Criminal Justice Degrees Guide
The criminal justice discipline contains three primary branches or systems: law enforcement, the courts, and corrections. Each of these includes several fields, such as homeland security, cybersecurity, and policing, while the court system employs professionals in fields such as law, forensic psychology, and court administration. Corrections, meanwhile, features careers in prison administration and social services.
Criminal justice offers an unusually diverse array of degree concentrations and career paths. Often lucrative, varied, and stimulating, most criminal justice careers enjoy a positive job outlook, as indicated by career data in the guide below. These degrees also help graduates increase their job security, given the growing demand for criminal justice professionals. Criminal justice (CJ) degrees can increase job opportunities, raise salaries, and improve job performance.
This degree guide serves aspiring and current criminal justice students by surveying the various criminal justice degree levels, concentrations, benefits, and career paths available in this discipline.
What Is a Degree in Criminal Justice?
Criminal justice programs support students passionate about justice and public service by helping them to become competent, knowledgeable professionals who protect and serve their communities. Certificates typically serve students seeking introductory education, which does not demand a formidable investment of time and money.
Many certificate graduates obtain entry-level positions and work their way up the ladder by accumulating experience and education as needed. Entry-level careers in CJ include court clerk, fire and police dispatcher, and parking enforcement officer.
Associate degrees serve a similarly introductory purpose. CJ associate programs cost more and take longer, but they enable transfer to CJ bachelor's programs. Bachelor's degrees in criminal justice meet educational requirements for CJ careers, such as correctional treatment specialist and probation officer.
Some academically inclined CJ students pursue master's or doctoral degrees, which support careers in research, forensic psychology, and postsecondary teaching. Postsecondary CJ teachers earn a median annual salary of $72,390, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS).
Types of Criminal Justice Degrees
Learners can study criminal justice at many levels, from undergraduate certificate to doctorate. Graduates of undergraduate certificate and associate degree programs usually qualify for entry-level criminal justice positions. According to PayScale, CJ certificate-holders earn an average of $48,000 per year, while associate degree graduates earn an average $49,000 annually. Students seeking higher pay rates often use these programs as a foundation for bachelor's degree programs.
Depending on degree specialization, CJ bachelor's degrees meet or exceed educational requirements for most CJ careers. Bachelor's graduates make about $54,000 annually, according to PayScale. Students who earn graduate degrees stand the best chance of qualifying for leadership positions and earning higher salaries. See below for descriptions of CJ program levels, timetables, curricula, and career paths.
- Criminal Justice Certificate
CJ certificate programs vary in focus and duration, but they usually require 12-15 credits (4-5 courses) and take less than a year to complete. CJ certificates often meet educational requirements for entry-level positions such as bailiff, corrections officer, and jailer.
PayScale data suggests that CJ certificate graduates average about $48,000 annually, though relevant work experience and continuing education improve that pay rate. Some certificate graduates go on to pursue associate and/or bachelor's degrees in related fields.
Undergraduate-level criminal justice certificate prerequisites sometimes include a high school diploma or GED, though some programs ask for standardized test scores, also.
Common Courses for Criminal Justice Certificate Programs
- Criminal Law: This course illuminates how law enforcement, court, and corrections systems work independently and together. Criminal law courses also discuss topics such as justice, the burden of truth, and U.S. legal system processes.
- Police-Community Relations: This course explores the relationship between civilians and police, emphasizing practices that prevent crime, protect communities, and improve social problems that lead to crime.
- Criminal Procedure: Students learn about pretrial and trial procedures and constitutional safeguards. This course often draws upon relevant cases and cross-cultural comparisons to help students understand how criminal procedures work in real situations.
- Associate Degree in Criminal Justice
Criminal justice associate degree programs usually entail 60-90 credits and take about two years' full-time study to complete. These degrees help their holders understand criminal justice as a system and an academic discipline. Graduates may seek jobs as paralegals, police officers, or bailiffs. However, many associate degree-holders pursue bachelor's degrees in related fields to qualify for higher-paying jobs.
Applicants to associate programs usually need high school diplomas, minimum 2.0-3.0 GPAs, and decent SAT/ACT scores, though some programs do not require standardized test scores.
Common Courses for Criminal Justice Associate Programs
- Corrections: Useful to students pursuing careers in corrections or law, this course reviews correctional history, practices, laws, and programs. Examining theoretical questions about corrections system goals, this course also covers diversional practices and offender treatment.
- Critical Analysis of the Criminal Justice System: This course examines the criminal justice system, attending to ways in which it collaborates with other organizations and professionals to prevent and respond to crime. This CJ system overview helps students understand and choose CJ fields for further study.
- Legal Issues in Law Enforcement: Topics covered include police legal rights, roles, and responsibilities. Essential to aspiring law enforcement professionals, this course also discusses police accountability practices, including internal discipline, body cameras, and municipal governance.
