Criminal Justice Doctorate Degrees

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Criminal justice professionals are vital to the safety of our communities. They protect vulnerable individuals from violent crimes and they seek justice for victims. Entry-level professionals in this field often work on the frontlines as police officers or probation officers. Criminal justice professionals with experience and an advanced degree may work in classrooms to educate the next generation of professionals, study forensic psychology to better understand a perpetrator’s motives, or make vital discoveries in labs that reveal important crime details.

While the job outlook varies by role, the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects an overall upward trend in this field. For example, the BLS projects the need for information security analysts to grow 32% between 2018 and 2028.

This guide covers important information for prospective criminal justice doctorate students, including common courses and potential careers and salaries for graduates.

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Explore program formats, transfer requirements, financial aid packages, and more by contacting the schools below.

Why Get a Doctorate in Criminal Justice?

Criminal justice professionals with undergraduate degrees tend to work in frontline roles such as corrections officers, police officers, probation or parole officers, and crime scene investigators. Degree-holders also work as victim and community advocates. However, as in many other fields, career growth opportunities increasingly depend on holding an advanced degree.

Many criminal justice graduate students are motivated by the desire to move into more senior and impactful positions. Others pursue master’s degrees and doctorates because of the targeted study opportunities they offer. Learners seeking to specialize in a concentrated area or engage with criminal justice research tend to seek advanced degrees.

Doctoral studies particularly appeal to individuals seeking to make an impact in research and policymaking. In many cases, doctoral candidates initially develop their ambitions through fieldwork experience. This makes online doctoral programs a natural fit for established professionals seeking to strengthen their work’s reach and influence.

Beyond opening paths to top administrative, policymaking, and research roles, criminal justice doctorates offer many other benefits.

  • Increased Earning Potential: PayScale data from January 2021 indicate that professionals with doctorates earn an average of 56.4% more per year than people with only a bachelor’s degree.
  • Authority and Prestige: Professionals with respected academic credentials can more easily influence criminal justice policy in meaningful ways. A doctorate represents the highest, most authoritative degree in the field, making it a strong fit for those who aspire to make a difference.
  • Specialization Opportunities: Research-oriented doctoral programs offer candidates wide latitude in choosing the direction of their own studies. Learners interested in a particular criminal justice topic, research area, or applied branch can engage their intellectual curiosity in rewarding depth.

What To Expect From Criminal Justice Doctoral Programs

Doctorates in criminal justice vary widely by credit structures and academic requirements. Programs vary from accelerated to intensive, and completion timelines typically take 2-5 years of full-time study. Specifics depend heavily on factors including the degree-seeker’s area of specialization, research and learning interests, and academic and professional backgrounds.

Some schools offer formal concentration tracks in areas such as organizational leadership, behavioral science, juvenile justice, criminal justice policy, and advanced research. In other cases, candidates can design their own specialization under the guidance of faculty advisors.

Learning formats also vary, with traditional campus-based programs enjoying continued popularity while online delivery methods continue to make inroads. However, as of 2021, fully online criminal justice doctorates remain somewhat rare. Many online criminal justice doctorates use hybrid structures, which allow learners to complete most coursework online but still require campus residencies and other in-person attendance obligations.

Doctoral Admission Requirements

Each school sets its own admission policies, but criminal justice doctoral programs tend to share several common standards. Most schools require applicants to hold a master’s degree from an accredited institution, but some accept candidates with a bachelor’s degree plus extensive professional experience.

Notably, many doctorates in criminal justice do not explicitly require applicants to hold a lower degree in the field or an adjacent academic area. However, a scholastic background in a relevant subject strengthens an application.

Instead, criminal justice programs tend to consider an applicant’s objectives, motivations, and potential more. As such, personal statements and letters of recommendation tend to carry more weight than they do in many other fields. Applicants to a Ph.D. in criminal justice typically must submit a statement of purpose, 2-3 recommendations from authoritative professionals, and one or more academic writing samples.

Other commonly requested materials include GRE scores and resumes or CVs. Some doctoral programs only consider candidates with multiple years of professional criminal justice experience. Other programs grant favorable standing to applicants with experience-rich profiles.

Criminal Justice Degree and Specialization Options

Most criminal justice doctoral programs lead to a Ph.D., but some culminate in a doctor of criminal justice (DCJ). Ph.D. programs generally place more emphasis on theoretical concepts and academic research, while DCJ programs focus on applied theory and associated uses in practical and professional settings.

Despite these differences, Ph.D. and DCJ programs often offer similar specialization and concentration options. Examples include subfields like criminal justice law and policy, victim studies, investigative science, criminal behavior, and juvenile justice. Other examples include law enforcement and policing, homeland security, and research methods. Many programs in both Ph.D. and DCJ tracks also support custom specializations.

