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Earning a (PhD) doctorate in criminal justice

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A doctoral degree represents the highest level of formal education you can attain in criminal justice. People who pursue a doctorate have already earned their bachelor’s, possibly an associate and master’s degrees and want to advance their careers, go into research or become college professors.

To earn a doctorate, you will be required to attend classes, but you’ll also need to devote hours to independent study and research. A doctoral degree can help you qualify for high-level and well-paying positions in law enforcement organizations, federal agencies, research institutions and universities. 

In this article

What is doctorate-level criminal justice education?

Doctoral programs in criminal justice emphasize research and analysis methods, along with criminal justice policy, theory and administration. Most programs conclude with a dissertation or research capstone project.


Look for requirements like:

Previous degrees

GRE scores

Letters of rec

To be admitted to a doctoral program, you need a proven history of academic success and experience in the field. Most doctoral programs require a master’s degree with a minimum GPA, but a few schools admit candidates with only a bachelor’s degree if their other qualifications are outstanding. In addition, you will need to submit official transcripts of your previous college courses.

Colleges and universities traditionally require you to take the Graduate Record Examination (GRE) and send your scores as part of your admission. However, that is changing. More and more schools are eliminating the GRE requirement.

You may also need to submit letters of recommendation and an essay in which you explain your reason for seeking a doctorate and outline your career goals.

PhD vs. DCJ

As you search for a doctoral program, you’ll notice that some are labeled PhD (Doctor of Philosophy) while others are designated as DCJ (Doctor of Criminal Justice). The majority of programs are PhDs, but both degrees are equally valid and can give you a quality education. The difference lies in their emphasis.

The PhD is a more academic doctoral program that stresses theory and research, whereas the DCJ is designed for more practical application.

PhD in Criminal JusticeDoctor of Criminal Justice
Program Focus:Examining and developing theories of criminal justice, researching trends in crime and punishmentApplying knowledge to problem-solving and societal changes
Degree Outcome:DissertationDissertation or Capstone Project
Career Goals:University professor or researcherAgency director or superintendent, university professor

What it’s like to get a doctorate

A doctoral program in criminal justice is a multi-year journey in which you can acquire advanced knowledge in your field and fine-tune your skills in analysis, research and writing.

You need to earn 50 to 80 credit hours, depending on your university’s requirements. You begin by taking a series of core classes, which generally takes two to three years. Then, you work at your own pace to research and write a dissertation or complete a project. Most universities allow you to work at your own pace for the research stage, but many require you to complete your degree within 10 years.

Concentrations in a criminal justice doctorate

You can study for a general PhD or DCJ in criminal justice, or if you have a specific career goal, you may be able to find a doctoral program that offers a concentration in the area you’re interested in. Not all universities offer the same concentrations.

Possible specializations include: 

Justice Administration: A specialization in justice administration addresses the historical and societal forces on criminal behavior and the criminal justice system. Concentrations in Criminology, Criminal Justice and Public Policy are similar.

Homeland Security: A concentration in Homeland Security studies the threats of terrorism and international crime and violence. You may study intelligence gathering, cyberattacks, weapons of mass destruction and emergency preparedness.

Emergency Management: Emergency management focuses on planning and responding to both natural disasters and emergencies caused by human actions. A doctorate may prepare you for a leadership or research position in emergency management.

Juvenile Justice Studies: A concentration in Juvenile Justice examines theories and practices centering on how to prevent and respond to juvenile delinquency.

Policing: People working in law enforcement who are interested in careers as a chief of police, agency director, or similar top administrator may be interested in a specialization in Policing. This concentration is intended to teach practical skills in management, organization, budgeting, application of police policy and criminal justice methods.

Classes you’ll take

In addition to courses and seminars in criminal justice, you’ll also take classes that teach you research methodology and analysis skills. These courses can prepare you for writing your dissertation and doing research in your future career.

Some of these courses could include:

Research Methods and Design: You can learn approaches to designing, conducting, and analyzing research.

Quantitative Methods Analysis: This course is designed to teach methods of collecting, analyzing and reporting statistical data.

