Criminal Justice Degree Guide

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Updated May 24, 2024

Criminal justice professionals uphold laws that govern society. If you want to help keep people and property safe, consider a criminal justice degree.

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The criminal justice system comprises the agencies, professionals, and procedures that protect people and property. Criminal justice professionals can work in law enforcement, corporate security, military policing, and international counterterrorism.

A degree can provide an on-ramp into a justice-related profession. You could major in criminal justice, but you can also consider sociology, forensic science, counseling, and other fields related to crime. These degrees can lead to many careers, including work as detectives, counselors, forensic lab managers, and private investigators.

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What Is a Criminal Justice Degree?

Criminal justice focuses on laws, the agencies that hold citizens accountable for breaking those laws, efforts to restore the victims of crime, and initiatives that help rehabilitate offenders.

Criminal justice degrees occur at the undergraduate and graduate levels, including research-focused doctorates in the field. Curricula draw from many disciplines, including law, policy, sociology, psychology, biology, chemistry, cybersecurity, and statistics.

A "criminal justice degree" can refer to a major in criminal justice or may more broadly refer to majors/concentrations that pertain to the criminal justice field. For example, you could earn a master's degree in forensic science, a bachelor's degree in public safety, or an associate degree in paralegal studies — all considered criminal justice degrees.

Criminal Justice Degree vs. Certificate

A criminal justice degree is a multi-year academic program that can lead to advanced jobs in law enforcement.

A certificate is a short-term program, usually less than one year, requiring a series of graduate or undergraduate courses. Certificates may provide an introduction to the field or more specialized classes.

For example, if you hold a bachelor's degree in criminal justice, you could pursue a certificate in crime analysis or cybercrime to help advance your career in those fields.

Types of Criminal Justice Degrees

Criminal justice is a multidisciplinary field that includes academic programs at every level. As a criminal justice major, you can pursue many specializations or degrees with various career outcomes.

When deciding on the right program, ensure you meet admission requirements and that the degree can help you achieve your career goals.

Associate Degree in Criminal Justice

An associate degree in criminal justice is a two-year program requiring 60-68 credits, including major courses and general education classes. Courses often cover criminology, police administration, correctional systems, and the judicial process. Graduates may work in local police departments, county jails, courtrooms, and juvenile justice agencies.

Admission requirements

Many two-year colleges have open-admission or non-selective admission policies, accepting all applicants with high school diplomas or GED certificates. However, four-year schools that offer two-year degrees often do not have this policy. Some schools will admit you without regard to test scores or high school grades but may require you to take leveling coursework in math and English.

  • High school diploma or equivalent
  • The ACT, SAT, or a placement test (not always required)
  • Minimum high school GPA of 2.0
  • State-sponsored community colleges may require proof of state residency

Careers that require an associate degree

Bachelor's Degree in Criminal Justice

A BA or BS in criminal justice is the standard four-year degree that can set you up to advance in your career as a police officer or qualify you to serve as a federal agent. A bachelor's degree generally requires 120 credits, including general education coursework, major credits, a minor or specialization, and a selection of free electives. You may also complete an internship or research project in this degree.

Admission requirements

Admission requirements vary widely among four-year colleges and universities. Highly selective schools admit only a few of the best-qualified applicants, while other institutions accept nearly all applicants who meet the minimum qualifications.

  • A high school diploma or GED certificate; some schools expect to see a college-preparatory curriculum on transcripts
  • A minimum GPA, usually a 2.5 or 3.0
  • Standardized test scores, such as the ACT or SAT (not all schools require these tests)
  • A personal essay demonstrating collegiate-ready writing skills, interest in criminal justice, and cultural fit with the school
  • Letters of recommendation, usually from a teacher, coach, supervisor, or leader in a community organization or house of worship

Careers that require a bachelor's degree

Master's Degree in Criminal Justice

A master's degree in criminal justice provides advanced instruction in criminological theory, public policy, research, statistics, and forensics. This 1-2 year advanced degree builds on bachelor's programs in criminal justice and other related fields.

Schools may offer their degrees as MA, MS, or master's in criminal justice (MCJ) programs, but no universal characteristics distinguish these titles. A master's degree in criminal justice usually includes 10-12 courses, a specialization, and a research opportunity.

Admission requirements

Each school sets specific admission requirements, but you typically need to demonstrate that you have the academic background, professional experience, and study habits to succeed in graduate school. The type of master's you choose -- MA or MS vs. MCJ or MPA -- and the concentration you select may also affect your specific admission requirements.

  • A bachelor's degree from an accredited college or university
  • Prerequisite courses, such as introduction to criminal justice, statistics, sociology, psychology, or political science
  • Minimum GPA, usually a 2.5 or a 3.0
  • Acceptable GRE or GMAT scores (not all schools require this)

Careers that require a master's degree

  • Professor at community college
  • Criminologist (master's in criminology or sociology)
  • Forensic anthropologist (master's in anthropology)
  • Forensic social worker (master of social work)

Doctoral Degree in Criminal Justice

A doctorate is the terminal degree in criminal justice, usually earned after completing a master's degree. These programs usually take 3-5 years to complete.

