Earning a Master’s in Law Enforcement Online

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An online master's degree in law enforcement offers a variety of career opportunities. In addition to supervisory and specialized roles in criminal justice administration, an advanced degree may qualify you to take entry-level teaching positions at colleges and universities.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), postsecondary criminal justice teachers earned a median salary of $61,900 in 2018, nearly $24,000 more than the national median for all occupations. In addition, the BLS projects employment for criminal justice lecturers and instructors to increase by 12% through 2026, significantly faster than the national average.

Student Profile: Who Earns an Online Master’s Degree in Law Enforcement?

Some students earn an online master's in law enforcement directly after graduating from college. These students usually plan to pursue careers in academia and may earn their master's degree to help gain admission into a doctoral program in law enforcement.

Other students may enter a master's program after working for several years as a police officer or detective. An advanced degree helps these law enforcement professionals qualify for executive positions, such as police chief or director of an FBI field office.

Why Get a Master’s Degree in Law Enforcement?

Pursuing Specialization

Master's programs in law enforcement prepare students for highly specialized roles. For example, an aspiring counterterrorism specialist may take graduate-level coursework in areas like interrogation and international relations, while a student planning to work for the Drug Enforcement Administration may take classes on border security and addiction treatment research. Some programs allow students to design their own unique course of study.

Career Advancement Opportunities

Few roles in criminal justice administration require an advanced degree, but a master's can give you a competitive edge over other candidates for certain positions, especially leadership roles and jobs at federal law enforcement agencies. A master's in law enforcement may also improve your earning potential. According to Georgetown University's Center on Education and the Workforce, criminal justice professionals with a graduate degree earn a median salary of approximately $70,000, while those with just a bachelor's earn $54,000 per year.

Online Learning Technology

Online education gives students technological skills that can benefit them throughout their law enforcement career. For example, a federal agent coordinating with investigators across the country can use the same distance collaboration tools that allow online students to share ideas and comment on one another's work. The head of a large police department may also use online tools to train officers on new policing techniques or institutional regulations.

Prerequisites for Online Law Enforcement Programs

Prerequisites for online law enforcement master's programs vary by school, but you can read about common admission requirements below. Make sure to contact your school's admissions office for specific information.

    • Work Experience: Given that many master's programs in law enforcement cater to students hoping to work in academia, the majority do not require professional experience to apply. Still, prior service in criminal justice, even as a volunteer or intern, strengthens your application.
    • Exams and Test Scores: An increasing number of online law enforcement programs do not require applicants to take an entrance exam. Those that do typically ask prospective students to share results from the Graduate Record Examination (GRE). If you score lower than 150 on either section of the GRE, you should consider retaking the test.
    • Coursework: Though typically not a requirement, some law enforcement master's programs may prefer to admit students who completed coursework in a related field. This coursework may include criminal justice, political science, or public administration. Applicants can often earn prerequisite coursework credit for professional experience.
    • Recommendations: Plan to submit up to three letters of recommendation with your application. For research-oriented programs, identify recommenders who can speak to your readiness to study at the graduate level. For more practice-oriented programs, request letters from former employers or volunteer leaders.
    • Essays: Graduate schools often ask prospective students to submit a statement outlining their personal and professional goals. You may use this statement to highlight your academic and work accomplishments or provide context to any weaknesses in your application, such as a low GPA. Make sure to also explain why you chose that school's program.
    • Interviews: Most online law enforcement master's programs do not require applicants to participate in an interview. Instead, admissions officers rely on your transcripts, test scores, letters of recommendation, and personal statement to make their decision. If requested, however, consider participating in a mock interview with a friend or colleague to prepare.
    • International Students: International students must meet the same admission requirements as students who earned their bachelor's degree in the United States. They may also need to demonstrate English proficiency through an exam like the Test of English as a Foreign Language. Check with your school's registrar to confirm that it recognizes the accreditation of any degrees earned from a foreign college or university.

How Much Can I Make with a Master’s Degree in Law Enforcement?

