The Online Doctorate in Criminal Justice

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A degree in criminal justice offers a huge range of career possibilities. Though many criminal justice careers can be had with a lesser degree, the PhD opens doors to additional options, including the possibilities of research work or teaching, or boosting the degree holder to leadership and managerial roles in criminal justice organizations.

Jumping into the doctorate program isn’t easy – it takes a great deal of thought, planning and guidance. This guidebook provides detailed information as to what students can anticipate in a typical online doctoral program in criminal justice, including its anticipated costs and benefits. This guidebook will also examine an actual online PhD graduate’s experiences and thoughts about their degree, giving aspiring students insight into what life might be like once they have the doctoral degree in hand.

Important Considerations When Researching Online PhD Criminal Justice Programs

Each school offers different advantages, concentrations and other important points that make a difference in the final outcome. Therefore, choosing the right doctoral program requires serious research. For example, there may be a concentration that is of particular interest to a prospective student and only certain schools offer that specialty. Some schools require incoming students to already have a master’s degree, while other schools provide a specific track for students who have completed only their undergraduate degree. Finally, there are tuition and financial aid considerations that can help determine if the PhD pursuit is truly affordable. The next section provides a list of questions to consider when choosing the best school for the online PhD in criminal justice.

1. Does the criminal justice PhD program offer any particular concentrations?

A graduate criminal justice degree allows its holder to enter into many possible career paths. Because of that, schools offering a doctoral degree in criminal justice offer several unique specialties. Depending on the type of work the prospective student would like to do after graduation, deciding on a particular school may depend on what specialty classes the school has available. Specializations include areas such as juvenile justice, corrections, homeland security policy and many more. In some cases, PhD programs are designed to allow students to create their own concentration.

2. How marketable is the school’s PhD degree?

When deciding on which of the various online criminal justice doctoral programs to enroll in, prospective students should consider how marketable the doctoral degree from their chosen school will be after graduation. Does the degree have nationwide appeal or just regional appeal? Are there certain law enforcement, corrections or judicial organizations with a significant number of alumni from a particular school? What is the school’s reputation among those in the criminal justice field? These factors can help decide which school may offer the best career prospects once the doctoral degree has been earned.

3. Is the school accredited?

When deciding upon a school, students should confirm that it has accreditation in good standing, on the national, regional or program levels – accreditation on all three levels is an added bonus. Accreditation ensures the education students receive meets certain standards for educational quality. It is particularly important to confirm accreditation of online programs due to increased potential for diploma mills and other potential scams. Also, keep in mind that some employers may not accept a degree unless it came from an accredited institution.

4. How much will it cost to attend?

The cost to attend is one of the most important factors when deciding which school to apply to. The cost of fees, books and other miscellaneous academic costs must all be considered in addition to tuition costs. Keep in mind that the online doctoral program may also require a certain number of on-campus visits or in-person residencies. If the school location is far from a student’s residence, the travel costs must be considered as well. However, remember that higher education is an investment and any worthwhile investment will require costs upfront that should pay off later.

5. What sort of financial aid packages are available?

Even with high education costs, the availability of financial aid could easily turn an extremely expensive school into a very affordable one. Financial aid could take the form of grants, scholarships, tuition assistance and more. Prospective students with excellent academic records should have ample opportunities to be awarded merit-based scholarships and grants.

Specializations, Career Possibilities & Coursework

One of the most important factors in deciding where a student will end up after graduation is the specialization or concentration focused on while in school. Most schools offering an online PhD in criminal justice have unique concentrations, some of which are exclusive to that particular school. Therefore, choosing a specialty may be the deciding factor that makes one school look more attractive than another. Below is a more detailed look at common concentrations offered at several doctoral degree programs in criminal justice.

Juvenile Justice

This concentration focuses on numerous aspects of the juvenile justice system. Students will learn about juvenile crime prevention, crime research, gang dynamics, influence of peers on juveniles and legal and ethical issues facing the juvenile justice system today. This area of focus can help prepare students for a career that deals with juveniles within the justice and court system, as well as the community and in research fields that focus on juvenile crime.

Policy advisor

Provides guidance and helps create policy on legal and criminal justice issues. A criminal justice policy advisor will be able to collect and analyze crime information and data, identify issues to address and formulate a plan to deal with the issues. The criminal justice policy advisor may work in the public sphere, such as with a district attorney or government office, or in the private sphere, such as with think tanks or lobby groups.