Doctorates have different designations and emphases. For example, a Ph.D. in criminal justice emphasizes criminology or justice theory and research, while a doctor of criminal justice (DCJ) is a professional degree with leadership, policy, and practice coursework.

A Ph.D. requires a dissertation, and a DCJ usually concludes with an advanced research project emphasizing assessment or governance.

Admission requirements

Admission requirements vary by institution and may differ according to the type of doctorate. However, you should demonstrate your ability to conduct original research, complete graduate-level coursework, and maintain your pace through a long and challenging academic program.

  • A master's degree in criminal justice, criminology, or a related field such as psychology, sociology, or public administration
  • Minimum GPA (varies by school but often 3.0)
  • Application and application fee
  • Two letters of recommendation
  • Personal statement
  • Essay or academic writing sample
  • Resume or curriculum vita
  • Graduate-level statistics or research methodology course
  • Acceptable GRE scores (many schools waive this requirement)

Careers that require a doctorate

  • Professor at four-year institution
  • Criminal lawyer (juris doctor)
  • Forensic psychologist (Ph.D. or Psy.D. in forensic psychology)
  • Forensic pathologist (doctor of medicine or doctor of osteopathy)
  • Forensic odontologist (doctor of dental science or doctor of dental medicine)

What Courses Do Criminal Justice Majors Take?

As a criminal justice major, you would take courses in various departments focusing on crime, law, investigation, punishment, and rehabilitation. While each school determines its own curriculum, the following course topics are commonly covered in criminal justice degree programs.

Undergraduate Coursework

  • Policing in America: This course covers police officer recruitment and training, their role in society, and the critical issues they face. Students consider the problem of coercion in criminal justice settings.
  • Internship: Enrollees work under appropriate supervision in criminal justice-related agencies.
  • Globalization and Crime: This course explores the intersection of globalization, crime, and justice in countries around the world. Students consider the effects of trafficking, cybercrime, international terrorism, and environmental crime on the field.
  • Child Sexual Exploitation: Topics include child sexual abuse and commercial child sexual exploitation, along with pedophiles, traffickers, victims, and survivors. Students learn about perpetrator's methods, secondary victimization, and the role of technology in child sex crimes.

Graduate Coursework

  • Rehabilitation and Reintegration of Offenders: This course explores empirical studies that reveal effective rehabilitation methods and community-based reintegration strategies.
  • Leadership, Ethics, and Policing: Police officers make critical decisions in time-sensitive situations, preparing them to enter their careers with a strong ethical base. In this course, students develop an ethically based personal philosophy of leadership.
  • Digital Forensics: Enrollees discover the tools and techniques for acquiring, evaluating, interpreting, and presenting digital evidence.
  • Victimology: Topics in this course include the victims' rights movement, victimization trends, and the history of victimology.
  • Thesis/Dissertation: Students interested in research or planning to pursue doctorates can conduct, write, and defend a research project in this course.

Majors Related to Criminal Justice

The standard criminal justice major draws from law, psychology, sociology, social work, business, and other disciplines.

Some colleges offer concentrations or distinct majors in these related fields, allowing you to focus on your academic interests and career ambitions. This section of our guide outlines the broad range of departments, majors, and programs relevant to criminal justice careers.

Criminal Justice Administration

Ideal for law enforcement or legal officials aspiring to leadership positions, criminal justice administration degrees include courses on crisis management, homeland security management, and advanced justice analysis.

Law Enforcement

A law enforcement concentration includes criminal law, criminology, and criminal justice coursework. This major prepares students to pursue public safety careers as police officers, deputy sheriffs, and detectives.

Criminal Investigations

A criminal investigations degree trains students in law enforcement tactics like interrogation and handling evidence. This concentration supports careers such as criminal investigator, homicide detective, and police officer.

Corrections

A corrections degree can prepare you for a career in offender management, including working as a warden in a correctional facility. Coursework combines criminology with psychology, social work, security, and human rights theory.

Fish and Wildlife Science

A fish and wildlife science degree can lead to a career as a park ranger, conservation officer, or fish and game warden. Your curriculum may include animal genetics, population dynamics, aquatic biological invasions, and avian conservation and management.

Social and Behavioral Sciences

Social and behavioral sciences encompass several disciplines that emphasize the study of humans or animals, individually or in groups. Three of the most common social or behavioral science majors relevant to criminal justice are listed below.

Sociology

Sociology degrees teach students to understand social problems and phenomena, social psychology, and population studies. This degree path can lead to research careers in academia, nonprofit agencies, or government.

Criminology

Criminology majors study the field of criminal justice from a sociological perspective. Graduates can pursue roles as crime analysts and criminologists, discovering the social and environmental influences that lead to crime, identifying crime patterns, and exploring deterrents and treatments to help reduce criminal activity.

Criminal Psychology

A criminal psychology program combines studies in psychology, criminology, and criminal justice to prepare students for roles as clinical psychologists or counselors within the criminal justice system or at medical facilities.

Forensic Sciences

The forensic sciences include the natural sciences, health, computer science, and behavioral sciences, along with their applications in law. Professionals in this field often use laboratory tools and techniques to analyze tool marks, blood spatters, polymers, and other evidence to help solve crimes.