According to the BLS, police and detectives earned a median salary of $63,380 in 2018. The highest 10% of earners, typically those with the most education and several years of service in supervisory roles, earned more than $106,090.

Earning a master's degree may qualify you for teaching positions at some community colleges and technical schools. It also prepares you for doctoral study, opening up the possibility of tenure-track positions in academia. The BLS reports that postsecondary teachers specializing in criminal justice earned a median salary of $61,900 in 2018.

Traditional Careers for Master's in Law Enforcement Graduates

Careers Stats Description

Police and Detective

Median Salary: $63,380

Job Growth: 7%

Police and detectives investigate crime, enforce the law, and provide emergency services to communities. Law enforcement officials may specialize in a particular area, like protecting wildlife as a game warden. You can qualify for almost any role in this field with just a bachelor's, but a master's degree gives you a competitive edge in the job market.

Private Detective and Investigator

Median Salary: $50,090

Job Growth: 11%

Private detectives and investigators search for information on behalf of private clients. A private detective may try to find a missing person, investigate a potential employee's background, or collect evidence for use in a divorce proceeding. Private investigators usually work in close collaboration with police, though they lack the same authority to execute search warrants and make arrests.

Probation Officer and Correctional Treatment Specialist

Median Salary: $53,020

Job Growth: 6%

Probation officers and correctional treatment specialists support the rehabilitation of individuals convicted of crimes. They may work with parolees to create a post-release employment or education plan, connect clients with mental health services, or ensure that probationers meet the treatment and community service requirements set by a judge.

Postsecondary Teacher, Criminal Justice

Median Salary: $61,900

Job Growth: 12%

Postsecondary teachers specializing in criminal justice teach students at colleges, universities, and trade schools. They may also conduct research, serve as academic advisers, or perform administrative tasks for their department. Community colleges may hire lecturers and instructors with just a master's degree, but tenure-track faculty positions usually require a doctorate.

Source: BLS

Nontraditional Careers for Law Enforcement Graduates

The skills and knowledge you develop in a law enforcement master's program prepare you for careers in emergency services and forensic science. Fire inspectors, for example, must complete the same coursework in investigative procedure and crime scene management as police officers and detectives. Students hoping to become forensic science technicians may supplement criminal justice studies with advanced courses in chemistry and biology.

Careers Stats Description

Emergency Management Director

Median Salary: $74,420

Job Growth: 8%

Skills Overlapped: Communication, critical-thinking, and leadership skills

Emergency management directors prepare plans for responding to natural and manmade disasters. They also typically lead the response to these emergencies, coordinating the efforts of police, firefighters, government officials, and volunteers. Emergency directors typically need at least a bachelor's degree, though a master's may better serve those overseeing the emergency operations of large regions.

Fire Inspector

Median Salary: $60,200

Job Growth: 10%

Skills Overlapped: Crime scene analysis, investigatory skills, and interpersonal skills

Fire inspectors ensure that building fire codes are met, investigate and determine the origins of fires and explosions, and assess general fire risk. When dealing with criminal behavior, such as arson, fire inspectors collect evidence, arrest suspects, and testify in legal proceedings.

Fire Fighter

Median Salary: $49,620

Job Growth: 7%

Skills Overlapped: Emergency medical care and decision-making skills

Firefighters respond to a variety of emergencies. Primarily, firefighters put out fires, but they also provide direct medical care, clean up hazardous materials, and rescue victims from unsafe situations. Firefighters must also maintain fire service infrastructure and prepare written reports on emergency incidents.

Forensic Science Technician

Median Salary: $58,230

Job Growth: 17%

Skills Overlapped: Observational, analytical, and critical-thinking skills

Forensic science technicians collect and analyze evidence to aid in the investigation of crimes and prosecution of criminal offenders. A technician may take photographs of a crime scene, conduct DNA tests to narrow a list of suspects, or examine computer data to uncover evidence of fraud.

Source: BLS

Paying for an Online Master’s in Law Enforcement

The cost of an online master's in law enforcement depends on several factors. For example, graduate programs at public schools tend to cost less than those at private institutions, especially if you qualify for in-state tuition. Full-time students may also spend less overall than part-time students.

