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What is a master’s degree in criminal justice?

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A master’s degree is a graduate program that allows you to take courses in a specialized area of interest. To enroll in a master’s degree program in criminal justice, you must already have a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice or a related field.

A master’s degree program usually takes about two years to complete. You take core courses in your major and elective courses in your specialization. In addition, many master’s degree programs require you to write a thesis or complete a capstone project demonstrating what you have learned.

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Why earn a master’s degree in criminal justice?

Earning a master’s degree can qualify you for a promotion or help you move up through the ranks in a police department. In a master’s degree program, you can gain the knowledge and skills necessary to take on a leadership position in your police department or any law enforcement agency.

“Increasingly, master’s degrees are the expectation for a big city chief of police,” said Cody Telep, associate professor in criminal justice at Arizona State University. “The point of a master’s degree is to prepare leaders with the tools and information they need to manage an organization.”

A master’s degree could also open the door for other opportunities, such as specializing in a more complex and demanding criminal justice field. A few jobs in criminal justice may require a master’s degree at entry-level or soon after.

If you’re hoping to join a federal agency like the FBI or Drug Enforcement Agency, especially as a special agent, you might also think about a master’s degree.

“Federal jobs are highly competitive,” Telep said. “A master’s can make you even more competitive.”

A master’s degree is also useful if you’re interested in researching crime trends, social justice, criminal theory or the effectiveness of law enforcement and correctional strategies. Public organizations, those in the private sector and nonprofit groups, hire experts to research and write reports on current issues in criminal justice. 

Teaching criminal justice courses is also a possibility with a master’s degree. You may be able to get a job at a community college or police training academy. If you’re aspiring to earn a PhD one day, getting a master’s degree is essential. 

Areas of specialization

Most master’s degrees in criminal justice will cover topics similar to what you studied in your bachelor’s degree.

“A master’s degree in criminal justice covers the same area, but we’re able to go into greater depth and dig deeper,” Telep said.

You may also take courses in management, analysis and research methods. In some programs, you’ll have the opportunity to select a concentration, consisting of a certain number of elective courses on a specialized topic in criminal justice.

Popular concentrations include:

Justice Administration or Management: If you’re interested in managing a division, department or bureau in a law enforcement agency or correctional facility, you might want to concentrate on Justice Administration or Justice Management. The courses cover topics like management practices, budget and finance, decision-making, organizational theory, laws and policies.

Crime Analysis: A concentration in Crime Analysis is designed to teach you to analyze data and research information that can give you insights into the causes and effects of crime and the application of public policy. These skills can be helpful for those wishing to work as intelligence analysts, detectives, insurance, investigators and special agents.

Cybercrime and Cybersecurity: You can learn more about how cybercrimes are committed and how to prevent or stop them. You may also learn to use digital technology to investigate crimes. Computer forensics is a related concentration.

Homeland Security: Homeland Security focuses on assessing our nation’s security threats and planning appropriate responses to crises. A master’s degree can give you the skills for a leadership position.

Emergency Management: This concentration may also be called Public Safety. The program is designed for people who wish to become emergency management or security directors. Courses cover risk assessment, preparedness and disaster response. 

What it’s like to earn a master’s in criminal justice

A master’s degree program generally takes two years to complete. If you attend part-time, it could take a little longer, and if you enroll in an accelerated degree problem, you could finish a bit faster.

Most master’s degree programs in criminal justice are designed with the working adult in mind. Courses are held on evenings and weekends or may be offered online or in a hybrid format, where you attend class one day a week and then work independently online. 

Admissions

Enrolling in a master’s degree program requires a bachelor’s degree, although that degree doesn’t necessarily have to be in criminal justice. However, people who have bachelor’s degrees in a field related to criminal justice may have an easier time in their classes because they already have knowledge and background specifically within that field.

In addition to transcripts of your college work, you may also have to submit an essay or personal statement of goals, letters of recommendation or a resume. Some schools also require Graduate Record Examination (GRE) scores. You can easily find the specific admissions requirements on the colleges or universities’ websites that may interest you. 

Required classes

All master’s degree programs offer similar courses or content, but the specific classes you take vary from one school to the next. For example, some degree programs emphasize theory and policy, while others emphasize management. The concentration you select also influences the classes you complete.

