Master's Degree in Criminal Justice Career Options

To illustrate the dynamic nature of the ever-growing criminal justice field, you could ask four different professionals to define the job and they would provide different but equally important answers. A police officer might discuss protecting and enforcing, a correctional supervisor might highlight reparations and prevention, an information security officer would talk about surveillance strategy and technical application, and a policy analyst would lean on research and implementation. The common thread for all criminal justice jobs is the dedication to serving the community.

If you’re currently employed in the field and debating the time commitment and financial investment of a master’s degree, this guide offers insight into the numerous opportunities and long-term rewards. If you’re currently in school and exploring career options as an undergraduate, you’ll find details on career prospects, compensation and tools for marketing yourself. Keep reading to gain a fresh perspective into how you can serve your community.

Benefits of a Master of Criminal Justice Degree

It’s easy to see the rewards of the time commitment and financial investments required to earn a master’s degree in criminal justice after evaluating the short- and long-term benefits. Criminal justice offers many opportunities, and those who decide to go down this path can look forward to higher earnings and career satisfaction with a master’s level degree.

Learn More about Master’s Degrees in Criminal Justice


Why a Master’s in Criminal Justice Degree?

The Bureau of Labor Statistics projects employment for all master’s level occupations will grow by 17 percent between 2016 and 2026 -- a growth rate that is higher than all other professional-level occupations. When you count the number of law enforcement agencies, correctional institutions, private security agencies and criminal justice higher learning programs, the room for hiring expansion is there and with it an abundance of diverse opportunities and versatile paths.

Not only is the employment rate expected to rise substantially, the workforce specifically in the field of criminal justice and corrections should expect a 5.42 percent growth rate, according to the BLS. This is higher than the national workforce growth rate of 0.7 percent. Candidates with master’s degrees stand out to potential employers due to the responsibility and commitment it takes to achieve a graduate-level degree.

Once you land the job, you also earn more. The National Center for Education Statistics found that on average, adults age 25-34 with master’s degrees or higher earned 28 percent more than those with bachelor’s degrees. The BLS supports this further, displaying that across the board master’s degree holders earn more, whether employed as managers, teachers, supervisors, counselors, specialists or clerks.

The field of criminal justice and corrections should expect a 5.42% growth rate, according to the BLS, which is higher than the national workforce growth rate.

Many prospective students also worry about cost. Sallie Mae reported that, on average, the cost of tuition for a graduate school was $24,812 per year between 2016 and 2017. This varies based on program, institution, scholarships and in-state vs. out-of-state costs. The average cost per year for a master’s degree in criminal justice at a public institution was $5,936, while private tuition averaged $27,100. Because of the orientation of this field, many specialty associations exist for graduates to join and receive scholarships and other types of funding for education.

Mercer’s 2018 Global Talent Trends Study found that employees are three times more likely to work for a company with a strong sense of purpose. They interviewed 7,648 people across 44 markets and 21 industries. To reach long-term job satisfaction, employees need to feel that they are having an impact, bringing meaning and working for a purpose. There’s an intrinsic sense of heroism behind why individuals pursue a career in criminal justice. They want to do what’s right, protect communities, neutralize and eliminate dangerous behavior, and make the world a better place. To do this entirely, it’s crucial to master the advance aspects of the criminal justice world with a graduate degree.

What Skills Are Needed for a Career in Criminal Justice?

A successful career in criminal justice depends more heavily on strong interpersonal skills than the average career. There’s an exceptional amount of training and information individuals need to continue receiving in order to stay current. If you’re interested in being a special agent, for example, grab your running shoes from the back of your closet and clock your mile time, as this is one of the components of the hiring process.

Hard Skills for Criminal Justice Professionals


Conflict resolution and neutralizing opposition are standard essentials for criminal justice professionals. It’s imperative that you can get two disagreeing parties on the same page. Understanding and providing individuals with what they need to get the results you want is foundational to successful negotiations.

Problem Solving

Each day will offer its own set of problems and no two problems will be the same. Overseeing security, enforcing rules and regulations, strategizing logistics -- these responsibilities are frequently required of criminal justice leaders. Solving problems that surround criminal activity and protecting the public, often in a time-sensitive manner, necessitate a clear thinker in times of crisis.


