Law enforcement, the court system and corrections are the three main sectors of the criminal justice system. For those already employed in these sectors, an online master’s degree in criminal justice provides the knowledge and skills necessary to pursue an advanced career in a multitude of fields. Discover how to choose the best online master’s degree program in criminal justice and learn about the many jobs open to you after graduation including positions in law enforcement administration, emergency management and cybercrime investigation.
Choosing a high-quality master’s in criminal justice program ensures you receive the specialized instruction key to your future career success. The following rankings are based on each university’s published materials as well as data from the U.S. Department of Education and the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDs). All schools on this list are fully accredited.
An online master’s degree program in criminal justice prepares students to manage security and justice issues at local, state, national and, in some cases, international levels. Criminal justice programs expect students to gain a deeper understanding of crime, the U.S. justice system and security issues in the U.S. through developing theoretical, methodological and policy-related knowledge and skills. Many schools also provide the following skills to graduates:
While the school and specialization will determine the specific course titles, here are some common topics:
Overview of major classical and contemporary theories regarding crime and criminal behavior. Explores how these theories are linked to current criminal justice policies related to treatment, punishment and prevention.
Introduction to criminal research methods including defining research problems, research design, ethics, sampling and analysis.
Reviews the connection between theoretical criminology and public policy as well as the implications in areas such as criminality, recidivism and victimization.
Critical evaluation of criminal justice administration and management through research literature. Topics include organizational structure, communication and personnel evaluation.
Students develop an in-depth understanding of the history, current and future functions of the three main parts of the criminal justice system: law enforcement agencies, court system and the corrections agencies.
Overview of homeland security in the U.S. since 9/11, concentrating on identifying the enemy, identifying the infrastructure, learning policies and procedures and exploring critical legal issues.
The requirements of each online criminal justice master’s program will vary by school, but many schools will require either a capstone thesis or a comprehensive examination.
In a capstone thesis, students will choose an issue related to their field of interest, examining a legal, philosophical or theoretical question. For example, a student could research the correlation between crime and education or crime and employment status. Once the research project is completed, the student presents the paper orally in front of the committee and fields questions as part of their thesis defense.
During a comprehensive examination, students are expected to write focused, coherent answers to questions about the functions of law enforcement, the court system and corrections in the major criminal justice systems. For instance, students may be asked to analyze theories of criminal behavior, discuss emergent criminal threats such as terrorism, examine rules of law and explore critical court cases at the local, state and Supreme Court levels.
Because criminal justice is such a wide area of study, students may specialize in a particular area. The specializations below are offered by many online criminal justice master’s programs. Review the options and make sure a prospective school allows concentrations in areas of interest.
Explores ethical, legal and public policy issues and interventions related to offenders and rehabilitation. This field applies to correctional officers, criminal justice administrators and government officials in case management and correctional leadership positions at local, state and Federal institutions.Law Enforcement
This criminal justice specialization focuses on management in criminal law, intelligence and policing organizations. It covers skills in criminal justice ethics, intelligence, investigation and leadership applicable to advanced positions within law enforcement organizations including police officers, special agents, correctional officers and others responsible for preventing and intervening in criminal activity.Criminology
Criminology is a behavioral science and examines the legal, social and psychological factors that result in criminal activity including research on the ways to prevent crime and rehabilitate offenders. Applies to working professionals seeking advanced research and academic positions who examine why crime occurs and how it affects society and public policy.Cybercrime Investigation
An examination of how technology relates to domestic and international cybercrimes such as human trafficking and cyberstalking. Explores cybercrime investigation, computer forensics and cybersecurity. Teaches the skills needed to gather evidence while building a criminal case by retrieving and analyzing data and instructs methods to detect and prevent cybercrime.Homeland Security and Emergency Management
Trains students to respond practically to real-world national terror threats and catastrophic events. Instructs students on emergency preparedness for community disasters including assessment and management. Explores how disasters affect the community and causes and effects of terrorism from religious and political perspectives.
Career pathways for individuals with an online master’s degree in criminal justice are varied. There are opportunities in law enforcement, the legal system and corrections as well as jobs with private organizations. Here are some careers for advanced degree-holders in criminal justice:
Advises offenders in the prison system and connects them with social support services and rehabilitation as they prepare to reintegrate into the community. Provides psychological evaluations, counseling and training to a caseload of inmates, developing self-improvement programs to ensure mental health and substance abuse problems are being treated.Federal Special Agent
Law enforcement specialist who enforces and investigates federal statute violations as part of a federal agency such as the U.S. Air Force, FBI, or U.S. Department of Homeland Security. Typically conducts surveillance and field work as part of a team or task force. Also, must write detailed reports used for evidence in court cases.Forensic Computer Analyst
Recovers and evaluates deleted data or encrypted files from digital artifacts including hard drives, other storage devices, and the Internet while employed by law enforcement agencies, government agencies, corporations, banks, and other organizations. Investigates hacking activities by unauthorized users.