Courses often have slightly different titles and focus, but some common classes offered in a criminal justice master’s degree program include:

Criminology: Criminology is the study of criminal behavior. You may study theories behind criminal behavior and how to address it effectively within society. You may also learn about the psychological and societal influences on crime.

Criminal Justice Statistics: Generally, research in criminal justice requires understanding how to apply statistical analysis and interpret the results. You may also learn to use computer statistics programs.

Organizational Behavior: This course examines management and leadership practices in a criminal justice organization. It may include studies on managing human resources, budgeting, communication, effective business processes and legal issues.

Law and Public Policy: The course may take at laws and public policies on local, state and federal levels shaping how law enforcement may prevent and respond to crimes. The effects on the court system and corrections may also be covered within this course.

Correctional Theory: This class may cover the history of corrections and punishment, past and current policies and applying theories to correctional policies.

Thesis or capstone project

As you conclude your master’s degree studies, you will be required to write a thesis or conduct a capstone project. Some programs include only one option, while others will give you a choice between a thesis and a capstone.

A thesis requires you to research a criminal justice topic of your choice and write an in-depth, scholarly paper. Some degree programs will require original as well as secondary research. You will work under the mentorship of a professor.

Capstone projects are designed to evaluate your knowledge and understanding of what you have studied in the program. The capstone topics and processes will vary depending on the degree program, but it generally involves research and writing under the direction of a mentoring professor. A capstone is usually less academically intensive than a thesis and may result in a shorter paper or could take the form of a report or presentation. 

Should you get an MA or MS in criminal justice?

A master’s degree in criminal justice may be labeled as an M.A. (Master of Arts) or M.S. (Master of Science). The M.A. will generally emphasize liberal arts courses, while the M.S. will focus more on science and technology. However, both offer many of the same core courses.

In the criminal justice field, most general master’s degrees are Master of Arts degrees since they include the study of history, philosophy, and social impact of law and criminology. Master’s degrees that are more technical or practically focused, such as those concentrated in police administration, are often associated with an M.S. degree.

The differences are minor, though. There are no firm rules about using M.A. and M.S. designations, and you may find great variation from one program to the next. What’s more important than the label is whether the individual program curriculum will give you the learning experience you want. 

Master of arts in criminal justice

The majority of master’s degrees in criminal justice are Masters of Art. These programs are created to give a broad view of criminal justice for anyone seeking to advance their career or enter a management position. Sample courses may include criminal behavior theory, politics and policy, applied data analysis, crime scene investigation and deviant behavior.

Master of science in criminal justice

An M.S. in Criminal Justice may be a good choice for law enforcement professionals and others preparing for promotion or leadership. The degree may emphasize practical skills that can be utilized and helpful on the job, such as courses in leadership, crime analysis, data analysis, crime mapping and cybercrime. However, you will still study criminal theory and policy. 

Master’s degrees similar to criminal justice

As you search for the master’s degree program that meets your need, you may run across master’s degrees that aren’t in the criminal justice department but may be compatible with your career goals.

Similar master’s degrees include:

Criminal justice master’s degree FAQ

Can you get a criminal justice master’s degree online?

Yes, you can choose from many online master’s degree programs offered by traditional or online universities. Make sure the school you choose is regionally accredited.

If you have a choice, should you write a thesis or complete a capstone project?

If you think you might continue on to study for a PhD someday, you should write the thesis. However, if you believe the master’s degree will be your final degree, then a capstone project will be a good choice.

Will you make a higher salary with a master’s degree in criminal justice?

Possibly. On the whole, people with master’s degrees make more than those without, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. In many cases, a higher salary results from being promoted to a leadership position. However, every individual circumstance may be different.

Can you keep working while getting a master’s degree?

Yes, it’s quite common for people to earn their master’s degree while still being employed full time. Many working people choose online programs because of their flexibility, but on-campus programs offer courses in the evenings or weekends. In addition, some law enforcement agencies and other employers in the criminal justice field will offer incentives, financial assistance or schedule adjustments. 

karen hanson

Written and reported by:

Karen S. Hanson

Contributing Writer

cody w telep

With professional insight from:

Cody W. Telep

Associate Professor and Associate Director, School of Criminology and Criminal Justice at Arizona State University