Being able to communicate concise directions and expectations are requirements for every supervisory position. It’s crucial for managers to be skilled in all forms of communication and to astutely utilize each when appropriate. There are many moving parts to the often-hierarchical structure of agencies and it’s pivotal for managers to be skilled in deciphering who needs to receive what information.

Time Management

Time can often be a luxury for those in the criminal justice field. Prioritizing post orders, instructing employees, conducting audits and searching for inmates under a tight deadline requires years of experience. With career advancement comes increased responsibility and accountability of deliverables. Making sure you achieve departmental goals and requirements on a deadline while managing others is a balancing act.


Managing, surveying, inspecting, canvassing, examining, casing and seeing the big picture while simultaneously noticing small details are all imperative skills for justice professionals. Being on duty for long stretches of time can be exhausting if you aren’t accustomed to the concentration and pace.

Soft Skills for Criminal Justice Professionals


For supervisors, it often takes field experience to fully comprehend what constitutes sharp reasoning. It’s a compromise of logical and intuition-based guidance, and using discretion to choose which to lean on. It takes practice and witnessing others execute appropriate discernment first.


In partnership with practicing good judgment comes the ability to make effective decisions in highly stressful environments. Making wise choices must be second nature in this career path. Often there is no time for second-guessing in emergent security situations. Being able to issue supervisory orders in sensitive time frames and then during ongoing day-to-day proceedings requires great skill.


Teaching and helping others absorb and understand information is key for managerial roles. It requires clear communication skills, a team-oriented spirit, and a passion for learning. It’s a fundamental part of training new employees and keeping existing employees current with certifications.


Encountering opposition and knowing how to handle it while understanding the psychology and decision-making process of others is a powerful tool and key component to criminal justice occupations. You must be able to productively influence others in negotiations or calm a riot of angry prisoners.

Social Perceptiveness

It’s essential for criminal justice professionals to be experts in nonverbal communication. So much is communicated without words in interrogation proceedings and large crowds of people. They must be able to read a room and identify opportunities and threats.

5 Ways the Master’s Degree in Criminal Justice Can Help in the Job Market

Venturing into a master’s degree in criminal justice pays off tenfold when you consider even a few of the substantial ways your career will flourish. Examples include:

  • Expansive network: Within master’s of criminal justice programs, leading researchers and experts frequently serve as course instructors. The peers of these professors can serve as prospective employers, and once students graduate, they may go on to work with these individuals in some capacity. The expansive network of industry professionals built from a master’s in criminal justice would take someone years to build outside the walls of academia.

  • Research Training: A vast amount of publicly available data and research exists for criminologists to utilize, but it’s often complex and not intuitively designed for untrained researchers. It takes a trained eye to search in the right direction for the exact results needed. A substantial part of the criminal justice master’s degree program entails extensive research training. Whether you go on to work in the nonprofit sector for policy research or work for a correctional institute as a probation officer, knowing how to find the empirical data to support your case benefits any path you may take.

  • Promotion: Almost all supervisory and executive criminal justice occupations require advanced degrees. Even if you start with a title that doesn’t require a graduate degree, holding a master’s allows for faster movement up the career ladder. Engaging with experts while researching a master’s thesis equips students with the communication skills expected of supervisors and executives, while the tools gained when delivering presentations helps minimize on-the-job learning curves.

  • Institutional Knowledge: It’s crucial for criminal justice professionals to comprehensively understand the nuances of criminal behavior and lab analysis procedure. Technological advances play a valuable role in helping investigative procedure with ballistic reports, fingerprinting, firearm identification and polygraph testing. It’s not required of an entry-level probation officer to deliver linear models of correctional intervention theory but when senior officials petition for more staffing resources, they need to provide data validating their request and demonstrating the long-term necessity of the assets it produces.

  • Versatility: There are approximately 18,000 federal, state, county, local and tribal law enforcement agencies. Agencies work across all fifteen cabinets under the executive branch and most have their own police force -- including the legislative and judicial branches. In 2018, the Prison Policy Institute reported the existence of 102 federal prisons, 1,719 state prisons, 1,852 juvenile correctional facilities, 3,163 local jails, and 80 Native American country jails. All these agencies and institutions cross-collaborate in criminal justice efforts. Even if you enter grad school with work experience in security systems and transition your focus to criminal investigation, the knowledge and expertise gained with this degree allows for career mobility.

