Get the best education for a high-level job in criminal justice.

Getting a PhD in Criminal Justice


Criminal justice PhD programs offer interdisciplinary education in the fields of criminal justice, criminology, and forensic science, combining theory, research, and analysis—and their practical application to law enforcement and corrections.

Students learn about the theory of criminology, criminal law, criminal procedure, organizational behavior, public policy analysis and the psychology of criminal justice, and are trained in social science, research design and statistics.

The primary focus of a PhD program is usually on theory and research. To get into criminal justice PhD programs, you must first earn a master’s degree and prove that you’re ready for high level research. Once you have your PhD, you can find work teaching at colleges and universities so that you can share your wisdom with other criminal justice students.

How PhD Programs in Criminal Justice Work

A criminal justice PhD program can be broken down into three parts:

  • Coursework
  • Qualifying exams
  • A doctoral dissertation that presents your original research

Criminal Justice PhD Coursework

The following are just a few examples of the kinds of courses offered in many criminal justice PhD programs:

  • Comparative Criminology and Criminal Justice
  • Fundamentals of Criminological Research
  • Psychology of Criminal Behavior
  • Regulating Vice and Organized Crime
  • Courts and Sentencing
  • Research Methods in Criminal Justice and Criminology
  • Statistical Tools for Criminal Justice
  • Applied Data Analysis in Criminal Justice
  • Various Graduate Seminars

Preparing for Your Comprehensive PhD Exams

The qualifying exams in your criminal justice PhD program require you to demonstrate an understanding of the central issues in criminal justice. They also require that students form their own positions on these issues, and demonstrate that they can articulate and defend their positions. Students are expected to give opinions on the theories in the field of criminal justice and be able to use their knowledge to creatively solve problems.

PhD Dissertation: Your Original Criminal Justice Research

Once you have finished your PhD exams, you’ll conduct the research that you will present in your dissertation. Working with a faculty advisor, you’ll decide on a research topic and how to approach your research. Once you have chosen a topic, it must be approved by your doctoral dissertation committee. You must generally finish the research for and writing of your dissertation within a prescribed period of time.

When you are done writing your dissertation, you will orally defend it in front of your dissertation committee. This is the last major step in a criminal justice PhD program, and if your committee accepts your dissertation, you will have earned your doctorate.

Sources: University of Maryland (,

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