Criminal justice degrees: Overview of levels, curriculum and jobs

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A degree in criminal justice is beneficial to anyone seeking a career as a police officer, crime scene investigator, federal agent, parole officer, or any other field related to the justice system.

“A lot of people, when they hear about criminal justice, they think of law enforcement, but criminal justice involves a lot more than that,” said Vesna Markovic, professor of criminal justice at Lewis University in Illinois. Markovic worked for many years as a private investigator.

A college degree can give you a competitive edge when applying for jobs, seeking promotions in your existing career, and can provide the education necessary to specialize in the field of your choice. Criminal justice personnel with degrees also tend to make higher salaries than their colleagues without one.

It’s not unusual for people in criminal justice to begin their careers with a high school diploma or an associate degree, work for a few years to get practical experience, and then return to school for a bachelor’s degree or higher.

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Which criminal justice degree should you pursue?

The level of education you need depends on your goals. For instance, many jobs at police departments and correctional institutions require only a high school diploma to get started, while careers with agencies like the FBI or CIA can require a college degree. That said, for some entry-level positions where competition is high, having a degree can give you an advantage over other candidates.

Having earned a degree can also better prepare you to earn promotions after you get hired since many management positions require a bachelor’s or master’s degree. You may also be able to go into a more specialized field with a bachelor’s degree. Careers such as forensic scientist and park ranger usually require an undergraduate degree to get started.

Associate and bachelor’s degree programs will require you to take general education courses like math and English in addition to classes in criminal justice. In master’s and doctorate programs, you will only take courses related to criminal justice since entry into these programs require that you have already earned your undergraduate degree where you will have completed your general education requirements.

Associate of Criminal Justice

In an associate degree program, you learn the fundamental concepts of the criminal justice system. This degree prepares you for entry-level positions in law enforcement, corrections, security, or criminal courts.

How long it takes:

Two years.

Classes you could take:

Introductory courses to criminal justice, court systems, corrections, crime scene investigation, police procedures.

Jobs you can get with an associate degree:

Victim Advocacy:
Assisting victims as they work through the confusion of criminal justice in search of restitution for wrongs done to them.
Police Officer:
Provide safety and security to the general public.
Security Officer:
Patrol and secure hospital, corporate, and university campuses. Your work will be to maintain the peace while acting as a first responder in case trouble erupts.
Probation Officer:
Help criminals meet the court’s requirements for their early release. You can help people break the cycle of crime and recidivism.
Corrections Officer:
Work with inmates in a variety of jails and prisons. Your hard work will be a model for those seeking rehabilitation from a life of crime.
Youth Detention Counselor:
Work with troubled youth caught in the criminal justice system. You can assist youngsters to rise above the circumstances they are in and achieve more with their lives.
Insurance Investigator:
Investigate fraudulent insurance claims. When you help insurance companies save money, everyone’s premiums remain stable and as low as possible.
Cyber Security Investigator:
Investigate computer crimes such as hacking. You will follow the rules of evidence as they apply to the digital realm.
Evidence Tech:
Secure evidence from a crime scene. Without your hard work, evidence might not be admissible in court and criminals might walk free.

Bachelor of Criminal Justice

In a bachelor’s degree program in criminal justice, you take introductory courses plus more advanced classes and electives. Some programs allow you to select a concentration in the field of criminal justice, such as homeland security, cybercrime, and forensic investigation.

How long it takes:

Four years.

Classes you could take:

Criminology, corrections administration, victimology, interpersonal communication, forensic science, sociology, criminal psychology, juvenile justice, ethics.

Jobs you can get with a bachelor’s degree:

Park Ranger:
Your job will be to protect our natural preserves from a host of threats, from clumsy campers to criminal use of public lands.
You can assemble evidence from crime scenes and interview witnesses and suspects. Your work will be to construct a case that the prosecuting attorney can present in court and win a conviction from a jury.
U.S. Customs:
Customs agents ensure that no illegal goods enter the country. As a customs agent, you might find yourself on the front lines of the war on terror.
Maintain the safety and security of a courtroom by keeping order, handling evidence, swearing in witnesses, and more.
Forensic Science Technician:
You will employ the methods and tools of science to analyze evidence for presentation in court. You must know the rules of evidence as well as have full knowledge of the criminal justice system.
Probation Officer:
This is a vital job in that it ensures that criminals abide the rules of the court for a period of time. This helps the offender re-acclimate to society, and keeps those around him safe as well.
A paralegal does vital research and other tasks for a lawyer. With an academic background in criminal justice, you will be capable of working with defense and prosecuting attorneys alike.

