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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. This area of study covers 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 program usually focuses on the definitions, causes, and prevention of crime, as well as the treatment and rehabilitation of offenders.

A criminal justice major can expect to learn about the legal and correctional systems in the country, 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 enjoy careers in law enforcement, court administration, victim services, or corrections. Many use the degree as a first step to advance into law school or other graduate programs.

What are the Types of Criminal Justice Degrees and Specialties?

The study of criminal behavior and law enforcement is becoming more sophisticated as technology improves. Beyond changes due to technology, the increasing complexity of American law and society requires that criminal justice professionals be properly educated before engaging in their sworn duties. As a result, professionals working in our police forces, court systems, correctional facilities and related agencies need a broad social science background.

Online degree programs for criminal justice can help students 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 can find degree levels ranging from certificates to Ph.D. programs. Some programs may require an internship prior to completion.

Keep in mind that policework isn't the only career path you can pursue with a criminal justice associates degree, criminal justice bachelors degree, or even a more advanced degree in this field. You could also use your degree to become a corrections officer, or even to learn how to investigate crime scenes like on your favorite television crime drama. A degree in criminal justice could also be the first step toward a career in the FBI or forensic science. Of course, where you end up with your degree depends a lot on the level of education you complete in this field.

Certificate Programs in Criminal Justice

Criminal justice certificates are designed to give students a fast track into this important field of study. These programs typically help students who are already working within the American criminal justice system acquire a better understanding of the theories that inform police criminal justice policy.

Factors prospective students should consider

In some cases, a criminal justice certificate program can be counted as credit toward a more advanced degree in this field.

Type of courses and clinical experiences offered

Courses you can expect to take during this program include criminal law, policing, corrections, and ethics in criminal justice, among others.

Skills students can learn

Not only can you learn the theory behind common police practice and criminal justice operations, but you can learn how to write a police or corrections report and learn about the most common crimes you'll likely deal with in this field.

Jobs related to this degree

The certificate program can help entry-level workers get their first jobs in the field such as a bailiff, correction facility officer or a security guard.

Associates Degrees in Criminal Justice

Graduates holding an associate degree may be able to command a higher salary, and you can use this degree as a stepping-stone toward a four-year degree in criminal justice or a related field.

Factors prospective students should consider

Earning an associate degree in this field may help open the door to more potential jobs since this is often the minimum educational requirement for criminal justice.

Type of courses and clinical experiences offered

Courses you can expect to take in an associate degree program include criminal law, criminal procedure, criminal investigation, social impact of technology, and more.

Skills students can learn

You may learn how to write policy reports, understand the ethical considerations of criminal justice work, and find out how to apply critical thinking to the complicated world of corrections and law.

Jobs related to this degree level

Fields you may find work in after this program include security and gaming surveillance, corrections, probation officer or police officer.

Bachelor's Degrees in Criminal Justice

A criminal justice bachelor degree can provide a well-rounded education that can lead to higher pay and more advancement within the field of criminal justice. You should note that many leadership positions in this field require a four-year degree, so pursuing one can give you an edge over other applicants no matter which criminal justice career you apply for.

Type of courses and clinical experience offered

Courses you can expect to take include criminal procedure, introduction to criminal organizations, cultural diversity in criminal justice, introduction to court systems, and introduction to corrections.

Skills students can learn

During this program, you may learn how to investigate crimes, use critical thinking to get to the bottom of complex issues, and understand the administrative components of criminal justice careers.

Jobs related to this degree level

Potential career opportunities you may find after earning the bachelor's degree include arbitrator, mediator, or conciliator, correctional treatment specialist and forensic science technician.

Master's Degrees in Criminal Justice

Master's degrees in criminal justice are commonly pursued in order to advance one's career. These programs focus on high-level, upper-division education in research methods, statistical and policy analysis, and program management.

Type of courses and clinical experience offered

Courses you can expect to take in these programs include cybersecurity, forensic psychology, law enforcement management, and public administration.

Skills students can learn

Not only can you learn the theory behind advanced criminal justice strategies, but you also tend to learn how to manage various departments within criminal justice, including their legal requirements. You'll also learn how to analyze policy and approach criminal justice from a public relations perspective.

