Criminal Justice Careers

Updated on July 20, 2023
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Criminal justice degrees, which can lead to opportunities in fields like law enforcement and advocacy, may be a good fit for several different types of aspiring professionals.

On this page, readers can learn about various criminal justice career options and the projected job outlook for those positions. Readers can also explore information about educational requirements, certifications and licensure, and continuing education opportunities.

The criminal justice field as a whole continues to expand, thanks to a growing focus on national borders and global terrorism. This latter development represents a particularly severe challenge to individual and community safety. Fortunately, students pursue criminal justice degrees in large numbers -- over 132,000 in 2016, according to Data USA. By earning advanced credentials, candidates prepare themselves for leadership positions in the criminal justice field.

Criminal Justice Degrees for You

Career Paths in Criminal Justice

Many careers in criminal justice revolve around public safety and security. This field offers many specializations, including jobs in criminology, emergency management, forensic science, and cybersecurity.

The section below includes detailed job descriptions of several criminal justice careers.


Through a criminology specialization, students develop the skills needed to examine, explain, and rehabilitate criminal behavior. Advanced coursework covers topics like policy analysis, intelligence and national security, and correctional practices.

Graduates can pursue many major criminal justice careers, including specialized roles like diplomatic security advisor and research criminologist.


Cybersecurity concerns the evaluation and prevention of virtual crimes, including identity theft, corporate blackmail, and cyberterrorism. Specialized courses in this discipline include intelligence and counterintelligence, cryptography, and ethical hacking.

Professionals in this field need a bachelor's degree and professional certification to access most career opportunities. Cybersecurity careers include information security analyst and computer network architect.

Emergency Management

Students usually pursue emergency management training as part of a homeland security curriculum. They develop the program development and leadership skills needed to fill managerial roles in nonprofit, private, and government organizations.

Emergency management courses cover advanced topics like critical incident management, disaster planning and response, and ethics in public safety agencies. Emergency management careers include occupational safety consultant, environmental health director, and natural disaster relief coordinator.

Forensic Science

Forensic science exists at the intersection of criminology, law, and research science. Students learn to conduct forensic investigations at crime scenes and in the laboratory. They locate and extract potential evidence, analyze samples, and document information for use in criminal trials.

Forensic science graduates are prepared for careers as crime scene investigators, forensic medical examiners, and forensic engineers.

Fire Science

Fire science professionals identify potential hazards and oversee safety training programs for volunteers, community members, and personnel. They also respond to fire-related emergencies and disasters.

Students do not need a college degree to become firefighters or fire inspectors. However, more advanced careers, including conservation scientist, forensic investigator, and employee safety director, do require bachelor's degrees.

Homeland Security

Homeland security students learn the laws, programs, and strategies used to keep the U.S. resilient against natural disasters and terrorist attacks. Coursework varies widely but may cover topics like the roles of first and second responders, international drug trafficking, and the history of global terrorism.

Graduates can pursue careers in security software development, intelligence analysis, and government policy.

Criminal Justice Career Outlook

Many criminal justice careers require only a high school diploma or GED certificate. With these qualifications, professionals can pursue work as correctional officers, bailiffs, or security guards.

Alternatively, some careers in criminal justice require a graduate-level degree, such as computer and information research scientists who work on projects related to cybersecurity. Many employers also prefer applicants with advanced degrees, even if the job does not explicitly require it.

Careers in criminal justice that require a bachelor's or master's tend to offer higher pay and better prospects. For example, graduates can pursue careers as crime scene investigators, FBI agents, paralegals, and emergency management coordinators.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects that certain criminal justice careers, like fire inspectors, will see above-average growth between 2018 and 2028. Fire inspectors earn a median annual salary of $60,230. Readers can find more information about careers with a criminal justice degree on this BLS page.


Below, readers can learn more about associate degrees, bachelor's degrees, master's degrees, and doctorates in criminal justice.

Associate Degrees

Associate degrees in criminal justice provide students with an introduction to the field. These programs require at least 60 credits, which full-time learners typically complete in two years. However, students who enroll in accelerated online tracks take shorter courses throughout the year and can graduate in about 18 months.

