A criminal justice degree explores every aspect of crime, the law, and the justice system to help students gain the theoretical knowledge and leadership skills necessary to succeed in the field of criminal justice. This versatile degree features an interdisciplinary approach to the problems of crime and society, covering everything from the foundations of criminal justice and law, to theories of criminal behavior, to research methods, the American court system, and how law enforcement agencies function. Graduates of a degree program in criminal justice enter the workforce prepared for a wide variety of roles in law enforcement, security, public safety, the judicial system, and corrections.
Types of Criminal Justice Degrees
The field of criminal justice is large and the career opportunities are diverse and abundant. Students who choose to pursue higher education will find a wide range of degree types and concentrations that give them the opportunity to choose the career that best fits them as a person. Criminal justice degrees can be used to launch a career in law enforcement, become a detective or crime scene investigator, or work in academia, advocacy, homeland security, emergency management, cybercrime, and more.
Here you can learn about how criminal justice degrees can serve as an entry point to many traditional and non-traditional careers in both the private and public sector, and about the different areas of study that can help you develop the knowledge and skills you need to succeed in your chosen profession.
Associate’s Degree in Criminal Justice
If you are looking for a criminal justice program with introductory to intermediate level instruction that will put you an immediate path to a career in criminal justice, an associate degree from a community college or vocational school may be the best place to start. An associate’s degree is the preferred option for students who want to establish a basic foundation and learn the introductory skills they need to enter the workforce quickly, and inexpensively, or would like to earn credits that they can apply later to the pursuit of a bachelor’s degree program.
Most associate degree programs require two-years or 60 credit hours and include curriculum covering topics such as introduction to criminal justice, law enforcement procedures, and the foundations of corrections. Additional coursework may touch on the administration of criminal justice, juvenile delinquency, legal and criminal procedures, and basic psychology studies without examining advanced concepts and theories.
Potential career paths for individuals who have an associate degree include but are not limited to correctional officers, police officers, security guards, private investigators, and forensic science technicians.
Bachelor’s Degree in Criminal Justice
A bachelor of arts degree in criminal justice is four-year degree granted by a college or university, which is designed to equip students with a broad understanding of the criminal justice system. Students who earn a bachelor’s degree at a traditional university, or an online bachelor’s degree from a distance education provider, learn about the foundations of the law, theories of criminal behavior, criminology, standards of professional responsibility, forensic science, criminal and forensic research techniques, the history of policing in America, current law enforcement trends, how the corrections system works, and how the U.S. court system functions.
Although a majority of police departments across the country do not require new recruits to earn a bachelor’s degree (only a high school diploma) to become a police officer, there are a growing number of positions, especially those that require advanced skills and knowledge, that now have a bachelor’s degree requirement. In particular, job titles that require in-depth knowledge of science, technology, and research methods, such as forensic science, crime scene investigation, or criminal psychologist, typically require a bachelor’s degree. Law enforcement jobs at the federal-level typically require at least a bachelor's degree, as well.
Master’s Degree in Criminal Justice
If your ultimate goal is to pursue a position in leadership or an advanced position with the federal government, a master’s degree is a must. Job titles such as Chief of Police, FBI Agent, CIA Agent, or any government position at GS-9 or higher is expected to have a master’s degree requirement.
Students who enter a master’s degree program are immersed in an intense period of study, typically scheduled for one-to-two years, where advanced theories, research methodologies, and analytical techniques are learned. Depending on your area of focus, the curriculum may include courses such as criminal justice administration, victimology, policing special populations, correctional leadership, managing police organizations, criminal profiling, criminal justice policy, crime causation, and more.
Ph.D. in Criminal Justice
A doctoral degree in criminal justice is the highest education credential you can earn in this field. It is typically pursued by individuals who are seeking high-level careers in academia, public policy, law, organizational leadership, private or governmental research agencies, or anyone whose ultimate goal is to climb the ladder within the federal government to GS-12 or higher.
Earning a Ph.D. is the pinnacle of any student’s educational journey, so it carries a substantial amount of weight with employers and demonstrates a significant commitment to your professional goals. The objective of a doctoral program is to elevate your already strong understanding of crime and the criminal justice system and to train you to conduct your own original research that will generate insights of public policy and scientific importance.
The degree will emphasize comprehensive training in research methods, qualitative and quantitative analysis, and mastering techniques used in teaching and leadership. Students will likely have the option of choosing an area of specialization, such as homeland security, criminal behavior, criminal justice policy, leadership theory, behavioral sciences, social psychology, and more.
