A degree in criminal justice gives you the chance to study criminal behavior and activity, social policy, crime control, qualitative analytical methods, laws and policing ethics, and beyond. You'll learn how social issues and inequalities, including those related to race, gender, class, age, and sexuality, shape the criminal justice system and public perceptions of justice.
With a criminal justice degree, you can pursue a wide variety of careers depending on your level of training and interests. Many degree-holders move on to careers in law enforcement, corrections, and criminology. Depending on the criminal justice program you choose, you can also become a competitive candidate for careers in social work and criminal or forensic psychology.
If you're ready to learn more about the best in-person and online criminal justice degree programs and rewarding careers for criminal justice graduates, you've come to the right place.
What is Criminal Justice?
We commonly use the phrase criminal justice to refer to relevant laws and court-related events that take place when a crime is committed. Criminal justice also includes the operations carried out by police systems, investigators, lawyers, prisons, and state and federal governing bodies.
Criminal justice is a big field with a lot of moving parts. As a student in a criminal justice degree program, you'll find a way to carve out a niche based on your interests and career aspirations. If you're interested in pursuing any of the many professional positions that make the criminal justice system operate, earning a criminal justice degree is a great place to start.
Bear in mind that there are different types of criminal justice degrees that are available at the associate to doctoral levels. Additionally, the criminal justice courses and training will vary with each schools' strengths and specialty areas. That said, it's important to first identify what level of criminal justice degree is the best fit for you.
Secondly, you'll want to find a criminal justice degree program that offers training and support for students with your interests and career aspirations. Let's take a closer look at the various types of criminal justice degrees out there.
Criminal Justice Degree
Associate Degree in Criminal Justice
A criminal justice associate degree serves as an excellent introduction to the field. These two-year degrees typically cover the basics of the theory, history, and practice of law. They can be quite helpful experiences for students trying to figure out which area of the criminal justice field they would like to pursue a career.
What you might not know is that you can qualify for positions in criminal justice with only an associate degree. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), this degree can position you for entry-level work as a police officer, detective, correctional officer, bailiff, and more.
Bachelor’s Degree in Criminal Justice
A Bachelor's Degree in Criminal Justice includes both general education classes in addition to criminal justice major courses. Coursework includes topics like ethics, criminal law, social behavior, and political science topics more in-depth than in associate programs. These criminal justice programs typically take four years to complete.
A Bachelor's Degree in Criminal Justice can lead to exciting careers in the field. You can move on to positions as a security officer, fraud investigator, detective, police officer, and much more. Upon graduation, you'll qualify for similar career options as associate degree-holders but your additional education and training can help you compete for better pay and entry- to mid-level positions in the field.
Master’s Degree in Criminal Justice
A Master's Degree in Criminal Justice is an advanced degree that offers you a deeper dive into critical thinking and criminal justice topics. Many MA programs prepare you for career opportunities in law enforcement agencies like the FBI, national security, corrections, crime prevention, and victim advocacy. Upon completion of a master's degree, you may also qualify for some research- or teaching-based positions in academic or criminal justice organizations, according to BLS.
Most full-time students can complete these graduate degrees in two years or less. Compared to associate and bachelor's degrees in criminal justice, master's programs typically require students to complete a traditional thesis or final project in addition to an internship.
Doctoral Degree in Criminal Justice
There are several types of doctoral degrees related to criminal justice, but two stand out as the most common and directly connected to the field:
- The doctor of criminal justice (DJC)
- The doctor of philosophy (PhD) in criminal justice.
The degrees may sound alike but they are designed for different types of criminal justice students.
It's easiest to think of the DCJ as an in-practice, leadership, or criminal justice policy-focused degree. The PhD, on the other hand, is largely for researchers and educators who want to work for universities, research institutions, and public advocacy groups. Other popular doctoral degrees related to criminal justice include the doctor of psychology (PsyD) in criminal justice, juris doctor (JD), and doctor of public administration (DPA). Depending on the program, doctoral degrees can take 3-7 years to complete.
What to Expect as a Criminal Justice Major
Criminal justice students gain a comprehensive education about the entire multi-institutional criminal justice system. From law enforcement agencies and courtrooms to jails, penitentiaries, juvenile detention centers, and other correctional facilities, they discover the “big picture” and all the major entities involved. They learn about how the system works as a whole, including the various processes and people (such as police, judges, attorneys, parole officers, etc.) related to each phase of an individual’s journey through the criminal justice system.
Students will take assigned core classes along with a handful of electives which allow them to customize their academic focus, based on their interests and career goals. Some programs, especially graduate ones, also feature a range of degree specializations to select from, such as criminology, homeland security, or public administration.
When deciding on the electives or specialization tracks to take, it’s good to keep in mind the job you intend to pursue after graduation, so the coursework will fully prepare you for your chosen career field. That’s why it’s important to know what job you want to pursue as early as possible.
