Ultimate Guide to Criminal Justice Degrees and Careers

Criminal Justice Degrees and Careers

Admission Criteria and Requirements for a Criminal Justice Degree

A criminal justice degree prepares students for a wide range of careers. The discipline is highly versatile. Completion of a degree in criminal justice may lead to an FBI job, law school, or a career as a police officer. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports about between three and four million individuals employed in criminal justice careers. The large pool of people working in criminal justice hold various degrees, including those listed below.

Bachelor’s Degree

Graduates of bachelor’s degree criminal justice programs may choose to work as detectives, forensic technicians, or police officers. The average completion time of a bachelor’s in criminal justice is four years, though accelerated and online options are available. Most programs consist of 120 credit-hours and cover topics appropriate to criminal justice, ethics, and the law. Degree lengths vary by program and completion pathway. Some online programs take only two years with transfer credit to complete, while others require four years of traditional schooling.

Bachelor’s in criminal justice programs cover a wide range of topics applicable to the field and discipline. Typical courses cover topics like criminology, introduction to the American criminal justice system, ethical dilemmas in criminal justice and law, forensic science, and public affairs. In ethics courses, students learn about ethical dilemmas facing correctional practices and law enforcement. Ethical implications are addressed and emphasized.

In addition to entering careers in the field, a bachelor’s in criminal justice can serve as preparation for law school and graduate degree programs in criminal justice. Earning a bachelor’s from a reputable and accredited college or university is important for entry into the field or graduate school.

Master’s Degree

Earning a master’s in criminal justice degree can fast-track advancement or make a job applicant more competitive. The completion of a master’s degree in this discipline can help law enforcement agents earn a promotion, help improve critical thinking skills in criminal justice careers, or serve as an entry point to a highly competitive federal agency position.

Criminal justice master’s degree programs take approximately one to two years to complete. Traditional programs require two years, while online and accelerated programs require less time.

In master’s in criminal justice programs, students cover topics like criminal justice administration, criminology, juvenile delinquency, and research methods in criminal justice. The culmination of the graduate degree involves completion of a capstone project or thesis. Graduates of a master’s in criminal justice may go on to pursue roles as emergency management directors, forensic psychologists, information security analysts, or probation officers.

Some master’s in criminal justice programs offer specializations that allow students to tailor their graduate degree toward areas of interest or career goals. Common specializations found in graduate criminal justice programs include criminology, homeland security, and law enforcement. Homeland security concentrations or specializations, for example, prepare students to effectively respond to national security threats, including natural disasters and terrorism.

Ph.D. or Doctoral Degree

Doctoral degree in criminal justice prepare students for occupational advancement into upper management tiers. Earning a doctorate also prepares students with an advanced understanding of research methods used to evaluate and create criminal justice policy. Graduates of Ph.D. programs go on to serve as faculty in four-year institutions, teaching criminal justice courses and conducting research.

Individuals with doctoral degrees in criminal justice have secured roles as forensic scientists, police chiefs and lieutenants, private investigators, and professors of criminal justice. To apply to a doctoral program, candidates must have completed all undergraduate degree requirements. They should hold a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice, have some level of professional work experience, have an undergraduate GPA of at least 3.0, and complete a competitive job application that includes test scores and letters of recommendation.

Criminal Justice Degrees and Careers

In-Demand Criminal Justice Majors

Many different career pathways in criminal justice exist. Majors may include disciplines outside criminal justice. However, the disciplines are still closely related to the criminal justice field. Below are several in-demand majors for those interested in criminal justice careers.


Often showcased in media and film, criminologists are critical thinkers working in a fast-growing field. A major in criminology emphasizes both biological and social reasons that drive criminality. Students receive a broad education that covers various aspects of criminal justice, ethics, natural sciences, social sciences, and public policy.

Information Security

As more businesses and organizations operate fully online, information security has become a fast-growing field. Information security analysts plan and carry out security measures designed to protect a company’s computer networks. To become one, you’ll need a bachelor’s degree in information security or a closely related discipline. The major covers topics like ethics and laws in the computer industry, forensic principles and information security, and response to security breaches.


A major in pre-law is the first step to becoming an attorney. Pre-law programs offer a broad scope of courses that cover all branches of law. However, some programs allow students to zero in on an area of interest, such as criminal, domestic and family, or real estate law. If you are unsure about a specialization, you can wait until you enter law school to pursue an interest.

Law Enforcement

When vetting law enforcement degrees, one should only consider accredited institutions. Accreditation shows the program meets the standards set forth by the U.S. Department of Education. Some programs offer accreditation from the Commission on Accreditation for Law Enforcement Agencies (CALEA). These programs are guaranteed to offer courses applicable to the field. Courses you might encounter cover topics like community policing and diversity, constitutional law and civil process of criminal procedures, introduction to criminal justice, and police report writing.

Legal Studies/Paralegal

The best paralegal programs are approved by the American Bar Association. Their classes are different than law school classes in that they are taught using conventional lecture style rather than the Socratic Method. Required courses cover an overview of law, legal research, legal writing, and litigation.

