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October 28, 2020

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The demand for all kinds of criminal justice professionals continues to grow. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects that employment in protective service occupations will increase 5% through 2026. Projections for the same period in forensic science and information security point to even faster growth rates than the average for all occupations. In short, graduates of criminal justice master's programs enjoy a competitive edge as they enter the field or advance in their careers.

The BLS projects that employment in protective service occupations will increase 5% through 2026.

A master's in criminal justice leads to more employment possibilities and higher salaries than a bachelor's or associate degree. A criminal justice master's degree serves as a pathway to rewarding opportunities in law enforcement, criminal investigation, and postsecondary education. Graduates with a master's in criminal justice can also move into higher-level administrative positions in local, state, and federal government agencies. Additionally, specialized fields that rely on technological applications and advanced research and data analysis increasingly require professionals with the education a criminal justice master's provides.

Should I Get a Master's in Criminal Justice?

A master's in criminal justice provides a range of career-enhancing skills. While most master's programs emphasize research methodology and data and statistical analysis, coursework and specializations vary widely by school. Some programs offers specializations in topics such as policing and corrections, cybercrime, forensics, and homeland security. Many programs also require a culminating capstone course, a research project or an internship, or a written thesis. When selecting a criminal justice master's program, make sure that your career goals and personal interests align with the program's course offerings and requirements.

Students may earn a master's in criminal justice through distance learning or in a traditional on-campus setting. An online criminal justice master's provides a convenient and flexible option for students whose work or family responsibilities keep them from enrolling in a traditional brick-and-mortar program. Distance learning programs often attract working professionals looking to move up in their professions or change careers. Conversely, an on-campus master's may appeal to students coming directly out of an undergraduate program and who aspire to a credentialed position in a criminal justice field. Students in on-campus graduate programs also benefit from the interaction with other students and the opportunity to study under the direct supervision of a faculty mentor.

Whether attending classes online or on campus, students nearing graduation can take advantage of career placement services and opportunities for internships and independent research. Whatever the delivery format, a criminal justice master's provides a competitive advantage in the workforce that translates into greater career prospects and higher salaries.

What Can I Do With a Master's in Criminal Justice?

While each master's in criminal justice offers a unique emphasis, all programs equip their graduates with the critical thinking skills, specialized research, and technological tools required to move into in a broad range of fields. This degree prepares students for administrative and leadership roles in public service and the private sector, and a variety of careers in law enforcement, information security, forensic science, and postsecondary education. For example, government agencies like the FBI, CIA, and DEA have expanded employment opportunities for recruits that hold advanced degrees. Meanwhile, private industries that face growing concerns about security and fraud are creating positions for highly trained professionals in data analysis and computer applications.

Information Security Analysts

These professionals develop and implement cybersecurity measures in many organizational settings. They monitor threats, investigate breaches, assess damage, and apply solutions. These analysts must stay current in the use of the latest security software and network programs. Most analysts enter the field with at least a bachelor's degree, and graduate training boosts career advancement.

Median Annual Salary: $95,510*

Criminal Justice and Law Enforcement Teachers, Postsecondary

These educators teach courses in undergraduate and graduate programs in criminal justice, legal studies, and related fields. They also advise students, conduct research, publish scholarly works, and serve on committees in order to move ahead in academic rank. Most postsecondary schools consider a master's as the minimum educational level for teaching positions, but many college and university faculty have earned doctorate degrees.

Median Annual Salary: $62,960*

Forensic Science Technicians

These technicians collect, catalogue, and analyze evidence for criminal investigations. They gather evidence at crime scenes, conduct scientific and technological analyses in labs, and sometimes provide expert testimony in criminal cases. While many enter the field with a bachelor's degree, increasing numbers of forensic specialists earn graduate degrees and specialized credentials.

Median Annual Salary: $60,400*

Police and Detectives

The law enforcement duties carried out by police officers and detectives differ by the type of employer and specific job requirements. However, many police officers with an undergraduate degree find that a master's opens up greater professional opportunities. Criminal investigators, detectives, and federal agents often pursue graduate degrees to move ahead in rank.

Median Annual Salary: $57,850*

Probations Officers and Correctional Treatment Specialists

These professionals assist in the rehabilitation of criminal offenders. They help offenders fulfill the conditions of their parole, avoid repeat incarceration, and connect them with services such as job training or drug counseling. Most positions call for a bachelor's degree but requirements vary by jurisdiction. A master's degree and specialized training lead to expanded career opportunities.

Median Annual Salary: $51,410*

Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics

How to Choose a Master's in Criminal Justice Program

You should thoroughly research programs before deciding on a criminal justice master's. Pay attention to the school's accreditation status (see below), its reputation, and program rankings. Each program offers specializations that reflect the research and teaching interests of its faculty, so make sure your prospective programs offer courses and specializations that correspond to your career goals and research interests.

