Criminal justice is a multidisciplinary field that synthesizes concepts from law, psychology, sociology, mathematics, and public administration. Criminal justice students learn about the nature of deviance and the causes of crime. They also learn how the U.S. criminal justice system captures, detains, and rehabilitates offenders.
Due to the versatile nature of this discipline, criminal justice degrees rank as the 13th most popular undergraduate major, according to Georgetown University's analysis of the economic value of 137 majors. Criminal justice also fares well among graduate students, coming in at 24th.
With a degree in criminal justice, graduates can pursue law enforcement positions as police officers and federal intelligence specialists. They can also work within the judicial system as lawyers, corrections counselors, and victims advocates.
This guide helps you jumpstart a career in criminal justice, covering available degrees and employment opportunities based on education and experience.
Why Earn Your Criminal Justice Degree Online?
Prospective students often find that earning a criminal justice degree online provides many advantages over the traditional route of attending a brick-and-mortar institution. These benefits include improved accessibility and flexibility, the ability to attend schools outside of a student's geographical area, and opportunities to connect and network with a diverse body of classmates and faculty from around the world.
Many online criminal justice programs allow students to access lectures and course materials from anywhere and at any time. This freedom makes earning a degree possible for learners who have busy schedules with work and/or family obligations.
Students who choose to earn a criminal justice degree online may be able to select from multiple program start dates throughout the year. This flexibility contrasts with on-campus learning environments, many of which use stricter term schedules.
- School Options
Students in online criminal justice programs have the option of attending schools across the country. Learners in on-campus programs are limited by their ability to relocate, whereas online students can attend programs outside of their immediate geographic vicinity.
Individuals pursuing an online criminal justice degree come from many different backgrounds and hail from across the country and around the world. The freedom to select from a variety of online programs enables students to network with classmates with different ideas and perspectives.
Technological advancements have improved the quality and ease of online interactions. These advancements allow students earning their criminal justice degree online to more readily collaborate with their classmates and professors. Distance learners may participate in forum discussions and virtual meetings.
Types of Online Criminal Justice Degrees
Prospective students interested in earning criminal justice degrees online can pursue many different levels of education. As in most fields, holding a more advanced degree typically leads to better opportunities after graduation in terms of career options and earning potential.
Students who earn a criminal justice associate degree online usually take about two years to graduate. Graduates can work as law enforcement officers, legal assistants, and forensic technicians.
Online criminal justice bachelor's degrees generally require 120 credits and four years of study. There is significant overlap between the careers that graduates can obtain with an associate degree versus a bachelor's degree. However, professionals with a bachelor's degree tend to earn more.
Students may also opt to attend graduate school and earn an online criminal justice master's degree. Graduates benefit from higher salary potential and a lower unemployment rate than peers with associate and bachelor's degrees.
Doctoral degrees in criminal justice require a dissertation. Graduates qualify for high-level leadership and administration jobs, as well as academic and research careers.
Associate Degree in Criminal Justice
Associate programs in criminal justice last for two years and require at least 60 credits. Distance learners can graduate more quickly by enrolling in an accelerated online associate of criminal justice program. These intensive tracks offer seven-week courses year-round, which can allow students to graduate within one year.
Curricula vary by college, but typically include 30 credits of general education requirements. Students take major coursework in areas like criminal law, juvenile justice, and crime scene investigation. They may also receive an introduction to homeland security, including the government agencies responsible for reducing national vulnerabilities and helping the country recover from disasters.
After earning their associate degree in criminal justice online, students can transfer into a bachelor's program. Alternatively, they can pursue careers as correctional officers, legal assistants, retail loss prevention specialists, and state troopers.
- Criminal Law
Students receive an introduction to substantive criminal law, including the elements and purposes of those laws, as well as criminal sanctions and defenses. They also explore the constitutional limits to criminal law by analyzing contemporary legal case studies in the U.S. court system.
