What Is a Criminal Justice Degree?

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Get the information you need about a criminal justice degree. Explore types of degrees, what to expect as a criminal justice major, possible jobs, and more.

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A criminal justice degree is an undergraduate or graduate degree with coursework that focuses on various parts of the criminal justice system. The courses you take to earn the degree cover topics like law enforcement, corrections, and the court system as well as criminal behavior and motivation. Common majors within the field include the following:

  • Corrections

  • Criminal justice

  • Criminology

  • Forensic psychology

  • Forensic science

  • Law enforcement

  • Paralegal studies

Types of criminal justice degrees 

Types of criminal justice degrees include associate degrees, bachelor's degrees, and master's degrees, but those descriptions only tell part of the story. You also can choose concentrations offered by your school to tailor your education to your personal and professional interests. The type of degree and concentration you choose will influence your career options. 

Associate degree

An associate degree in criminal justice opens the door to a variety of entry-level jobs in the field, including police officer, crime scene technician, and paralegal. You can earn this degree in about two years and can typically apply the courses you take toward a bachelor's degree. This makes it possible to start building in-field work experience if you decide to continue your education. The curriculum for an associate degree includes a mix of general education courses in broad topics like law enforcement, criminal law, and community relations. You can expect the coursework for an associate degree in criminal justice to take two to three years to complete.

Bachelor's degree

In addition to offering introductory courses, a bachelor's degree in criminal justice explores more specific topics. These might include juvenile delinquency, criminal investigation, and ethical behavior in criminal justice. With this degree, you'll gain an understanding of crime, criminal behavior, and the criminal justice system. If you're interested in a particular aspect of criminal justice, you can choose a specialization like corrections, forensics, or juvenile crime. On average, it takes about four years to complete a bachelor's degree in criminal justice.  

Master's degree

Generally, it takes two to three years to complete a master's degree. In criminal justice, a master's degree can help you get a specific job in the field or boost your chances for advancing in your career. Two types of master's degrees in criminal justice include:

Master of Arts (MA): The required general education courses in an MA program usually have a liberal arts focus. With an MA, you might land a position as a probation officer, detention center director, or victim's advocate. 

Master of Science (MS): The required general education courses in an MS  program are typically more science-focused. With an MS, you might become a forensic science tech or a crime lab analyst.

No matter which option you choose, you can get a more general degree (like a Master of Arts in Criminal Justice Leadership or a Master of Science in Justice Administration), or you can get a master's with a specific concentration. Examples of concentrations you might choose include:

  • Analysis of crime behavior

  • Corrections and offender rehabilitation

  • Cybersecurity

  • Fraud management

  • Homeland security

  • Terrorism studies

Admission requirements for earning a criminal justice degree 

To get into a criminal justice degree program, you'll need to follow certain admission requirements. These requirements differ depending on the type of degree you want to get. Typically, the higher the degree, the stricter the requirements. 

Associate degree

The requirements to get into an associate degree program are fairly lenient. Generally, you'll be required to complete an application and submit official transcripts. If you've just graduated from high school, most associate degree programs require a cumulative GPA of 2.0 or higher. If you have 12 or more college credits, you'll need to submit a college transcript with a cumulative GPA of 2.0 or higher. If you're attending a community college or a traditional four-year college or university, you may need to submit ACT or SAT test scores. 

Bachelor's degree

To get into a bachelor's degree program after graduating high school, you'll need to complete a college application and submit official transcripts to the institution. If you have 12 or more college credits, you'll be required to submit your college transcripts. The minimum GPA varies according to the program. While some require a minimum GPA of 2.0, others require a 2.5 GPA or higher. Most programs also expect students in their freshman year to submit SAT or ACT test scores. You can strengthen your application to a bachelor's program by:

  • Taking pertinent AP courses

  • Doing an internship

  • Volunteering in your community

  • Gaining relevant work experience

Master's degree

For acceptance into a master's degree program, you'll need to submit a completed application and official transcripts from a college or university. Most programs require a GPA of 3.0 or higher for admittance and an undergraduate degree in criminal justice or a related field. Additional requirements usually include:

