Criminal Justice Majors Guide

Table of Contents

What Does it Mean to Study Criminal Justice?

Criminal justice is a social science that attempts to identify and explain patterns of criminal behavior, as well as analyze society's ability to control crime and delinquency. It studies crime, criminals, and the criminal justice system. Most criminal justice degree programs use an interdisciplinary approach that combines legal studies, sociology, political science, psychology, forensic science, public administration, urban studies, and philosophy. A criminal justice degree focuses on the definitions, causes, and prevention of crime. It also provides an overview of both the legal processes and the treatment and rehabilitation of offenders.

A criminal justice major can expect to learn about the legal and correctional systems in the United States, the philosophy of punishment and deterrence of crimes, and the ethical codes of behavior with which to make use of this knowledge. Graduates of these programs may go on to careers in law enforcement, court administration, victim services, or corrections. Many use the degree as a stepping stone to advance into law school or other graduate programs.

Types of Criminal Justice Degrees

The study of criminal behavior and law enforcement is becoming more sophisticated. Professionals who work in today's police forces, court systems, correctional facilities, and related agencies need a broad social science background to prepare them for the wide range of career opportunities. The increasing complexity of American law and society requires that criminal justice professionals be properly educated before engaging in their sworn duties.

Online degrees in criminal justice can help prepare students for careers in the justice system. Through a variety of online methods, students will learn the theories and practices used in the criminal justice system while completing their studies at their own pace. Those interested in a criminal justice major will find degree levels ranging from certificates to Ph.D. programs. Some degrees may require an internship prior to completion.

Certificate Programs in Criminal Justice

Certificates in criminal justice are designed to provide students with a basic academic background in the field. These programs typically help those already working within the system acquire a better understanding of the theories behind the American criminal justice system. Certificate programs can also be used to earn credits toward a more advanced criminal justice degree. Core courses may include:

  • Criminology
  • Sociology of Law
  • Deviance and Social Order

Associate Degrees in Criminal Justice

Earning an associate degree in criminal justice is often the minimum educational requirement for many entry-level jobs within the system. Graduates holding associate degrees may also be able to command a higher salary than those who have only completed training academies. Since associate degree credits can often be transferred to four-year institutions, these programs may also be used as a precursor to pursuing a bachelor's degree. Select core courses might include:

  • Introduction to Criminal Justice
  • Introduction to the American Legal System
  • Correctional Systems and Theory
  • Delinquency Prevention
  • Criminal Investigation

Bachelor's Degrees in Criminal Justice

Bachelor's degrees in criminal justice provide a well-rounded education for those seeking employment in the criminal justice system. Although not required for all jobs, a bachelor's may help graduates advance their earning potential. Some leadership positions also require applicants to hold at least a bachelor's degree in criminal justice or a related field. Traditional on-campus programs, as well as online degrees in criminal justice, are widely available at this level. Course requirements often include:

  • Policing in America
  • American Courts and Prosecution
  • Research Methods in Criminal Justice
  • Ethical Concerns in Criminal Justice
  • Alternatives to Incarceration

Master's Degrees in Criminal Justice

A criminal justice major who continues their education with a master's degree may prepare themselves for high-level leadership positions within the criminal justice system. Master's degrees are commonly used as a stepping stone for career advancement, and are often pursued by those already working within the criminal justice sphere. These programs typically focus on providing high-level training in research methods, statistical and policy analysis, and program management. Most master's degree programs require completion of a capstone course, as well as a research paper or thesis on criminal justice policies and practices. Examples of potential core courses include:

  • Advanced Research Methods in Criminal Justice
  • Applied Statistics for Criminal Justice
  • Applied Crime Prevention
  • Police Effectiveness
  • Organizational and Structural Aspects of the Criminal Justice System

Ph.D. in Criminal Justice

Doctorate programs in criminal justice train students for careers in postsecondary education, research, or advanced public policy. These programs seek to understand crime and justice while providing solutions for better crime control. Students will also be exposed to advanced research methods and criminal justice theory. In addition to all required coursework, students must complete a dissertation prior to graduation. Core courses may include:

  • Survey of Criminological Theories
  • Data Analysis in Criminology
  • Political Economy of Crime and Justice
  • Victimology
  • Theoretical Criminology

What Can You Do With a College Degree in Criminal Justice?

