with the highest level of academic training available. Degree plans range from 50 to 75 credits, which candidates typically complete in five years. Students usually spend the first two years taking designated classes and spend the remainder of the program engaged in research and hands-on training while preparing for their dissertation defense or applied capstone project.
Two main types of doctoral tracks exist in the field of criminal justice. Doctor of philosophy (Ph.D.) programs focus on research, publication, and teaching. Doctor of business administration (DBA) programs emphasize managerial training that allows learners to advance into senior executive and director positions. Like all students, doctoral candidates can usually engage in remote learning, taking asynchronous classes powered by platforms like Blackboard and Canvas.
Classes vary greatly depending on the nature of the doctoral program. Ph.D. students typically enroll in courses like assessing criminal justice theory and issues in globalized crime. They engage in extensive research training, learning to analyze crime data and design quantitative and qualitative research methods. On the other hand, coursework for DBA candidates tends to highlight organizational management topics. These students delve into leadership theory, strategic thinking, and consulting and intervention practices. All doctoral candidates spend the bulk of their program conducting research and overseeing dissertation projects.
Criminal justice career options for doctoral degree holders include social service director and information systems manager. With this level of academic preparation, professionals can also pursue positions like forensic scientist and police chief. Furthermore, they may apply their research and teaching experience as tenure-eligible college professors. The BLS projects a 15% growth in postsecondary instructor positions from 2016 to 2026.
Career Paths in Criminal Justice
A criminal justice degree trains students to protect human lives, property, and the environment. To these diverse ends, potential careers for criminal justice graduates vary greatly based on the level of a professional's training and the program concentrations they pursue. Law enforcement organizations and judicial bodies represent common settings for these professionals. Similarly, students can become criminologists, who analyze criminal behavior and the penal system to combat crime at the organizational and regulatory levels.
The six sections below provide an overview of some criminal justice careers. Students should access the corresponding links for in-depth information on these job opportunities. In addition to popular occupations like correctional officer, emergency management director, and fish and game warden, growing opportunities exist in unconventional areas. Criminal justice students may apply their skills in the private sector, working as security directors, loss prevention specialists, and policy advisors.
Through a criminology specialization, students develop the skills to examine, explain, and rehabilitate criminal and deviant behavior. Advanced coursework covers topics like policy analysis, intelligence and national security, and correctional practices. Graduates can pursue all major criminal justice careers, or they may occupy specialized roles like diplomatic security advisor or research criminologist.
Cybersecurity concerns the evaluation and prevention of virtual crimes, including identity theft, corporate blackmail, and cyberterrorism. Specialized classes comprise intelligence and counterintelligence, cryptography, and ethical hacking. Professionals typically earn a bachelor's degree and professional certification to access the majority of career opportunities in this field. Options include information security analyst and computer network architect.
Students usually pursue emergency management training as part of a homeland security curriculum. They develop the program development and leadership skills to occupy managerial roles in nonprofit, private, and government organizations. The degree plan includes advanced topics like critical incident management, disaster planning and response, and ethics in public safety agencies. Emergency management careers include occupational safety consultant, environmental health director, and natural disaster relief coordinator.
Forensic science stands at the intersection between criminology, law, and research science. Students learn to conduct forensic investigations at crime scenes and in the laboratory. They locate and extract potential evidence, analyze samples, and document information for use in criminal trials. These graduates may occupy roles like crime scene investigator, forensic medical examiner, and forensic engineer.
Fire science professionals identify potential hazards and oversee safety training programs for volunteers, community members, and companies' personnel. They also respond to fire-related emergencies and disasters. Students do not need a college degree to become firefighters or fire inspectors. However, more advanced careers require bachelor's-level training and beyond, including conservation scientist, forensic investigator, and employee safety director.
Students who engage in homeland security training learn the laws, programs, and strategies that keep the U.S. resilient against natural disasters and terrorist attacks. Curricula vary widely but can include advanced courses like the roles of first and second responders, international drug trafficking, and history of global terrorism. Graduates go on to careers in security software development, intelligence analysis, and government policy.
Meet a Criminal Justice Professional
McKinsey Wiltermuth serves as the project coordinator for the Greene County Family Justice Center, an internationally recognized best-practice model for communities to address the needs of domestic violence survivors and their families. McKinsey previously worked as the case manager for a domestic violence shelter, where she worked to assist survivors in achieving a life free from violence. She attended Missouri State University and graduated with a bachelor's degree in criminology in 2017. She received the Newman Civic Fellowship and the Student Talent and Recognition Award for Excellence in Service.
- What made you decide to become a criminal justice major?
For the majority of my life, I had wanted to be an attorney. In my first year of college, I started with a major other than criminology and quickly learned I was not enjoying it and really second guessing my career options. During this time, I was a nanny for two attorneys, and their advice to me was to pick something I was interested in, something I knew would keep my attention. I have an odd obsession with documentaries on crime and decided I would go with criminology as a major. It may have been a silly reason for picking the major, but ultimately it kept me engaged in my classes and striving to learn more about our criminal justice system. During this time, I also learned about my passion for helping people and I truly got to see all of the different avenues that there are out there for doing that, which led me to my career today.