- Criminal Investigations
In this foundational class, students examine the theories and methods used during investigations. Covered topics include interviews and interrogations, crime scenes, and forensic science. Learners also delve into issues concerning trial testimony and rule of evidence.
- Law Enforcement
This core class provides an overview of the history and functions of law enforcement agencies at the local, state, and federal levels. In addition to the classification of crime, students learn about arrest procedures, with an emphasis on conflict resolution and the use of force.
- Correctional Systems and Practices
In this course, students receive an introduction to the systematic processes of institutional and community-based corrections. They examine major theories concerning rehabilitation programs and inmate rights. The course also helps learners understand the responsibilities and duties of correctional staff and administration.
- Introduction to Forensic Science
In this course, learners explore the history and principles behind forensic sciences. They learn about the array of scientific disciplines used when collecting and analyzing evidence, including forensic chemistry and biology. Additional topics include fingerprints, DNA analysis, trace evidence, and firearms examination.
Bachelor's Degree in Criminal Justice
Requiring a minimum of 120 credits, bachelor's programs in criminal justice typically take four years to complete. However, many colleges and universities now offer online criminal justice degrees that allow full-time students to graduate in two years. Learners can also enroll in dual-degree programs that let them earn undergraduate and graduate degrees concurrently.
Courses explore topics such as policing in America, court procedures, and the U.S. corrections system. Students also examine ethical concerns and learn how to apply leadership principles that prepare them for management positions later in their professional life. Learners often gain experience in the field by completing an internship.
Bachelor's degrees in criminal justice provide the comprehensive education students need to access most entry- and mid-level career opportunities. Graduates can find work as emergency management directors, deputy sheriffs, and legal administrators.
- Criminological Theory
Students taking this core class examine the causes of crime, including sociological, psychological, economic, and biological theories on the etiology of delinquency. They also learn about the different types of crimes and criminals. Depending on the program, learners may also receive an introduction to criminal justice policy.
- Public Administration Principles
Students explore the development and significance of contemporary government operations. In addition to defining public administration in a criminal justice context, this class helps learners understand the difference between public and private organizations and how these characteristics affect what government can and cannot do.
- Domestic and International Terrorism
In this class, students learn about the causes, types, and targets of terrorist acts. They also study how American government agencies respond to these threats. They analyze how terrorist organizations use violence to recruit members and raise money, with an emphasis on how media coverage affects these strategies.
- Crime Mapping
This specialized course teaches students to apply geographic information science concepts and methods in a criminal justice context. Students learn how to collect, analyze, and present spatial data. They also learn how to design graphs and maps to communicate information.
- Abnormal Psychology
A crucial course for students who want to pursue counseling careers, abnormal psychology concerns the scientific study of mental illness. Learners develop the abilities to assess and identify mental disorders and conduct field-specific research. This field is also known as psychopathology.
Master's Degree in Criminal Justice
To earn a master's degree in criminal justice, graduate students spend about two years completing at least 30 credits of coursework and practica. Dedicated learners can graduate within a year by enrolling in an accelerated online master's program in criminal justice. Alternatively, working professionals can take one class at a time, enrolling part time.
Master's curricula build on foundational training in order to help students develop advanced skill sets for career advancement. Required courses typically cover topics like criminological theory, crime policy, and program management and evaluation. Learners individualize their degree plans by picking a concentration, choosing from options such as cybersecurity, homeland security, or crime analysis.
Graduates can pursue careers as forensic examiners, information security analysts, and court administration managers. With the proper legal training, they can also become magistrates and judges.
- Public Policy Analysis
In this course, students learn to analyze policy for government organizations, think tanks, and nonprofits. They discuss the importance of data and evidence evaluation during the policy analysis process. The course covers traditional cost-benefit analysis, as well as modern methods like race, gender, and stakeholder analysis.
- Legal Ethics
This course covers theories and strategies around the ethical practice of law. Students develop the ability to identify, avoid, and resolve legal ethical dilemmas. The class also introduces guidelines and rules governing the conduct of lawyers and other criminal justice professionals.