Students enrolled full time may finish all degree requirements for the criminal justice master's in two years. Some full-time online degrees may be completed in as little as 18 months, or in three or more years with part-time enrollment. Students who need to work or handle family commitments may prefer the flexibility offered by an online program. A thesis or research requirement may lengthen the time needed to complete a criminal justice master's degree.

The cost of a master's in criminal justice differs widely by type of program and location, and there are several factors to consider. For example, tuition rates may vary considerably between public and private institutions. Most schools charge higher tuition rates for out-of-state students, however some online programs offer a flat tuition rate regardless of your state of residency.

The school's location also contributes to the cost. Some online programs may require you to travel to campus for in-person classes, while on-campus students need to factor housing, transportation, food, and other expenses on top of tuition and fees. Students should seek out work-study or other on-campus job opportunities, as well as consider off-campus employment.

Programmatic Accreditation for Master's in Criminal Justice Programs

Accreditation is one of the most important factors to consider when choosing a master's in criminal justice. Employers look for applicants with degrees from accredited institutions; students who attend unaccredited schools may not receive federal grants or loans, or transfer credits earned from these schools to an accredited institution. Additionally, most schools hold either national or regional accreditation. Vocational, technical, and for-profit schools typically hold the former, which means they offer less rigorous admissions requirements and inexpensive tuition. Regional accreditation, on the other hand, requires higher professional and academic standards.

In addition to regional or national accreditation, some schools obtain specialized accreditation for programs and degrees within a particular field of study. For example, the Academy of Criminal Justice Sciences (ACJS) awards programmatic accreditation for bachelor's and master's degrees in criminal justice. Earning this accreditation means the program is recognized for both its quality and effectiveness. While generally acknowledged as a prestigious credential, very few schools offering a criminal justice master's have received ACJS certification. However, the lack of this specialized credential should not deter students from considering other programs.

Master's in Criminal Justice Program Admissions

The earlier you begin the application process, the greater your chances of success. Most schools make their final decisions by April 15, therefore students should begin the process nearly a year before. Start by researching programs, and comparing requirements and specializations. Many on-campus programs want to see GRE scores, while some online degrees do not consider them. If required, take the GRE in late summer or fall.

Narrow your choices to a few "target schools" that represent the best fit for your interests and where you have the requisite GPA and test scores. You should also apply to one or two "safety schools" where you will likely get accepted. Some students include a few "reach schools" where they have less of a chance of getting in.

Most schools require a statement of purpose that outlines the reasons for your interest. You should ask faculty members to prepare letters of recommendation well in advance of the application due date. Finally, have official transcripts sent to each school, complete the applications, and submit them by the end of December -- well before the decision deadline.


Most programs require an undergraduate degree. While many applicants have completed an undergraduate degree in criminal justice, others enter the field from a variety of majors in the liberal arts and sciences, business, and technology. Online programs may consider professional experience of applicants who are already employed in criminal justice fields, and who want to move up in rank or change career paths. Traditional campus programs that often admit students directly from an undergraduate program may give less weight to work experience. Most graduate schools require a minimum GPA of 3.0 out of 4.0. Schools may consider a lower GPA if grades improved steadily from ninth grade through senior year.

Admission Materials

Most schools require substantial documentation, including letters of recommendation, statements of purpose, and transcripts. Have the registrar's office of each college you attended send an official transcript directly to your intended graduate program. Do this well before the application deadline, and expect to pay a modest fee to cover preparation and mailing costs. Some schools require as many as three recommendations. Ask faculty members who know you well enough to describe how you will fit into the intended graduate program. Make sure to request letters well before the application deadline. Many graduate schools require GRE scores. Some programs give more weight to overall academic performance, recommendations, and other factors. A few schools may accept the GMAT in place of the GRE. Graduate application fees vary by school. You should expect an average fee of $50 for each application, and some programs can charge $75 and above. Students who claim financial hardship may request a waiver.

What Else Can I Expect From a Master's in Criminal Justice Program?

Most criminal justice master's programs offer a common set of foundational requirements and specialized concentrations in key areas of criminal justice. Concentrations vary by school, reflecting program strengths and faculty research interests. Students should select a concentration that aligns with their own interests and career goals. This table provides a representative list of common areas of concentration and related employment possibilities.