Students may also accelerate their progress by receiving credits for relevant professional experience, including basic police, parole, probation, and/or corrections academy training.

Core courses cover topics like American government, English composition, and critical thinking. Associate programs introduce students to the scope and effects of crime in the United States. They delve into theories of delinquency and criminal behavior. Learners also examine the U.S. justice system, which covers law enforcement, judicial processes, and correctional operations.

While earning an associate degree, students prepare for entry-level criminal justice careers as police officers, correctional officers, and private investigators. Graduates can also work as private security guards, gaming surveillance specialists, fire inspectors, and paralegals and legal assistants.

Common Courses

Criminal Law

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Students receive an introduction to substantive criminal law, including the elements and purposes of those laws, as well as criminal sanctions and defenses. They also explore the constitutional limits to criminal law by analyzing contemporary legal case studies in the U.S. court system.

Criminal Investigations

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In this foundational class, students examine the theories and methods used during investigations. Covered topics include interviews and interrogations, crime scenes, and forensic science. Learners also delve into issues concerning trial testimony and rule of evidence.

Law Enforcement

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This core class provides an overview of the history and functions of law enforcement agencies at the local, state, and federal levels. In addition to the classification of crime, students learn about arrest procedures, with an emphasis on conflict resolution and the use of force.

Correctional Systems and Practices

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In this course, students receive an introduction to the systematic processes of institutional and community-based corrections. They examine major theories concerning rehabilitation programs and inmate rights. The course also helps learners understand the responsibilities and duties of correctional staff and administration.

Introduction to Forensic Science

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In this course, learners explore the history and principles behind forensic sciences. They learn about the array of scientific disciplines used when collecting and analyzing evidence, including forensic chemistry and biology. Additional topics include fingerprints, DNA analysis, trace evidence, and firearms examination.

Bachelor's Degrees

Bachelor's programs in criminal justice help students develop the core competencies needed for professional success. They also offer opportunities for further training through advanced courses, concentrations, and practica. Bachelor's degrees require approximately 120 credits, which full-time students usually complete in four years.

Criminal justice bachelor's degrees usually include required courses in criminology, judicial administration, and legal traditions. Students learn about research guidelines, best practices, and writing professional documents. They also delve into correctional programs, complex incarceration theories, and alternative rehabilitation methods through community-based programs.

Bachelor's programs often allow learners to pursue concentrations like crime scene investigation, homeland security, and legal studies. These programs usually culminate in an internship that allows learners to gain practical experience and develop career connections.

Careers for criminal justice majors include social services positions like guidance counselor, child safety advocate, and social worker. Graduates can also apply for federal positions with the FBI and the CIA.

Common Courses

Criminological Theory

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Students taking this core class examine the causes of crime, including sociological, psychological, economic, and biological theories on the etiology of delinquency. They also learn about the different types of crimes and criminals. Depending on the program, learners may also receive an introduction to criminal justice policy.

Public Administration Principles

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Students explore the development and significance of contemporary government operations. In addition to defining public administration in a criminal justice context, this class helps learners understand the difference between public and private organizations and how these characteristics affect what government can and cannot do.

Domestic and International Terrorism

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In this class, students learn about the causes, types, and targets of terrorist acts. They also study how American government agencies respond to these threats. They analyze how terrorist organizations use violence to recruit members and raise money, with an emphasis on how media coverage affects these strategies.

Crime Mapping

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This specialized course teaches students to apply geographic information science concepts and methods in a criminal justice context. Students learn how to collect, analyze, and present spatial data. They also learn how to design graphs and maps to communicate information.

Abnormal Psychology

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A crucial course for students who want to pursue counseling careers, abnormal psychology concerns the scientific study of mental illness. Learners develop the abilities to assess and identify mental disorders and conduct field-specific research. This field is also known as psychopathology.

Master's Degrees

Master's programs in criminal justice build on the core competencies of associate and bachelor's degrees. Most master's programs require 30-40 credits and take approximately two years.

Required coursework for master's programs often focuses on managerial concepts. Students take classes in criminal justice planning and program evaluation. They also study data analytics, learning to gather, assess, and present complex information to aid organizational strategies and decision-making processes.