Popular Alternatives to a Criminal Justice Degree
Courses for a Criminal Justice Degree
Developing a strong foundation of knowledge of crime and crime control is critical for individuals who aspire to become criminal justice professionals, particularly if you plan on obtaining an advanced degree such as a master’s or doctorate. Most traditional and online criminal justice degree programs offer the following types of courses or similar:
Foundations of the Criminal Justice System
Students will begin their education by learning the fundamentals of criminal justice, including how crime is defined, the nature of crime and its impact, and the structure of the American criminal justice system. This generally includes education on law enforcement, criminal investigations, criminal trials, and corrections.
Theories of Crime Causation and Criminal Behavior
Students will explore theories of criminal behavior and the causes of crime through an interdisciplinary approach that acknowledges that no existing theory fully accounts for the many types of criminal behavior and related moral issues. Students will instead study a number of influential factors of crime, including sociology, biology, economics, psychology, and politics, and their relationship to various criminal activities.
Introduction to Criminology
Students will review the core concepts of criminology, including theory, method, and behavior. This includes explanations and measurement of crime, characteristics of criminals and victims, criminal law, and the study of different types of crime, including white-collar, violent, sexual, organized, and property crime. Students are encouraged throughout their studies to make the connection between criminal theory and criminal behavior.
Introduction to Law Enforcement
Students will learn the foundational principles of law enforcement, the history of policing in America, the differences between different police activities and services, and current law enforcement trends. Students will be able to identify critical characteristics of city, state, and federal law enforcement agencies.
Introduction to the American Court System
Students will discover the different types of government, the laws they create, and how they interact with each other. Included is a study on the structure of the U.S. judicial system, the function of territorial, state, and federal courts, and the impact of the Constitution and its laws on judicial hierarchy and decisions.
Law and Criminal Justice
Students will explore the theory and philosophy of law and justice in the U.S. including law and social order, criminal procedure, criminal law, conflict mediation, civil liberties, legal research, and constitutional law. This includes evaluation of prosecution and defense tactics, plea bargains, sentencing procedures, appeals, and post-trial legal matters.
Ethics in Criminal Justice
Police ethics and integrity are an essential part of maintaining public trust and the law enforcement system. Students will explore the academic study of ethics in the context of the criminal justice system by evaluating the codes and standards of professional responsibility for individuals who work in law enforcement. Students will learn about how law enforcement agencies are guided by societal values and how police officers are influenced by ethical guidelines and community standards as they maintain ethical behavior on duty.
Courts and the Prosecution Process
Students will review the process of charging someone with a crime, gathering evidence, and prosecuting to the fullest extent of the law. Students will learn to connect different types of evidence to prosecutorial tactics, including direct, circumstantial, character, forensic, digital, and testimonial evidence, among others.
Foundations of Corrections
Students will discover the fundamental principles of corrections, including incapacitation, retribution, deterrence, and rehabilitation. Students will explore the potential causes of recidivism and the relationship between corrections and social, family, and health dynamics. This includes learning how to develop intervention and rehabilitation strategies designed to provide support to disadvantaged individuals and communities within the criminal justice system.
Benefits of a Criminal Justice Degree
Earning a college degree is all about preparing you, both intellectually and socially, for your career and about opening up opportunities that would not be available through job experience alone. In the field of criminal justice, research clearly indicates that the most consistently successful – and safest – officers are ones who have pursued higher education at some point in their career. The benefits of earning a college degree are commonly known to be improved performance, reduced disciplinary costs, reduced use of force, greater promotional opportunities, higher pay, and higher levels of happiness and stability. Other benefits include higher levels of self-control, increased critical and analytical thinking skills, improved attitudes, and reduced impulsivity.
Other important benefits of earning a college degree include:
Better Career Opportunities
There are numerous careers available to individuals with a degree in criminal justice. If you feel passionate about protecting and serving your community, you can apply your skills and knowledge as a police officer or state trooper. Or, perhaps you do not want to be a law enforcement officer but would rather work as a private investigator or in security. Whatever your desired path is, an education in criminal justice can give you the opportunity to choose the profession that best fits who you are as a person.
Gain a Competitive Advantage
Some entry-level criminal justice careers can be pursued with only a high school diploma or a minimal number of college-level credits, but many organizations, especially federal agencies, require employees to hold a bachelor’s degree to perform the job. Even if a degree is not required, obtaining a degree can help you learn critical job skills that will provide you with a competitive advantage when you are considered for promotion.
Imagine a scenario where two similarly qualified candidates with equal experience are being considered for a supervisory or administrative role. Who do you think will earn the promotion if one candidate has a degree and the other does not? Having a degree can help you stand out when the competition is high.
Learn to Manage Crisis Situations
Graduates of criminal justice programs are often required to defuse crisis scenarios in a variety of sectors, such as social work, law enforcement, and victim advocacy. Unfortunately, it’s difficult to learn how to handle crises via job experience, because in many cases, an inappropriate reaction or wrong decision can mean the difference between life and death.
Your education will help you learn critical skills to handle different types of emergencies in a controlled setting. When confronted with an emergent situation, you’ll be able to draw on the strategies you learned in criminal justice school to protect civilians and hold criminal offenders accountable for the harm they do.
Develop Critical Thinking Skills
Good critical thinking skills are a requirement for most criminal justice careers. Critical thinking is essentially the ability to identify and analyze facts to form a judgment or make a sound decision about a complex situation with many outcomes.
For example, a police officer who is called to the scene of a suicidal male alone in an apartment with a gun must decide what action to take next. Should the officer call SWAT, enter the building, or attempt to rationalize with the man? The decision that the officer makes could result in the death of the man or potentially even the injury or death of other officers who respond to the scene.
Learning how to think critically using available evidence under pressure is crucial to success in many criminal justice careers, and the type of skills you need to possess should be present on your first day on the job.
Gain Knowledge of the System and Its Laws
The American criminal justice system is complex and difficult to understand. Pursuing a degree in this field can help you gain knowledge about the law, how criminal charges are handled, and the process by which they are prosecuted. You’ll develop an understanding of important laws and their history, and what can be expected by juveniles and adults navigating the court system.
Understand Human Psychology
Human psychology is a significant influencer in the causes of crime and the response to criminal justice efforts. With a degree, you’ll study psychological dynamics that often cause or contribute to criminal activity and how to interact with individuals in a crisis situation. You’ll begin to understand what motivates individuals to commit crimes, what their thought processes may be, and how they may reason with themselves to justify their actions. You can develop appropriate responses for people in crisis by being able to connect deviant behavior with its psychological influences.
Studies show that throughout their lifetime, college graduates earn significantly more than those with only a high school education. In law enforcement, many departments offer pay incentives to officers who pursue higher education, and in some cases, a new recruit may enter at a higher pay level if they hold a college degree. This information, paired with the fact that many law enforcement agencies are requiring some college credit to qualify for certain positions, is the driving force behind many people pursuing a criminal justice degree.
Careers that demand higher skills and offer higher pay, such as those with federal law enforcement, require college graduates to have at least a bachelor’s degree, which is another incentive for people to earn a post-secondary degree.
Opportunities for Advancement
Obtaining a criminal justice degree can help position you for numerous advancement opportunities in your chosen field. In nearly every career, you can pursue supervisory positions with higher pay. Or, you may be able to transition from one job to another if your learned skills complement your new position. For example, retired police officers can often become security guards or private detectives.
Whether you want to find a good mid-level position that offers increased pay without putting a lot of extra responsibility on you, or you want to pursue the highest level position in your field, a criminal justice degree can give you the foundational skills and educational assets needed.
Top Schools for a Criminal Justice Degree
Studying at one of the top schools for criminal justice can give you the skills and credentials that will pay big dividends throughout your professional life. The top programs in the U.S. offer immersive courses taught by leaders in criminal justice and security, with content that is updated to meet the evolving physical and technological requirements of criminal justice professions. Students with a degree from a top program unlock opportunities that others without a degree simply can’t access, and are often rewarded with higher earnings potential and invaluable exposure and connections.
While each student will undoubtedly have their own set of unique personal goals in mind, there are a few practical considerations that should factor into every student’s pursuit of higher education. To help you narrow your options and find the best academic program to meet your professional goals, we have carefully assembled a list of the top criminal justice schools and programs in the United States. To appear on this list, a school must have:
- High academic standards
- Regional accreditation
- Exceptional faculty
- Proven track record of graduate success
- High return on investment
Career Paths for Criminal Justice Degrees
While police officers account for the largest number of professionals working in the field of law enforcement, there are potentially hundreds of job opportunities in both the pubic and private sector for graduates with a criminal justice degree. As a student, you will establish a strong foundation in principles of the criminal justice system, criminal behavior and investigation, the American court system, the U.S. correctional system, law enforcement, and research methods, which opens a lot of doors for you professionally. Here we provide descriptions of a few of the most popular career paths for criminal justice majors.
A police officer is sworn to protect and serve their community by upholding the law. They carry a firearm and have the power to arrest criminal suspects and take them into custody for questioning. They enforce traffic laws, patrol high-crime areas, respond to crisis situations, and investigate complaints. Officers may also perform basic crime scene investigation, including securing and protecting evidence, interviewing witnesses, and contacting crime scene technicians.
A private investigator, or private detective, is an individual who provides investigation services outside publicly funded law enforcement. This includes conducting surveillance, interviewing suspects and witnesses, gathering evidence, and verifying information. Private investigators are often hired by families of missing persons when police aren't able to continue investigating the case. Or, they may deliver summons, go undercover, or locate individuals who owe a debt. Most of a PI's work is done digitally, such as obtaining phone and arrest records or sifting through social media accounts for clues.
Loss Prevention Manager
Loss prevention managers work in retail environments to deter theft and develop security procedures designed to protect a store's merchandise. A loss prevention manager's duties focus on reducing the loss of inventory due to shoplifting, fraud, vandalism, and error. They may also handle security breaches, employee activity audits, staff security and safety training, theft investigations, and violations of policy.
U.S. Marshals are the law enforcement sector of the federal government. Their duties include serving arrest warrants for federal crimes, supervising the witness protection program, transporting federal prisoners, assisting in high-profile criminal investigations, and apprehending fugitives. The job of a U.S. Marshal is often considered one of the most dangerous, and they routinely equip Glock 40s and AR-15s in the line of duty.
A crime analyst works with data behind the scenes to identify trends in crime and crime control. They will collate information from local and federal criminal databases, police reports, arrest records, logged complaints, and other sources to identify patterns that may exist. Crime analysts can use the information they gather and their conclusions to issue alerts and bulletins to their law enforcement agencies, or to help detectives predict future occurrences of criminal activity in an attempt to intercept and prevent them.
The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) is the investigative sector of the U.S. government, or more specifically, the Department of Justice. FBI agents are responsible for investigating federal crimes and enforcing applicable laws. While the day-to-day duties of an FBI agent vary greatly, generally they participate in federal surveillance, undercover operations, raids, arrests, high-profile criminal investigations, and other law enforcement activities on a federal level. FBI agents work in concert with other agencies, such as Homeland Security, to build cases against terrorists in the court of law and to thwart law-breaking activities on many fronts.
State troopers are law enforcement officers at the state level and are sometimes referred to as state police or highway patrol. The jurisdiction of a police officer typically covers only a town or a specific area inside a larger city, while state troopers generally have jurisdiction across the entire state. Most often, troopers will patrol state highways and enforce traffic laws but may be called to provide assistance to local or federal police forces.
A security officer can be either publicly or privately employed and may perform a wide variety of tasks under the umbrella of maintaining security. Generally, private security officers are responsible for monitoring a designated area or providing personal security to an individual person or group of people. They may be required to inspect buildings and secure points of entry, sounding alarms and contacting emergency services or police in the event of an emergency, and restraining suspects until law enforcement arrives.
A correctional officer is responsible for overseeing a prison population and enforcing rules within the prison to maintain order. Correctional officers supervise inmate activity, prevent disturbances, monitor inmate work, and appropriately penalize inmates who violate prison rules. They are also required to keep inmates safe, assist in their rehabilitation, and maintain prison facilities to ensure they meet safety and security standards.
A probation officer is a type of law enforcement officer who monitors criminal offenders for a period of time after their release from incarceration. Probation officers are charged with helping to rehabilitate former offenders and preventing them from committing additional crimes. An officer will evaluate an offender ready for release to determine the most effective course of rehabilitation and will recommend resources to help with housing, job placement, counseling, and other support networks. Typically, a probation officer will meet with an offender one or more times per week and may conduct random drug and alcohol testing.
Additional Resources for Students Pursuing a Criminal Justice Degree
Working in the criminal justice field can be exciting, exhausting, and highly rewarding. Although many criminal justice careers carry a great deal of responsibility and stress, few other jobs offer the kind of gratification that comes with ensuring that victims are supported, communities are protected, and criminals are served with justice. If you’re interested in pursuing a degree in criminal justice, consider these additional resources as you take the next steps in your career.
American Society of Criminology
Academy of Criminal Justice Sciences (ACJS)
National Criminal Justice Reference Service
International Association of Women Police (IAWP)
Alpha Phi Sigma: TheNational Criminal Justice Honor Society