- Bachelor's Degree in Criminal Justice
High-quality CJ bachelor's programs accept candidates with high school diplomas, minimum 3.0 GPAs, and good standardized test scores. For admission into the major itself, students usually must earn or transfer 60-90 credits of associate-level coursework. Bachelor's degrees typically take at least two years to complete beyond the associate level.
Bachelor's degree graduates with requisite specializations can qualify for careers as secret service agents and forensic accountants. Ambitious, academically inclined graduates sometimes apply to master's programs, which often help candidates obtain high-level positions.
Common Courses for Criminal Justice Bachelor's Programs
- Criminal Justice Ethics: Exploring CJ-related moral and ethical questions, this course touches on topics like noble cause corruption, law enforcement ethical codes, and social justice. Ethics courses usually examine past and present approaches to criminal justice.
- Criminal Investigation: Introducing investigation theory and practice, this course teaches students methods for preserving crime scenes, collecting evidence, and preparing criminal cases.
- Victimology: Examining the needs, rights, and treatment of crime victims, victimology courses discuss ethical issues and criminal justice practices. Students read case studies, theory, and research on past and current victimology trends.
- Master's Degree in Criminal Justice
Master's degrees in criminal justice usually entail about 60 credits, including a capstone project or thesis, and take about two years to complete. Depending on degree specialization, master's in CJ graduates may become forensic anthropologists, air marshals, or counselors. Graduates interested in forensic psychology or academic positions sometimes use their master's degrees to obtain admission into doctoral programs.
Master's program applicants usually need accredited bachelor's degrees, minimum 3.0 GPAs, GRE or LSAT scores, and relevant professional experience.
Common Courses for Criminal Justice Master's Programs
- Criminal Justice Policy: This course discusses the reasoning and efficacy of contemporary criminal justice policies and issues. Students learn about policies regarding racial profiling, community policing, and weapon use.
- Capstone: Master's programs typically culminate in a capstone research project or thesis. A sustained and sometimes original effort building advanced research and writing skills, this project may take six months to a year. Capstone projects and requirements vary widely by school, with thesis-based programs constituting the best preparation for research or academic careers in criminal justice.
- Criminal Justice Organizational Leadership: Serving aspiring criminal justice managers and leaders, this course develops students' organizational leadership and management skills in areas such as decision-making, conflict resolution, and policy initiation.
- Doctorate in Criminal Justice
Many doctoral programs take 3-7 years and entail 50-75 credits beyond a master's degree. Most programs require considerable independent research and writing, so program length often depends heavily on students' individual availability, motivation, and pace.
CJ Ph.D. graduates often pursue careers in CJ research and/or teaching, while juris doctor (JD) graduates usually become lawyers. Graduates may need to complete additional training or testing to qualify for these careers.
Common Courses for Criminal Justice Doctorate Programs
- Criminal Justice Research Methods: This course teaches students various methods for developing questions, conducting observations, generating hypotheses, and gathering data. Students learn statistics, sampling, and research ethics.
- Advanced Statistical Analysis: Statistics courses support students in conducting the advanced research necessary for doctoral dissertations in criminal justice. Students learn about regression, correlation, variance analysis, and hypothesis testing. This course also promotes advanced understanding of the role statistics play in criminal justice research and decision-making.
- Juvenile Justice: An excellent choice for aspiring probation officers or correctional treatment specialists, this course discusses theory and law surrounding juvenile delinquency issues. Common topics include juvenile culpability, court, and rehabilitation.
Is a Criminal Justice Degree Worth It?
Criminal justice degrees open up many career and field possibilities for graduates. Graduates new to this discipline pursue degrees to qualify for careers or continuing education in criminal justice. Professionals already working in CJ often use degrees to qualify for promotions or higher salary advancement, or to transition into different CJ fields. Some of the most common degree benefits appear below:
- New Skills: Skills-focused certificate programs allow professionals to quantify and verify their skill sets. Students can earn certificates as part of their degree programs, which also build general skills in research, writing, reporting, and presenting information.
- Diverse Career Opportunities: The criminal justice system's extensive nature often renders CJ degrees quite versatile, supporting dozens of careers in corrections and treatment, the courts, and law enforcement.
- Promotion: CJ professionals often earn degrees to compete for higher-level positions. Police officers may use degree programs to qualify for marshal or sheriff positions, while forensics technicians may obtain additional education to become forensic psychologists or investigators.
- Salary Advancement: Additional education also supports salary advancement for CJ professionals in various fields. Government employees such as FBI, DEA, and Secret Service agents sometimes pursue master's degrees to move up the federal government's salary scale.
- Continuing Education: CJ certificate and degrees often transfer to other CJ degree programs, so students seeking advanced CJ degrees typically benefit from completing prerequisite degrees in related fields. Criminal justice degree programs also help students choose career areas of interest.