Admission standards are similar for both degree tracks. However, candidates should remember that DCJ programs are relatively rare in the United States.

Popular Doctoral Program Courses

Doctorates in criminal justice feature two main course types: core requirements and electives. Students must complete all core courses, regardless of their chosen specialization or concentration. Electives usually comprise about half of the total credit requirements and permit students to explore their personal or professional interest areas in more detail.

Examples of common core and elective courses include:

Advanced Seminar in Criminal Justice

This core survey course usually falls during a doctoral program’s first semester. It examines major current issues in the criminal justice arena and analyzes the ways in which policy, research, theory, and professional practice intersect with the criminal justice system. Students also familiarize themselves with contemporary academic literature, informing their future coursework.

Advanced Criminal Justice Research Methods

Another required course, this class guides students to advanced understandings of research methods, including study designs and quantitative analysis methodologies. It also teaches learners to identify, question, problematize, and interpret the underlying biases and assumptions of published academic studies.

Psychology of Crime

This course is usually featured as an elective in general Ph.D. programs, and in programs with concentrations not directly related to criminal behavior. It examines various biosocial, sociological, psychological, and developmental theories related to the psychoanalytic aspects of criminality.

Criminal Justice Public Policy

This elective concentrates on the ways in which academic research informs public policy. Learners analyze the decision-making processes that underlie criminal justice programs with an eye to the importance of original and groundbreaking research as a tool for policy change.

The Doctoral Dissertation

Practically all criminal justice doctorates culminate in a dissertation, which is a long-form, intensive work of original academic research. The dissertation typically occupies at least one full academic year at the end of the program. Some programs earmark 3-5 semesters for dissertation requirements.

The dissertation serves as the student’s culminating experience. It carries high importance, especially for candidates eyeing careers in academia, research, and postsecondary teaching. For these students, the dissertation doubles as a job entry path, as many learners submit their dissertations or revised versions thereof to academic journals for publication consideration.

Students retain custom levels of control over the subject and focus of their dissertation, within certain limits. Topics require faculty approval, and they must pose a specific research question or attempt to solve a particular problem or issue. Candidates must then perform intensive research and refine the dissertation over multiple drafts under the supervision of their academic advisor(s).

The process culminates with the student defending their work before an academic committee. Most programs attach four possible outcomes to the dissertation defense: pass, pass with minor revisions, pass with major revisions, or fail. Traditionally, students defend their work in person, but remote sessions have become more common as an indirect consequence of COVID-19.

How Much Will a Criminal Justice Doctorate Cost?

According to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), public institutions charged an average of $11,926 for graduate and professional degrees in 2018. Their private counterparts cost more than 113% higher, with tuition and required fees averaging $25,442 in 2018.

In terms of costs, criminal justice doctorates generally align with these averages. However, schools increasingly offer tuition discounts to online learners in the form of reduced per-credit fees, advantageous flat rates, or by offering in-state rates to out-of-state learners. However, each school determines its own pricing policies. Many factors influence these policies, including the institution’s size, prestige level, location, and endowment and research funding.

Learners in need of financial aid to meet their schooling costs should consider nonrepayable options first. These include scholarships, grants, bursaries, and fellowships. Repayable options like federal and private loans function best as a last resort.

Doctorate Degree in Criminal Justice Career Outlook

Earning a criminal justice doctorate prepares you to work in lucrative, in-demand positions. For instance, the BLS projects jobs for information security analysts to grow 32% between 2018 and 2028. These professionals enjoyed a median annual salary of $98,350 in 2018.

What Jobs Can You Get With a Criminal Justice Doctorate Degree?

Graduates with a doctorate in criminal justice can work in roles such as forensic science technician, criminal justice and law enforcement teacher, and information security analyst. We cover several common jobs and potential salaries for graduates below.


  • Forensic Science Technician

    These professionals oversee criminal investigations, particularly the processes of gathering and analyzing evidence. They also document crime scenes by taking photos and drawing sketches. Forensic science technicians must possess an eye for detail to carefully conduct thorough investigations and look for hidden clues.

    Median Annual Salary: $58,230

    Projected Growth Rate (2018-28): 14%


  • Criminal Justice and Law Enforcement Teacher

    Criminal justice and law enforcement teachers are usually employed at public and private colleges and universities. However, some high schools also hire teachers for this subject. These individuals inspire the next generation of criminal justice professionals, so they must maintain current knowledge of this ever-changing field.

    Median Annual Salary: $78,470

    Projected Growth Rate (2018-28): 11%


  • Information Security Analyst

    Information security analysts oversee computer and network security on behalf of an organization. They educate staff about the latest security threats and keep anti-virus data up to date. These professionals also provide their expertise to help solve digital crimes, like data breaches.

