Guide to Online Criminal Justice Master’s Degree Programs

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Updated September 18, 2020 is an advertising-supported site. Featured or trusted partner programs and all school search, finder, or match results are for schools that compensate us. This compensation does not influence our school rankings, resource guides, or other editorially-independent information published on this site.

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What Is an Online Master's Degree in Criminal Justice?

Online master's degrees in criminal justice prepare students for a variety of criminal justice occupations and help facilitate career advancement in the field. Learners gain widely applicable investigative techniques and strategies for use in public, private, and contract professions. Many master's programs also provide leadership practices to help usher graduates into management positions.

An online degree tends to give students a more flexible learning environment and improves program accessibility by limiting travel requirements. Most students still take two years to complete their online degree, which typically feature between 30-45 credits, but some online programs offer accelerated options.

After completing a master's degree, criminal justice graduates may pursue further education or enter the workforce. Possible careers for master's graduates might include leadership positions in law enforcement, private security, intelligence, and legal services. A Ph.D., the logical next step in the educational path, can lead to careers in academia or research.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the highest 10% of police and detectives earn median annual wages of nearly $110,000. Meanwhile, job growth in these fields are projected to remain consistent with the national averages between 2018 and 2028. Continue reading below for more detailed information on the degree and the careers to which it might lead.

Why Get an Online Master's Degree in Criminal Justice?

Earning a master's degree in criminal justice online can lead to personal and professional rewards. Their advanced and specialized training puts graduates in a unique position in the industry. Though each person has their own reasons for pursuing the degree, the following list examines some of the most common benefits that many criminal justice master's graduates enjoy.

  • Career Opportunities

    In general, criminal justice training grants access to a broad field of opportunity, but a master's degree provides advanced education that can increase the available range of careers. For example, the degree may open the potential for careers in federal agencies and specialized positions.
  • Strong Wages

    According to the BLS employment data, the median annual wage for police and detectives sits more than $25,000 higher than the average for all occupations. Detectives and criminal investigators earn an annual median wage over $83,000 and federal government positions pay over $88,000.
  • Leadership Positions

    In addition to earning higher wages, master's degree graduates can access leadership positions, which allow them to make a greater impact on policies and outcomes.
  • Why Should You Get Your Degree Online?

    Online learning considerably expands students' program options. No longer limited to local institutions, students can find the degree that best meets their precise needs and desires. They can find accelerated programs, affordable tuition rates, and the ideal curriculum for their career goals.

    For criminal justice master's degree students, online degrees make sense. Online programs at the master's level help accommodate working professionals looking to build on a bachelor's degree. Learners can often complete their coursework and research entirely online, while finishing all practical components at a local site.

    While online students enjoy numerous benefits, the program format may not suit everyone equally. Completing an online degree suits self-directed students, as courses often feature less peer and professor interaction and more independent study. As a result, online programs require full commitment and dedication to meet deadlines effectively.

    Some online programs feature on-campus requirements, so students should clearly understand the expectations prior to enrolling.

    Career and Salary Outlook for Online Master's Degree in Criminal Justice Graduates

    Graduates with a master's degree in criminal justice qualify for a variety of positions in law enforcement and related fields. Their core training prepares them for advanced investigative work, while their focused skills and expertise qualifies them for leadership positions. Whatever specialized education they possess can expand the field of careers even further.

    With competitive median annual salaries over $57,000, law enforcement and related careers offer attractive options for all graduates. Master's graduates, however, tend to find work in managerial roles and specialized careers. As a result, these professionals gain easier access to the top 10% of wages in the field, such as top emergency management directors earning over $140,000 and first-line supervisors of correctional officers earning more than $105,000.

    Professional growth does not end with a master's degree. With experience and continued education, graduates can continue developing and advancing in their careers. Many states offer specialized training programs and certifications to enable dedicated professionals to build on their credentials. The following list highlights just some of the positions available to graduates with a master's degree in criminal justice.

    Detectives and Criminal Investigators

    Criminal investigators solve cases through collecting and analyzing evidence. They may work with and within a wide range of law enforcement agencies and levels. While most criminal investigators need a bachelor's degree, a master's degree can lead to professional advancement and higher wages.

    Median Annual Salary: $83,170


    FBI Agent

    FBI agents investigate federal crimes and issues of national security. The FBI features many divisions and agents often specialize in a field, such as cybercrime, counterintelligence, and terrorism. Most FBI positions require a bachelor's degree at minimum, but some employers prefer master's graduates, and may offer higher salaries.