Many criminal justice degree programs offer exciting internship opportunities with various agencies. These may or may not be optional, but students should highly consider completing one if available. Internships are a fantastic way to gain real-world experience and make connections!
Completed internship experiences look great on resumes plus you may be able to ask your old supervisor to serve as a personal reference to potential employers. It’s usually beneficial to select an internship with an agency related to the type of job you want to get after graduation. In fact, sometimes graduates can go back and get a job at the place where they interned.
Types of Criminal Justice Classes
Every criminal justice academic program features its own unique curriculum, but odds are you can expect core and elective classes related to the following undergraduate-level topics in some form or fashion:
- Crime analysis
- Crime and racial issues
- Crime and women’s issues
- Crime control strategies
- Crime mapping and hotspots
- Criminal behavior
- Criminal defense and prosecution
- Juvenile issues
- Media and crime
- Social justice in the criminal justice system
- U.S. court systems
- U.S. jails, penitentiaries, and other correctional facilities
Bachelor’s students completing a criminal justice program may be able to customize their degree by taking a specialization track. Options vary depending on the school and program, but a few common undergraduate specialization tracks include generalist, corrections and case management, forensic science, and law enforcement.
Graduate programs may be more inclined to require a specialization, with options such as criminology, homeland security, public administration, and law enforcement leadership.
Criminal Justice Careers And Salary Information
America’s criminal justice system is both huge and complex, which is why more highly qualified workers are urgently needed to enter the field. There are several career opportunities for criminal justice majors:
- Police officers
- Homicide detectives
- State troopers
- Correctional officers
- Criminal profilers
- Parole officers
- DEA agents
- And many more
Most of these jobs require at least an associate or bachelor’s degree to qualify. To help you cover the high cost of tuition, we’ve put together a list of ten great criminal justice scholarships you might want to check out (before someone else gets them!).
What Can You Do With a Degree in Criminal Justice?
While there are many different career paths you can take with a criminal justice degree, it's best to pursue an education with some sort of career in mind. This way you'll be able to pick a school and electives that support that effort. Many students study criminal justice to prepare for careers as police officers or detectives. About 77% of police and detectives work at the local government level and earn a median annual salary of $65,850.
Policing and detective positions can lead to higher-level positions at the state and federal levels. With several years of experience, criminal justice professionals can also find work with specialized agencies with the federal government, including the Department of Homeland Security, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and the Drug Enforcement Administration. Only about 8% of criminal justice professionals trained in law enforcement and investigation work for the federal government. These workers make a median annual salary of $92,080.
For criminal justice professionals with a master's or doctorate in criminal justice, becoming a college teacher may be a rewarding option that puts their teaching and research skills to work. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), postsecondary teachers in these roles make a median annual salary of $63,560.
Salary and Career Information by State
If this information is easily available to pull from somewhere, that’d be great to include. However, do not go state by state to provide individualized information. We’re looking for information like the following. These are just some ideas and not required:
- different required degree levels per job
- cost or need of licensure
- Anything else that would make certain states stand out
Certification and Licensure
Graduates interested in attaining relevant certificates that can be applied in the workplace can pursue a Certified Criminal Analyst certification or take a class to become a Certified Criminal Justice Professional to name a couple. These certificates allow recent graduates and working professionals to gain tangible skills and relevant knowledge that can be applied directly to their current roles.
If you plan on becoming a lawyer, then you first need to complete law school. After graduating, you should qualify for your state’s Bar Exam
Outstanding Criminal Justice Programs
There are an endless number of outstanding criminal justice programs at great schools around the nation. Below are a few of our favorites for your consideration!
Criminal Justice Scholarships
1. American Criminal Justice Association – Lambda Alpha Epsilon Scholarships
Dedicated to supporting excellence and achievement, the American Criminal Justice Association – Lambda Alpha Epsilon sponsors many scholarship programs. Currently their website’s scholarship page is pending updates to launch a “new, streamlined online application.” In the meantime, don’t forget to bookmark their site and check back. Previous submission dates were in December.
2. American Society of Criminology – Gene Carte Student Paper Competition
The American Society of Criminology’s Gene Carte Student Paper Competition gives out $200 – $500 awards to college students who’ve done outstanding scholarly work related to criminology. Papers can be up to 8,000 words and must be formatted per ASC guidelines. Judging criteria include quality of conceptualization, topic significance, clarity of methods, and writing quality. Submissions are due April 15th.
3. Continental Society of Daughters of Indian Wars Scholarship
Sponsored by the Continental Society Daughters of Indian Wars, this scholarship awards $2,500 – $5,000 to enrolled tribal members planning to “work with a tribe or nation in the field of Education or Social Service.” Applicants should preferably be entering their junior year of college and must maintain a 3.0 or higher GPA. Submissions are due by June 15th.