    Median Annual Salary: $45,125

    Projected Growth Rate (2018-28): 5%


  • Emergency Management Director

    These individuals oversee emergency response plans and develop ways to help communities recover from natural disasters and other emergencies. Emergency management directors also identify risks and brainstorm ways to prevent issues from occurring.

    Median Annual Salary: $98,350

    Projected Growth Rate (2018-28): 32%


  • Forensic Psychologist

    Forensic psychologists examine human behavior and discover what drives violent crimes. They may work for the government or as consultants for various firms. These psychologists often evaluate suspects and determine whether they are mentally able to stand trial.

    Median Annual Salary: $69,453

    Projected Growth Rate (2018-28): 14%


LEARN MORE ABOUT CAREERS IN CRIMINAL JUSTICE

How To Find the Right Criminal Justice Doctorate

Formal lists of leading doctorates in criminal justice offer a strong starting point for program research. However, the methodologies used to evaluate schools typically consider only a limited set of quantitative factors that may or may not apply to your specific situation.

Thus, prospective students should consider additional, more personal factors when assessing programs. Finding the right fit for your academic interests and professional objectives is equally if not more important than a school’s inclusion or exclusion from a competitive list.

You may also want to consider subjective and qualitative elements, such as:

  • Available concentrations or specializations, particularly if the school hosts a rarely offered option that interests you
  • The program’s culture and philosophy (for instance, some schools embrace rehabilitative approaches to criminal justice more strongly than others)
  • Program length and location
  • Whether the program offers experiential learning options, such as internships and field placements
  • Whether the research interests of faculty members align with your own

Accreditation ranks as another critically important factor, and students should only consider programs based at schools with valid national or regional accreditation. The Academy of Criminal Justice Sciences acts as the main specialized accreditor of criminal justice programs. However, readers should note that the organization is not officially recognized by the Council for Higher Education Accreditation as of 2021.

Why You Should Consider Getting Your Ph.D. in Criminal Justice Online

Fully online doctorates in criminal justice that do not require any physical campus presence are relatively rare in the United States. However, many institutions offer remote-learning programs that let degree-seekers complete most or all of their coursework online. These opportunities offer many benefits.

First, online learning optimizes school-life balance by allowing students to customize learning schedules. Students can more easily work around outside commitments or continue to hold a job while studying part time.

Also, learners in mostly or fully online programs tend to save significant sums of money. They avoid the need to relocate to attend school, and they do not need to commute to and from campus on a regular basis. Many online criminal justice doctoral programs require students to make occasional on-campus appearances, but these trips usually leave a negligible overall impact on costs.

However, online learning does require high levels of independence and self-direction. Some people also prefer the more interactive experience of the traditional classroom. Do an honest assessment of your learning aptitudes and personal preferences before committing to a particular program format.

Frequently Asked Questions


  • What Is a Doctorate in Criminal Justice?


    A doctorate in criminal justice provides theory-based knowledge for professionals who wish to work in leadership or research roles within the criminal justice field. Classes cover topics like research methodology, best practices for gathering evidence, ethics, and criminal justice laws. You typically must possess a master’s before pursuing this degree.


  • What Can You Do with a Doctorate in Criminal Justice?


    Graduates with a criminal justice doctoral degree can work in roles such as emergency management director, information security analyst, forensic psychologist, forensic science technologist, and criminal justice teacher. Since this versatile degree opens up opportunities for multiple jobs, consider your interests and personality traits when choosing a job. For example, if you enjoy working one-on-one with individuals, you might like working as a forensic psychologist. If you prefer collecting data, you might want to gather crime scene evidence as a forensic science technician.


  • How Long Does It Take to Get a Doctorate Degree in Criminal Justice?


    It typically takes students four years to earn a doctoral degree in criminal justice, but it can take as few as three or as many as six years. The rate at which you earn this degree varies depending on your personal schedule and the curriculum requirements. For example, some programs require only 90 credits, while others comprise 120 credits.


  • What Salary Can I Earn with a Doctorate Degree in Criminal Justice?


    Salaries vary by experience, job, and location. However, pay typically ranges from $60,000 to $100,000. According to BLS, information security analysts are some of the highest-paid professionals in this field, earning an annual median income of $98,350 in 2018. Meanwhile, forensic science technicians earned median yearly salaries of $58,230 in 2018.


  • Why Should I Get a Doctorate in Criminal Justice?


    Earning a criminal justice doctorate allows you to work in high-paying and fulfilling careers. In fact, many employers place a salary limit on what you can earn with just a master’s degree. Empowering yourself with more education allows you to lead others in the field, and passionate and educated individuals can help keep communities safe for even the most vulnerable people.


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