  • Scores from a graduate placement exam like the Graduate Record Exam (GRE) or Graduate Management Admission Test (GMAT)

  • At least one letter of recommendation from a full-time faculty member

  • A personal statement 

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Common criminal justice degree courses

If you're passionate about public protection or equal justice under the law, then you may be a good candidate for a criminal justice degree. This degree offers a wide array of interesting coursework, some of which cross over into other disciplines like sociology and political science. Here are just a few common criminal justice degree courses:

  • American Political System: Topics in this course include the rights and responsibilities of citizens, problems and solutions common in the criminal justice system, and the role of public and private organizations in crime prevention.

  • Courts and Social Policy: In this course, you can explore the ways the court system shapes public policy as well as how social factors influence the decision making process of judges.

  • Criminology: This course examines the causes and effects of criminal behavior, including social structures and aberrant behavior.

  • Fundamentals of Civil Liberties: In this course, you have an opportunity to examine in depth the rights granted to American citizens through the U.S. Constitution and how they fit within the criminal justice system.

  • Philosophy of Punishment: This course explores contemporary theories about the role and value of punishment, how they compare to current and historical practice, and their effectiveness.

  • Theories of Criminal Behavior: In this course, you can investigate theories about criminal behavior placed in their historical and social contexts.

As a criminal justice student, you’ll choose from several interesting majors. When selecting your course of study, you may find it helpful to compare some of these majors to find the one that's the right fit for you. Check out some examples of popular criminal justice majors and the topics you'll encounter in their curriculum.

Criminology

Criminology focuses on the ways criminals behave, why they engage in crime, and how the criminal justice system responds to it. This major draws from social sciences and behavioral sciences. By earning this degree, you may deepen your understanding of criminal procedure, law and society, policing in America, theories of criminology, and victimology.

Forensic science

As a forensic science major, you'll have opportunities to examine how to use science to help solve crimes. Coursework for the major typically includes more science courses like chemistry and biology and how they apply to investigations. Broad topics within this field include computer forensics, crime scene investigation procedures, and cybersecurity.

Law enforcement

Students who pursue this major typically have an interest in a career as a police officer or law enforcement official. The courses you take give you a closer look at the work they do, including crime scene investigation, report writing, and department budgeting. You also may study kinesiology, psychology, and communication as part of the curriculum.

Sociology

Sociology can be an interesting major if you're interested in a role in rehabilitation services or social work, which typically requires working with people who have committed crimes. One option is to earn an associate degree in criminal justice followed by a bachelor's degree in sociology. This can let you explore topics like gender, marriage and family, social inequality, crime, and race relations. 

Advantages of earning a criminal justice degree

A criminal justice degree offers several advantages, including the variety of subjects you study and new skills you're able to learn. Coursework typically includes fascinating subjects like information technology, law, and psychology that apply to multiple disciplines and help you gain a deeper understanding of the way the world works. You also may be able to pick up new skills that translate across many circles, including:

  • Analytical skills

  • Attention to detail

  • Communication

  • Critical thinking

  • Observation

  • Problem-solving

  • Researching ability

You may choose the direct route and apply these skills to jobs within the criminal justice system. However, you're not limited to working in law enforcement or the court system. The knowledge and skills you can acquire through criminal justice coursework can be useful in other areas. 

Possible criminal justice degree jobs

With a criminal justice degree, jobs are plentiful. This field offers a variety of rewarding job opportunities in law enforcement, corrections, or the court system. And you can work in the public or private sector. 

Police officer

As a police officer, you'll protect members of your community by enforcing local, state, and federal laws. In the course of your work, you'll have many different duties. Some of these duties include:

  • responding to calls from members of the community

  • patrolling different areas of a town or city

  • investigating suspicious activity

  • issuing citations

  • making arrests

  • filing incident reports

To become a police officer, you typically need to have a high school diploma or the equivalent. You'll also need to pass written and physical examinations and enroll in a police academy for 12 to 14 weeks. Law enforcement officers at the state and federal levels usually have a college degree as well. The average annual salary for a police officer is $69,254 [1]. 