Concentrations Offered for a Master's Degree in Criminal Justice
Concentration Description Careers
Cybersecurity and Cybercrime Students learn to prevent computer- and internet-related crimes, detect system vulnerabilities, and protect data. Coursework covers such topics like digital forensics, network and mobile systems, information security, and cybercrime technology. Students are also introduced to firewalls, data encryption, and other preventative tools. This concentration also addresses risk management and assessment, cybersecurity policy, and trends in cybercrime. Cybersecurity specialist, information security analyst, computer forensic examiner, security operations specialist
Homeland Security This concentration covers the major elements of national safety and emergency management. Coursework addresses the causes and effects of domestic and international terrorism, preparedness and response to threats, and risk assessment and management. Students gain an understanding of the roles and functions of government agencies and policy issues related to homeland security. Security and intelligence analysts, CIA special agent, secret service officer, customs and border, protection agent, transportation security administration officer
Public Administration The study of public administration in criminal justice provides students with an understanding of management systems in law enforcement agencies and criminal justice organizations across the public and private sector. Coursework focuses on ethics and accountability, business finance, public policy and planning, human resource management, and contemporary challenges in contemporary criminal justice administration. Police department managers, public policy analysts, social service administrators
Forensic Technology This concentration prepares students to apply technological tools to the scientific collection and analysis of evidence in criminal investigations. Students may select courses in forensic toxicology, computer forensics, and crime scene investigation. They study applications for firearm ballistics, fingerprint and other impression evidence, and the forensic analysis of drug and trace evidence. Forensic crime scene investigator, forensic anthropologist, forensic toxicologist, computer forensic specialist, latent print examiner
Corrections The study of corrections covers a variety of functions for the punishment, treatment, supervision, and rehabilitation of persons who have been convicted of criminal activity. Students evaluate best practices for effective offender interventions that reduce recidivism. Coursework includes correctional theories, organizational behavior, correctional administration and procedures, penology, and crisis management. Correctional officers and supervisors, correctional treatment specialists, prison wardens, probation officers, juvenile corrections counselors

Courses in a Master's in Criminal Justice Program

Required courses and concentrations vary across programs, but most master's in criminal justice require a set of core courses in theory, methodology, and statistical analysis. Some programs also ask students to complete a written thesis or other independent research project. This table gives examples of the types of courses a student can expect to take in most criminal justice master's programs.

Research Methodology in Criminal Justice

Students learn how to use the major research methods and statistical techniques currently applied in the field of criminal justice. Topics include research design, hypothesis testing, survey construction, data collection and analysis, and report writing. This course teaches students to evaluate and assess policies and research, and to design and conduct research projects with applications to criminal justice professions.


This course explores criminal activity committed through computer technology and the internet. The course addresses computer hacking, electronic surveillance, encryption, and network security. Students acquire practical skills and technological tools for employment in a variety of cybersecurity positions.

Policing in Society

Policing refers to all the activities performed by law enforcement officers. This course examines policing as a structure of social control, and police as agents of social control, with contemporary applications for law enforcement professionals and policymakers. Topics include policing in a multicultural society, police organizations, community-based policing, and current trends in law enforcement.

The U.S. Correctional System

This introduction to U.S. corrections examines foundational theories on retribution, deterrence, incapacitation and rehabilitation, and applies them to cases that illustrate punishment, control, treatment, and prevention. This course introduces future correctional professionals to central issues including correctional law, juvenile and adult detention; probation, parole, and treatment models; and the management of correctional facilities.

Race, Crime, and Justice

This course applies theoretical perspectives and contemporary research to the analysis of racial differences in crime rates, arrests, sentencing, and incarceration. Students examine how structural inequality and implicit and overt biases create and reinforce discriminatory law enforcement practices. This seminar provides practical and timely applications for those planning careers in law enforcement, public policy, and education.

How Long Does It Take to Get a Master's in Criminal Justice?

Several factors affect the length of time needed to complete a master's degree. Coursework for a traditional on-campus master's in criminal justice ranges between 30 to 40 credits. Most programs take two years of full-time study to complete; the more credits required, the longer the program will take to finish. An online program may be completed in nine months to a year, if students take a full-time course load with no breaks.

The length of a program ultimately depends on the program requirements and the number of courses a student completes each term. Some learners can handle a full-time course schedule and maintain continuous enrollment over the two-year program. Others must attend part time while juggling work or family responsibilities, thereby prolonging the time needed to complete the degree. A written thesis requirement or fieldwork may also lengthen the amount of time needed to finish the degree.

How Much Is a Master's in Criminal Justice?

Earning a criminal justice master's degree requires a major financial investment, but the returns -- in the form of higher salaries and expanded career options -- make it worthwhile. The National Center for Education Statistics reports the average graduate tuition for public colleges and universities at $11,303 and $23,919 for private, not-for-profit schools. However, tuition rates vary according to several factors like program, type of school, and location. For example, public schools tend to cost more than private institutions -- with some exceptions -- but students may also find tuition and fees for out-of-state schools much higher than in-state rates.