Criminal justice graduates perform a variety of services for the public. They patrol the streets, investigate crimes, identify suspects, and oversee those who have been convicted of crimes -- all to protect the lives and property of their fellow citizens. Many criminal justice careers are exciting and come with high degrees of responsibility, though at times these jobs can be dangerous and stressful. Most jobs are categorized and overseen at either the local, state, or federal level.

Police and Detectives

The most common place to start in criminal justice is the local, city, or county police force. Although a criminal justice degree is not always required, it is helpful and may increase the potential for promotion. Depending on the size of the department, most police departments have military-style rankings: corporal, sergeant, lieutenant, captain, and chief. Most departments of moderate size also have separate positions for detectives. Larger departments offer even more specialization, with harbor patrols, Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) units, canine patrols, and more.

At the state level, police officers are most often referred to as troopers. While their jobs are similar to city officers, they spend much more time enforcing traffic laws on state and interstate highways. They also are called upon to handle emergency scenes and to assist local departments when needed. Some troopers are assigned to provide protection and security for courts, or to work as investigators. Federal level employees are often referred to as "agents."

  • Minimum Educational Requirement: Educational requirements vary by locality and state. Most require either a high school diploma or college degree. Additionally, graduating from a police training academy and undergoing on-the-job training is typically required. For federal agents, completion of rigorous training through the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center is almost always a prerequisite to employment.
  • Special Certifications or Licensures: Police and detectives are usually granted authority by the local, state, or federal jurisdiction under which they serve.

Correctional Officers and Bailiffs

State and federal governments operate court systems that provide many other career opportunities for criminal justice majors, including employment as a bailiff. A bailiff is a sworn law enforcement officer charged with keeping order in the courtroom and protecting those in attendance. Correctional officers work inside jails and prisons. Their duties typically include enforcement of jail rules, inmate supervision, facility inspection, and more.

  • Minimum Educational Requirement: All bailiffs and correctional officers are required to possess at least a high school diploma, although some positions may require completion of a college degree.
  • Special Certifications or Licensures: Completion of a training academy and on-the-job training is usually required.

Probation Officers and Correctional Treatment Specialists

Probation officers and correctional treatment specialists are tasked with monitoring criminal offenders and assisting in their rehabilitation so they do not commit more crimes. Duties often include meeting with probationers in person, evaluating rehabilitation tactics, drug testing probationers, maintaining case files and reports, and providing probationers with employment resources.

  • Minimum Educational Requirements: Probation officers and correctional treatment specialists usually need a bachelor's degree. Successful completion of training programs is typically required by the state.
  • Special Certifications or Licensures: After completing state or federally sponsored training programs, probation officers and correctional treatment specialists are usually required to pass a certification exam. A valid driver's license, as well as the passing of both a drug test and background check, is also required.

Security Guards and Gaming Surveillance Officers

In private security, organizations contract individuals or companies to protect property and prevent losses of all types. Some of the most common groups that hire private security are amusement parks, malls, colleges, hospitals, country clubs, and many different retail and industrial clients. Casinos and other gaming institutions also hire security and surveillance officers.

  • Minimum Educational Requirements: A high school diploma is typically required for security guard and gaming surveillance officer positions. Experience using video surveillance may also be required.
  • Special Certifications or Licensures: Certification and licensure requirements vary by state, although most states do require some type of registration. Guards who carry firearms must be legally registered to do so.

Criminal Justice Associations and Organizations

Graduates with a criminal justice degree have the option to join any number of associations and organizations for career support and advancement. Some act as fraternal organizations while others work to advance the interests of those in the law enforcement and criminal justice community. Here are a few:


  1. Correctional Officers and Bailiffs, Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2016-17 Edition, Bureau of Labor Statistics, http://www.bls.gov/ooh/protective-service/correctional-officers.htm
  2. Police and Detectives, Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2016-17 Edition, Bureau of Labor Statistics, http://www.bls.gov/ooh/protective-service/police-and-detectives.htm
  3. Probation Officers and Correctional Treatment Specialists, Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2016-17 Edition, Bureau of Labor Statistics, http://www.bls.gov/ooh/community-and-social-service/probation-officers-and-correctional-treatment-specialists.htm
  4. Security Guards and Gaming Surveillance Officers, Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2016-17 Edition, Bureau of Labor Statistics, http://www.bls.gov/ooh/protective-service/security-guards.htm

Pursue your Criminal Justice Major today…

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