Private investigator

If you're interested in an exciting private-sector job, you might become a private investigator (PI). As a PI, you may help law enforcement officers solve cases or investigate cases yourself. Attorneys, businesses, and private citizens hire PIs to look into financial, legal, criminal, personal, or missing person cases. Some of your daily tasks as a PI might include:

  • doing research

  • collecting evidence

  • conducting interviews

  • conducting surveillance

  • communicating with clients

  • testifying in court

To get a job working with a private investigation agency, you may want to earn at least an associate's degree in criminal justice or a related field. Some firms also hire former police officers. To work as a PI, you may need to get licensed by the state where you plan to work and make sure you meet the requirements. The average annual salary for private investigators is $58,633 [2]. 

Detective  

As a detective, you may help solve serious crimes like assault, robbery, homicide, or drug offenses. To do this, you can use your knowledge to ensure investigations are conducted legally and perform an array of investigative tasks. These include:

  • examining crime scenes

  • collecting and analyzing evidence

  • interviewing crime victims and witnesses

  • cataloging evidence

  • writing and filing police reports

  • building criminal cases

Educational requirements for detectives differ from department to department. While some departments require special training at the police academy, others require a bachelor's degree in criminal justice or a related field. Most police departments also require detectives to have some experience working as a police officer. Detectives make an average annual salary of $99,892 [3]. 

Forensic psychologist

If you like the idea of using your knowledge to understand criminals and their reasons for committing crimes, you might enjoy a career as a forensic psychologist. In this role, you can evaluate suspects and create profiles of criminals to help law enforcement solve crimes. Your work may include the following:

  • diagnosing mental health conditions

  • evaluating the ability of an accused person to stand trial

  • interviewing prisoners

  • offering opinions about sentencing

To become a forensic psychologist, you’ll likely need to earn a doctorate degree in psychology, and you may also need to qualify for state licensing depending on where you work and the scope of your practice. As a forensic psychologist, you'll make an average annual salary of $98,204 [4].

Crime prevention specialist

Crime prevention specialists are not sworn-in as law enforcement officials, but they play a valuable role in fighting crime. As a crime prevention specialist, you'll work to keep crime from occurring in your community. This job involves an array of tasks in a variety of settings. Duties might include:

  • developing crime prevention programs for different community groups

  • analyzing and researching crime within a community

  • leading personal safety classes for various groups like women or seniors

  • preparing and distributing crime prevention literature

  • sitting on crime prevention task forces, committees, and boards

  • creating public safety news releases

To become a crime prevention specialist, it helps to have at least an associate degree in criminal justice or a related field. Crime prevention specialists make an annual salary of $69,255, on average [5]. 

Next steps

Experience for yourself whether studying criminal justice could be a good fit by enrolling in Hot Topics in Criminal Justice from Vanderbilt University on Coursera. Dig into current criminal justice topics in the news like mass incarceration, the death penalty, and ethics concerning police surveillance, all while learning at your own pace.

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Article sources

1.Glassdoor. "Police Officer Salaries, https://www.glassdoor.com/Salaries/police-officer-salary-SRCH_KO0,14.htm." Accessed May 7, 2022.

2. Glassdoor. "Private Investigator Salaries, https://www.glassdoor.com/Salaries/private-investigator-salary-SRCH_KO0,20.htm." Accessed May 7, 2022.

3. Glassdoor. "Detective Salaries, https://www.glassdoor.com/Salaries/detective-salary-SRCH_KO0,9.htm." Accessed May 7, 2022.

4. Glassdoor. "Forensic Psychologist Salaries, https://www.glassdoor.com/Salaries/forensic-psychologist-salary-SRCH_KO0,21.htm." Accessed May 7, 2022.

5. Glassdoor. "Crime Prevention Specialist Salaries, https://www.glassdoor.com/Salaries/crime-prevention-specialist-salary- SRCH_KO0,27.htm." Accessed May 7, 2022.

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