4. Disability Credit Canada Scholarship for Canadian Students with Disabilities
Disability Credit Canada offers a $1,000 scholarship to Canadian students with disabilities who are studying Criminal Justice or other listed majors at an accredited Canadian college. Applicants must be Canadian citizens or permanent residents with a documented disability. Submissions are due July 31st.
5. Harold Johnson Law Enforcement Scholarship
The Silicon Valley Community Foundation’s Harold Johnson scholarship offers up to $5,000 to students “who plan to pursue a career in police work, corrections or other criminal justice fields.” Applicants need a 2.5 minimum cumulative GPA and must attend one of the listed California high schools. Submissions are due by January 8th.
6. My Alarm Center’s Scholarship Program
Security service provider My Alarm Center features an annual scholarship for graduating high school seniors or college freshmen and sophomores enrolled in criminal justice or related programs of study. To apply, submit a 500-1000 response to one of their listed questions regarding community involvement or public safety. Applications are due July 1st.
7. Newell S. Rand Jr. Memorial Scholarships
Named after Park Law Enforcement Association’s former VP, the Newell S. Rand Jr. scholarship provides $1,000 to full-time students interested in park law enforcement. Applicants in college must have a cumulative 2.5 GPA, and high school students are required to have a 3.0. Submissions are due June 1st and must include letters of recommendation, an essay, and a summary of courses.
8. North Carolina Sheriffs’ Undergrad Criminal Justice Scholarship
The North Carolina Sheriffs’ Association awards Criminal Justice Scholarships of $1,000 – $2,000 to North Carolina undergrad students attending a program at one of the listed institutions. Priority is given to children of NC law enforcement officers. Winners are selected by the applicable schools’ financial aid office. Please check the above website for updated information about application deadlines.
9. Oregon Association Chiefs of Police Scholarship
The Oregon Association Chiefs of Police Scholarships pays $1,000 to students planning to pursue a criminal justice career. Applicants need at least a 2.5 GPA. Preference is given to family members of Oregon police killed or injured in the line of duty. Submissions are due December 31st and should Include a 300-word bio.
10. Women in Federal Law Enforcement Scholarship
The nonprofit Women in Federal Law Enforcement organization offers a regular scholarship as well as one designed for “members only.” Awardees are chosen based on academics and commitment to community service. Applicants must major in Criminal Justice or a related field, have at least a 3.0 GPA, and submit a 500-word essay. Amounts vary but may range from $1,000 – $2,500.
Data Source: Peterson’s Databases copyright 2021 Peterson’s LLC All rights reserved
Find More Criminal Justice Scholarships with our tool! This list of 10 Criminal Justice scholarships is only the tip of the iceberg. Our scholarship search tool makes finding and filtering scholarships easier than ever!
How to Get Started on a Criminal Justice Degree
Arguably the first step you should take prior to applying to any school is to decide which career path you want to pursue. As we’ve seen, there are several job types available for graduates with a criminal justice degree. But, you can tailor your degreed with electives and, in some cases, specialization tracks.
It’s wise to know where in the criminal justice system you see yourself working later, so you can pick the best electives and specialization options to qualify you for the job and prepare you for your future duties. With that in mind, let’s review a few questions to help you get started!
Which Criminal Justice Job Do You Want?
We understand not every student knows what they want to do after graduation. But the sooner you can pin that down, the better! Review the different job opportunities available. If the lists seem too broad, narrow down the options by thinking about where in the criminal justice system you see yourself working.
For example, would you like to work within a law enforcement agency? If so, would you prefer local, state, federal, or international?
Or — does the legal side of things appeal to you more, such as working with lawyers, judges, and juries?
Would you enjoy working in or with correctional facilities or parole offices?
Do you want to devote your efforts to working with juveniles, or to improve social justice goals from within the system?
Try to decide which area you want to work in, then you’ll have a smaller list of jobs to choose from! Do your homework on those and learn about the duties and responsibilities involved, before applying for a program or signing up for electives and specialization tracks.
Do You Qualify for the Criminal Justice Job You Want?
Once you have a good list of criminal justice career options that interest you, it’s time to determine if you meet basic qualification standards or not. Holding a suitable degree is only one of many qualifications that employers will require. Depending on the position, you’ll also need the right mix of soft skills, psychological traits, physical fitness, and job-specific aptitudes.
For example, many criminal justice degree graduates may initially be interested in working within a correctional facility, but then discover it was a bad fit from the start. Indeed, personnel turnover in prisons is “notoriously high.”
Many criminal justice jobs require drug, criminal, and personal background screenings to ensure applicants don’t have disqualifying factors or incidents in their past. In addition, law enforcement agencies usually require applicants to pass mental health and physical examinations.