Consultant

Provides advice to various clients on criminal justice and other crime related topics. Clients can include politicians, government agencies, private think tanks and private security companies, among others. Clients seek insight into trends in crime, possible solutions for its reduction as well as raw data on crime and the legal system. Criminal justice consultants are able to provide this information and analysis of crime related data.

Juvenile detention center director

Manages the overall operations of a juvenile detention center. Also provides guidance and community support for crime prevention programs for juveniles. A juvenile detention director will also be involved in establishing policies for the efficient running of a juvenile detention center within applicable states rules, statutes and federal law.

Behavioral Sciences

The psychological and mental health issues facing today’s criminal justice system are explored. Topics such as mental illness, sexual crimes and risk assessment will be studied and discussed. Students engaged in this area of focus can expect to receive a broad background as to the effect psychological trauma and mental illness have on crime, victims, criminals and ways the legal system is set up to handle crime related to mental illness.

Criminologist

Studies human behavior within the context of crime. Criminologists analyze crime from various perspectives, including behavioral, economic, cultural and social. In essence, a criminologist works to understand criminal behavior, often with the goal of preventing it.

Criminal investigator

Ever seen the show CSI: Crime Scene Investigation? A lot of what a criminal investigator does is reflected by that television show, although in a somewhat more dramatic fashion. The job of a criminal investigator entails tasks such as evidence gathering and analysis, preparation of evidence for trial and working with other member of law enforcement (such as police officers, detectives and forensic scientists) to help solve crimes.

Consultant

Provides advice to various clients on criminal justice and other crime related topics. Clients can include politicians, government agencies, private think tanks and private security companies, among others. Clients seek insight into trends in crime, possible solutions for its reduction as well as raw data on crime and the legal system. Criminal justice consultants are able to provide this information and analysis of crime related data.

Organizational Leadership

This concentration focuses on teaching students to effectively lead in a criminal justice organizational setting. Students can expect to learn about management concepts, ethics, policies and conflict resolution principles. Students who specialize in this area will learn to effectively implement best practices and criminal justice strategies in response to changing social, political and economic influences.

Juvenile detention center director

Manages the overall operations of a juvenile detention center. Also provides guidance and community support for crime prevention programs for juveniles. A juvenile detention director will also be involved in establishing policies for the efficient running of a juvenile detention center within applicable states rules, statutes and federal law.

Police chief

Usually the highest ranking law enforcement officer for a municipality and is responsible for leading the local police force. Depending on the size of the municipality, the police chief will oversee the operations of a police department, including overseeing finances, engaging in human resource tasks, assigning officer duties, developing police department goals and overall strategy and consulting with the local community and government.

Homeland Security

Recent domestic crimes and terrorism threats are analyzed in this concentration. Prospective students are taught ways to adequately protect United States citizens without excessive infringement on individual civil rights and freedoms as guaranteed under the law. Graduates will be prepared to enter a profession where homeland security, terrorism issues or threats are expected to be encountered.

Criminologist

Studies human behavior within the context of crime. Criminologists analyze crime from various perspectives, including behavioral, economic, cultural and social. In essence, a criminologist works to understand criminal behavior, often with the goal of preventing it.

Police chief

Usually the highest ranking law enforcement officer for a municipality and is responsible for leading the local police force. Depending on the size of the municipality, the police chief will oversee the operations of a police department, including overseeing finances, engaging in human resource tasks, assigning officer duties, developing police department goals and overall strategy and consulting with the local community and government.

Justice administration

Students will study the nature of crime and the public systems implemented to deal with crime, as well as how both have changed over time. Students will also learn about the theoretical basis of how and why crime takes place. Finally, solutions and methods for dealing with crime will be reviewed.

Policy advisor

Provides guidance and helps create policy on legal and criminal justice issues. A criminal justice policy advisor will be able to collect and analyze crime information and data, identify issues to address and formulate a plan to deal with the issues. The criminal justice policy advisor may work in the public sphere, such as with a district attorney or government office, or in the private sphere, such as with think tanks or lobby groups.

Police chief

Usually the highest ranking law enforcement officer for a municipality and is responsible for leading the local police force. Depending on the size of the municipality, the police chief will oversee the operations of a police department, including overseeing finances, engaging in human resource tasks, assigning officer duties, developing police department goals and overall strategy and consulting with the local community and government.