Learners may also complete career-oriented electives, internships, and research-focused capstone projects.

Graduates are prepared for leadership roles in security management, public administration, and human resources. They can also apply their skills globally, working as cyberterrorism specialists and federal intelligence officers.

Common Courses

Public Policy Analysis

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In this course, students learn to analyze policy for government organizations, think tanks, and nonprofits. They discuss the importance of data and evidence evaluation during the policy analysis process. The course covers traditional cost-benefit analysis, as well as modern methods like race, gender, and stakeholder analysis.

Legal Ethics

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This course covers theories and strategies around the ethical practice of law. Students develop the ability to identify, avoid, and resolve legal ethical dilemmas. The class also introduces guidelines and rules governing the conduct of lawyers and other criminal justice professionals.


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In this class, students delve into the scientific study of victims, including the methods used to measure victimization. They learn why many people do not report crimes to law enforcement. Learners also explore what resources and services are available to victims, such as financial compensation through government programs and offender restitution.

Counterterrorism Intelligence

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This course covers the historical roots and contemporary developments of terrorist organizations and lone wolves. Students analyze the differing motivations of terrorists and the reasons why some groups continue to grow while others have disbanded. They also examine American counterrorism strategies following 9/11.

Digital Forensics

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Students who take this specialized course gain the data analysis and incident response skills needed to help law enforcement investigate crimes using digital evidence. They develop an in-depth understanding of identity theft, financial fraud, and cyberterrorism. The class also covers legal aspects related to computer forensics.

Doctoral Degrees

Doctoral degrees in criminal justice are terminal degrees in the field. Most programs require 50-75 credits, which students typically complete in about five years. Several schools offer online doctorates in criminal justice.

Students usually spend the first two years of a doctoral program taking courses. For the rest of the program, they complete research and practical training while preparing for their dissertation defense or applied capstone project.

There are two main types of doctoral degrees in this field. Ph.D. programs focus on research, publication, and teaching, while doctor of business administration (DBA) programs emphasize managerial training, preparing graduates for senior executive and director positions.

Ph.D. students may enroll in courses like assessing criminal justice theory and issues in globalized crime. Through research, they learn to analyze crime data and design quantitative and qualitative research methods. Alternatively, DBA students delve into leadership theory, strategic thinking, and consulting and intervention practices.

Graduates can pursue careers as social service directors and information systems managers. They can also pursue positions like forensic scientist, police chief, and professor.

Common Courses

Statistical Analysis

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This course teaches students advanced methods for statistical thinking and problem-solving. Covered topics include data modeling, calculus-based probability, multiple regression, and evaluation of categorical data. Learners gain the ability to manage sampling errors and check the validity of assumptions.

Applied Research Methods

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In this class, students learn how to conduct doctoral-level social science inquiry, with an emphasis on major quantitative and qualitative frameworks for data collection, verification, analysis, and presentation. They also examine research traditions like ethnography, case study, phenomenology, and biography.

Criminal Justice Leadership

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Students learn to apply leadership best practices to motivate employees, spur positive change, and maintain a productive organizational culture. They also develop the ability to create effective management policies for high-functioning justice organizations. Additional topics include systems theories and evidence-based decision-making.

The Future of Policing

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This course is usually mandatory for students pursuing a federal law enforcement concentration. Students examine social movements and political shifts that spur change in American policing. By looking at case studies, they learn how law enforcement leaders have (or have not) adapted to these changes.

Restorative Justice

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As an alternative model to traditional criminal justice practices of penalization/incarceration, restorative justice focuses on peace-building and community-oriented mediation practices. Students analyze how local and national restorative justice initiatives boost empathy and accountability for offenders while also helping victims recover from material and emotional losses.

Certifications and/or Licensure

Some careers pursued by individuals with a criminal justice degree require licensure. Even careers that do not require a license may offer opportunities for professional development through certification.

Criminal justice professionals can earn certification or licensure from field-specific organizations. These professional organizations often offer training courses to help candidates prepare for certification and licensure exams.