Qualitative Analysis: Qualitative research analysis studies ways of collecting and analyzing information through methods such as interviews, text analysis, ethnography and reason.

Statistical Analysis: You may learn various methods of analyzing statistics in criminal justice-related topics. 

Dissertation and other options

The dissertation is a traditional component of almost all doctoral programs. It consists of an in-depth paper on an original research topic that contributes to the body of knowledge in criminal justice.

The structure and requirements of a dissertation vary, but most are designed around the scientific method of formulating a hypothesis, designing a research study and analyzing the results. It may involve both primary and secondary research.

The dissertation process takes most students one to two years to complete, but many students take a little longer. During that time, you continue to be considered a student in the program. You pay tuition but will not attend classes. You will be assigned a dissertation mentor to guide you through the process.

After completing your dissertation, you present your findings in a defense in front of a committee of professors and other professionals for critique. Most doctorate degrees are approved upon a successfully approved dissertation.

In place of a dissertation, some doctorate programs give students the option of completing a capstone project or portfolio. These usually involve analyzing a real-world problem and recommending or implementing a solution. 

Criminal justice careers for PhDs and DCJs

Nearly everyone who studies for a doctorate in criminal justice is already working in a position related to law enforcement, corrections or a closely related field.

“People who do PhDs are usually wanting to do research either as a professor or in a criminology ‘think tank,'” said Cody Telep, who teaches criminal justice at Arizona State University.

Most professors of criminal justice courses in colleges and universities have a doctoral degree, though it may be possible to teach courses with a master’s degree. In addition to teaching, full-time professors also research and write academic articles and books.

Universities aren’t the only places where research into criminal justice topics is taking place.

“Some law enforcement agencies are interested in adding research, especially large departments,” Telep said. He added that they want to employ researchers to analyze patterns of local crime and evaluate policing strategies.

It’s also becoming more common for police chiefs and other top police officials to hold doctorate degrees, according to Telep.

Federal agencies such as the FBI, the CIA and the Department of Homeland Security might hire people with PhDs and DCJs as researchers, investigators and special agents.

Career Median Annual Salary
Criminal Justice and Law Enforcement Teachers, Postsecondary $64,990
Psychologists, All Other $106,420
Sociologists $98,590
Emergency Management Directors $79,180
First-Line Supervisors of Police and Detectives $96,290

Financing your doctorate degree

A doctoral degree can be expensive, but you may have several options for funding your degree in addition to self-pay or student loans. It’s worth it to take the time to explore available programs offered by your university or other organizations.

Keep in mind you must meet qualifications and go through an application process.

Graduate assistantship

The most common way to finance a doctorate degree is by getting a position as a teaching or research assistant. These graduate assistantships generally include a waiver for some or all of tuition costs and pay a stipend for living expenses.

A graduate assistantship also presents a great opportunity for experiential learning. Teaching assistants are assigned to teach undergraduate courses and evaluate student work. Research assistants may work with a professor in a laboratory or on research projects. 

Scholarships and fellowships

Scholarships or fellowships may be available through the university you are attending. Furthermore, criminal justice associations such as the National Institute of Justice and nonprofit organizations also sponsor scholarships. 

Frequently asked questions

Can you earn a doctorate in criminal justice online?

Yes, many universities offer online PhD and DCJ programs. Some are completely online, while others require residencies. A residency requires you to attend classes on campus for a short period, such as a week or weekend.

Do people in law enforcement get PhDs in criminal justice?

Officers at the highest levels of police administration—superintendent, commission, chief, deputy chief or division commander—often have doctorate degrees.

Can you keep working while getting a PhD or DCJ?

It may be possible to keep working with an online doctoral program. Discuss your plans with your supervisors and ask whether there might be contingencies for time off if needed.

On campus, programs are designed to be full-time. Therefore, you may have to quit or take a leave of absence from your job, but you can earn money by working at the university as a research or teaching assistant.

Can you get a criminal justice doctorate degree if your master’s degree is in another field?

In many cases, yes, it’s helpful if your master’s degree or work experience is in a field related to criminal justice, such as psychology, social work or legal studies. 

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