Master’s in Criminology Program Guide

October 28, 2020

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Millions of American work in public safety, investigating crimes and bringing perpetrators to justice. Criminologists are essential to this mission: Their advanced analytical skills allow them to identify criminal behavior patterns and develop public safety initiatives.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics projects investigator jobs will grow 11% by 2026.

Nearly all criminology careers require an advanced degree and work experience. The Bureau of Labor Statistics projects investigator jobs will grow 11% by 2026. Your first step toward entering this exciting field begins with selecting the right criminology master's program. In this article, learn about potential careers, application processes, and resources that can turn your career dreams into a reality.

Should I Get a Master's in Criminology?

Criminology master's programs appeal to recent college graduates and returning students with professional criminology experience. Recent college graduates without professional or personal obligations may discover that on-campus programs provide more significant benefits than online programs. For instance, working with professors and peers offers networking opportunities, which can help you land internships or post-graduate employment. You can also use your school's counseling and career centers, which may connect you with public safety agencies.

Students already employed in public safety may want to attend school while continuing to work full time. To this end, they may consider online programs that let them view lectures and complete assignments asynchronously. Most online programs cost less than on-campus programs.

Both online and on-campus programs offer similar curricula designed to build a highly in-demand skill set including statistical analysis and analytical research. In class, expect to spend the majority of your time studying studying topics such as statistics, psychology, and law.

What Can I Do with a Master's in Criminology?

Criminology master's programs qualify graduates for management-level positions in law enforcement and emergency response. These positions command higher salaries. Other graduates apply their education and experience to the classroom, training the next generation of law enforcement professionals. Finally, some professionals with a master's in criminology choose to work for themselves, taking on clients who require their expertise. When researching the following careers, keep in mind that even with a master's degree, hiring agencies may still require you to possess significant work experience.

Emergency Management Director

When disaster strikes, emergency management directors lead teams to save property and lives. These professionals also develop response plans for emergency responders. A criminology master's degree provides directors detailed knowledge of criminal and terrorist activity, which helps them prevent or mitigate attacks.

Median Annual Salary: $72,760*

Private Detective and Investigator

Private detectives and investigators surveil suspects and gather evidence. A master of criminology degree confers essential research skills these detectives and investigators use on the job. Many of these professionals possess years of law enforcement experience.

Median Annual Salary: $50,700*

Postsecondary Teacher

Also known as professors or lecturers, postsecondary teachers instruct students at community colleges and four-year schools. Other job duties include advising students, writing scholarly articles, and lesson planning. For criminology positions, nearly all postsecondary institutions require a master's degree in criminology and relevant work experience.

Median Annual Salary: $76,000*

Police and Detective

Police and detectives investigate crimes and bring criminals to justice. On the job, they gather evidence, interview witnesses, and arrest suspects. A master of science in criminology qualifies police and detectives for a higher salary and promotion. Leadership positions within police departments often require candidates to earn advanced degrees and undergo at least five years of work experience.

Median Annual Salary: $62,960*

Fire Inspector and Investigator

Fire inspectors analyze structures for potential fire hazards. They can condemn buildings if they discover significant hazards. After a fire, investigators piece together why the fire happened. When investigators suspect arson, they often testify against suspects in court. Criminology master's programs instruct students on how arsonists make fires look accidental.

Median Annual Salary: $56,670*

Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics

How to Choose a Master's Program in Criminology

Decide whether an online or an on-campus program best fits your learning style. Research the top online master's in criminology programs, many of which offer excellent education at competitive prices. Keep in mind that on-campus programs in your area may connect you to government agencies that employ criminologists, thus spending more for an on-campus program might mean a shorter job search post-graduation.

Examine each remaining program's curriculum and graduation requirements. Consider which program can offer you a rigorous education in the specialty or concentration you need for your future career. Programs that include internships and practicums can make you a more competitive job applicant, as well.

Finally, pay attention to accreditation statuses. Each program on your shortlist should hold regional accreditation, and all online programs should also hold national accreditation. In the next section, you can learn more about a final form of accreditation that can tell you much about a program's educational quality.

Programmatic Accreditation for Master's Programs in Criminology

Programmatic accreditation agencies protect students against diploma mills, fraud, and subpar schools; it also shows that the program adequately prepares graduates for careers in the field. On their websites, agencies often warn students against attending programs that do not meet their standards. However, you should not automatically disregard a program just because it lacks programmatic accreditation from a specific agency.

As of the writing of this article, no one programmatic accreditation agency oversees all criminology programs in the United States. Organizations such as the Academy of Criminal Justice Sciences (ACJS) do grant accreditation, but not on a large scale. On the ACJS website, learn how ACJS evaluates programs and then compare their criteria to the programs on your shortlist.