Master of Criminal Justice Career Paths & Salary Potential

Getting a master’s degree in criminal justice not only ensures your career growth, it also grants an element of freedom when exploring prospective career options because the skills translate smoothly across all occupations.

10 Ways to Prepare for Your Career in Criminal Justice

If you’re ready to venture out into the criminal justice field and/or eager to further explore the world of higher education, it can be daunting to assess your next steps. Perhaps you’re already in the thick of it and feeling unsure of how you got there in the first place. Review these tips for help getting prepared.

  1. Do your homework: If you’re in school, this guidance is simple enough, as graduate programs often set GPA requirements for applicants. If you’re out of school and questioning whether your GPA will meet minimum standards, meet with a graduate school admissions adviser to see what courses you could take at a community college to raise your GPA.

  2. Follow the experts: Know the star experts and legends of the criminal justice field. The more specific the better. It’s important when conveying your breadth of knowledge to reference their significance. Stay updated on their research and news.

  3. Build connections: There’s a web of connections from one agency to the next, all interlaced and only beneficial if you’re out there meeting as many people as you can. Maintain relationships with past employers and colleagues, and show eagerness when meeting other professionals.

  4. Experiment: You don’t have to be funded to run your own experiment. If you have a theory, research it, run experiments, mind data, gather results, review and continue repeating this process until you get to the heart of what you’re interested in. In diverse industries like criminal justice, it helps to have a specific goal and focus.

  5. Interview: Conduct interviews. Oftentimes faculty members at universities are more than happy to meet with prospective students and most will even answer questions over email. If people have the time, they are often more than willing to help out and provide more information.

  6. Gather experience: Whether you’re already in school and looking to get more involved or a recent graduate with a desire for more experience, it’s never too early to build a work history and gain hands-on skills in the field. A multitude of options exist for internships, part-time employment and volunteer programs. Join and commit in whatever way you can.

  7. Say yes: If an opportunity crosses your path that you might not have initially been interested in, it’s important to stay open-minded and eager to explore opportunities. As your career progresses, this attitude is difficult to maintain with increasing responsibility. It’s crucial in the beginning to keep your options open, as an opportunity could always turn out to be something better than expected.

  8. Stay interested: Check in with associations and their news tabs. It’s important to stay current and knowledgeable about what’s going on in the field of criminal justice. Know who is conducting the latest research and what they are finding.

  9. Sweat!: It’s not just your mind that has to stay sharp -- many agency interviews maintain fitness test requirements. Check agency websites to learn about specific details, but make sure you can run a mile without stopping.

  10. Develop your mission statement: School and job interviewers will repeatedly ask why you’re interested in the field of criminal justice, or some variation on this theme. Practice explaining your motivation and story, making sure it’s concise and engaging.

Expert Q&A

Advice From a Criminal Justice Professor

Dr. Brent Paterline received a bachelor’s degree from Randolph-Macon College before serving as a military police officer in the first Gulf War. While in the Army, he obtained a master’s degree in sociology from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. He worked at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and obtained a Ph.D. in sociology from Georgia State University. In 1997, Dr. Paterline took a job as a professor of criminal justice at the University of North Georgia and has been there ever since. He regularly conducts criminal case analysis with the Georgia Bureau of Investigation and does consulting work for several district attorney’s offices in the Atlanta metro area. His primary research areas include drug investigation, homicide investigation, forensic interviewing and sex crimes.

In addition to traditional jobs one thinks of in the criminal justice field, what are some emerging jobs and industries where this degree is useful in the 21st century?

Homeland security. The Department of Homeland Security was created after the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001. Its stated missions involve anti-terrorism, border security, immigration and customs, cybersecurity, and disaster prevention and management. Although most of the agencies under the Department of Homeland Security involve counterterrorism, other agencies offer related careers in emergency management, customs enforcement and transportation security.