In this class, students delve into the scientific study of victims, including the methods used to measure victimization. They learn why many people do not report crimes to law enforcement. Learners also explore what resources and services are available to victims, such as financial compensation through government programs and offender restitution.
- Counterterrorism Intelligence
This course covers the historical roots and contemporary developments of terrorist organizations and lone wolves. Students analyze the differing motivations of terrorists and the reasons why some groups continue to grow while others have disbanded. They also examine American counterrorism strategies following 9/11.
- Digital Forensics
Students who take this specialized course gain the data analysis and incident response skills needed to help law enforcement investigate crimes using digital evidence. They develop an in-depth understanding of identity theft, financial fraud, and cyberterrorism. The class also covers legal aspects related to computer forensics.
Doctoral Degree in Criminal Justice
Doctoral programs in criminal justice require 40-70 credits, depending on curricular focus and student objectives. Doctoral candidates usually take 4-5 years to earn their degree. Some universities offer online doctorate of criminal justice programs that allow distance learners to graduate in two years.
When people think of doctoral programs, they generally think of the Ph.D., which focuses on research and prepares candidates for careers as college professors and social scientists. Students spend the first two years of the program developing their dissertation proposal and completing required coursework, such as applied statistical methods and qualitative research methods. They spend the remaining time conducting and preparing to defend their research.
For students who aspire to leadership roles in federal police agencies and community justice organizations, the doctor of criminal justice (D.C.J.) may be a better choice of terminal degree. D.C.J. classes center on topics like civil liability, crisis and management in corrections, and contemporary forensic technology.
- Statistical Analysis
This course teaches students advanced methods for statistical thinking and problem-solving. Covered topics include data modeling, calculus-based probability, multiple regression, and evaluation of categorical data. Learners gain the ability to manage sampling errors and check the validity of assumptions.
- Applied Research Methods
In this class, students learn how to conduct doctoral-level social science inquiry, with an emphasis on major quantitative and qualitative frameworks for data collection, verification, analysis, and presentation. They also examine research traditions like ethnography, case study, phenomenology, and biography.
- Criminal Justice Leadership
Students learn to apply leadership best practices to motivate employees, spur positive change, and maintain a productive organizational culture. They also develop the ability to create effective management policies for high-functioning justice organizations. Additional topics include systems theories and evidence-based decision-making.
- The Future of Policing
This course is usually mandatory for students pursuing a federal law enforcement concentration. Students examine social movements and political shifts that spur change in American policing. By looking at case studies, they learn how law enforcement leaders have (or have not) adapted to these changes.
- Restorative Justice
As an alternative model to traditional criminal justice practices of penalization/incarceration, restorative justice focuses on peace-building and community-oriented mediation practices. Students analyze how local and national restorative justice initiatives boost empathy and accountability for offenders while also helping victims recover from material and emotional losses.
Criminal Justice Concentrations and Specialities
Students can individualize their degree plans to support distinct academic and professional goals by pursuing a concentration. Colleges begin to offer these specializations at the bachelor's level. To fulfill their concentration requirements, learners take designated advanced coursework instead of choosing their own electives.
The cybersecurity concentration prepares students for some of the fastest growing careers in the United States. Course topics include cybercrime, applied digital forensic investigation, and IT security policy and procedures. Learners also develop skills in business risk management and disaster recovery.
Median Annual Salary: $89,940
- Behavior Management
Behavior management is a particularly relevant concentration for counselors, social workers, and victim advocates. Students learn how to modify the behaviors of parolees and juvenile offenders in therapeutic settings. Coursework focuses on environmental arrangement theory and principles of operant/respondent conditioning.
Median Annual Salary: $63,970
- Homeland Security
Through this concentration, students trace the development of the Department of Homeland Security, from its creation following 9/11 to its evolution into the nation's largest federal law enforcement agency. Courses cover weapons of mass destruction and terrrorism response operations.
