The field of criminal justice is in constant motion as it changes in response to technical and digital advances in the field. One way to obtain the skills for a leadership role in this rapidly changing field is to earn a master’s degree in criminal justice. It can pave the way for a public service position while deepening your knowledge of societal and criminal behavior and the correctional system. Find out what you’ll learn in an online master’s in criminal justice program, which careers it can lead to, and which schools offer the top programs.
Selecting an online master’s in criminal justice program can be highly personal, depending on whether candidates seek a general or specialized degree. However, all good programs should meet certain standards. Below, we’ve identified the top online criminal justice master’s degree programs using data from the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System, the U.S. Department of Education and published materials from universities. All schools in this list have been accredited.
Students in a master’s in criminal justice program can expect to spend up to two years taking 33-40 credits with possible additional credits for specializations. Most programs include core courses, as well as electives that focus on areas of concentration. Students will select a concentration area for their capstone project or thesis paper, depending on the school and specialization.
Before entering the program, students should look to see if internships, cooperative projects with local agencies, and job placements are included in the online program. Online and on-site programs generally are similar in a master’s in criminal justice, although online students have the additional challenge to communicate well with instructors and other students.
Each master’s in criminal justice program offers courses specific to their school as well as specializations, however, the following courses are usually found in each program.
A master’s in criminal justice program will include a course or seminar in criminology, the scientific study of crime as a social phenomenon and the foundation of criminal justice study. Students study theories that explain crime, consequences of and reactions to criminal acts.
Students who complete a master’s in criminal justice will be expected to be ready for leadership positions, which will require them to analyze and understand data. Most programs require some kind of course in statistics or data analysis, in which they collect, analyze and record data and study a variety of research methods.
Students study the general theories of criminal procedure, including due process, search and seizure, and the study of evidence.
Forensic science courses focus on the methods and technology used during a criminal investigation, including the reliability of techniques, and proper collection and storage of evidence.
Students investigate this relatively new field of study, including technical, social and legal aspects, theories and tools to collect evidence in cyberspace. Students will study the role of hackers and apply criminological theories.
Specializations vary widely from program to program. Some of the more common specializations include:
Students deepen their knowledge of law enforcement with a focus on the study of legal institutions and social issues, such as race and class, as well as applied crime prevention and the effectiveness of police policy and strategies.
Depending on the school, students will focus on special areas of crime, including cyber, white-collar and juvenile crime. Some schools break out each concentration into its own specialty; others include them under a single specialization.
Students with a Homeland Security specialization focus on response to terrorism and natural disasters as well as policy issues surrounding national security and the interaction of federal and other agencies. Graduates work in a variety of fields, including immigration and disaster preparedness as well as research.
Students in the field of corrections focus on the theories and philosophies of corrections, rehabilitation and treatment of criminal offenders. They will study current issues dealing with specific populations, including youth and the mentally ill.
Most master’s in criminal justice programs require a thesis paper or capstone project in which students demonstrate competency in synthesizing and applying criminal justice knowledge and skills. Some programs require completion of an internship.
When selecting a school for an online master’s in criminal justice, look for one whose faculty includes former and current officers of the American Society of Criminologists. Some of the best programs also have established research projects and publications, cooperative agreements with local agencies, and opportunities to interact with instructors and other students. Before selecting a master’s in criminal justice program, candidates should discuss career outcomes with school officials. The U.S. Department of Education provides a list of accredited universities and programs. The Academy of Criminal Justice Services has certified a handful of criminal justice programs, but beyond that, regional school accreditation is considered acceptable.
A master’s in criminal justice degree can be a stepping-stone to a lucrative and influential career. Unlike many other fields, a master’s in criminal justice does not necessarily mean a management role. Most public service careers in criminal justice are in the federal or local government.
Information security analysts are charged with monitoring the networks of their business or organization for breaches in security and investigating violations. Analysts must stay current on software, including data protection programs, and research the latest trends in information technology security. Demand for information security analysts is expected to be high as financial institutions and other corporations need to increase security in the face of growing threats in cyberspace. A master’s in criminal justice with a concentration in cybersecurity or cybercrime is suggested for advancement in this field.
Emergency management directors oversee the planning and response to natural disasters and other emergencies. Directors must understand and coordinate with public safety agencies to develop effective plans. Following disasters, directors must identify and assess damage as well as follow a plan for community recovery. A master’s in criminal justice degree with a concentration in homeland security would be an ideal stepping-stone for public service advancement.
Probation officers and correctional treatment specialists help with the rehabilitation of inmates and those who have been released from prison so that offenders can successfully re-enter society. Officers maintain contact with the offender’s support team, keep and maintain records, and monitor the offender’s progress. Job growth varies because it is based on state and local funding. Candidates can often become a probation officer with a bachelor’s degree, but advancement often depends of holding an advanced degree. A master’s in criminal justice degree with a concentration in corrections would be the preferred step toward career advancement.
A criminologist, an expert in the study of crime and criminals, is a type of sociologist and analyzes criminal behavior. Some criminologists work with law enforcement agencies while others perform academic research and policy analysis in the court system. Although the Bureau of Labor Statistics does not break out the jobs outlook for criminologists, it does account for sociologists, of which crime is a specialty. Because criminology is a science, an advanced degree, such as a master’s in criminal justice with a concentration in criminology, is preferred.
Although the minimum requirement for some law enforcement positions is a high school diploma and completion of police academy training, a degree in criminology can be beneficial for those hoping to work in higher level positions or within the Department of Homeland Security or the FBI.
Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2018
The versatile master’s in criminal justice degree opens doors to a variety of careers, from state and local agencies to the Department of Homeland Security and the private sector. Job growth varies between career tracks. Law enforcement, such as police and detective positions, is expected to grow about 7 percent, which is about average job growth. However, the fields of forensics and cyber security are expected to grow 17 and 28 percent, respectively, which is quite a bit faster than average.
The breadth of the criminal justice field is evident in the number of professional organizations available for membership. Some associations are specific to a topic; others are multi-disciplinary and appeal to a broad range of professionals and scholars. Following are a few of the professional organizations in criminal justice.
This nonprofit represents the concerns of state, tribal and local justice systems to the federal government and also provides support for criminal and juvenile justice policy development to states and tribes. Membership includes access to newsletters, webinars, conferences and other training that assists members in staying current and having a voice to shape justice policy.
This international organization supports the interaction of criminal justice scholars, professionals and students in the pursuit of education and research. Members develop and share ideas about crime, criminals and social justice. Membership includes journal and newsletter subscriptions, professional growth and networking opportunities, and employment information.
The society fosters the pursuit of scholarly, scientific and professional knowledge of criminology, particularly the measurement, prevention and treatment of crime and delinquency. Membership includes journal and newsletter subscriptions and an employment listing at the annual meeting.
The academy seeks to provide leadership to the study of the investigative sciences and their application to the legal system. Members in the multi-disciplinary organization include attorneys, dentists, toxicologists, physical anthropologists, chemists, criminalists and psychiatrists.
Graduate students looking for help paying for an online master’s in criminal justice degree have a variety of options to choose from.
Student’s first step should be to fill out the Free Application for Federal Financial Aid (FAFSA). Learn more from our guide to the FAFSA.
Many colleges and universities offer scholarships both general and specific to criminal justice. Often, students will be automatically considered for merit scholarships when they apply for a master’s degree program. But students should refer to the prospective school’s financial aid website or department for more information.
In addition, certain organizations offer scholarships specific to the field of criminal justice, including: