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Online Master's Programs in Criminology

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Updated on: 10/24/2018

The field of criminology covers many aspects of crime and criminal behavior, and a master’s in criminology can lead to an array of career possibilities in law enforcement and criminal investigation. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects 5% growth in protective services occupations between 2016 and 2026. Additionally, social and community services, information security, and forensics positions should experience much faster than average growth rates compared to all occupations in the U.S.

Current students interested in continuing their education and working professionals seeking career advancement can use this page to learn more about earning a master’s in criminology online. The guide below covers a variety of important information, including how to choose a program, the different careers available to graduates of criminology programs, and potential financial aid resources.

What Can I Learn in an Online Master’s in Criminology Program?

Students pursuing a master’s in criminology online complete the same curriculum and program requirements as those enrolled in traditional, campus-based programs. This degree provides learners with the skills needed to work in a variety of fields. Programs emphasize critical thinking skills, specialized theoretical and research knowledge, and the use of technological applications. While coursework and specializations vary by school, most programs focus on research methodologies, statistical techniques, and data analysis, as well as courses in theories of criminal behavior, policing, corrections, forensics, and conflict resolution.

An online master’s degree in criminology usually requires students to complete 30-36 credits, and full-time learners typically graduate in two years. However, some schools offer accelerated programs that take as little as one year to complete. Alternatively, working professionals or students with other personal commitments that limit their enrollment can attend class part time, although this can extend their graduation timeline to three or more years.

What common courses are offered in a master’s in criminology program?

While the curriculum for each criminology master’s program differs and features its own electives and concentrations, most programs share some common features and similar core courses. As an example, many degree tracks feature a thesis or culminating research project. The list below describes five common courses taken by students enrolled in criminology master’s programs.

Criminological Theory

This course investigates criminology through a social sciences lens. Learners evaluate the major criminological paradigms, including classical, social disorganization, and differential association, as well as more recent approaches from feminist theory and critical criminology perspectives. Students also learn to critically analyze theoretical paradigms and apply them to contemporary issues in crime and criminal behavior.

Research Methodology in Criminology

Students apply research methodologies and statistical techniques to contemporary problems in criminology. Covered topics include research design, hypothesis formulation and testing, survey construction, data collection and analysis, and scientific report writing. Participants acquire the skills needed to conduct independent research, evaluate academic studies in criminology, and assess policy statements.

Statistical Analysis in Criminology

This course teaches students statistical techniques and introduces the descriptive and inferential statistics used in quantitative analysis. It also provides an overview of relevant qualitative approaches, including how to conduct field research, polls, questionnaires, interviews, and case studies. Students also learn to use statistical analysis software.

Juvenile Delinquency and Juvenile Justice

Participants explore current approaches to juvenile delinquency and the contemporary challenges facing the juvenile justice system. This course examines changing social constructions of childhood and adolescence and trends in juvenile violence in the 21st century. Specific topics include racial and gender inequality in juvenile justice systems, gangs, juvenile sentencing, and restorative justice alternatives.

Restorative Justice and Conflict Resolution

Students investigate the major theories, research, and applications in restorative justice and examine the legal rights of victims within the criminal justice system. Learners also explore various techniques of conflict resolution, mediation, and negotiation, as applied to the restorative justice model.

What exams or projects should I expect?

Most master's in criminology programs require a culminating experience, usually in the form of a capstone course or thesis. Students typically complete their capstone experience during their final semester, integrating knowledge learned throughout the program into a research project. Students often focus on a particular topic, such as global terrorism, cybercrime, or adult sentencing of juveniles. A thesis project — carried out under the supervision of a faculty committee — requires students to either collect and analyze data while carrying out independent research or critically analyze a contemporary issue. Master's theses might focus on an empirical study of opiate addiction or an in-depth evaluation of restorative justice approaches with juvenile offenders.

What specializations are available in a master’s in criminology program?

Students in a criminology master’s program can often focus on a specialized concentration related to their career goals or research interests. While specializations vary by program, most reflect faculty strengths and current issues in the field. The following list describes a few common specializations.

Global Security

This specialization emerged recently in response to growing concerns over domestic and international terrorism. It provides a foundation for students interested in leadership roles in security, law enforcement, and policy analysis. Courses focus on the international security environment as well as traditional and emerging transnational threats, including cybercrime, organized crime, insurgent groups, and government-sponsored terrorism.

