Criminal Justice Degree

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What is Criminal Justice?

Criminal Justice is the field of study and practice that deals with the methods and means to combat criminal behavior. This is accomplished through employment in one of the three sectors of the criminal justice system: law enforcement, the judicial system, and corrections. Individuals will work in one of these three fields, providing services relevant to that area of criminal justice.

Criminal justice requires an understanding of how the three sectors operate together, ensuring that law enforcement abide by laws necessary to perform proper prosecutions, to have the judicial system review and understand the criminal behavior displayed and make judgments in accordance with those crimes, and to have the correction department utilize methods of rehabilitation directed at reintroducing convicts to civil society.

Top Degrees in Criminal Justice

Online criminal justice degrees or classroom-based degree programs are plentiful.  In fact, programs span from certificate programs up through doctorate degrees in a variety of disciplines.  To help you make sense of degrees in criminal justice, we have provided an overview of the programs below.  Each criminal justice degree has ready-access to learn more from top colleges in criminal justice built in.

Finding the best criminal justice degree means vetting their programs, understanding the requirements, pedagogy, and career path after graduation.  Below you will find a list of degree options in criminal justice:

Criminal Justice Certificate

Criminal justice certificates can be offered in two primary modalities: in class or online.  Students seeking to earn a criminal justice certificate online will have dozens of high quality options to consider.  Similarly, on-campus criminal justice degrees continue to be an effective mode of learning within a group setting.

Certificates in criminal justice are offered at either a graduate or undergraduate level.  Graduate certificates are upper level programs that require working knowledge in criminal justice to help working professionals upskill in the field or prepare for a career transition of some nature.

On the other hand, there are undergraduate or diploma programs in criminal justice that provide students with foundational knowledge of the field and created to provide entry-level opportunities or a path to a degree program.  Certificate program can last from a few weeks to a year depending on the program type and number of credits taken at a given time.

Criminal Justice Associate's Degree

The associate's in criminal justice degree is generally a twenty-four month program.  Online criminal justice associate's degree options are available from dozens of top rated colleges.  The constructs include blending liberal arts classes such as creative writing, communications, psychology, and philosophy with core courses.  Coupling core courses plus liberal arts helps students integrate holistic reasoning skills more effectively.

Degrees in criminal justice can be conferred as an Associate of Arts (AA), Associate of Applied Science (AAS), or Associate of Science (AS) depending on the course design.  Core classes in criminal justice may include courses such as:  crime analysis, constitutional law, deviance, psychological profiling, and forensic psychology.

Criminal Justice Bachelor Degree

The online bachelor's degree in criminal justice are 4-year programs that can be conferred in two primary ways: Bachelor’s of Science (BS) or Bachelor of Arts (BA).   Similar to an associate's degree, the bachelor degree track melds general education and core criminal justice courses.  Deeper classes in liberal arts plus more challenging core criminal justice electives allow students to go further into this learning domain.

In fact, many programs offer specializations in criminal justice that can include concentrations like: crime scene investigation, criminal psychology, business administration, homeland security, juvenile justice, strategic intelligence, public administration, and corrections.  The classes you take will depend on your chosen area of specialty coupled with the overarching emphasis of the college’s curricular design.

Master’s in Criminal Justice

Online criminal justice master degrees and their on-campus equivalent are most often conferred as a Master of Science (MS) from accredited colleges and universities.  The areas of concentration for online degrees in criminal justice will flex depending on the school.  Popular master's in criminal justice concentrations are: human services, public administration, homeland security, forensic psychology, emergency management, and computer information systems.

Master degrees can be completed in one to two years of full-time matriculation after meeting all lower level course requirements.  Interested students can earn a graduate degree in criminal justice via modalities such as classroom-based learning, distance learning, or hybrid degrees.

PhD in Criminal Justice

The doctoral degrees in criminal justice can be earned online or in class like lower level degrees.  Doctoral degrees in criminal justice the field are conferred as a PhD.  Generally degrees are parsed by specific fields of study like: emergency management, global leadership, justice administration, law & public policy, homeland security, public management, or teaching in higher education.

Programs can take 3-6 years to complete depending on the number of credits taken at a given time and the length of time it takes to complete the dissertation.  A PhD is known as a terminal degree in the field of criminal justice as there are no additional degrees beyond the doctorate degree.

What Will I Study in Criminal Justice?