To search for financial aid opportunities, start by completing the FAFSA. The FAFSA determines your eligibility for state and federal grants, work-study positions, and low-interest or forgivable student loans.

Scholarships for Online Law Enforcement Master's Students

Some private organizations provide scholarships for students majoring in law enforcement or criminal justice, though most programs prioritize funding undergraduate students over those pursuing an advanced degree. The list below includes five scholarships available to law enforcement master's students.

What to Expect from a Master’s-Level Online Law Enforcement Program

The nature and length of an online master's program in law enforcement depends on your personal preferences, academic interests, and professional goals. For example, students who balance their studies with a full-time job often require twice as long to earn their degree. Students who choose a research-intensive program may need to write a thesis, while those in practice-oriented programs may participate in an internship or field experience. Elective classes and formal concentrations also allow you to explore new subjects and prepare for specific jobs in the field.

Major Milestones

  1. Enrollment

    Once admitted, contact your adviser to begin planning a course of study. You should also reach out to your school's financial aid office to learn about grant and scholarship opportunities.

  2. Core Coursework

    Law enforcement master's students often take classes in criminology, investigative procedure, juvenile justice, and the history of criminal justice. These courses lay the foundation for more advanced and specialized studies.

  3. Specialized Coursework

    Many programs feature formal concentrations in areas like corrections, judicial administration, law enforcement intelligence, or victim services. Rather than following a prescribed path, you may also choose electives in subjects such as counterterrorism and environmental crime.

  4. Internship/Field Experience

    An internship allows you to apply learning in a real-world context and grow your professional network. Students typically must complete a certain number of hours at their internship and write a report reflecting on their experience.

  5. Thesis Preparation and Writing

    Students interested in continuing their education at the doctoral level may benefit from writing a thesis. This process requires close collaboration with a faculty adviser and the collection of original research. Students may also draw new findings from existing sets of data.

  6. Capstone

    Law enforcement programs may require students to complete a capstone course prior to graduation. These summative experiences may involve simulations of law enforcement scenarios, examinations of ethical dilemmas in the profession, or completion of a research paper.

Coursework

While coursework in a law enforcement program varies depending on the school and academic track you choose, below are five courses commonly found in these programs.

Criminological Theory

In this course, students examine the major schools of thought on crime causation, including sociological, psychological, and biological theories. Students also analyze how these theories shaped criminal justice historically and how they inform current law enforcement policy and practice.

Administration and Management of Law Enforcement Organizations

This class offers an introduction to the management theories and techniques critical to success as a law enforcement leader. For example, students learn how to negotiate with public sector unions and respond to community allegations of misconduct.

Criminal Justice Policy Development and Analysis

Students in this course explore the lifecycle of the criminal justice policy development process, including agenda setting and program evaluation. The class also covers the role of the media and other external forces that shape policy.

Restorative Justice

Restorative justice refers to the rehabilitation of offenders through reconciliation with their victims and other members of the community. This course covers the history of the restorative justice social movement and the empirical evidence for widespread adoption of the approach.

Applied Research for Law Enforcement Professionals

Rather than focusing on the development of quantitative and qualitative skills for doctoral study, this course gives law enforcement students a practical understanding of how to use research to improve investigations and community service.

Degree Timelines

When pursuing your master's degree in law enforcement online, you may choose to study on a full-time, part-time, or accelerated basis. Each track offers benefits and drawbacks.

Enrollment Status Time to Complete Description

Part-Time

3-4 years, 4-5 credits per semester

Part-time study allows students to balance coursework with a full-time job or family responsibilities. However, part-time students may need up to twice as long as full-time students to earn the same degree. They may also end up paying more tuition than full-time students.

Full-Time

2 years, 8-10 credits per semester

Full-time students typically take three or four classes each semester, earning their master's in two years. While it is difficult to work while studying full time, these students benefit from extracurricular learning activities, such as optional lectures, participation in student groups, and internships. They also typically pay lower tuition than part-time students.