Criminologist

Studies human behavior within the context of crime. Criminologists analyze crime from various perspectives, including behavioral, economic, cultural and social. In essence, a criminologist works to understand criminal behavior, often with the goal of preventing it.

Law and policy

This concentration is tailored for students who want to go more in-depth into the theory of the law and public policy. Students can expect to analyze important legal concepts and legal cases while at the same time learning how to handle and engage in current public policy issues relating to crime. This area of specialization will provide the legal knowledge necessary for a career in criminal public policy.

Policy advisor

Provides guidance and helps create policy on legal and criminal justice issues. A criminal justice policy advisor will be able to collect and analyze crime information and data, identify issues to address and formulate a plan to deal with the issues. The criminal justice policy advisor may work in the public sphere, such as with a district attorney or government office, or in the private sphere, such as with think tanks or lobby groups.

Instructor

Provides teaching instruction to students on criminal justice topics. A criminal justice instructor can include university faculty (often requiring a PhD degree in order to qualify for the position) to teachers at trade or vocational schools who focus more on teaching technical skills for a particular job in the criminal justice field.

Consultant

Provides advice to various clients on criminal justice and other crime related topics. Clients can include politicians, government agencies, private think tanks and private security companies, among others. Clients seek insight into trends in crime, possible solutions for its reduction as well as raw data on crime and the legal system. Criminal justice consultants are able to provide this information and analysis of crime related data.

Teaching

This specialty will show students how to translate legal and criminal justice knowledge into education on the secondary level. In addition to core courses in criminal justice, students can expect to learn principles such as developmental theory, educational trends and practical teaching methodologies.

Instructor

Provides teaching instruction to students on criminal justice topics. A criminal justice instructor can include university faculty (often requiring a PhD degree in order to qualify for the position) to teachers at trade or vocational schools who focus more on teaching technical skills for a particular job in the criminal justice field.

Criminologist

Studies human behavior within the context of crime. Criminologists analyze crime from various perspectives, including behavioral, economic, cultural and social. In essence, a criminologist works to understand criminal behavior, often with the goal of preventing it.

Policy advisor

Provides guidance and helps create policy on legal and criminal justice issues. A criminal justice policy advisor will be able to collect and analyze crime information and data, identify issues to address and formulate a plan to deal with the issues. The criminal justice policy advisor may work in the public sphere, such as with a district attorney or government office, or in the private sphere, such as with think tanks or lobby groups.

Instructor

Provides teaching instruction to students on criminal justice topics. A criminal justice instructor can include university faculty (often requiring a PhD degree in order to qualify for the position) to teachers at trade or vocational schools who focus more on teaching technical skills for a particular job in the criminal justice field.

Criminal investigator

Ever seen the show CSI: Crime Scene Investigation? A lot of what a criminal investigator does is reflected by that television show, although in a somewhat more dramatic fashion. The job of a criminal investigator entails tasks such as evidence gathering and analysis, preparation of evidence for trial and working with other member of law enforcement (such as police officers, detectives and forensic scientists) to help solve crimes.

Consultant

Provides advice to various clients on criminal justice and other crime related topics. Clients can include politicians, government agencies, private think tanks and private security companies, among others. Clients seek insight into trends in crime, possible solutions for its reduction as well as raw data on crime and the legal system. Criminal justice consultants are able to provide this information and analysis of crime related data.

Juvenile detention center director

Manages the overall operations of a juvenile detention center. Also provides guidance and community support for crime prevention programs for juveniles. A juvenile detention director will also be involved in establishing policies for the efficient running of a juvenile detention center within applicable states rules, statutes and federal law.

Police chief

Usually the highest ranking law enforcement officer for a municipality and is responsible for leading the local police force. Depending on the size of the municipality, the police chief will oversee the operations of a police department, including overseeing finances, engaging in human resource tasks, assigning officer duties, developing police department goals and overall strategy and consulting with the local community and government.

In addition to the opportunity to take electives and other specialized courses, students will take core courses that will teach the same or similar common principles no matter which of the many online criminal justice doctoral programs they graduate from. Below is a list of several classes and descriptions of these types of core courses.

Policy and Analysis in Criminal Justice Systems

This course delves into the current criminal justice system and examines the policy considerations that support why the United States criminal justice system exists in its current form. The history of the U. S. system as well as other types of criminal justice systems around the world are examined to provide a context and basis for the current state of substantive and procedure criminal law in the United States.