Victimology

Victimology — a relatively new area of criminology — focuses on the relationships between victims, criminal offenders, and the police and legal system. Students examine how class, race, and sexual identity affect the perception of a victim by law enforcement officers, the court system, the media, and the public. Participants also learn about different services and resources available to victims.

Investigative Criminology

This specialization presents the models, methods, and practices used to gather data related to crime and criminal behavior, as well as how to apply criminological theories to crime analysis and investigation. Coursework addresses the use of profiling within the criminal justice system and the ethical challenges posed by profiling.

What Can I Do With a Master’s in Criminology Degree?

Earning a master’s in criminology online teaches graduates the critical thinking skills, theoretical and applied knowledge, and research tools needed to succeed in a variety of careers. The following list describes popular career paths pursued by graduates. While a master’s diploma does not guarantee employment in any of these areas, an advanced degree often provides a competitive edge for students and often leads to leadership roles. Some specialized positions, such as those in community services, counseling, and education, may require additional certification or licensing. Additionally, some careers may require advanced training related to data analysis or certain technological applications.

Information Security Analysts

These professionals develop and implement cybersecurity measures in many organizational settings. They must stay up to date with IT security technology and the latest methods used to infiltrate computer networks. As such, analysts need to continuously read about developments in the field to protect their organization from external threats and adapt the latest software. Specific duties include monitoring threats, investigating breaches, assessing damage, and implementing solutions. A master’s degree in criminology with a cybersecurity focus often provides a competitive advantage for these positions.

Postsecondary Teachers in Criminology

Postsecondary educators in this field teach courses in undergraduate and graduate programs related to criminology and legal studies. These teachers may find positions at community colleges, public and private four-year degree-granting institutions, and professional schools. Their duties may also include advising students, conducting research, and serving on committees. While educational requirements vary by program, most postsecondary teachers must hold at least a master’s degree, and many college and university faculty hold doctorate degrees.

Social and Community Service Managers

These managers work for a variety of social service organizations where they coordinate and supervise programs and manage community organizations. Depending on the size and type of agency, they may supervise social workers or directly administer services and coordinate outreach activities for clients with specific challenges, such as drug abuse problems, mental health issues, unemployment, or criminal backgrounds. While most of these positions only require a bachelor’s degree, managers directly involved in client services, such as counseling, may also need certification and additional graduate training.

Police and Detectives

The law enforcement duties carried out by police officers and detectives differ based on their employer and specific job requirements. These professionals often conduct surveillance and collect evidence for criminal investigations related to suspected violations of federal, state, and local laws. Many police officers who already hold an undergraduate degree find that earning a master’s diploma leads to greater professional opportunities and higher salaries. Detectives and federal agents often pursue graduate degrees with specializations in criminal investigation to gain advanced positions.

Probation Officers and Correctional Treatment Specialists

These officers and specialists assist in the rehabilitation of individuals released into the community on probation or parole. Sometimes referred to as community supervision officers, case managers, or correctional counselors, these professionals help people fulfill the conditions of their release and avoid repeat incarceration. These workers may also connect their clients with services, such as job training and drug counseling. Although most of these positions call for only a bachelor’s degree, a master’s and specialized training can lead to expanded career opportunities in administrative roles.

Joining a professional association offers current students and graduates the opportunity to network with experienced practitioners and researchers. Student members can learn about new developments in the field, internships, and certification opportunities. Additional benefits include the ability to attend professional meetings, subscriptions to newsletters and publications, and access to career resource centers and job listings.

American Society of Criminology

This professional society promotes scholarship, teaching, and practice in criminology and criminal justice. It also hosts an annual conference, a job bank, and other career resources. Students comprise 30% of ASC’s membership.

American Correctional Association

ACA represents the interests of corrections professionals and sponsors professional development workshops and conferences. The association also oversees accreditation standards for correctional organizations and practitioners through its certified corrections professional program.

Academy of Criminal Justice Sciences

ACJS boasts a membership of over 2,800 practitioners and educators who share an interest in the study of crime and criminal justice. The academy also sponsors conferences and workshops, publishes research, and maintains a job bank.

American Academy of Forensic Sciences

AAFS promotes the study of forensic science and its application to criminal investigations. Additionally, the academy sponsors an annual meeting and publishes the Journal of Forensic Sciences. Student members can also access career placement and mentoring services.