Accelerated

1 year, 10-15 credits per semester

On an accelerated track, students can graduate in as little as one year. To do so, students often transfer in graduate credit or test out of introductory classes. They then advance through the remaining coursework largely at their own pace. While appealing to students who want to finish a program as quickly as possible, accelerated study requires exceptional independence and self-motivation.

Licenses and Certifications

All police officers, detectives, and federal agents must graduate from a training academy before beginning a law enforcement career. These academies usually feature classroom instruction in subjects like constitutional law and civil rights, skill training in areas like firearm use and emergency response, and general physical conditioning.

Law enforcement officials may also seek optional certifications to demonstrate their expertise in a particular field. For example, a certification in homeland security may position a candidate for a role that investigates threats to the nation's infrastructure.

    • Certified Credible Leader: Offered by the International Academy of Public Safety, this credential signals advanced training in the leadership of law enforcement organizations. To qualify, candidates must complete a series of courses on topics like supervision, self-development, and culture change.
    • Criminal Intelligence Certified Analyst: To receive this credential, candidates must possess a certain combination of education and work experience. For example, individuals with a bachelor's degree must work for at least three years in a criminal intelligence role. Applicants must then pass an exam on crime pattern analysis, inference development, and structured analytic techniques.
    • Criminal Investigator Certificate: This certificate program serves crime scene, fire, and other forensic investigators. Certification requires four years of professional experience or a master's degree and one year of relevant experience. Candidates must then complete 240 training hours in subjects like death investigation and bloodstain pattern analysis.

Professional Organizations and Resources

After earning your online master's in law enforcement, joining a professional organization can help you advance your career. These groups often provide online and in-person training opportunities, helping you earn certifications or meet continuing education requirements. They also organize regional and national events, allowing you to grow your network, share best practices, and discover new professional opportunities. Many professional organizations also share research and policy resources on topics like community policing, cybersecurity, and domestic violence.

  • National Sheriffs' Association Chartered in 1940, NSA serves thousands of sheriffs, deputies, and public safety professionals across the country. The association offers professional certifications, hosts research and networking events, and sponsors programs on treating mental health issues and combating the opioid epidemic.
  • International Association of Chiefs of Police IACP works to enhance the safety of communities around the world. The group maintains an extensive resource library for members, with videos, podcasts, scholarly articles, and policy briefs on subjects such as organizational leadership and hate crime investigation.
  • Federal Law Enforcement Officers Association FLEOA represents more than 26,000 federal law enforcement officers at more than 65 federal agencies. It advocates on behalf of members, shares news updates, offers retirement planning services, and provides scholarships to law enforcement students.
  • American Society of Crime Laboratory Directors As a nonprofit professional society of crime lab directors and forensic science managers, ASCLD promotes excellence in its field through leadership and innovation. The group hosts an annual symposium, a leadership academy, and an online job board.
  • National Association of Blacks in Criminal Justice Since 1974, NABCJ has promoted the interests of minority criminal justice professionals. In addition to hosting conferences and a digital resource library, NABCJ offers scholarships to students of color pursuing degrees in law enforcement.
  • Federal Student Aid The U.S. Department of Education provides grants, work-study opportunities, and low-interest student loans. Students who work for a government agency for at least 10 years may qualify for the Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program.
  • National Criminal Justice Reference Service NCJRS, a collaboration of multiple federal justice and law enforcement agencies, is a comprehensive resource for criminal justice students and professionals. Its publications cover topics such as recidivism rates, teenage substance abuse, and forensic field testing.
  • Federal Bureau of Investigation Law Enforcement Resources As part of its mandate to provide leadership and services to law enforcement agencies across the country, the FBI maintains detailed crime statistics and best practice guides. Law enforcement officials may also access the FBI library.
  • Purdue Online Writing Lab Both law enforcement students and professionals must know how to write well to succeed. The Purdue OWL features advice on citing sources, crafting arguments, and writing persuasive cover letters.
  • PoliceOne Alongside articles on crowd control, drug interdiction, and terrorism response, PoliceOne hosts a nationwide career center where recent graduates can review job openings at local, state, and federal law enforcement agencies.