Master of Criminal Justice

In a master’s degree program, you learn advanced topics in criminal justice, such as analyzing criminal behavior, research methods, leadership and administration, and law.

How long it takes:

Two years.

Classes you could take:

Criminal theory, criminal behavior, terrorism, federal justice system, incarceration, data analysis, leadership and management.

Jobs you can get with a master’s degree:

FBI Agent:
The FBI is an elite agency in law enforcement. You may need to have a graduate-level degree to join it in a professional capacity. In hot demand right now at the FBI? Specialists in computer forensics.
Blood Spatter Analyst:
This is a subset of forensic science that specializes in the chemistry, physics, and biology of blood. The popular television show Dexter portrayed a blood spatter analyst in the title role.

Doctorate in Criminal Justice

A doctoral degree in criminal justice is designed for professionals who wish to teach or enter administrative, research, or government positions. Programs are usually centered on policy, theory, and research.

How long it takes:

Courses generally take about two years to complete. If a dissertation is required, it could take an additional two to three years. Most universities allow the doctoral candidate up to 10 years to finish the degree.

Classes you could take:

Advanced criminology, criminal justice policies, criminal law, research methods, statistical analysis, seminars in selected criminal justice topics.

Jobs you could get:

  • University professor
  • Researcher
  • Security analyst
  • Emergency management director
  • Forensic scientist
  • Federal investigator

Specializing within the field of criminal justice

As you pursue your career in criminal justice, it’s likely you’ll want to specialize and delve deeper into the areas that intrigue you the most. More and more municipalities are moving towards specialized teams that tackle issues such as human trafficking, homicide and narcotics.

Your field of interest may demand a full-on degree program, or you may also be able to boost your existing academic credentials with a certificate.

Specializations in criminal justice degree programs

Criminal Justice:
A certificate or degree in criminal justice could provide you with the technical and analytical skills that employers look for.
Crime Scene Technicians:
Crime scene technicians work at all levels of law enforcement and in legal or medical examiner’s offices. They analyze and preserve crime scenes, and become experts in proper evidence collection and storage.
Terrorism/Security Management:
Crime scene technicians work at all levels of law enforcement and in legal or medical examiner’s offices. They analyze and preserve crime scenes, and become experts in proper evidence collection and storage.
Terrorism/Security Management:
Job seekers with training in counter-terrorism may be able to find a range of new career opportunities as this field continues to grow.
Criminal Profiling:
A profiler working on an investigative team helps to assess a pattern of crime in hopes of creating a profile of the perpetrator. Advanced software, knowledge of criminal psychology, and strong instincts will serve you well in this capacity.
Forensic Accounting:
There are academic programs that teach this area of specialty, but there is also a certificate available from a national association to qualify you to assess accounting for criminal investigations.
Computer Forensics:
You can get a degree in cyber security, but you might also complete a certificate program in computer forensics. Frequently, these programs are at the graduate level and will provide you with credit towards completing a full master’s degree

Other degrees related to criminal justice

You’ll find that degree programs at some institutions are similar or nearly identical to criminal justice but have different titles. For example, many colleges and universities use the term Criminology rather than Criminal Justice.

You may also be able to find degrees on the associate, bachelor’s, and master’s levels that emphasize a single field of criminal justice. For example, it’s not uncommon to find bachelor’s degrees in law enforcement, homeland security, forensic science, and emergency management.

Are online degrees available?

Numerous colleges and universities offer online programs for all levels of degrees in criminal justice. The courses are usually identical to those offered on campus. However, you may not have the opportunities for hands-on experiences such as internships or ride-alongs with police officers unless you arrange them yourself.

karen hanson

Written and reported by:

Karen S. Hanson

Contributing Writer

vesna markovic

With professional insight from:

Vesna Markovic

Chair and Associate Professor of Justice, Lewis University, Romeoville, IL