What Can You Do With a Degree in Criminal Justice?
Criminal justice degree graduates may anticipate many possible career avenues and job opportunities. Depending on certificate specialization, CJ certificate-earners often choose from entry-level careers as corrections officers, fire investigators, or police dispatchers.
CJ bachelor's degrees equip graduates with educational requirements for careers as forensic accountants, forensic nurses, correctional treatment specialists, or DEA agents. Meanwhile, master's degrees help graduates obtain leadership positions and boost salaries. Master's graduates may work as emergency management directors, forensic anthropologists, or information security managers.
Master's and doctoral degrees may also lead to academic or research careers in criminal justice. Postsecondary teachers earn a median annual salary of about $80,000 annually, according to the BLS.
Criminal Justice Certificate Careers
Usually employed by local governments, court clerks perform various court support functions, such as setting up the court, keeping records, entering data, and interfacing with the public. These professionals also prepare files and administer oaths, fines, fees costs. Court clerks typically need certificates or associate degrees to compete for these positions.
Job Outlook: The BLS projects a 9% increase in legal support workers from 2018 to 2028.
Annual Median Salary: $41,100, according to the BLS.
Fire and Police Dispatcher
These dispatchers answer phone and alarm calls, assess emergencies, and dispatch first responders. This job may entail giving basic medical instructions, tracking location of response units, and keeping call records. Fire and police dispatchers need related certificates or on-the-job training.
Job Outlook: Dispatcher positions may increase by 6% from 2018 to 2028, according to the BLS.
Annual Median Salary: $41,910
Parking Enforcement Officer
These professionals enforce parking regulations by administering tickets and arranging towing services as needed. Parking enforcement officers may patrol city streets or parking lots. These professionals often need criminal justice certificates or other related training.
Job Outlook: The BLS projects a 37% decrease in these jobs from 2018 to 2028, due to increasing automation.
Annual Median Salary: $43,420, according to BLS earnings data.
Associate in Criminal Justice Careers
Criminal Law Paralegal
Often employed by private law firms, special interest groups, or the government, these paralegals support criminal prosecutors or defense attorneys by researching cases and related laws, organizing documents and files, and composing legal documents. Paralegals usually hold associate degrees and may advance to administrative roles through further education and/or professional experience.
Job Outlook: 12% increase from 2018 to 2028.
Annual Median Salary: $51,740
These professionals collect evidence from and treat victims of violence, abuse, and neglect. Forensic nurses may also testify in court regarding evidence gathered. Forensic nurses need at least an associate degree in nursing to qualify for this job. Available specializations include medical-legal consulting, psychiatric nursing, and death investigation.
Job Outlook: The BLS projects a 12% increase in nursing jobs from 2018 to 2028.
Annual Median Salary: Nurses earn about $57,810 annually, according to PayScale salary data.
Blood Spatter Analyst
These analysts often work in the field, collecting blood samples and photographs, and crime labs. Common tasks include analyzing samples using ultraviolet light, recreating spatter simulations in a lab, and reporting findings. Some analyst positions require bachelor's degrees, but associate degrees suffice when combined with relevant experience.
Job Outlook: The BLS projects a 14% increase in forensic science technician jobs from 2018 to 2028.
Annual Median Salary: $59,150
Bachelor's in Criminal Justice Careers
These federal employees investigate and prosecute major drug-related crimes. DEA agent duties vary by assignment and specialization, but tasks often include surveillance, arrest, and evidence-collection. DEA agents frequently work in teams, often undercover. DEA agents usually need criminal justice bachelor's degrees.
Job Outlook: The BLS projects 5% job growth for police and detectives from 2018 to 2028.
Annual Median Salary: $65,170 for police and detectives in 2019, according to the BLS.
Juvenile Probation Officer
Often working at juvenile detention centers, these officers monitor and support delinquent adolescents. Duties include meeting with, assessing, and counseling families and young people. Probation officers also perform investigations, make reports, and advise legal professionals. Juvenile probation officers often hold bachelor's degrees in criminal justice and earn on-the-job training and certification.
Job Outlook: 3% job increase projected for probation officers and correctional treatment specialists.
Annual Median Salary: $54,290
Correctional Treatment Specialist
Sometimes called correctional counselors or case managers, correctional treatment specialists provide counseling and rehabilitation-planning services to their clients. Daily activities may include evaluating inmates and creating plans for training, education, parole, and release. These specialists write case reports tracking their clients' behaviors and assessing recidivism risks.
Job Outlook: 3% job increase
Annual Median Salary: $54,290
Master's in Criminal Justice Careers
Emergency Management Director
These professionals work for nonprofits, governments, and private companies by planning and directing organizational responses to emergencies. Emergency management directors examine potential hazards, research best practices, solicit federal funding, and train staff and volunteers. A criminal justice master's degree improves applicants' chances for director positions.