A criminal justice degree prepares individuals for a career in the justice system. Criminal justice is a growing field, and as such has seen a surge in educational opportunities for individuals. One can obtain certification in a specific area of criminal justice or can pursue a postgraduate degree; the decision of which will be based on the career path chosen by the individual.

An individual seeking a criminal justice degree will learn how these three parts function independently and together, and will eventually choose which path he or she will focus on for his career. Coursework will include general education courses alongside major requirements.  Curriculum that may be part of typical criminal justice classes include:

  • Criminal Law and Procedure
  • Abnormal Psychology
  • Ethics
  • Crime Prevention
  • Emergency Management
  • Criminal Procedures
  • Public Safety
  • Communications
  • Forensics
  • Deviant Behavior
  • Criminalization
  • Public Policy
  • Economics & Statistics
  • Corrections
  • U.S. Government
  • Judicial Process

A criminal justice degree can also provide a solid foundation for aspiring law students, as it provides a solid background in the legal process as well as the various aspects of how justice is implemented and observed, providing a less abstract foundation on how laws affect society and individuals.

Employment Opportunities in Criminal Justice

Individuals pursuing a career in criminal justice will often enter into law enforcement, with higher level degrees allowing greater access to law enforcement opportunities, typically at the state and federal level. Additionally, work in a courtroom, law firm, and in corrections, allows flexibility in one's specialization and variety in one's employment opportunities. Based on one's preference, education and goals, a career in criminal justice can be extensive and rewarding.

It is also important to note that more and more law enforcement agencies are requiring some college level education to be considered for a position. A degree in criminal justice also provides a solid foundation for related postgraduate degrees, such as forensic psychology, which can in turn be used to augment one's knowledge and increasing his or her effectiveness as a specialist in the criminal justice field.

Top Criminal Justice Careers

We often hear questions from students such as: what can I do with a criminal justice degree and what jobs can you get with a criminal justice degree?  Given the array of degrees and vocational tracks within criminal justice, we have culled a few examples of common job domains to help you get a better understanding of the industry.

The most common sectors within criminal justice include: forensics, corrections, homeland security, legal, law enforcement, and private sector.  An overview of each is listed below along with career examples and associated job titles.

1.  Homeland Security

The Homeland Security division of criminal justice accounts for approximately 10% of federal employees with 180,000 professionals employed in this sector nationwide.   Employees within the Department of Homeland Security perform a variety of jobs that have the common theme of protecting our national interests.

Career Outlook:  The career outlook in the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) will provide steady employment growth with new vocations and technical challenges evolving as threats of all types continue to morph.

Career Examples: CIA Officer, Federal Emergency Management Agent, US Coast Guard, Border Patrol Agent, United States Air Marshal, Homeland Security Investigations (HIS) Officer, Domestic Nuclear Detection Officer, Cyber Network Analyst, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) Agent, Homeland Security Investigator, United States Secret Service Police Officer, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Agent, Transportation Security Screener, Federal Protective Services Agent

2.  Criminology & Forensics

Criminology is defined as the study of crime and criminals from a scientific standpoint which naturally links to the burgeoning field of forensics.  Forensics is the scientific and technical aspects of gathering, analyzing, and studying data associated with crimes for a variety of purposes.

Career Outlook:  Forensic scientists are in high demand and expected growth rate is a robust 27% in the coming decade creating some 9,900 job openings during the coming reporting period.

Career Examples: Criminologist, Forensic Toxicologist, Forensic Odontologist, Forensic DNA Analyst, Polygraph Examiner, Digital Forensic Expert, Penologist, Forensic Ballistic Expert, Forensic Accountant, Forensic Anthropologist, Forensic Psychologist, Crime Scene Investigator, Forensic Pathologist, Criminalist, Forensic Documents Examiner, Blood Spatter Analyst, Forensic Computer Investigator

3.  Rehabilitation & Corrections

Corrections is a field of criminal justice focused on the systematization of criminals and the associated holding facilities.  On the other hand, rehabilitation is the psychological and sociological study of understanding criminals in the system and individuals at risk of becoming part of the system.

Career Outlook: Job prospects in corrections and rehabilitation is estimated to growth approximately 6% in the coming decade which is on par with the national average for all jobs during this time.

Career Examples: Corrections Officer, Prison Warden, Probation Officer, Substance Abuse Counselor, Correctional Treatment Specialist, Juvenile Probation Counselor

4.  Law Enforcement

The discipline of law enforcement can include traditional careers like police officers to a specialized roles in crime scene investigation.  In this field, data and analytics meet with defined processes and procedures to provide a consistent platform for identifying deviations in the law and remediating such deviations.