Readers should research specific career qualifications to determine if their profession requires or recommends licensure. For example, many states require fire inspectors to pass exams that meet standards established by the National Fire Protection Association. Additionally, most states require private investigators to hold a license.

Continuing Education

Some professionals pursue continuing education by returning to school and earning another degree. Earning a graduate degree can position professionals for career advancement and salary increases.

However, earning a graduate degree requires a significant amount of time and money. Fortunately, professionals can explore other continuing education opportunities that require a lower investment. For example, some workers pursue certificate programs offered by postsecondary institutions, which provide additional training for less time and less money.

Criminal justice professionals should also explore online learning options, such as continuing education courses and massive open online courses (MOOCs). Continuing education and MOOCs may function as part of a larger program or as individual courses. Some universities sponsor MOOCs at no cost to the participants, providing select college-level courses for free.

Many professionals choose a mix of additional training and gaining experience. Continuing education is optional for some careers, particularly those without licensure or certification requirements. However, employers tend to prefer candidates with more training and experience for leadership positions.

Next Steps

Many criminal justice professionals benefit from remaining in contact with colleagues and peers. Networking allows workers to develop lasting professional relationships, trade knowledge and ideas, and learn about advancement opportunities.

Professional organizations offer ample networking opportunities, and almost every industry features its own professional organization. Some cater to larger groups, like the Academy of Criminal Justice Sciences, while others focus on particular subsets in the industry, like the American Academy of Forensic Sciences.

Members of professional organizations typically gain access to conferences, scholarly publications, job boards, and professional development resources.

Why Earn Your Criminal Justice Degree Online?

Prospective students often find that earning a criminal justice degree online provides many advantages over the traditional route of attending a brick-and-mortar institution. These benefits include improved accessibility and flexibility, the ability to attend schools outside of a student's geographical area, and opportunities to connect and network with a diverse body of classmates and faculty from around the world.

  • Accessibility:

    Many online criminal justice programs allow students to access lectures and course materials from anywhere and at any time. This freedom makes earning a degree possible for learners who have busy schedules with work and/or family obligations.

  • Flexibility:

    Students who choose to earn a criminal justice degree online may be able to select from multiple program start dates throughout the year. This flexibility contrasts with on-campus learning environments, many of which use stricter term schedules.

  • School Options:

    Students in online criminal justice programs have the option of attending schools across the country. Learners in on-campus programs are limited by their ability to relocate, whereas online students can attend programs outside of their immediate geographic vicinity.

  • Diversity:

    Individuals pursuing an online criminal justice degree come from many different backgrounds and hail from across the country and around the world. The freedom to select from a variety of online programs enables students to network with classmates with different ideas and perspectives.

  • Technology:

    Technological advancements have improved the quality and ease of online interactions. These advancements allow students earning their criminal justice degree online to more readily collaborate with their classmates and professors. Distance learners may participate in forum discussions and virtual meetings.

  • Frequently Asked Questions

    Is criminal justice a good career?

    Earning a criminal justice degree can lead to a career as a police officer, lawyer, or forensic scientist. Some of these careers require advanced degrees and specialized training, while others do not. Professionals can find criminal justice careers all across the country, although job outlook and salary potential differ from state to state.

    How do I start a career in criminal justice?

    Some criminal justice careers, like security guard, do not require any advanced education. Candidates can apply for positions like these with a high school diploma or GED certificate. However, to prepare for many careers, readers should find a college with an on-campus or online criminal justice program.

    What are the highest-paying jobs in criminal justice?

    A postsecondary degree provides three essential advantages when preparing for a sustainability career. It imparts vital and transferable skills that all professionals need, conveys the latest sustainability knowledge and best practices, and qualifies workers for high-paying jobs.

    Which environmental degree is best?

    A worker's earning potential varies depending on their location, experience, and education level. According to the BLS, emergency management directors earned a median annual salary of $74,590 in 2019, while the median wages for forensic science technicians were about $60,000 a year.

    Is a criminal justice degree worth it?

    A criminal justice degree may lead to many careers in the industry. Additionally, a bachelor's degree can act as a stepping stone to a graduate degree, which can lead to advancement, greater pay, and more job responsibilities.

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