Median Annual Salary: $79,000
- Intelligence Analysis
This concentration prepares students to drive the investigative strategies and organizational policies of law enforcement organizations. Coursework centers on IT competencies such as data mining, information structures with Python, and visualizations using R software. Students also learn how to create criminal profiles and draft written and oral testimonies.
Median Annual Salary: $76,620
- Forensic Investigation
A relevant concentration for crime scene specialists and laboratory researchers, forensic investigation courses teach students how to collect and process physical evidence like blood splatter, DNA, and fingerprints. Additional course topics include evidence chain of custody, crime scene photography, and friction ridge analysis and development.
Median Annual Salary: $71,510
Criminal Justice Licensure and Certification
Because criminal justice careers span multiple industries, requirements for certification and licensure differ greatly based on individual occupation. In general, licensure is obligatory and state-specific, while certification is optional and offers professionals opportunities to hone their skills and demonstrate their experience.
Most law enforcement positions require licensure. Prospective police officers must successfully complete a series of psychological, emotional, and physical tests before they can begin academy training. Similarly, private investigators must pass a board-certified exam before applying for their license.
Licensure is also common among counseling professions. To sit for the correctional counselor exam, you must satisfy minimum education criteria maintained by your state. For example, New York requires associate correctional counselor applicants to have at least five years of relevant work experience or the equivalent in college education.
Beyond government licenses, voluntary certification is one of the best ways to advance your career in criminal justice. While you do not need industry credentials to get a job as a paralegal, certification from the National Association of Legal Assistants demonstrates to employers that you meet the highest standards of the profession. Social workers and other counseling professionals can earn certification from the National Association of Forensic Counselors.
One of the fastest growing fields in the United States, cybersecurity offers a variety of credentialing options for specific roles and technical competencies. ISACA provides certification programs in areas like data privacy solutions engineering and information security management. Through EC-Council, you can become a certified network defender, ethical hacker, or encryption specialist.
Career and Salary Outlook for Criminal Justice Graduates
Criminal justice careers include law enforcement, national security, correctional services, and legal occupations. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects that legal occupations will grow 5% between 2019 and 2029. Among these professions, paralegals benefit from the largest projected growth rate at 10%.
Professionals with a background in program administration and team leadership can work as social and community service managers, an occupation that the BLS projects to grow 17% between 2019 and 2029.
Cybersecurity is another exciting field for criminal justice practitioners. The BLS projects that information security analysts will experience 31% job growth between 2019 and 2029, fueled in part by the concerns of businesses and governments over the escalating frequency and destructiveness of cyberattacks.
Law Enforcement and Homeland Security Careers
- Police Officer
These law enforcement professionals protect their communities from danger by patrolling designated areas and responding to distress calls. In addition to conducting traffic stops, they collect evidence and interview suspects for criminal investigations. Police officers can advance into detective positions or specialize in a subfield like juvenile justice.
- Federal Air Marshal
Part of the Federal Air Marshal Service, these professionals protect passenger flights from terrorist violence and other threats. They also assist with multi-agency initiatives that strengthen public trust in air travel and proactively combat terrorism. To become a marshal, candidates undergo a rigorous hiring process that includes a panel interview, physical training assessment, and psychological evaluation.
- FBI Agent
These highly skilled specialists investigate and deter violations against federal criminal law, including human trafficking, political corruption, drug trade, and illegal gambling/gaming. While FBI agents primarily focus on domestic security, some specialists work abroad when an international incident involves American citizens.
- Emergency Management Director
Emergency management directors collaborate with government officials and nonprofits to help communities respond to and recover from natural and human-made disasters. They coordinate volunteers, allocate resources, and analyze current emergency plans, offering improvements to procedures. When working for private companies, these professionals are usually called business continuity managers.
- Information Security Analyst
Information security analysts work for financial institutions, software designers and developers, and multinational enterprises. They create and implement multi-tiered strategies that protect computer systems and networks from cyberattacks. These criminal justice specialists also assess the strength of security systems through penetration testing and other ethical hacking methods.
