Criminal Justice Careers

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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. is an advertising-supported site. Featured or trusted partner programs and all school search, finder, or match results are for schools that compensate us. This compensation does not influence our school rankings, resource guides, or other editorially-independent information published on this site.

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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.

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.


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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.


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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

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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

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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

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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

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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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

Frequently Asked Questions

Is criminal justice a good career?

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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?

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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?

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Which environmental degree is best?

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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?

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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.

Read More About Criminal Justice on BestColleges is an advertising-supported site. Featured or trusted partner programs and all school search, finder, or match results are for schools that compensate us. This compensation does not influence our school rankings, resource guides, or other editorially-independent information published on this site.

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