Theories of Crime

The social, psychological, cultural, economic and political motivations for crime causation are studied in this course. Criminal theories that try to explain why people commit crime, such as the rational choice theory, strain theory, social learning theory and biological theory are compared and contrasted in order to understand criminological theory today.

Statistics

Provides a comprehensive education into statistics, statistical methods of data analysis and interpretation of statistical data. Students begin with a basic background of statistical concepts such as the normal approximation of data and correlation. Later on, students will engage in a more advanced study in statistics focusing on conceptual understanding of statistical methods. Note that some schools divide this course into the basic and advanced sections.

Research Methodology

The basic concepts of criminal justice research will be investigated in first part of this course. Students will learn to identify a problem, design effective research questions and methods and then obtain an answer to their research query. In the more advanced levels, students will begin their own research project and apply what they have learned to problems in criminal justice. The scientific knowledge and method will be emphasized, with the research project being of sufficient quality to be publishable.

Quantitative Reasoning and Analysis

Underlying mathematical reasoning concepts for quantitative research will be taught in this class. Principles in data and statistical analysis will be used to study quantitative research designs and how they can be applied in criminal justice applications. This class emphasizes the use of statistics to solve problems and interpret data.

Dissertation

This is probably the most involved and important class students will take during their online PhD in criminal justice pursuit. This course consists of many credits (between 12 and 20, depending on the school) where students will first learn the dissertation process and the expectations for their dissertation research and paper. As the course continues, the student will receive feedback on their proposal, research and paper.

Timetable for an Online Criminal Justice PhD

One of the biggest reasons for obtaining an online degree is the flexibility. Therefore, the time to complete the program may vary with the student’s progress rate, especially if they have several transfer credits, already have a master’s degree or take extra time to complete their dissertation. The below section is a rough timeline a student can expect for enrolling and graduating from an online doctoral program in criminal justice.

Year 0

Applying to an online PhD program in criminal justice usually involves having official academic transcripts, a personal statement and letters of recommendation sent to the school’s admissions office. Additionally, many schools require test scores, such as those from the GRE, as well as an interview or personal essay. In order to enhance the application, a prospective student can also send examples of prior research or published work and proof of criminal justice related work experience. While not required, these optional application components can tip the scales in favor of acceptance and possibly even lead to a scholarship award. Finally, make sure everything is turned in by the application deadline. It doesn’t matter how good an application is if it will be automatically rejected for being submitted late.

Year 1

During a student’s first year in their online program, they can expect to take on a more basic level of introductory coursework. Classes concerning criminal law theory and policy, as well as basic statistics, research and quantitative analysis classes will be taken the first part of the academic year. The second part of the academic year will build up on the basic courses as students take advanced statistics, research and quantitative analysis classes. Most students will also have the opportunity to take at least a few specialization courses this first year.

Year 2

The second year of a student’s online criminal justice PhD program will focus on advanced theory coursework, such as program evaluation research and criminal law and policy. Students will also expand on their specialization courses and begin the first steps in the dissertation process by formulating and proposing a thesis. Depending on the school, the student will also take a comprehensive examination at the end of their second year that will conclude most, if not all, of their conventional coursework.

Year 3

By the beginning of year three, a student will have a thesis for their dissertation and will have begun conducting the necessary research. Toward the end of this year, the student will have finished the research and writing and will begin preparing for defending their dissertation. Depending on the programs, defending the dissertation will consist of orally presenting the dissertation research and “defending” it from the questions of the committee to whom it has been presented to, which usually consists of professors in the criminal justice PhD program. A dissertation defense is not only an exercise that tests the student’s ability to demonstrate a solid grasp of the arguments made in the dissertation and data to support those arguments, but also the ability to apply those concepts in hypothetical situations or alternative situations.

For many students, the dissertation process is the easiest part of their PhD program from a technical perspective. But from a practical perspective it is difficult to complete as it requires a tremendous amount of self-discipline and motivation. As a result, the dissertation process sometimes drags on for years before a student finally completes their degree. Because of this, some schools will place a time limit in when the PhD must be completed. For instance, Northcentral University’s PhD in criminal justice must be completed within seven years even though the dissertation process will begin by the student’s third year, at the latest (assuming they are taking a full course load).

Spotlight: Nova Southeastern University Online PhD in Criminal Justice

Nova Southeastern University

Nova Southeastern University is the eighth largest not-for-profit independent school in the United States and one of only 37 universities in the United States that has been awarded Carnegie’s Community Engagement Classification. Nova Southeastern University is accredited by the Commission on Colleges of the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS) and has 18 colleges with over 175 programs, including a fully online doctoral program in criminal justice.