Criminalistics

Criminalists analyze physical evidence and present their findings to law enforcement officials. They may also testify as experts in court. A criminalistics degree covers evidence processing, analysis, storage, and presentation. Courses may include crime scene investigation and forensic DNA analysis.

Forensic Accounting

Forensic accounting degrees focus on white-collar crimes and crime-fighting and prevention tactics to prepare students for careers in banking and finance. This concentration includes courses in accounting, business, and cyberforensics.

Forensic Anthropology

Forensic anthropologists use archaeological techniques such as skeletal analysis to help solve criminal cases. Students in this field take courses such as statistics, bioarchaeology, skeletal biology, and practical forensic anthropology training.

Forensic Nursing

This concentration serves aspiring forensic nurses who work with trauma, violence, and neglect victims. Students of forensic nursing programs learn about pathophysiology, death investigation, and crime scene forensics.

Forensic Psychology

With a curriculum at the intersection of psychology and law, earning a degree in forensic psychology can lead to a career as a forensic psychologist, criminal investigator, or mental health counselor.

Computer Forensics

This concentration focuses on extracting and interpreting evidence of computer-based crimes. Computer forensics degrees prepare graduates to help fight crime, including child exploitation, money laundering, and fraud.

Security

The security field includes many careers and academic disciplines, including counterterrorism, cybersecurity, and disaster management. The following section covers a few justice-related security majors you can pursue.

Homeland Security

With courses in the theory and application of cybersecurity, intelligence analysis, and emergency management, a homeland security degree can prepare you to pursue a career as a customs agent, border patrol officer, or state law enforcement officer.

Counterterrorism

A degree in counterterrorism familiarizes students with terrorist organizations and tactics. It also prepares graduates to gather and analyze intelligence for counterterrorism operations. Students may specialize in regions or types of terrorism.

Cybersecurity

This concentration focuses on tactics for fighting and solving cybercrimes, such as fraud, identity theft, child sexual abuse material, and hacking. Graduates of cybersecurity programs may pursue careers as digital forensics specialists, FBI agents, or information security managers.

Security Management

Security management majors can pursue careers as corporate risk analysts, executive protection agents, and detectives. Concentrations in this field may include risk management, cybercrime, and homeland security. Courses often cover private security, security management, and computer security.

Law and Legal Studies

Undergraduate legal studies programs can prepare you for legal support careers such as paralegal and court clerk. Graduate degrees in law or legal studies can lead to a career as a lawyer or in compliance, mediation, arbitration, or legal research.

Criminal Law

Criminal law is the study of crime and the legal system that addresses it. This major is commonly offered only at the graduate level for students interested in law. Courses may cover evidence, criminal procedure, and legal analysis.

Paralegal Studies

If you are considering becoming a legal assistant or attending law school, you could benefit from a paralegal studies degree. This course of study may cover legal theory, Constitutional law, data management, and evidence gathering.

Legal Nursing

Preceded by a regular nursing degree, legal nursing concentrations are typically offered at the graduate level. Coursework includes litigation and trial preparation, case analysis, legal and healthcare ethics, and legal issues in nursing practice.

Does Accreditation Matter for Criminal Justice Degrees?

Institutional accreditation matters for every degree but may be particularly critical for students pursuing public service careers. A degree from an unaccredited school does not offer value to employers and rarely qualifies you for graduate school admission. You may also receive little, if any, financial aid if attending an unaccredited institution.

Institutional accreditation applies to entire schools. The U.S. Department of Education recognizes agencies such as the Higher Learning Commission and the Western Association of Schools and Colleges to evaluate schools and provide this status.

On the other hand, programmatic accreditation simply means a specific department or program has received evaluation. This accreditation applies to specialized fields like law, psychology, social work, and nursing. Common accreditors include the American Bar Association, the American Psychological Association, the Council on Social Work Education, and the Accreditation Commission for Education in Nursing.

Frequently Asked Questions About Criminal Justice Degrees.

Is a degree in criminal justice worth it?

A criminal justice degree can help you earn a higher salary as a police officer or advance to a leadership role in a public safety-aligned agency. If you want to attend law school or earn an advanced degree in counseling or social work, criminal justice could be a good major for you.

What can you do with a criminal justice degree?

You can pursue a career as an FBI agent, U.S. marshal, criminal intelligence analyst, or computer forensics investigator with a criminal justice degree. You can also use the degree to help meet law school admission requirements or apply to a Ph.D. program.

How much do criminal justice degrees cost?

The NCES DataLab reports that in the 2019-2020 academic year, the average tuition and fees for a bachelor's degree in protective services was $12,625. For a master's degree, that figure dropped to $8,331. Your costs may vary widely from these averages depending on your school's reputation, public or private status, and financial aid packages.

How long are criminal justice degree programs?

An associate in criminal justice takes about two years, while a bachelor's degree usually requires four years. Master's programs typically demand 1-2 years of full-time study. You can shorten your time in school if you have transferable credits or if your college offers credit for non-academic prior learning experiences.

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