criminal justice degree

A criminal justice degree serves several purposes. It can serve as a springboard to a number of law enforcement careers. Police officer, private investigator, Homeland Security, DEA agent—these are just a few of the employment opportunities for those with a criminal justice degree.

It can also increase your salary potential and hiring chances. Learn what degree you should earn to reach your potential in law enforcement.

Required Degrees for a Career in Criminal Justice

The amount of education you need depends on your criminal justice career goals.  To prepare for criminal justice jobs, you can pursue a certificate, an associate’s degree, bachelor’s degree or master’s degree. There are also advanced degree options for jobs such as  forensic scientist, or for those wishing to teach in criminal justice degree programs.

The most common types of criminal justice programs are:

Associate’s Degree

An associate’s degree takes two years to complete and teaches fundamental criminal justice skills while grounding students in the liberal arts and sciences. Associate’s degree programs might emphasize technical skills that can help graduates embark on successful careers in local or state law enforcement.

For example, most police departments require new recruits to complete some college training, so an associate’s degree is a good place to start. Here are some career examples:

  • Police officer
  • Non-federal corrections officer
  • Legal assistant
  • Private investigator

Bachelor’s Degree

Enrolling in a four-year bachelor’s degree program will provide you with in-depth training and a liberal arts education. If your goal is to find entry-level positions in federal agencies or to increase your likelihood of being promoted in a police department or private company, an undergraduate education will give you the skills needed. A bachelor’s degree program will cover topics such as criminal procedure, law and ethics.

If you choose a specific path, such as forensics, your program will include courses relevant to the specialization. Here are some career examples:

Master’s Degree

Earning a graduate degree in criminal justice takes about two years. A master’s degree program will cover advanced topics such as analyzing criminal behavior, research methods, leadership and law. If you plan to work in federal law enforcement, having a master’s degree is one factor that could contribute to a pay raise. Career examples are:

  • Forensic psychologist
  • FBI agent
  • Substance abuse counselor
  • Private investigator
  • Police


A certificate provides training in specific jobs in the criminal justice field by educating students to be crime scene technicians or other specialized jobs. Students who obtain certificates usually use them as the building blocks for a future criminal justice degree or career step.

Find a Specialty and Program

Depending upon your specific interests, you can choose from a range of criminal justice degrees in several specialties, including:

  • Criminal Justice (certificate, associate’s, bachelor’s): A certificate or degree in criminal justice will provide you with the technical and analytical skills that employers look for. These programs focus on topics such as crime, justice and the legal system.
  • Crime Scene Technicians (certificate, associate’s): Crime scene technicians work at all levels of law enforcement and in legal or medical examiner’s offices. They learn to analyze and preserve crime scenes, and become experts in proper evidence collection and storage. In addition, programs teach crime scene technicians to become effective communicators, since many need to present their findings in court.
  • Terrorism/Security Management (certificate): This certificate will be useful to individuals currently working in criminal justice careers and those who would like to find criminal justice jobs. Employees with training in counterterrorism will find a range of new career opportunities as this field continues to grow.

No matter which law enforcement path you choose, earning a criminal justice degree can prepare you for a challenging, but rewarding career.