Earnings Potential for Criminal Justice Careers

According to a recently published Indeed Career Guide, high-paying criminal justice careers vary by occupation. Senior attorneys earn a national average pay of nearly $97,000 per year, while forensic accountants earn almost $80,000 per year. Compiling data from Indeed and the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) helped determine the earnings potential for several criminal justice careers. Our findings for various occupations are listed below.

Forensic Accountant

BLS reports the median annual wage for accountants and auditors as $73,560. The highest 10% of earners made over $128,000 per year. The finance and insurance industries were the highest-paying industries, according to BLS. Government agencies paid their accountants an average of $72,260.


BLS reports the median annual wage for administrative law judges, adjudicators, and hearing officers as approximately $97,500. Judges and magistrates earned over $141,000. High-paying industries for these roles include federal government, state government, and local government.

Police Officer

BLS reports that the median annual wage for police officers is approximately $67,000. The highest 10% of earners in this occupation made over $113,000 per year. Top-paying industries for this role include federal government, state government, and local government. Police working for the federal government earn approximately $92,000 in median annual wages, while state government employees in this occupation earn about $70,000, on average. Local government police officers, according to BLS, earn $65,850 in median annual wages.

Private Detective and Investigator

The median annual wage for private detectives and investigators, according to BLS, is approximately $53,000. Those working in finance and insurance earn a higher average of $63,190, while those working in armored car services earn about $48,000 per year. Government agencies pay approximately $61,000 per year. The highest 10% of earners in this occupation made over $96,000 annually.

Criminal Justice Degrees and Careers

Job Outlook for Criminal Justice Careers

Since criminal justice is a vast field, the job outlook, like the earnings potential, varies by occupation. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), for example, employment of police officers and detectives is projected to grow five percent over the next eight years. The five percent job growth is favorable and faster than the average for all occupations. As the need for public safety rises, new job openings for officers and agents should arise. However, demand will vary by geographic location.

Other occupations that anticipate a favorable job outlook over the next eight years include emergency management directors, forensic science technicians, probation officers, and correctional treatment specialists. BLS reports that emergency management directors should anticipate a four percent job growth over the next several years. Probation officers should also anticipate a four percent job growth. However, forensic science technicians will see a 14% projected employment growth, which is one of the most favorable job outlooks in the field. However, the field is small, and the rapid growth only accounts for about 2,400 new jobs over the next decade.

Qualities Necessary for Criminal Justice Careers

Communication skills
Individuals working in criminal justice occupations, such as detectives, lawyers, or police must be able to speak with individuals and to express important details in writing about incidences and problems. Being able to communicate effectively is an important aspect of these jobs. Both verbal and writing skills are necessary.

Working in criminal justice requires empathy. Any roles that require interaction with the public call for empathy. From bailiffs to police officers, understanding the different perspectives of a variety of people leads to a successful working environment. Being sensitive to various populations is important for a career in criminal justice.

Leadership skills
In criminal justice, leadership skills are essential. Many of these roles require visibility with the public. Police officers and emergency workers are looked to by the public for help during times of emergency. Leadership skills help one navigate these roles effectively and successfully.

From detectives to lawyers, being able to anticipate people’s reactions and understand why they acted a certain way is critical to the career. Acute perception leads to success in both solving cases and winning court proceedings.

Physical stamina and strength
Having good stamina and strength is particularly important for detectives, field agents, first responders, and police officers. These occupations require individuals to keep up with the physical rigors of the job. Many of these roles require individuals to pass tests to ensure they are physically strong enough to do the job.

Strong judgment
Good judgment skills in areas of criminal justice are important for solving problems associated with crimes and other issues faced. Detectives, for example, must make good judgment calls to determine the best way to solve problems. Being able to think clearly under pressure is also important in this field.

Types of Careers in Criminal Justice

Criminal justice, as defined by the Cornell School of Law, is the institutions, laws, policies, and procedures at work surrounding a crime. People working in this field play an integral role in enforcing justice. The discipline is versatile. It not only emphasizes law and crime, but teaches individuals how to critically think, communicate effectively, research, and apply statistical understanding. Popular career paths in criminal justice are listed below.

Correctional Officers

Federal agencies employing correctional officers require some college education or related work experience from applicants to a job opening in this role. Correctional officers are responsible for overseeing individuals who have been arrested, are awaiting trial, or have been sentenced to serve time in prison or jail. Extensive on-the-job training is required. Also, a minimum of a high school diploma or associate’s degree may be required in some states. Similar to police officers, correctional officers go through a training academy prior to receiving a work assignment. Physical, weapons, and other training must be completed. The median annual wage for correctional officers, according to BLS, is $47,410.