Career Outlook: The career outlook in this sector is projected to be stable with most precincts and divisions swelling and shrinking with state and federal budgets.

Career Examples: Sheriff, Information Security Agent, Federal Protective Service, ATF Agent, Fish and Game Warden, Counter Terrorism, Crime Scene Investigator, Compliance Officer, Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) Agent, Fraud Investigator, K9 Officer, ATF Technician, Psychological Profiler, FBI Agent, Police Officer, ATF Investigator, Deportation Officer, Crime Lab Analyst, Diplomatic Security, Emergency Management Director, Enforcement and Removal Operations (ERO) Officer

5.  Legal

The legal division of criminal justice includes a number of professions that assist in the court room and help to support the judicial system in a variety of capacities.  As an example of the diversity, both a judge and medical examiner are considered part of the legal domain within criminal justice.

Career Outlook:  Similar to Law Enforcement, the legal domain often mirrors macroeconomic trends.  Job growth often follows population trends and increases accordingly.  The net result can be observed as employment growth is far more rapid in a bustling metro area compared to a static rural setting.

Career Examples: Judge & Magistrate, Fraud Investigator, Court Reporter, Paralegal, Bailiff, Lawyer, Court Clerk, Security Guard, Medical Examiner, Law Librarian

6.  Private Sector

The private sector in criminal justice includes a wide swath of jobs outside the state or federal system.  From privately employed information security specialists to security guards, the private sector is rapidly growing to meet the expanding needs of individuals, corporations, and government agencies.

Career Outlook:  Careers in the private sector of criminal justice are anticipated to grow rapidly when compared to the average growth rate projections across all occupations in the coming term.

Career Examples: Private Investigator, Security Guard, Private Detective, Cybersecurity, Information Security Analyst, Forensic Data Analyst

Criminal Justice Jobs

Criminal justice salary numbers are as varied as the jobs themselves.  Case in point, the  average criminal justice salary can vary from $30,000 per year to $120,000 per year depending on profession, education, and experience. This variance is a result of the broad number of jobs that fall under the criminal justice category and reflects the training and risk of a given job.

The market for jobs in criminal justice is expanding and is expected to continue to do so in the future. This expansion in jobs is due to the growth of the criminal justice system in the United States. Areas with higher population will also have a larger number of work opportunities and the wide variety of jobs available makes criminal justice an appealing career choice.

What Can You Do with a Criminal Justice Degree?

Contrary to popular perception, a criminal justice major will not relegate students to a job as a security officer or police officer.  In fact, with over three million people employed in the criminal justice field the job diversity is quite expansive.  Criminal justice careers are expansive across the legal domain.

Careers in criminal justice can be obtained after earning an online or campus-based degree at any level.  Launching a criminal justice career will take focus, discipline, hard work, and timing.  Criminal justice degree jobs can include any number of the following trades:

Cybersecurity Bailiff
Court Clerk Conservation Officer
Air Marshal Fire Investigator
Judge Community Social Worker
Sociologist Blood Spatter Analyst
CIA Analyst Substance Abuse Counselor
Legal Assistant Border Patrol Agent
Correctional Officer Parole Officer
Crime Lab Analyst Information Security Analyst
Bounty Hunter FBI Agent
Game Warden Attorney
Court Reporter Court Paralegal
Private Security Deputy Sherriff
DEA Agent


If you are interested in obtaining a criminal justice degree, you may also wish to consider forensic science degreelaw enforcement administration degreecriminology, or a criminal science degree.   For additional information, check out our Criminal Justice Career Resource Guide today.

Top 12 Associations in Criminal Justice

  1. National Organization for Victim Assistance (NOVA)
  2. American Society of Criminology (ASC)
  3. National Criminal Justice Association (NCJA)
  4. Justice Research and Statistics Association (JRSA)
  5. International Community Corrections Association (ICCA)
  6. Academy of Criminal Justice Sciences (ACJS)
  7. International Association of Women Police (IAWP)
  8. National Black Police Association (NBPA)
  9. American Society of Forensic Scientists (ASFS)
  10. American Probation and Parole Association (APPA)
  11. American Jail Association (AJA)
  12. American Correctional Association (ACA)

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Career Summary: Criminal justice Major




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