*Possible certifications: Certified Forensic Computer Examiner CFCE from the International Society of Forensic Computer Examiners (ISFCE) or International Association of Computer Investigative Specialists (IACIS). Advanced Computer System Security, Computer Forensics, or Advanced Forensic certification from Cyber Enforcement Resource Incorporated.Criminal Profiler
Social science or law enforcement professional who studies criminal motives, methods, and criminology theories. Usually begins as an investigator or detective with a large local or federal law enforcement agency such as the FBI. Works with detectives to develop leads and suspects and analyze crime scenes. Writes reports, gives court testimony and studies human behavior.Deputy Chief, Police Department
Law enforcement administrator who coordinates investigations and supervises police officers, detectives, and other staff as part of managing the department. Ensures subordinates follow laws, procedures, and guidelines ethically in the community. Set budgets and handles community complaints. Found at the local state and federal levels and universities with a police force.Emergency Management Specialist
Plans emergency response programs and procedures for major emergencies and disasters such as evacuation routes. Coordinates team members including police officers, firefighters, paramedics, and others and works with government agencies. Develops preparedness training courses. May work at a local or state agency or within Homeland Security’s Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), managing Federal response and recovery efforts after a national incident. May require specialization in emergency management or law enforcement.
Criminal justice students can find valuable resources and networking opportunities from professional organizations. In addition to discounts and career boards, members can attend annual conferences. Check out the organizations below to find one that meets your needs.
The ACA is the corrections industry’s private accrediting body, providing professional development and certification as well as an annual Congress of Correction convention.
ASC represents those professionals in research, teaching and practice in the fields of criminal justice and criminology. Includes thirteen divisions including Division of Policing, Division of Victimology and Division of Terrorism and Bias Crimes. ASC also publishes three journals and a monthly newsletter.
ALEIU members represent the criminal intelligence community. The organization offers training and classes including certification training at its annual conference. ALEIU’s clearinghouse provides open and confidential communication for its 240 local, state and federal member agencies.
In addition to managing the Certified Law Enforcement Analyst Program (CLEA), IACA offers the Crime Analysis Development Center providing information for current and future crime analysts.
With more than 1 million members, JRSA is made up of a network of researchers and practitioners who conduct the analyses that inform criminal justice system policy at local and state levels. Members can access webinars, events, publications and employment opportunities online.
There are a wide range of career options available to those with a master’s degree in criminal justice. Here are a few potential options for criminal justice careers, those students should keep in mind that some careers may require additional certification, experience or licensure in addition a master’s degree in criminal justice.
|Career||Lowest 10% Earned Annually||Median Annual Salary||Highest 10% Earned Annually||Job Growth 2016-2026|
|Probation Officers & Correctional Treatment Specialist||Less than $33,920||$51,410||More than $90,880||+6%|
|Special Agents||Less than $35,780 * for all police & detective positions||$79,970* for all detectives & criminal investigators||More than $105,230 * for all police & detective positions||+7% * for all police & detective positions|
|Emergency Management Director||Less than $38,270||$72,760||More than $141,620||+8%|
Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2018
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, career growth in criminal justice is projected to be similar to the average for all occupations because budgets are limited in all areas of law enforcement and emergency management.
BLS also finds job openings will occur due to turnover and retirement from high-stress positions such as correctional treatment specialists, law enforcement administration and criminal profilers. Although emergency services jobs will remain essential as businesses and organizations focus on disaster prevention and planning, local and state governments may shift responsibility for emergency services to law enforcement personnel due to lack of funds.
Financially, there is a large difference between the salaries of someone in criminal justice with a master’s degree versus someone with just a bachelor’s degree. The median annual salary for someone with a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice is $54,000 according to Center on Education and the Workforce. A master’s degree in criminal justice bumps the median salary to $70,000, making it clear that individuals should expect to earn a higher salary with a more advanced degree.
It’s important to select an online criminal justice master’s degree program with full accreditation from a U.S. Department of Education regional accreditation agency. For a program to receive regional accreditation it must pass a thorough review process. Without accreditation, students may find it difficult to qualify for financial aid, transfer credits or secure a job after graduation. Online schools can also receive accreditation from the Distance Education and Training Council which oversees distance learning programs. The international organization Academy of Criminal Justice Sciences (ACJS) certifies a limited number of criminal justice programs in the U.S. based on specific criteria.
Tuition prices vary widely depending on the institution. Even though the cost of obtaining a master’s degree continues to rise, there is money available from several different places for eligible students to help cover the cost of education:
By filling out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid online, prospective students can determine how much federal aid they qualify for, including grants and loans.
Many programs allow professors to hire assistants to help with research or teach undergraduates. Research assistant positions may pay a stipend or cover tuition. For example, up to 20 research assistants are hired at Eastern Kentucky University each year in the criminal justice program. EKU’s research assistants have the opportunity to travel to conferences with costs covered by travel stipends.
Information about scholarships for students in online criminal justice master’s degree programs is available from the financial aid office at each institution as well as from places such as Scholarships.com and the Office of Justice.
For those employed in a criminal justice organization, it may be possible to receive tuition assistance or tuition reimbursement. Check with your human resources department to find out if they participate.
Many online degree programs, like Walden University, award credit for life or work experience, reducing the amount of total tuition you need to pay to graduate. See this guide for more information about credit for work experience.