Best Criminal Justice Master’s Degrees

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Criminal justice master’s programs offer advanced degree paths to prepare students for their careers. Graduate schools configure these degrees in several ways. Some feature traditional credentials, like the master of arts (MA) or master of science (MS), while others have adopted the newer master’s in criminal justice (MCJ) designation.

In any case, a graduate degree in criminal justice opens doors to rewarding career opportunities. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects faster-than-average job growth rates in several criminal justice fields from 2019-2029. For example, the BLS  forecasts a 5% growth for police and detectives and a 17% growth for social service case managers.

This guide explains what students can expect from criminal justice master’s programs. We cover critical details about admission requirements, curricula and specialization options, and learning formats. This resource also includes current rankings of the nation’s top criminal justice master’s degrees.

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Why Get a Criminal Justice Master’s?

Most experts consider criminal justice an offshoot of criminology, which examines crime and criminality through a sociological lens. Criminology is rooted in academic theory and research, while criminal justice focuses specifically on frontline interactions with those directly affected by crime and criminal activity.

The dynamic field of criminal justice encompasses many different positions within law enforcement, court, and correctional systems. Well-known examples include police, corrections, and probation officers; victims’ advocates; protective service workers; and caseworkers. Professionals can also combine criminal justice schooling with additional training to prepare for roles as forensic technicians, evidence technicians, homeland security officers, and many other specialized professions.

Criminal justice professionals usually work for public-sector agencies. They may perform their job duties in office, institutional, or field settings. Some positions require visits to crime scenes during active investigations.

The field tends to attract individuals deeply invested in their communities. Criminal justice work has a direct and immediate social impact, making this field a good match for those with high levels of integrity, empathy, and desire to protect the vulnerable and enact positive change. 

Employers increasingly prefer candidates with higher levels of education, which speaks to the value of a master’s degree in criminal justice. Additional benefits of an advanced criminal justice degree include:

Greater Career Flexibility
A master’s in criminal justice qualifies candidates for more roles, enhancing their career options and delivering greater flexibility.
Specialization Opportunities
Most criminal justice master’s programs allow enrollees to pursue concentrations. Students can tailor their education to match their personal preferences and career objectives.
Higher Earning Potential
BLS data indicates that a master’s degree delivers an outstanding return on investment over a professional’s career.

What To Expect From Master’s in Criminal Justice Programs

Criminal justice master’s programs embrace core philosophies that prepare students to serve as agents in one of society’s most essential institutions. They commonly explore the real-world applications of theoretical models of crime and rehabilitation. Other programs maintain a stronger focus on advocacy, preparing students to improve the lives of those negatively affected by crime. 

Credit structures vary among schools, but most programs require learners to complete 16-20 courses. Full-time students take 4-5 courses per semester, leading to a master’s in criminal justice in two academic years. More compact programs may include only 10-12 courses, allowing enrollees to complete their degrees in just one year.

Schools also cater to the needs of working professionals and nontraditional learners balancing their studies with external commitments. Many programs offer part-time study options, which lengthen the expected graduation timeline but allow learners to integrate graduate school into their busy lives.

  • Admission Requirements

    Admission standards vary between schools, but most share some common elements. Applicants with no academic background in criminal justice may need to complete foundational courses. These classes usually cover essential content normally encountered at the undergraduate level. In addition to prerequisite courses, schools typically require standardized test results, like GRE scores.

    GPA cutoffs typically start around 2.5 on the 4.0 scale. More competitive schools prefer applicants with undergraduate GPAs of at least 3.0. Even in these cases, some institutions consider candidates with lower GPAs if they bridge academic deficiencies with extensive, field-specific professional experience, high test scores, or compelling details from their personal backgrounds.

    This resource features additional information about admission standards and program structures.

  • Degree and Specialization Options

    Criminal justice students at the master’s level may encounter MA, MS, and MCJ degrees. MA programs typically examine the applications of social sciences like psychology, sociology, and criminology in criminal justice institutions and field settings. Meanwhile, MS programs typically maintain a stronger focus on the technical, scientific, quantitative, and research-oriented aspects of crime and rehabilitation.