Job Outlook: BLS data projects a 5% increase in emergency management director positions from 2018 to 2028.
Annual Median Salary: $74,590
Computer Forensics Investigator
These investigators collect and examine computer-related forensic evidence to help solve and prosecute crimes. Forensic computer investigators use computer programs and analytical software applications to extract and report on information from media devices and hard drives. Forensics investigators benefit from specialized master's degrees in cybersecurity.
Job Outlook: The BLS projects an 8% job increase for private investigators and detectives from 2018 to 2028.
Annual Median Salary: $50,510
Usually employed by nonprofits or government organizations, these advocates assist victims during crises. Advocates often help domestic violence victims create exit plans, find housing and resources, and show up in court. Some victims' advocates hold criminal justice-related master's degrees.
Job Outlook: The BLS projects an 11% rise in social worker jobs from 2018 to 2028.
Annual Median Salary: Social workers made a median annual salary of $50,470 in 2019.
Doctorate in Criminal Justice Careers
These professionals collect and analyze human remains evidence to diagnose the cause of death. Forensic anthropologists work for various organizations such as the FBI, museums, and research institutions. These professionals may travel to crime scenes, but they also spend considerable time in laboratories. Forensic anthropologists typically hold advanced degrees in their field.
Job Outlook: The BLS projects a 10% job growth for anthropologists and archeologists from 2018 to 2028.
Annual Median Salary: $63,670
Often employed by government agencies, courts, prisons, or medical facilities, these licensed psychologists analyze crimes and criminals and make recommendations regarding treatment and sentencing. These professionals often collaborate with social workers, medical professionals, and legal professionals. Forensic psychologists require doctoral degrees.
Job Outlook: The BLS projects 14% growth from 2018 to 2028.
Annual Median Salary: $70,000
Offering legal advice and/or representation, lawyers work for governments, businesses, and law firms. Also called attorneys, these professionals often research, analyze, and present evidence in court. Lawyers also analyze laws and regulations and advise businesses on legal issues and compliance. Lawyers need JD degrees to practice law.
Job Outlook: 6% growth from 2018 to 2028, according to BLS.
Annual Median Salary: $122,960
Criminal Justice Careers: Median Salaries by Experience
|Career Title||Median Annual Salary||Job Outlook||Required Education||Recommended Education|
|Blood Spatter Analyst||$59,150||14% increase||High school to bachelor's||Associate or bachelor's|
|Computer Forensics Investigator||$80,510||8% increase||Bachelor's to master's||Master's|
|Correctional Treatment Specialist||$54,290||3% increase||Associate to master's||Master's|
|Court Clerk||$41,100||9% increase||Certificate to bachelor's||Bachelor's|
|Criminal Law Paralegal||$51,740||12% increase||Associate to bachelor's||Bachelor's|
|DEA Agent||$61,570||5% increase||Bachelor's to master's||Master's|
|Emergency Management Director||$74,590||5% increase||Bachelor's||Bachelor's to master's|
|Fire and Police Dispatcher||$41,910||6% increase||High school to bachelor's||Certificate or associate|
|Forensic Anthropologist||$63,670||10% increase||Master's to doctorate||Doctorate|
|Forensic Nurse||$57,810||12% increase||Associate to bachelor's||Bachelor's|
|Forensic Psychologist||$70,000||14% increase||Doctorate||Doctorate|
|Juvenile Probation Officer||$54,290||3% increase||Bachelor's to master's||Master's|
|Parking Enforcement Officer||$43,420||37% decrease||High school to associate||Associate|
|Victims Advocate||$50,470||11% increase||Bachelor's to master's||Master's|
Frequently Asked Questions
- What does a degree in criminal justice get you?
- Criminal justice degree graduates meet educational requirements for careers and degree programs in an array of CJ fields. CJ professionals may also earn degrees to qualify for promotion or salary advancement.
- What is a major in criminal justice?
- Criminal justice majors include core courses that familiarize students with the theory and practice of the criminal justice system's three branches: law enforcement, corrections, and the courts. Students typically choose one of the specializations or concentrations detailed below.
- Is criminal justice a good major?
- This major helps students access an impressive array of career fields and opportunities in a growing discipline. Criminal justice students and professionals enjoy interesting coursework and meaningful careers in public service.
Criminal Justice Degree Concentrations
Due to the broad, diverse nature of criminal justice, CJ students usually pursue concentrations based on a specific field, context, or skill set. Specializing a criminal justice degree allows for a more cohesive degree experience and prepares students for their desired careers or fields. The following table lists the most common criminal justice concentrations available.
These concentrations include some technical specializations, such as crime scene technician, offered at the certificate level. They also cover more theoretical fields, such as sociology or criminal psychology, which learners may study at any degree level.