    Median Annual Salary: $65,574


    Air Marshal

    Air marshals fly on commercial flights and look out for any suspicious or criminal activity. They observe all other passengers and attempt to maintain the safety of the people and equipment on board. A bachelor's degree is usually required to qualify for open roles, though a master's degree graduate may receive preference and wage enhancements.

    Median Annual Salary: $65,985


    Emergency Management Director

    Emergency management directors help organizations prepare and plan for emergencies. They lead in times of need and help limit damages and recover efficiently. A bachelor's degree is usually the minimum requirement, but a master's degree can lead to better opportunities and more professional rewards.

    Median Annual Salary: $74,590


    First-Line Supervisors of Correctional Officer

    These supervisors oversee the operations of corrections officers. They coordinate the activities of the officers and ensure they follow all procedures and policies. Correctional officers typically need a bachelor's degree, whereas supervisors need experience or more advanced training.

    Median Annual Salary: $69,000


    Online Master's Degree in Criminal Justice Careers: Median Salaries by Experience

    Detectives and Criminal Investigators $49,000 $51,000 $58,000 $70,000
    FBI Agents $52,000 $60,000 $65,000 $81,000
    Air Marshals N/A $52,000 $65,000 $89,000
    Emergency Management Directors N/A $92,000 $100,000 $115,000
    First-Line Supervisors of Correctional Officers N/A $36,000 $41,000 $46,000
    Source: PayScale

    Interviews with Criminal Justice Professionals

    To help aspiring criminal justice students get a closer look at some of the careers available to them, the interview page below includes discussions with police officers, sheriffs, and legal professionals. Find out more about what their jobs entail and what makes them important and vital to the field.


    Types of Online Master's Degrees in Criminal Justice

    Students interested in online criminal justice degrees at the master's level can pursue their training in several different ways. They may choose from a number of degree options and concentrations or they may build their own specializations within general degrees.

    While graduates may access similar careers regardless of their type of degree, they should understand the possible differences between them to get the most out of their program. The following list details some of the more common online criminal justice degrees.

  • Master of Science in Criminal Justice

    Compared to other online criminal justice degrees, an MS degree grounds its core program in the sciences. MS programs may feature thesis requirements, which can help prepare students for a Ph.D. program. Since MS degrees may also lead to careers in the law enforcement field after graduation, they represent a versatile option for students.
  • Master of Arts in Criminal Justice

    One of the more popular degree options available, an MA in criminal justice can lead students down a variety of pathways. These programs may focus on policy, administration, and leadership training. After completing the humanities-focused degree, graduates can enter the workforce or pursue a Ph.D.
  • Master of Public Administration in Criminal Justice

    An MPA in criminal justice helps graduates apply their public administration theoretical training to the criminal justice field. Students learn to develop and implement public programs and policies. They also examine legal strategies and procedures used in the field. An MPA in criminal justice supports students looking for careers in administration or management positions.
  • Master of Business Administration in Criminal Justice

    An MBA in criminal justice equips students to improve and implement criminal justice policies. This training also develops leadership and management skills. This degree prepares graduates for careers in management, operations, and legal positions within the diverse criminal justice field.
  • Online Master's in Criminal Justice Concentrations

    A master's degree in criminal justice online prepares students to enter a number of divisions within the industry, but students can influence their career path by choosing program concentrations. By focusing their training in a specific area in the field, learners can build specific expertise to improve their employment qualifications.

    Students in programs that do not offer official concentrations can develop their own specializations or emphases through their electives, thesis, and internships. Prospective applicants with a concentration in mind should seek programs that offer options for that discipline. The following list outlines some of the possible concentrations available.

    Popular Online Master's Degree in Criminal Justice Courses

    Each program features its own unique curriculum and course options. The different degree types and concentrations for online master's degree programs can also impact the available courses. In general, however, most programs feature courses in core training, electives, internships, and thesis or capstone projects.

    Core courses deliver the training that is considered essential in the field. This may include fundamental criminal justice courses and courses required by the school or department. Electives allow students to choose courses in more specialized areas. They may complement the core training or delve into interdisciplinary studies. Students may find some of the following courses in criminal justice programs across the country.