    The MCJ offers a different path, functioning as a terminal degree for criminal justice professionals. MCJ programs typically combine the respective social science and technical focuses of MA and MS degrees.

    Criminal justice overlaps with the study and practice of law. Advanced law degrees like the master of laws (LLM) or juris doctor (JD) also apply. Those who hold LLM or JD degrees meet the academic requirements for earning a license to practice criminal law, either as prosecutors or defense attorneys.

    Many schools also offer concentration and specialization options at the graduate level. Potential specializations include policing and law enforcement, criminal corrections, criminology, case management, homeland security, and crisis management. Some programs also offer forensic science specializations, but these are usually only available to students with extensive technical and scientific backgrounds.

  • Popular Criminal Justice Courses

    Specific coursework varies between criminal justice master’s programs, including required, elective, and capstone courses. Their contents depend on the degree’s focus and underlying core philosophy and the student’s area of concentration or specialization, among other factors.

    The following list offers an overview of the types of courses you may encounter in a general MA or MS criminal justice program:

    Theories of Crime and Criminology
    Master’s in criminal justice programs include a broad, theory-based survey course in the first semester. In this class, students engage with the prevalent theories of crime, criminal behavior, and rehabilitation that inform their future coursework.
    Research Methods in Criminal Justice
    This required course usually appears in MS and MCJ programs, though many MA programs also feature similar classes. Students explore the research methods professionals and academics use to build hypotheses and create theoretical models informed by trends, statistics, and data.
    Seminar in Juvenile Justice
    Typically featured in concentrated programs focused on youth and juveniles, this seminar examines the socioeconomic factors that drive youth crime rates. Enrollees consider juvenile crime prevention methods and the rehabilitative needs of young offenders.
    Applied Crime Prevention
    This specialized course usually appears as an elective in law enforcement-oriented programs. Coursework explores advanced crime prevention methods like predictive policing, problem-oriented policing, theories of routine activity, and the situational prevention of crime. Course content also considers how law enforcers respond when criminals adapt to these techniques.
    Applied Criminal Justice Theory
    This intensive seminar is a culminating experience, similar to a capstone or thesis. The course comprises a major research project carried out under the instruction and supervision of a dedicated faculty advisor, typically covering the equivalent of 1-2 courses in the program’s final semesters.

  • How Much Will a Master's Degree in Criminal Justice Cost?

    Tuition fees vary according to factors such as the school’s status as a public or private institution and the program’s delivery format. Public colleges often charge different rates depending on residency. In-state residents and those who qualify for in-state status through reciprocity agreements usually enjoy reduced rates, while out-of-state learners pay higher rates.

    Conversely, most private institutions charge the same tuition rates for all learners, regardless of their residency status. Their tuition fees are also usually higher, reflecting their prestige.

    In some cases, public and private institutions offer discounted tuition for online enrollees. For example, public colleges may charge in-state rates to all online students regardless of where they live. Private colleges sometimes create separate fee schedules for distance learners, granting them reduced rates that acknowledge their reduced use of physical resources.

    Applicants in need of financial help can apply for merit-based forms of assistance, such as scholarships, grants, and fellowships. Public and private loans offer another solution, but you should only consider these once you have exhausted your other options.

Read More About Criminal Justice Programs

Jobs for Master’s in Criminal Justice Graduates

Those wondering what to do with a criminal justice degree should research their career options before applying. Your intended career path should inform your choice of schools, particularly for learners interested in concentrated or specialized degrees.

The following list includes popular career paths and areas of professional practice expected to see strong levels of growth. It prioritizes job titles and positions that require or prefer a master’s in criminal justice.

  • Criminologist

    These specialized sociologists primarily find employment in scholastic institutions. They conduct research into historical and current patterns and trends in crime and criminality. Many criminologists also teach postsecondary courses.

    • Required Education: MCJ or doctorate in criminology or criminal justice; some employers may consider candidates with MA or MS degrees plus extensive practical experience
    • Job Outlook (2019-29): +4%
    • Median Annual Salary: $83,420

  • Social Service Case Manager

    Social service workers focus on the needs of community members affected by crime. They advocate for crime victims by building resource networks and guiding individuals and families to assistive services.