Nova Southeastern University’s doctoral criminal justice program consists of 60 total credits. Of the 60 credits, 33 credits are made up of core courses, 15 credits are made up of specialization courses and the final 12 credits constitute the four dissertation courses. Only students with a master’s degree from a regionally accredited university may enroll in Nova Southeastern University’s online PhD criminal justice program.

Enrolled students have the opportunity to specialize in one or more of the following three concentrations: organizational leadership, behavioral science or juvenile justice.

Interview with a Criminal Justice PhD Graduate

Joanna D.,graduate of an online criminal justice PhD program, answered some of the most common questions one may have when considering undertaking an online criminal justice doctorate degree.

Why did you choose to pursue the doctorate online?

I knew that I wanted to expand my education in order to move into positions of leadership and eventually move into government positions. But I had a full-time job and three kids at home – and I was a single mother. Sitting in a classroom was not an option, but online programs made my higher education possible.

Did the program challenge you?

I had earned my bachelor’s and master’s degrees at a traditional school, so learning how to do all of the coursework online was tough. It took a few courses for me to figure out just how disciplined I had to be – I had to start keeping a calendar of deadlines and planning out my time very carefully. That’s a skill I still use today.

Was the distance learning experience difficult in terms of working with colleagues and mentors?

It was at first! I was accustomed to face-to-face learning, so this was like a whole different world for me. But once I was comfortable with it, I found that distance learning was actually much better for me than in-person was. I liked having the time to think about what I would say or present well-considered questions that obviously had a lot of thought behind them. I learned to better prepare for video and teleconferencing and that was a nice bonus.

How has your degree impacted your life?

Pursing the PhD gave me a new sense of purpose and it showed my kids that hard work does pay off. Today I am in a position that was far out of my reach before the PhD and I am looking into teaching a few classes through distance learning.

Criminal Justice PhD: Is it Worth the Money?

One of the most important questions prospective students ask themselves before enrolling in any educational program is whether it is worth the money. Since an online PhD in criminal justice takes several years to complete and is certainly not free, careful consideration must be undertaken before enrolling. The two most important factors in determining whether the doctoral degree is worth it is the financial cost of the degree and what type of salary a graduate can expect after graduation.

What does an online criminal justice doctoral degree cost?

Tuition is the single most important number when calculating the cost of an online PhD in criminal justice. Most schools charge by the credit hour but have various financial aid and scholarship options available. Some even have discounts if certain conditions are met. For example, Nova Southeastern University will offer a 20 percent discount on tuition if the student’s employer signs a “Memorandum of Understanding,” in which the employer agrees to assist in the marketing efforts of Nova Southeastern University at the employer’s place of business, as well as notify the university of any new employment opportunities within the organization.

To give an idea of tuition costs, Northcentral University’s estimated tuition costs total $61,560 and Walden University’s estimated tuition costs total $43,890. Obviously there is a wide discrepancy between what one school charges versus another that students should take into account when applying. Besides tuition, there are other costs such as books, technology fees, service fees and travel costs (due to certain in-person academic requirements that some programs require).

What can a graduate of an online criminal justice PhD program expect to earn?

There are numerous positions a criminal justice graduate can enter after graduation. The below chart is a brief summary of specific professions and their respective salaries:

Job Type Top 10% Median (50%) Bottom 10%
Postsecondary Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice Teachers $98,500 $56,980 $30,800
Correction Officers and Correctional Treatment Specialists $84,160 $48,440 $32,010
Private Detectives and Investigators $83,600 $46,250 $30,330
Police and Sheriff’s Patrol Officers $90,700 $56,130 $32,670
Detectives and Criminal Investigators $125,320 $76,730 $40,110

Source: United States Bureau of Labor and Statistics

To put all of these income numbers in perspective, the job search site simplyhired.com states that the average salary for criminal justice PhD jobs was $51,000.

In addition to the salary potential of having a PhD in criminal justice, the United States Bureau of Labor and Statistics estimates that between 2012 and 2022, there will be a need for 19 percent more postsecondary teachers, including those in law and criminal justice, while the national average growth rate for all occupations during that time period is only 11 percent. Also, according to the employment website Indeed.com, the total job postings relating to a PhD in criminal justice has increased over 200 percent from 2008 to 2013.