    In this course, students gain a fundamental understanding of crime, criminal behavior, and the legal system. They study the theoretical natures of crime, the various types of crime and criminal behavior, and the potential causes of crime. Courses also explore the social structure of law and order and observe how different theories impact criminal justice policies and procedures.

    This course examines the ethical dilemmas within the criminal justice system. Training covers the balance between the professional responsibilities of the field, as well as the moral and the ethical implications that may arise in a student's career. Criminal justice ethics classes typically fall within the core program and provide students with essential ethical training.

    In this course, learners study the issues faced by today's professionals and the historical context in which these issues sit. They look at how the field has changed over time and the causes and motivations for that evolution. The courses also look at how current issues could impact future policies and procedures in criminal justice professions.

    Students in this course learn about the financing of police departments and law enforcement agencies. They learn how management creates budgets and defends them at each organizational level. This training can prepare graduates for careers in administration and management within different agencies.

    Criminal justice policy courses look at how administration and management professionals tackle the creation and implementation of criminal justice policies within the various departments and organizations. Students analyze current policies and look at how and why those organizations implemented them in the first place. This training can help students looking to qualify for management positions.
  • The Master's Practicum and Thesis

    In addition to concentrations and specializations, students can use a master's practicum and thesis to build a specific expertise. By choosing an area of professional interest for the thesis topic or practicum location, learners can impact their career path and gain a competitive advantage over other job candidates.

    A thesis is an extensive research project in which students create an in-depth report in an area of interest. These projects typically take up the majority of a learner's second year of study and can involve a considerable amount of work. Students interested in a thesis should look for programs that offer them as course options or requirements.

    Like a thesis, a practicum is typically completed during the second year of a master's program. Students often choose as their practicum site an organization or field that they wish to work within after graduation. This allows them to build relevant experience at the same time as completing their education.

    Selecting Your Online Master's Degree in Criminal Justice Program

    In order to choose the right criminal justice school and program, aspiring master's students need to consider a number of factors to decide on the one that best meets their needs. Applicants should take into account program accreditation, delivery format and coursework, and institutional resources.

    No matter their individual specifications, prospective students should select an accredited program. Proper accreditation can impact financial aid and employment outcomes. If they plan to apply to a local law enforcement agency, enrollees should also find out if that organization recognizes their program before enrolling.

    Students should closely examine the delivery format of each program. Online programs may limit the travel requirements, but some still require on-campus visits and residencies. Distance learners should also ensure that they can complete practicums and internships locally to avoid any future complications.

    Aspiring criminal justice students should consider each program's breakdown. This may include finding a program that offers the ideal courses and concentrations, thesis options, and program length. Applicants should also look into the admission requirements and competitiveness to ensure it matches their expectations.

    Finally, candidates should research the level of support the school offers, which might be determined from a school's size and student-to-teacher ratios. Finding a faculty with strong credentials or a department with a quality reputation in the applicant's field of interest can help future job searches. Extensive graduate support resources and an emphasis on a strong alumni network might indicate that a program that will provide continuous support after graduation.

    Admission Requirements for Online Criminal Justice Programs

    The admission requirements for online criminal justice master's programs vary by school, but students can get an idea of what to expect from the following general guidelines. Most master's degrees in the field require applicants to complete a bachelor's degree.

    Some programs may require a degree in a specific discipline, such as criminal justice or a related field. Applicants may also need to complete prerequisite courses, such as foundational criminal justice or legal system courses. Some programs prefer applicants with professional experience, such as military service.

    Many programs also set minimum grade and GRE or GMAT test score requirements. The necessary grades and scores depend on the competitiveness of the program. Some programs set the minimum GPA at 3.0, GRE scores at 850, and GMAT scores at 400.

    Additional admission requirements usually include professional recommendations and a written statement or essay. This latter piece may take the form of a statement of goals, a personal essay, or an essay on a suggested topic.

    Accreditation for Online Master's Degree in Criminal Justice Schools and Programs

    Program accreditation represents an important consideration for all students, as it can ensure a quality education. Regional accreditation indicates that an institution meets the standards as set by the seven regional agencies acknowledged by the Council for Higher Education Accreditation. Students should prioritize regionally accredited programs, as this type of accreditation may be required for federal aid, transfer credits, and employment.