Private security. Private businesses, airlines, hospitals and many other industries have started their own private security divisions over the past several years. Many retailers such as Home Depot and Walmart maintain loss prevention departments. Those seeking this type of career in criminal justice can find employment with private security firms or corporate security.

Computer forensics and cybersecurity. Computer forensics and cybersecurity are becoming emerging careers in the field of criminal justice. Computer forensics is the electronic gathering of evidence used in trials and other legal proceedings. Those working in the area of cybersecurity analyze and attempt to protect computer systems that may be targeted by cyber-criminals. Those who specialize in cybersecurity combine computer skills with criminal justice knowledge to protect computer networks against attacks.

What is your advice for how to best use the knowledge gained in a degree to leverage into a job?

Complete an internship: An internship provides the student with an opportunity to make a beneficial transition from classroom learning to the real world of criminal justice. This internship experience will enable students to continue their education, deepen their knowledge and enhance their understanding of the criminal justice system. Frequently, the internship is referred to as a career transition experience. Therefore, the internship will allow students to:

  1. Explore the different roles and responsibilities within criminal justice.
  2. Apply their knowledge and skills learned in the classroom.
  3. Develop professional relationships with criminal justice personnel.
  4. Aid students in procuring professional recommendations and future employment. As an example, criminal justice majors at the University of North Georgia have to complete a mandatory 320-hour internship in order to graduate from the program.

Become POST-certified: The UNG Department of Criminal Justice’s Public Safety Academy provides Georgia Peace Officer Standards and Training (POST) Council basic law enforcement certification to students who declare a major in criminal justice and meet all POST mandates and requirements for acceptance into the POST program from the baccalaureate program on UNG’s Dahlonega campus. This program makes students extremely marketable. Students should consider researching similar programs that might be available in their state.

Understand the realities. Federal agencies rarely hire out of college. Most federal agents (e.g. FBI agents) have worked at a local level (county or state) for at least three years before they are hired by a federal agency. If this is your goal, start taking the steps to make it happen.

Resources for Criminal Justice Majors

For those who might feel overwhelmed by the results of a follow-up query into criminal justice or for the experts who want a refresher, here’s a list of industry-leading agencies, institutes, universities and opportunities.

  • American Academy of Political and Social Science: This member-based organization unifies advanced research from social science-related fields. They publish The ANNALS and award The Moynihan Prize alongside honors for civic leaders, scholars and practitioners from all social science fields.
  • American Bar Association - Resources on Criminal Justice: The American Bar Association is a group of professional lawyers and law students who set guidelines and standards for ethical behavior in legal practice. They provide readily available criminal justice resources including updates on Supreme Court Cases.
  • Criminal Injustice Podcast: Hosted by David A. Harris, professor of criminal justice at the University of Pittsburgh, this podcast explores current issues in law enforcement, police behavior and national security.
  • Justice Policy Institute: A nonprofit that’s leading the cause to explore and advance policy reform, JPI researches and investigates the effectiveness of existing and proposed policy. They offer employment and internship resources, provide a list of related organizations by specialty and cause, and offer suggestions for ways to volunteer and contribute to criminal justice causes.
  • Justice Research and Statistics Association: Funded by a grant from the Bureau of Justice Statistics, Office of Justice Programs, and U.S. Department of Justice, JRSA’s mission is to objectively analyze data and circulate criminal justice research. They host webinars, provide employment opportunities, offer resources for students, and organize a Student Researcher Collaboration Project.
  • National Criminal Justice Reference Service: THE NCJRS recommends publications, lists resources for grants and funding, and hosts events. It also provides an extensive database of information on corrections, courts, crime, crime prevention, drugs, justice system, juvenile justice, law enforcement and victims.
  • National Institute for Justice: The NIJ is the research, development and evaluation agency of the U.S. Department of Justice. It provides funding and awards, training, events and graduate fellowships.
  • Police Executive Research Forum: PERF shares best practices, crime reduction strategies and police service technologies. The group releases reports exploring issues facing policing while also providing related news, publications, events and employment services for their members.
  • USA Jobs: This site operates as the official U.S. Office of Personnel Management job board and allows users to search current openings in the federal government by title, department, agency, occupation and location.