    • Required Education: Bachelor’s or master’s degree
    • Job Outlook (2019-29): +17%
    • Median Annual Salary: $67,150

  • Emergency Management Director

    These professionals usually work for government agencies, along with some nonprofit and private-sector organizations. Emergency management directors create and ensure best practices for emergency and disaster response protocols.

    • Required Education: Bachelor’s or master’s degree
    • Job Outlook (2019-29): +4%
    • Median Annual Salary: $74,590

  • FBI Agent

    FBI agents work in law enforcement, investigating federal crimes by responding to calls for assistance, conducting interviews and crime scene analysis, and identifying and apprehending perpetrators.

    • Required Education: A bachelor’s degree, but most agencies prefer candidates with master’s degrees
    • Average Salary: $66,040

  • Law Enforcement Supervisor

    Law enforcement supervisors manage police units by defining their priorities, assigning resources to specific objectives, and coordinating investigation activities.

    • Required Education: A bachelor’s degree, but most agencies prefer candidates with master’s degrees
    • Job Outlook (2019-29): +5%
    • Median Annual Salary: $94,950

Explore Criminal Justice Careers

Choosing the Right Criminal Justice Graduate Program

Rankings offer a great starting place for researching programs, but prospective students can still perform their own research. For example, learners should only search for schools with valid and current regional or national accreditation standing. The Academy of Criminal Justice Sciences is an important specialized accreditor, and programs bearing its endorsement meet particularly high standards.

Other factors that may affect your school decision include:

Staff Credentials and Diversity
Crime affects people of all ethnic, racial, and socioeconomic backgrounds. Understanding its impacts on members of specific communities requires engagement with diverse perspectives.
Program Culture
A program’s underlying philosophy shapes its students’ professional perspective. For instance, some programs emphasize rehabilitative programs over more punitive practices.
Concentrations and Specializations
Learners with specific career goals may find their best program matches outside of rankings lists. For some, a program’s close alignment with personal beliefs and professional goals is more important than its performance in competitive rankings.

Depending on your personal situation and preferences, you may also consider location, program length, program delivery formats, typical class sizes, and the quality of career resources.

Should Get Your Degree Online?

Many criminal justice master’s programs include practical learning opportunities, such as work-study positions and field placements. However, some schools allow students to complete core academic requirements entirely online. Thus, you should also consider the advantages and potential drawbacks of enrolling in a fully online or hybrid program.

Online education has made great strides in recent years, with schools responding to increased demand for distance learning in innovative ways. However, not every student is an ideal candidate for an online criminal justice degree. Independent learners with high levels of self-motivation tend to find the most success.  

Distance learning also offers cost benefits, since learners do not need to physically travel to and from campus. Still, degree-seekers should not pursue these advantages to the detriment of their educational experience. Some learners are at their best when they can directly interact with peers and faculty members, making traditional delivery formats a better option.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • How do I apply to a criminal justice master's program?

    Every school maintains distinct admission procedures, but most institutions require a complete institutional application with copies of your academic transcripts. Schools may also request GRE scores or other test results, along with letters of recommendation or personal statements, among other materials.

  • How long does it take to get a master's degree in criminal justice?

    While some programs lead to graduation in as little as one academic year, most master’s degrees in criminal justice require two years or four semesters of full-time study. Part-time learners may take 3-5 years.

  • What can I do with a criminal justice degree?

    A criminal justice degree qualifies you for many entry-level positions in the field. Options include career paths in law enforcement, corrections, parole and probation, social services and victim advocacy, and the court system.

  • Is a master's in criminal justice worth it?

    A master’s in criminal justice delivers greater career flexibility, as those who hold them qualify for more professional roles, such as supervisory or management-level positions.

  • What are the highest-paying jobs in criminal justice?

    Lawyers earn some of the highest earnings in the field, but those without law degrees can still find lucrative work in policing and forensics. Entrepreneurial types can also launch private investigation businesses and consultancies that offer unlimited earning potential.

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