    National accreditation typically acknowledges for-profit career and religious schools and are unlikely to have an impact on master's programs, but field-specific programmatic accreditation may impact a student's decision. The Academy of Criminal Justice Sciences (ACJS), for example, recognizes programs that meet their organizational standards. The National Security Agency and Department of Homeland Security also acknowledge schools that meet certain programmatic standards.

    While these program recognitions are informal and not considered mandatory for criminal justice professionals, they can give graduates a competitive advantage and preference for certain positions. To find out what programs and schools received accreditations, students can search the Database of Accredited Postsecondary Institutions and Programs.

    Ranking Your Top Schools

    After considering all of the above factors, criminal justice candidates can begin to prioritize the most important things and rank their ideal programs. Applicants can fill in any informational blanks through additional research, discussions, and campus visits. As a starting point, online rankings can help learners identify some of the best programs in their ideal location, format, and discipline.EXPLORE OUR LIST OF THE BEST ONLINE MASTER'S IN CRIMINAL JUSTICE PROGRAMS


    Frequently Asked Questions

    What jobs can I get with a master's in criminal justice?

    With a master's in criminal justice, graduates can enter most law enforcement organizations and many other legal fields. The advanced training may qualify them for specialized or management positions within these organizations. Some employers may require experience in addition to education. 

    What is the best online college for a master's in criminal justice?

    Choosing the best online college depends on the student's individual needs and wants. Distance students should look for programs with little or no on-campus requirements. Students interested in a specific discipline within criminal justice should look for a school with courses or specializations in that area. Finally, all students should look for a regionally accredited institution.

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

    Earning a master's degree in criminal justice can lead to more specialized careers, faster career development, and higher earnings. The prevalence of online programs has made earning a graduate degree easier, quicker, and more flexible, so learners can study while maintaining employment.

    Scholarships for Online Master's Degree in Criminal Justice Programs

    To help in funding their education, aspiring students can turn to numerous sources of financial aid, including federal funding and scholarships. Candidates can access school-specific, location-specific, and program-specific scholarships. To help criminal justice students, the following list looks at some of the best program-specific scholarships available.

    Ritchie-Jennings Memorial Scholarship Program

    Who Can Apply: Hosted by the Association of Certified Fraud Examiners Foundation, this scholarship rewards students aiming at an anti-fraud career. Graduate applicants must be enrolled in at least six semester hours of a criminal justice major.

    Amount: $1,000-$10,000

    Apply for Scholarship

    IALEIA Education Scholarship

    Who Can Apply: The International Association of Law Enforcement Intelligence Analysts provides this scholarship to an active association member or a member's immediate family member pursuing a criminal justice degree at the graduate level.

    Amount: $1,500

    Apply for Scholarship

    ACJALAE Scholarship Program

    Who Can Apply: Hosted by the American Criminal Justice Association–Lambda Alpha Epsilon, this program rewards graduate students pursuing a degree in criminal justice. Applicants need a minimum GPA of 3.0 to qualify.

    Amount: Varies

    Apply for Scholarship

    ACJS Student Scholarship Awards

    Who Can Apply: The Academy of Criminal Justice Sciences awards master's students with a winning research paper in criminal justice sciences. The scholarship recognizes their academic and research accomplishments and invites the winners to present their paper at the annual ACJS conference.

    Amount $600

    Apply for Scholarship

    Pi Gamma Mu Scholarships

    Who Can Apply: Pi Gamma Mu offers multiple scholarships for graduate students pursuing criminal justice degrees. Applicants are judged on their academic excellence and their commitment to the field.

    Amount: $1,000-$2,000

    Apply for Scholarship

    Professional Organizations for Criminal Justice

    Professional organizations provide a number of resources and benefits that offer support for current and aspiring students, new graduates, and experienced professionals. Members and visitors can access industry publications, educational and professional development programs, and networking events.

    The following list outlines some of the best associations for criminal justice students and professionals.

    Striving to improve the career landscape for criminal justice professionals, this association offers educational opportunities, promotes standards and best practices, and provides a unified voice for members.

    Established in 1963 to improve the criminal justice field and its professionals, the ACJS offers its members access to education, industry research, and a professional network.

    The nation's largest organization of law enforcement professionals, the FOP serves its members through education, representation, and access to information and resources.

    Additional Reading


    Latest Posts is an advertising-supported site. Featured or trusted partner programs and all school search, finder, or match results are for schools that compensate us. This compensation does not influence our school rankings, resource guides, or other editorially-independent information published on this site.

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