- What skills did you learn while working toward your degree?
I learned so many skills as a criminology major. One that I wasn't a huge fan of at the time but has been a great asset to have is the research component. I learned a lot about asking questions and never being afraid to question why something is done a certain way. Like any other college student, I also learned a lot about time management.
- How did these skills help at work?
The skills I learned as a criminology major are endlessly aiding me in my career, from things as simple as being able to fully engage in a conversation and understanding the jargon to being able to present new ideas confidently.
In regard to the research skills, it has helped me because there is always a benefit to having statistics and being able to show best practices in your work. I'm able to articulate the “why” behind policies and procedures and why I choose the methods of practice I do. It also helps to better understand the population I'm working with; researching trauma awareness and really learning about it helped me to develop a better understanding for those I'm serving. Time management is a valuable skill in work and everyday life and has helped me to stay on top of my caseload. The ability to ask questions has been a major benefit, as in the criminal justice system people are often overworked and tend to do things a certain way because that is how it has always been done. It takes new and innovative individuals coming in the door and really questioning things to start to see some positive change.
- Do you have any tips for criminal justice students?
Build relationships with professors. They are there to help you and shape you, so take advantage of that. Most professors have office hours; go to them even if you don't have any specific questions about assignments. Really get to know them and their experience. Relationship building is key. You will likely need to ask them for references later, so start building relationships now.
Job shadow your entire time in college. Even if you think you know what you want to do as a career, you can never have too much information about other professions. Even if you only go for 2 hours, go! Even if you aren't sure it will be a good fit for you, go! If nothing else, you will gain an appreciation for the other professions within the field, which will help you better do your job when you graduate.
Pick a major related volunteer activity (for me it was a domestic violence shelter) and go for 5 hours a month. It is absolutely doable, and it will again give you information on what you think you like to do and insight into the inner operations of that profession. It also shows future employers that you are dedicated to something. You might not have a lot of work experience, but volunteer work and internships count for just as much if you can show consistency and what you learned.
Professional Resources for Criminal Justice Majors
With members including academics, practitioners, and students, ACJS promotes professional and scholarly activities in the criminal justice field. The association organizes national and local meetings, gives awards to recognize exemplary service in the field, publishes several scholarly journals, and certifies academic programs. ACJS also maintains an employment bulletin on its website.
Founded in 1942, Alpha Phi Sigma is an honor society that recognizes academic excellence in the criminal justice field. Members can access a private career site and apply for a variety of scholarships and grants. Alpha Phi Sigma also hosts an annual conference and supports students through local chapter resources.
AAFS represents a diverse constituency of professionals working within the forensic sciences. The group's mission entails advancing science and its use in the legal system. AAFS publishes a scholarly journal, lists job opportunities, and offers referrals to lawyers for expert witnesses in addition to hosting an online reference library for its members.
ACA serves the professional interests of correctional officers and rehabilitation professionals. The association offers online and in-person professional development resources, establishes standards and accreditation guidelines for the field, hosts conferences and workshops, and advocates on behalf of members. ACA also provides scholarships to aspiring corrections professionals.
Despite its name, APPA serves as the leading international professional association for those working in probation and parole functions. APPA aspires to strengthen the collective voice of its members through advocacy and education. The association administers a national leadership training institute, provides online and on-site professional development opportunities, and accredits programs within the field.
ASC pursues greater scientific understanding of the causes, consequences, prevention, and treatment of crime and delinquency. The organization provides forums for interdisciplinary research, gives awards for scholarly contributions to the field, organizes a mentoring program for members, and features a job board. ASC also hosts a number of networking opportunities, including an annual meeting.
Representing female law enforcement officers across the globe, the IAWP works to bolster the capacity of women in policing. The association provides financial support to members through its "adopt-an-officer" program and hosts regional professional development events around the world. A scholarship program helps members from outside the U.S. and Canada attend the IAWP's annual training conference.
The NABCJ provides support to people of color working in the field of criminal justice. The NABCJ's mission involves drawing more minorities into the profession by awarding scholarships, hosting networking and training conferences, and establishing local student chapters. The NABCJ has also created a code of professional ethics for its members.
A nonprofit member association, the NCJA works with all levels of government to promote effective criminal justice policy and secure necessary funding for justice assistance programs. The NCJA provides its partners and members with training and technical assistance, grant management support, and access to data and research. The association also plays a role in covening criminal justice policymakers, practitioners, and scholars.
NOHCJ promotes equal opportunity for Hispanics and other minorities in the field of criminal justice. Although primarily an advocacy organization, NOHCJ recently established a scholarship program for young Hispanics interested in pursuing a postsecondary degree in criminal justice. The organization also hosts an annual education and networking conference.