Is the Job Right for You in the Long Term?
Criminal justice careers can be physically and emotionally draining. When employees are young, they may be able to keep up with the hectic work schedules, the physical challenges, and the various job stressors they face each day. But over time, such jobs can wear down even the heartiest, most devoted workers. That’s why it’s vital to consider the long-term ramifications of any career field you’re thinking about entering.
Often, college grads start their careers while single or otherwise untethered to a significant other. Later, they might get married, have kids, or incur other serious relationship obligations. When that happens, suddenly the demands of their criminal justice position impact the lives of others, and not just themselves.
When thinking long-term, it’s good to consider what responsibilities your career will require of you 5, 10, or 20 years down the road, and how your duties might impact your relations with those you care about. That said, if you decide later that you want to switch careers but still stay in the criminal justice field, sometimes all it takes is a certificate to qualify for a new role!
What Type of College Education Will You Need?
Once you’ve narrowed down your list of jobs you want the most, start exploring the educational requirements and salary potential.
Determine whether you want to pursue a certificate, associate, bachelor’s, or graduate degree. Next, start reviewing your school choices. There are many factors to consider when deciding upon a criminal justice degree program and school, including application requirements, deadlines, and of course cost of tuition and other expenses.
Do You Qualify for a Criminal Justice Degree Program?
Just as you must qualify for a job, you also have to qualify to get accepted into any college program.
For undergrad programs, this means possessing a high school diploma or equivalent, having a high enough GPA, and, depending on how selective the program is, being competitive in other areas such as extracurricular activities. Grad school is even tougher and may require letters of reference, personal essays, or even interviews! Graduate programs also have prerequisites, so if your bachelor’s wasn’t in criminal justice, you might have to take some extra courses to qualify.
Figuring Out School Specifics
You’ll need to ask yourself several questions while trying to figure out your college roadmap.
Does your schedule and budget allow for on-campus, full-time attendance, or will you need the flexibility of an online criminal justice degree program?
If going online, make sure your school is accredited and double-check whether there are any in-person requirements or not. Many programs list that they are online, when in fact they are “hybrid” because they have some short residency requirements.
If going on-campus, will it be as a full-time student or part-time due to work or family obligations?
Also, if you want to attend school in person, determine whether or not you want to go in-state or out-of-state. Out-of-state tuition generally costs more than in-state. There are, however, various ways students may qualify for an in-state rate, such as establishing residency ahead of time or going to a school that participates in a reciprocity program.
Don’t assume you can just finish college and then start working right away. Sometimes there’s additional training in-between college and starting a new criminal justice-related job.
Many criminal justice grads apply to work for law enforcement agencies, but these agencies can feature their own training programs that you’ll have to pass, too. It’s very important to know the requirements such agencies have in terms of candidate qualification or disqualification.
For example, although legal in many states, recent or excessive use of cannabis can, in some cases, potentially disqualify applicants from service within certain federal agencies (because cannabis is still illegal at the federal level and in many states).
Review all requirements for the job you want in advance, including any additional training requirements such as police academy, FBI Academy, CIA training, etc. Get your information directly from the source (i.e. the applicable agency’s official website) and keep their qualification standards in mind as you complete your college education!
The old “traditional” route was for college students to go straight from their bachelor’s to a master’s or PhD, but these days that way of doing things is merely one of numerous options. For many criminal justice majors, it may be better to knock out your bachelor’s, get a few years of work experience under your belt, then apply for a graduate certificate or degree program to complete part-time, while keeping a full-time job.
Flexible, online and hybrid programs make it easier than ever to continue your education beyond the undergrad level, so you can qualify for promotions, pay raises, or even new criminal justice careers. There are tons of amazing academic options for almost everyone, but the key is finding the best option that fits your needs and goals at the specific point when you’re ready to proceed.
Is a degree in criminal justice worth it?
- Yes. Criminal justice gives you the chance to develop both specialized and highly marketable skills and knowledge. With an education in criminal justice, you'll qualify for many different types of rewarding and good-paying careers.
What kind of job can you get with a degree in criminal justice?
- Criminal justice degrees open the doors to a staggering number of career possibilities. From probation officer, paralegal, and police officer to forensic accountant and criminal investigator, there's no shortage of directions you can go.
What is the best degree for criminal justice?
- The best degree for criminal justice is one that meets your educational needs and prepares you for your desired career without breaking the bank. It's important to find an affordable, accredited criminal justice degree program to ensure you obtain valuable credentials that will help you advance your career.
Is criminal justice hard?
- Criminal justice degree programs and careers are not really for the faint of heart. In addition to studying the complex criminal justice system, you'll spend time learning about challenging topics. This includes violent crimes and disturbing offenses that criminal justice professionals encounter on a regular basis.
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