Criminal Justice Degrees and Careers

Emergency Management Directors

To work as an emergency management director, one must hold a bachelor’s degree and have multiple years of work experience in disaster planning, emergency response, and/or public administration. The leadership role of this job requires adequate training and experience during times of stress. As a result, directors must have a four-year degree and many years of work experience. Some states require certification within a certain timeframe of being hired. Certifications must be renewed after a particular number of years. BLS reports the median annual wage for emergency management directors is $76,250. However, this number varies by industry. For example, professional and scientific or technical services are among the highest-paying industries for this job. The reported median annual wage for emergency management directors is $106,570.

Fire Inspectors

Fire inspectors are responsible for examining buildings for fire hazards and ensuring federal, local, and state fire codes are met. They work both in offices and in the field, often performing tasks during traditional office hours. To become a fire inspector, one must hold a high school diploma or its equivalent and complete on-the-job training in both investigation and inspection. Some employers prefer an associate’s or bachelor’s degree with majors in engineering, fire science, or another closely related discipline. Fire prevention specialists and forest fire inspectors typically need only a high school diploma. BLS reports the median annual wage for fire inspectors is over $64,000. Some industries, such as manufacturing, pay more. In fact, fire inspectors working in manufacturing organizations earn a median annual wage of $78,900.

Forensic Accountant

Forensic accountants examine data to determine money trails. In the case of missing monies, the role of a forensic accountant is to recover it. Forensic accountants may work for government agencies, such as the FBI or CIA, and aid in the investigation of criminal cases. They often present their findings during hearings as they testify as expert witnesses. Typical forensic accountant positions require an earned bachelor’s degree in criminal justice or forensic accounting. Relevant work experience, in addition to education, may also be required. Earnings for forensic accountants, according to the most recent data published by BLS, are $70,500.

Forensic Science Technicians

A bachelor’s degree is required to work as a forensic science technician. In fact, most individuals in this role hold bachelor’s degrees in biology, chemistry, or forensic science. Some have earned degrees in criminal justice with minors in forensic science or another STEM discipline. In addition to education, on-the-job training is often required. Forensic science technicians help criminal investigations by collecting and analyzing evidence. They work in laboratories during regular business hours. However, some cases call for unusual work hours and extensive travel. According to BLS, the median annual wage for this occupation is $60,590, with the highest 10 percent of earners in this role making in excess of $100,000 per year.

Information Security Analyst

Information security analysts carry out security measures that protect an organization’s computer networks. While a bachelor’s degree in a computer-related discipline is required, some information security analysts offer a background in criminal justice through minors, certificates, or second bachelor’s degrees. Several information security certifications are available that improve the job prospects for individuals seeking new career pathways. The median annual wage for information security analysts is $103,590, according to the most recent information published by BLS.

Criminal Justice Degrees and Careers

Judges and Hearing Officers

Judges and hearing officers typically hold law degrees and have work experience as lawyers. However, some positions, such as administrative law judges, hearing officers, and magistrate roles require only a bachelor’s degree. Judges and hearing officers are responsible for the court and oversee its legal proceedings. The median annual wage for judges, according to BLS, is approximately $142,000. Administrative law judges and hearing officers earn a median annual wage of approximately $97,500.


To become a lawyer, one must earn a law degree and pass a state’s written bar examination. A lawyer advises clients, such as businesses or individuals, on legal issues and disputes. Most lawyers work in corporate legal environments or private offices. They work full-time and often more than 40 hours per week. According to BLS, the median annual wage for lawyers is $126,930. Pay varies by industry and geographic location. For example, lawyers working with the federal government earned a median annual wage of $152,220, as of May 2020.

Paralegals and Legal Assistants

To work as a paralegal or legal assistant, one must hold an associate’s degree or a certificate in paralegal studies. Some employers may ask paralegal or legal assistant applicants to hold a bachelor’s degree, while others demand specialized, on-the-job training. Paralegals and legal assistants often work more than the traditional full-time 40 hours per week. They can be found in all types of organizations, but are common in corporate legal departments, government agencies, and law firms. BLS reports that the median annual wage for paralegals and legal assistants is $52,920.

Police Officers and Detectives

Police officers and detectives work physically demanding and stressful jobs. Most graduate from an agency’s training academy before completing on-the-job training. However, some agencies are starting to require an associate’s degree, at minimum, to qualify for the application process. Candidates must pass basic training with the police academy, and they must be at least 21 years old and a U.S. citizen. The annual median wage of police officers and detectives, as reported by BLS, is just over $67,000 per year.

Security Guards

To work as a security guard, protecting property from illegal activity, a high school diploma or its equivalent is needed. Some jobs may ask for additional educational requirements, such as an associate’s degree, but most want on-the-job training. Depending on the job, security guard training may take several weeks. Employer-provided education includes crime prevention, proper communication, and weapons or firearms training. The median annual wage for security guards, as published by BLS, is $31,000. This number may change, depending on the industry. For example, security guards working in government agencies earned about $5,000 more annually.


BDP Staff:
May 2021

This concludes our article providing information about criminal justice degrees and careers.

Brenda Rufener

Julie McCaulley

Carrie Sealey-Morris