Criminal Justice Degrees By Degree Program Level

Criminal justice degree programs are most commonly offered at the associate's, bachelor's, and master's levels. Doctoral degrees are also available, though more often sought by students interested in research or professorship roles.

Essential Information

Two-year associate's degree programs provide students with a background in law, government, and criminal behavior theories. Graduates may pursue entry-level positions as loss prevention specialists, court clerks, or security officers, or they may pursue more training to become police officers.

Four-year bachelor's programs in criminal justice often include specializations, such as law enforcement or corrections, and practical experience may be incorporated. Graduates gain the skills needed to work as parole officers, corrections officers, or victim advocates.

Those interested in administration, consulting, or education may pursue a two-year master's degree in criminal justice, which is often a specialized program focused on criminal justice leadership. Students may have to complete a thesis, undertake independent study, do a teaching assistantship, or complete an internship.

Both undergraduate programs require students to have a high school diploma or GED. At the bachelor's degree program level, students in special law enforcement tracks may need a 2.5-3.0 GPA to graduate. To enroll in a criminal justice master's degree program, applicants need to have a bachelor's degree from an accredited college; sometimes a major in a related field is required. Applicants must also submit Graduate Record Examination (GRE) scores, recommendation letters, and a personal statement.


Associate Degree in Criminal Justice

An associate degree program in criminal justice provides students with foundational theories of criminal behavior as well as knowledge of laws. Students complete courses in the social sciences and may examine topics of gender and race. They are also required to take general education courses, which are designed to build analytical and writing skills.

In an associate degree program, students learn criminal justice terms and take courses in government. They also examine such topics as:

  • Role of law enforcement
  • Criminal justice policies
  • U.S. court & correctional systems
  • Forensic science fundamentals

Bachelor's Degree in Criminal Justice

In addition to general studies in criminal justice, bachelor's degree students may choose to specialize in law enforcement, legal systems, or corrections. At the bachelor's degree level, students may be able to participate in a practical work experience. They may learn about contemporary legal issues and examine topics such as:

  • Crime scenes and evidence gathering
  • Adolescent criminal behavior
  • Justice system for minors
  • Criminal parole and probation
  • Courtroom procedures

Master's Degree in Criminal Justice

A master's degree program usually requires the completion of 30-39 graduate-level credits. The program focuses on developing students' research skills and theoretical knowledge. Students explore the mental, physical, and societal factors that influence illegal behavior. Most programs emphasize criminal justice leadership concepts, including personnel management, and organizational behavior.

Because many of the criminal justice courses at the graduate level are electives, students can often participate in independent study and customize their learning experiences to match their career goals. Curriculum topics can include:

  • Philosophical and historical foundations of justice
  • Applied statistics in criminal justice
  • Law enforcement problem-solving techniques
  • Criminal justice policy analysis
  • Global and domestic terrorism
  • Forensic identification and profiling techniques

Popular Career Options

Graduates of an associate's degree program may work in private and public sectors, for retail establishments or local government. Most criminal justice positions with the federal government require a bachelor's degree at the least. Earning a master's degree in criminal justice may provide existing law enforcement officials with the necessary skills to assume leadership roles. Specific jobs might include:

  • Community college criminal justice instructors
  • Criminal justice administrators
  • Investigative consultants
  • Loss prevention specialist or Security officer
  • Parole officer or Corrections officer
  • Police officer (with additional training) or Federal agent

Employment and Salary Outlook

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports that earning a bachelor's degree in criminal justice qualifies individuals for work as probation officers or correctional treatment specialists. The number of job opportunities in this field isn't projected to grow much from 2014-2024, at a reported 4% growth rate. The BLS notes that probation officers and correctional treatment specialists earned an average of $54,080 per year as of May 2015.

Continuing Education Information

Criminal justice associate's degree holders may decide to apply to a state or local police force. In order to qualify to become an officer, individuals must attend a police academy, which lasts approximately three months. The training includes practical courses in crisis response, combat, patrolling, and first aid, as well as didactic training in laws.

After earning a 4-year degree in criminal justice, graduates may decide to pursue law school to earn a Juris Doctor degree. They may also choose to specialize in a related area, such as criminology, public administration, or forensic science. Others may simply decide to continue toward a Master of Science in Criminal Justice.

Master's degree program graduates interested in scholarly pursuits or higher-level administrative opportunities could pursue a doctoral degree. Graduates may enroll in a Ph.D. in Criminal Justice or a Ph.D. in Criminology program. Other related options include a non-clinical Ph.D. in Forensic Psychology or a Ph.D. in Public Administration.

Criminal justice programs are available as associate's, bachelor's, and master's degree programs, teaching students about the law and the justice system to qualify them for work in a number of careers, including law enforcement (which will likely require additional training from a police academy). Students can enroll in various educational programs after graduation, including law school and doctoral degree programs.


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