Master's in Criminology Program Admissions

In many ways, applying to a criminology master's program requires similar forms and materials as undergraduate applications. Expect the most significant difference when writing essays: prompts on criminology topics where you can express your opinions and discuss your professional goals. An application may even ask you to submit a work or academic sample instead of a traditional essay.

If you apply to online programs, expect more questions concerning your professional criminology experience. Online programs may either let you skip courses or award you credit if you possess specific professional experience. Unless otherwise stated by the university, lacking this experience does not lower your admission chances.

Apply to three to five universities that represent a mix of safety and reach schools. This way, you should receive an acceptance from at least one school and start your education as soon as possible. All schools you apply to should align with your academic needs and future plans.


Except in the case of dual-degree programs, you must already possess a bachelor's degree before applying to criminology master's programs. Most programs require a bachelor's degree in criminology or a related field such as psychology, sociology, or history. Although some programs appeal to applicants with professional experience, few programs require it. Professional experience makes you a more competitive applicant. Programs can require that applicants earned a minimum undergraduate GPA. If you possess a GPA slightly below the cutoff, the program might still accept your application if you have work experience or excellent test scores.

Admission Materials

Every program to which you apply will use a unique application. Including the time to write and polish essays, completing an application should take approximately one week. Send each program you apply to a copy of your undergraduate transcripts. As soon as possible, contact the registrar's office at the school where you earned your bachelor's degree and request that it send your transcripts. These requests are accompanied by a small fee. Programs typically ask for two to three letters of recommendation from college professors or work supervisors if you have professional experience. Give these people a month or more to write your letters. Even if your program does not require test scores, a good GRE score can set you apart from other applicants. Graduate programs charge more for applications than undergraduate programs. Expect to pay $100 per application you submit. Some universities provide fee waivers to students with demonstrated financial need.

What Else Can I Expect from a Master's Program in Criminology?

Criminology master's programs boast coursework specializations, which allow students to focus their studies toward specific career goals. In the table below, learn about five popular concentrations and the career paths associated with each.

Concentrations Offered for a Master's Degree in Criminology
Concentration Description Careers
Global Criminology This concentration instructs students on the latest global crime trends. Courses in this concentration include international human rights, policing in global contexts, and cyber forensics. Graduates help law enforcement agencies combat international crime such as mail fraud and crimes committed over the internet. Adviser, postsecondary teacher, policy maker
Criminal Behavior Criminal behavior instructs students on criminals' motivations, psychology, and backgrounds. Students take courses about the relationship between violence and crime, interviewing, and interpreting witness testimony. Graduates often assist law enforcement agencies in creating a criminal profile in response to one or more heinous crimes. Criminal profiler, adviser, consultant
Conflict Management Crimes often involve conflicts such as hostage situations. Conflict management specialists use their expertise to bring these incidents to peaceful resolutions. In conflict management courses, students learn crisis negotiation fundamentals and crisis management techniques. This concentration appeals to students who already work as police officers or those planning to work for a law enforcement agency. Hostage negotiator, crisis negotiator
Victimology Victimologists research how people change as the result of a crime happening to them. Students in this concentration learn compassionate interviewing skills, the psychology of victimhood, and advanced research skills they need to convey their findings to lawmakers and other stakeholders. Students with a bachelor's in psychology tend to excel in victimology. Victimologist, lobbyist, consultant
Law and Society Law and society appeals to students who plan to go into research careers. The concentration stresses research skills and the latest developments in the criminology field. Students who select this or a similar concentration should expect to write a thesis as part of their master's programs. Many graduates go on to complete a criminology doctorate. Postsecondary teacher, policy adviser, crime analyst

Courses in a Master's in Criminology Program

As you compare programs, you should discover that each offers a similar core curriculum. The five courses below represent a mix of core courses and those you can take as part of a concentration.

Violence and Criminal Behavior

This foundational course introduces students to theories about why criminals commit crimes. The course blends psychology, biology, and sociology and course topics include mental illness, including psychopathy and sociopathy. No matter their specific concentrations, nearly every master's student takes violence and criminal behavior or a similar course.

Contemporary Issues in Victimology

Aspiring victimologists take this course so they may better understand how criminals choose their victims. In class, students perform research about how crime impacts victims, their families, and the broader community. The course also stresses victims' legal rights and how to advocate on their behalf within the justice system.

Communication and Conflict Resolution

Students planning for careers as negotiators take this and related courses to learn the latest research into how communication can effectively diffuse conflicts. Students analyze real-life cases to understand how negotiators reason with criminal suspects. This course also stresses many psychological techniques students can use on the job.

Psychology and the Justice System

This foundational course for all criminology students focuses on how society's understanding of the human mind influences the criminal justice system. Students learn about criminal justice reform since the 19th century. The course also introduces students to many topics, such as victimology, that they can choose to explore more in-depth once they select a concentration.