Sources: BLS & PayScale
Judiciary and Corrections Careers
Also known as legal assistants, these professionals support lawyers by researching regulations and other relevant information during case preparation. Paralegals also create legal documents like affidavits, which can later be used in court. Furthermore, they perform administrative tasks such as maintaining an electronic filing system and facilitating communication between clients, witnesses, government officials, and the legal team.
- Correctional Treatment Specialist
Correctional counselors offer social services that help rehabilitate incarcerated offenders, probationers, and parolees. They interview clients to determine the best treatment plan, which may include substance abuse counseling and job training. Correctional treatment specialists also assist with the trial process, appearing in court to provide testimonials on an offender's background and progress.
- Community and Social Service Manager
These organizational leaders oversee initiatives that bolster public wellbeing. Within a criminal justice context, these programs include employment training for formerly incarcerated individuals and restorative justice training seminars. Community and social service managers work with community members to determine needed services and garner funds by writing grants and proposals.
- Forensic Psychologist
Working in the civil courts and criminal justice system, forensic psychologists use their knowledge of deviancy and antisocial behavior to provide a motive and identify offenders. They are often called upon to act as expert witnesses during trial proceedings. Forensic psychologists can also fill academic positions, conducting research on criminal traits and rehabilitation methods.
An integral part of the judicial system, lawyers represent individual clients, companies, and government agencies during trial. Outside the courtroom, these professionals provide legal counsel by interpreting regulations and creating documents like contracts, deeds, and wills. Many lawyers specialize in a subfield such as taxation, criminal law, intellectual property, or environmental law.
Sources: BLS & PayScale
Interview With A Criminal Justice Professional
Matt C. Pinsker
Matt C. Pinsker is a constitutional law scholar and award-winning criminal defense attorney, as well as an adjunct professor at the Wilder School at Virginia Commonwealth University. He previously served as a state prosecutor and magistrate. He currently serves in the U.S. Army Reserves, Judge Advocate General's Corps. He wrote a textbook published by the Carolina Academic Press and has also authored multiple articles on current issues. Media outlets frequently consult Pinsker, a leading expert in his field, for expert commentary on current affairs.
- What job skills are essential for your occupation?
Attention to detail is critical, as the outcome of a case can turn on seemingly minor parts. It is important to work well with others, as many people are involved in any single case. Frequently, you will work with highly disagreeable and difficult people, so you must be patient and professional.
- What are the physical requirements for someone in this field?
If one wants to work in the field or be a uniformed officer, one must be physically fit and capable. On the other hand, there are a number of office and field positions where physical fitness is irrelevant. What does matter is that one can work well under stressful conditions.
- What was the job search like after you graduated?
The job search was very competitive, as there were a number of highly qualified candidates for every job opening. Fortunately, there are many ways one can enter criminal justice, so there are many opportunities.
- What advice would you give a recent graduate starting their job search?
Be persistent and apply where you can to get your foot in the door. Make personal connections where possible to help get a job.
- Do you think films and television tend to dramatize careers in this field? What advice would you give students as far as job expectations go?
Films and television have done the greatest disservice to my profession. They have created completely unrealistic expectations of what the job is actually like. This in large part is why there is such a high turnover rate. Learning criminal justice by watching television shows is like learning physics from Star Trek.
- What does continual education look like to you?
The law is continuously changing. It is important to read new opinions by courts and reports as they come out on changes in the law.
- What advice would you give undergrad students considering a graduate degree in criminal justice? Is it worth it?
Because so many people enter criminal justice because of what they have seen on television, which is completely unrealistic, I strongly recommend learning what it is actually like by getting real-world experience through an internship to determine if this is something you actually want to do. Do not make your decision entirely based on television shows.
Scholarships for Criminal Justice Majors
A variety of criminal justice scholarships and grants are available to help students pay tuition, study abroad, and pursue internship experiences. The below page also covers funding for graduate research projects.