The benefit of online programs at private schools is that they sometimes charge the same tuition rate to both in-state and out-of-state students. While online students save on transportation and lodging costs, they do have to pay distance learning and technology fees that do not apply to students enrolled in brick-and-mortar programs.

Make sure to investigate all available financial aid options. Look into scholarships and grants that do not have to be repaid before you decide to take on a federal or private loan. Some schools offer specialized scholarships, graduate fellowships, military benefits, or work-study awards. Working professionals who plan to return for their degree should check with their employer about any tuition remission benefits; employers can sometimes pay for an employee's degree in exchange for a commitment of continued employment.

Certifications and Licenses a Master's in Criminal Justice Prepares For

Certified Information Security Manager (CISM)

The Information Systems Audit and Control Association (ISACA) offers the CISM certification for professionals who manage, design, and assess information security systems. Information system professionals recognize the CISM certification as one of the highest paying and sought after IT credentials. Applicants must have five years of experience in the field of information security and pass a 200-question exam.

Certified Information Systems Security Professional (CISSP)

Professionals working in the various areas of security operations and risk management may qualify for this information security certification, which is granted by the International Information Security Certification Consortium (ISC). Applicants must have five years of direct full-time work experience in information security-related fields, provide their criminal history, and pass a multiple choice exam.

Certified Criminal Justice Addictions Professional (CCJP)

Probation officers, corrections officers, and others who work with drug-related offenders may qualify for this certification. Applicants must have 6,000 hours of experience in drug rehabilitation or a criminal justice field. They must also complete 270 hours of coursework and a supervised internship. A criminal justice degree may be applied to some of the coursework or internship hours.

Global Certified Forensic Analyst (GCFA)

Professionals working in information security, incident response fields, and computer forensics may receive the GCFA certification. This credential certifies that candidates have the skills to handle internal and external data breaches, advanced persistent threats, and complex digital forensic issues. Applicants must demonstrate core skills in collecting and analyzing data from Linux and Windows operating systems.

Corrections Certification Professionals (CCP)

The American Correctional Association (ACA) administers several certifications for corrections officers, supervisors, managers and executives. It also offers certifications for juvenile justice professionals, correctional personnel who work with security threat groups, and those who work in healthcare corrections. ACA offers a provisional certification for graduating students beginning their careers in a corrections-related agency.

Resources for Criminal Justice Graduate Students

FBI Uniform Crime Report

The FBI maintains this archive of crime data collected from over 18,000 federal, state, county, city, and college agencies. Users generally recognize the report as a highly reliable and up-to-date source for U.S. crime data. Updates appear four times a year.

Bureau of Justice Statistics

Like the FBI Uniform Crime Report, this government sponsored search engine for criminal justice professionals, researchers, and students collects crime data from across the U.S. Users may search in several content areas, including by type of offense, victims, law enforcement organization, and employment.

National Criminal Justice Reference Service

The NCJRS online archive provides summaries of 200,000 research studies in criminal justice, juvenile delinquency and justice, and substance abuse. Users of this site may access full texts of federally funded studies.

Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Publications

As the official government source for statistics on juvenile justice and juvenile delinquency, the OJJDP website features downloadable online resources on all aspects of juvenile crime and legislation. Content includes newsletters, research studies, statistical analysis, and tables.

National Institute of Justice

The NIJ archives offer users several categories of criminal justice research, including journal articles and multimedia presentations. The website also lists continuing education and training courses for students and professionals.

Professional Organizations in Criminal Justice

Joining a professional association offers graduate students the chance to network with experienced practitioners, specialists, and researchers. Members learn about new developments in the field, continuing education, internships, and certification opportunities. These organizations host conferences and workshops, publish newsletters and scholarly research, and maintain career resource centers with job listings. Many offer free or reduced membership to students. This list provides an introduction to some of the major criminal justice organizations and the range of benefits they offer.

ACA represents the interests of corrections professionals at all levels. It sponsors conferences, training programs, and professional development workshops. A major force for the establishment of accreditation standards for correctional organizations and practitioners, ACA administers the Certified Corrections Professional program. One of the largest criminal justice associations in the United States, ACJS boasts a membership of over 2,800 professionals, researchers, educators, and students. It sponsors conferences and workshops, publishes research, and oversees the ACJS certification program. This international society provides opportunities to share information and discuss current scholarship, research, teaching, and practice in criminology and criminal justice. Students make up 30 percent of the overall ASC membership. AAFS advances forensic science and its application to the law and criminal investigation. It publishes the Journal of Forensic Sciences and sponsors an annual meeting. Student members may access career placement services, mentoring, and credential information. This organization represents the interests of professionals from all areas of the criminal and juvenile justice systems. NCJA addresses public safety, crime control, and crime prevention issues. Student members receive a weekly newsletter that focuses on government affairs and research developments. They also have access to networking events, free webinars, and discounted conference fees.
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