Violent Threat Assessment and Management

Appealing to students studying for careers as emergency managers, this course stresses the knowledge and skills graduates need to prevent future crimes and terrorist acts. Students analyze multiple real-life examples of when criminologists were unable to prevent crimes or attacks; students learn how to avoid these same mistakes in the future.

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

Master's programs typically require two years, or four semesters, to complete. However, if you study part time, you may need three or four years to graduate. Other factors that can extend your education include required internship or practicum experiences that last one or more semesters. Finally, expect your education to take longer if you select a program that requires a master's thesis.

If you hope to graduate in fewer than two years, focus on programs that let students take heavy course loads or those that offer courses during the summer or winter terms. In some accelerated programs, you can graduate in as few as 18 months. However, these programs' intense rigor generally requires you to forgo other responsibilities such as working a full- or part-time job. No matter how long it takes for you to complete your degree, expect to earn 30-52 credits. Programs with higher credit requirements typically award credits for internships and practicums.

How Much Is a Master's in Criminology?

Expect most programs to charge $18,000-$35,000 per year in tuition. The lower end of the range represents online programs, while the higher end represents on-campus programs at prestigious universities. Studying full time may save you thousands of dollars in tuition depending on where you earn your degree. Your school may charge part-time students by the credit hour. You may pay less each semester than full-time students, but you end up paying more for your education. Also, full-time students who take additional credits may not need to pay extra tuition, meaning they save even more money in the long run.

Although tuition represents the largest percentage of your educational spending, do not forget to factor in related costs such as textbooks, transportation, and housing. Together, these expenses can easily exceed that of your tuition. If you have a young family and plan to attend classes on-campus, start researching child care options as soon as possible. Although you avoid many associated costs and fees by studying online, consider whether you need a faster internet connection or a new computer, both of which can add over $1,000 to your educational costs.

Certifications and Licenses a Master's in Criminology Prepares For

Post-Master's Certificate in Criminology

Some graduates may want to further their education but not dedicate themselves to a doctoral program, which can take up to six years to complete. In a post-master's certificate in criminology program, students spend approximately two years completing higher-level courses, usually those that relate to their concentration. After completing the program, graduates may earn higher salaries or promotion at their jobs. The annual cost for a certificate program resembles that of most master's programs.

State Licensure

If you move to another state after graduation, that state may ask you to take a licensure examination to continue working as a criminologist. These exams cover many topics you cover in a master's program. Before taking a state licensure exam, you may need additional education or on-the-job training to understand better that state's laws and regulations.

Private Investigator License

Most states require private investigators to earn a state-issued license. Statues often require that applicants complete at least three years of relevant work experience, as well as pass a background check and an exam. A master of criminology prepares candidates to pass the examination. Earning this license allows criminologists to start agencies and take on clients.

Resources for Graduate Criminology Students

National Criminal Justice Reference Service

NCJRS hosts academic articles on criminology, criminal justice, and crime prevention. The website includes a useful section that teaches first-time visitors how to use the NCJRS archive.

FBI - Reports and Publications

This resource boasts crime statistics from the last decade. Visitors can learn about diverse topics such as specific crimes, major cities' crime trends, and crime prevention initiatives.

National Institute of Corrections

A branch of the Department of Justice, the NIC assists corrections agencies and departments at different levels of government. Through the NIC website, visitors can learn how the federal government and states cooperate on issues such as incarceration and inmate rehabilitation.

Professional Organizations in Criminology

Professional organizations regularly offer networking opportunities with other working professionals, job boards, professional development courses, and even scholarships for their student members. Investigate whether these organizations offer discounted membership or conference fees for students.

The American Society of Criminology

Promoting the criminology profession through research and advocacy, ASC represents members throughout the world. Student members can join at a reduced fee and apply for exclusive scholarship opportunities. All members receive discounts to attend the annual ASC conference.

National Organization for Victim Assistance

Founded in 1975, NOVA advocates for crime victims and the professionals who treat them. Members receive access to over a dozen continuing education (CE) courses and multiple industry publications.

Academy of Criminal Justice Sciences

ACJS promotes criminal justice and criminology education by bringing together thousands of American and international members. The ACJS Student Scholarship provides funding for a student member to attend the ACJS annual conference.

Society for the Study of Social Problems

SSSP studies sociological aspects related to crime and other social problems. Graduate student member can apply for awards, fellowships, and scholarships. Student members can also participate in leadership positions and CE courses.

Justice Research and Statistics Association

JRSA produces research on criminology and criminal justice trends. Members often hold leadership positions at universities or think tanks. Student members can participate in collaboration projects, a boon for their resumes.

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