Jobs related to this degree level

Fields you may find work in after this certificate program include homeland security, police administration or social services. Potential occupations are intelligence analyst, operations officer, police chief, or profiler.

Ph.D. in Criminal Justice

Doctorate programs in criminal justice mostly focus on training students for a career in postsecondary education or advanced public policy. These programs help students understand crime and justice, then put these concepts together to discover new solutions for better crime control. You may be introduced to advanced research methods and criminal justice theory, although you may be able to pick a specialty in your Ph.D. program.

Factors prospective students should consider

Doctoral students typically have to complete a dissertation based on their original research after passing a set of qualifying examinations. They then have to defend their dissertation to a panel of subject experts.

Types of courses and clinical experiences offered

Types of courses you should expect to take in a Ph.D. program include homeland security policy and administration, public management, justice administration, and more. Also note that your curriculum may vary depending on whether you have already earned a master's degree.

Jobs related to this degree

Potential occupations after earning a Ph.D. in criminal justice are bureau chief, government contractor, intelligence analyst, research consultant, university professor.

Online or Campus-Based Criminal Justice Programs?

If you are hoping to earn your criminal justice degree but constantly find yourself short on time, you'll be glad to know that more colleges with criminal justice majors are offering degrees online. You can frequently pursue part of your criminal justice degree — or even your entire degree — from the comfort of your home thanks to new technology such as secure learning portals, message boards, and online chat and webinars with college professors.

Note that, with many criminal justice degrees, the coursework is the same whether you learn on a physical campus or opt to complete your degree online. However, distance education with an online criminal justice degree is often more convenient since you can complete your degree from home, and often at any time of your choosing. This makes earning an online criminal justice degree a lot more convenient — especially if you need to continue working part-time or full-time.

Financial Aid for Criminal Justice Students

If you want to access financial aid in order to earn a criminal justice degree, your first step is filling out a FAFSA form, or a Free Application for Federal Student Aid. This form can help you and any schools you consider figure out if you're eligible for various types of aid, and if so, how much.

You can also apply for scholarships, including those that are specifically geared to the criminal justice major. Consider the Captain James J. Regan Memorial Scholarship, for example, which offers up to $500 for applicants pursuing a law enforcement or criminal justice major. Make sure to search for scholarships, grants, and other types of aid that may be available to you.

What Can You Do With a Criminal Justice Degree?

Graduating from an online criminal justice program can allow you to follow a career path that meets your interests. The following table, using data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) outlines the various occupations you may have along with their average wages, the employment outlook and projected job openings.

CareerTotal EmploymentAnnual Mean Wage
Correctional Officers and Jailers423,050$50,130
Detectives and Criminal Investigators105,620$86,030
Gambling Surveillance Officers and Gambling Investigators10,280$38,030
Police and Sheriff's Patrol Officers665,280$67,600
Probation Officers and Correctional Treatment Specialists88,120$59,910
Security Guards1,126,370$33,030
2019 Occupational Employment Statistics and 2018-28 Employment Projections, Bureau of Labor Statistics,

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, 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 may also be 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

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 helping probationers to find 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:

Article Sources
Article Sources


  1. Ashworth College, Criminal Justice Degrees. Accessed January 22, 2020.
  2. Bachelor of Science in Criminal Justice Administration, University of Phoenix. Accessed January 22, 2020.!7696!3!411722096818!e!!g!!criminal%20justice%20bachelor%20degree&channel=srch&mktg_prog=&keyword=criminal%20justice%20bachelor%20degree&user2=&pvp_campaign=&provider=google&gclid=EAIaIQobChMI6JSms_aX5wIVgYvICh2NaAiBEAAYBCAAEgKBnPD_BwE
  3. Master of Science in Criminal Justice, Liberty University. Accessed January 22, 2020.
  4. Ph.D. in Criminal Justice, Walden University. Accessed on January 22, 2020.
  5. Police and Detectives, Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2018-28, Bureau of Labor Statistics. Accessed January 22, 2020.
  6. Security Guards and Gaming Surveillance Officers, Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2018-28, Bureau of Labor Statistics. Accessed January 22, 2020.
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