National Criminal Justice Association

This organization represents the interests of criminologists and criminal justice professionals. NCJA addresses public safety, crime control, and crime prevention issues. Student members can attend networking events and webinars and receive discounts on conference fees.

How Much Can I Make with a Career in Criminology?

Salary levels in criminology vary according to occupational demand and a worker’s experience. While a graduate degree does not guarantee employment, it can provide a significant competitive advantage, especially for positions that require specialized training and/or statistical and research skills. The following chart shows salary ranges and median annual income data for common careers pursued by graduates with a master’s degree in criminology.

Job Title Lowest 10% Earned Annually Median Annual Salary Highest 10% Earned Annually Job Growth 2016-2026
Information Security Analysts Less than $55,560 $95,510 More than $153,090 +28%
Postsecondary Teachers in Criminology Less than $39,040 $76,000 More than $170,160 +15%
Social and Community Service Managers Less than $39,730 $64,100 More than $109,990 +18%
Police and Detectives Less than $35,780 $62,960 More than $105,230 +7%
Probations Officers and Correctional Treatment Specialists Less than $33,920 $51,410 More than $90,880 +6%

Source: The BLS

The BLS projects 7% growth for all occupations in the U.S. between 2016 and 2026. According to the data provided above, several of the jobs pursued by graduates of master’s in criminology programs should experience favorable growth in the near future. For example, the 28% projected growth rate for information security analysts indicates one of the fastest growing jobs in the nation. Criminology graduates interested in working in postsecondary education or assuming management positions at social and community services can also look forward to ample job opportunities. Additionally, projected employment opportunities in law enforcement remain right in line with the national average.

Research by the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce (CEW) indicates that workers who hold graduate degrees in the social sciences — including criminology — receive substantial salary benefits. The CEW reports that graduate degree holders in criminology earn significantly higher salaries than professionals who only hold a bachelor's degree. Criminology graduates with a bachelor’s degree earn a median annual salary of $54,000 — much lower than the $71,000 earned by professionals with a master’s degree or higher.

Online Master’s in Criminology Program Accreditation

Accreditation establishes academic standards for schools and programs. The accreditation process considers many variables, including faculty expertise, student services, and an institution’s financial integrity. Schools earn accreditation from independent agencies recognized by the ED and the Council for Higher Education Accreditation. The majority of accredited colleges and universities in the U.S. receive regional accreditation, which is highly respected. Alternatively, vocational, for-profit, and technical schools often earn national accreditation.

Some academic programs also obtain specialized, programmatic accreditation. For example, ACJS awards programmatic accreditation to a small group of high-quality bachelor’s and master’s programs in criminal justice and criminology. Generally acknowledged as an especially prestigious credential, few master’s programs hold this ACJS designation. However, a lack of this specialized accreditation should not necessarily deter students from considering other programs.

How to Pay for a Master’s in Criminology Degree

Earning a master’s degree represents a substantial financial investment, and most students rely on some form of financial assistance to help them afford their education. This section outlines potential sources of external funding, including federal financial assistance, scholarships, grants, and fellowships geared toward students pursuing graduate work in criminology or a related field.

  • Federal Financial Aid

    Completing the Free Application for Federal Student Aid serves as a student’s first step toward determining their eligibility for federal aid. Students pursuing a master’s in criminology online may qualify for low-interest Direct Unsubsidized Loans and Direct PLUS Loans. Students applying for these loans need not demonstrate financial need.

  • Pi Gamma Mu Scholarships

    Honor societies often award scholarships to student members in recognition of academic achievements. PGM — the International Honor Society in Social Sciences — offers scholarships to graduate students in their first or second year of a criminology or other social sciences program.

  • ACFE Ritchie-Jennings Memorial Scholarship

    Many professional associations provide scholarship opportunities. The Association of Certified Fraud Examiners awards scholarships of up to $10,000 to graduate students pursuing a degree in criminal justice, criminology, business, or a related field. Students must also intend to pursue a career in a fraud-related area.

  • National Science Foundation – Graduate Research Fellowship Program

    GRFP provides significant funding for outstanding graduate students in NSF-supported disciplines pursuing research-based master’s and doctoral degrees, including research-focused criminology programs with strong statistical or technological emphases. This competitive fellowship provides a stipend of $34,000. Applicants may apply when they begin graduate work or during their first or second year of graduate study.