Earning a Master’s in Criminal Justice Online

Students gravitate toward the criminal justice field for its diverse subjects and expanding career opportunities. The National Center for Education Statistics reports that the number of conferred bachelor's degrees in homeland security, law enforcement, and firefighting increased by over 13,500 from 2010-2016. By earning undergraduate credentials, students may occupy entry-level positions. However, many professionals enroll in graduate programs for the advanced coursework and hands-on training.

With an online criminal justice master's degree, students can pursue such careers as emergency services directors, cyber crime specialists, and forensic psychologists. This guide provides prospective students with the academic information needed to find the school that best suits their goals and interests. Learners also gain insight into job and professional development opportunities.

Student Profile: Who Earns an Online Master's Degree in Criminal Justice?

Graduate degree candidates generally hold bachelor's credentials in criminal justice or a related field, like forensic science, psychology, or information technology (IT). They may also possess relevant work experience, earning their master's as a means of career advancement. Online master's in criminal justice programs enable students to hone their skills through practicum experiences, independent research opportunities, and specializations. Graduate training also empowers students to pursue continuing education and professional certification/licensure.

Why Get a Master's Degree in Criminal Justice?

Pursuing Specialization

Master's in criminal justice online programs provide students with ample specialization options, such as forensic science or criminology. Criminology refers to crime as a social phenomenon, while criminal justice delves into the logistics of investigations and judicial proceedings. Degree candidates may also pursue such specializations as homeland security, cybersecurity, law enforcement, or corrections. Additionally, criminal justice students can specialize in an area of law, including corporate law or intellectual property.

Career Advancement Opportunities

Graduate degree holders benefit from more career opportunities, higher pay, and better job security than those with only a bachelor's. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports that professionals with a master's degree earn an average annual salary of $12,000 more than those with a bachelor's degree. Graduate degree holders also enjoy a lower unemployment rate. Focused, hands-on training and leadership experience represent cornerstones of master's programs, preparing students for careers as directors and managers.

Online Learning Technology

Colleges and universities deliver distance education with learning platforms like Blackboard, Canvas, and Moodle. Online students collaborate with peers and professors through video conferencing software and interactive forums. As such, students develop digital communication and critical-thinking skills they can apply in their professional lives. Criminal justice students also master field-related technological skills. For example, forensic science uses data imaging and analytics to synthesize, examine, and present information as evidence. Degree candidates also train in security and project management tools.

Prerequisites for Online Criminal Justice Programs

Students pursuing a criminal justice master's online generally undergo the same admission process as traditional candidates. Application materials typically include a CV/resume, standardized test scores, recommendation letters, and a personal essay.

  • Work Experience: Accelerated graduate programs and degree completion tracks often require students to possess at least two years of relevant, paid work experience. Prospective students demonstrate career achievements with detailed resumes/CVs. Degree candidates may also turn work experience into transfer credits through prior learning assessment methods, including standardized testing from the American Council on Education and professional portfolio review.
  • Exams and Test Scores: Online criminal justice master's programs sometimes ignore standardized test scores, preferring a holistic evaluation of student potential. However, many colleges and universities still ask for GRE or GMAT results, with varying minimum requirements. Students can consult their school's website or academic adviser for testing specifics. Scores are valid for five years, but some programs may want more recent scores.
  • Coursework: Graduate students usually need to complete prerequisite classes before fully enrolling in a master's program. While this coursework varies, learners can expect topics like criminological theory, the U.S. criminal justice system, and quantitative analysis for decision making. If students did not complete these courses during undergraduate training, they may need to enroll in a transition program before pursuing graduate-level training.
  • Recommendations: Graduate programs ask for two to three recommendation letters. Some schools prefer to contact recommenders directly. These testimonies should come from employers, professors, or mentors who can speak to the student's capabilities, successes, and personal qualities.
  • Essays: The personal statement enables students to stand out from the applicant pool through a distinct narrative voice. In their essays, students elaborate on achievements, skills, and professional goals. Schools may provide a general prompt, which students respond to in one to two pages, or schools may require applicants to answer specific essay questions.
  • Interviews: Like the personal essay, virtual and in-person interviews allow students to expound on their academic achievements and career plans. Colleges and universities also use interviews as a way to gauge a candidate's personality, evaluating how well they would collaborate with professors and peers. The interview is also important to some scholarship applications.
  • International Students: International distance learners must go through an immigration process, which includes multiple interviews and earning the F-1 Student Visa. Nonnative English speakers submit TOEFL or IELTS scores to demonstrate language proficiency. International students also need to seek alternative financial aid opportunities because they generally cannot access government funds through the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA).

How Much Can I Make with a Master's Degree in Criminal Justice?

Professionals who earn their criminal justice master's degree can pursue careers in law enforcement and protective services. According to BLS data, the average correctional officer earns $43,510 every year, while criminal investigators earn approximately $62,960. Professionals who occupy leadership roles benefit from the highest salary potential, with emergency management directors, on average, earning $72,760. Regardless of their field, graduate students develop the hard skills that employers value, including project management, software application, and data analytics.

Traditional Careers for Criminal Justice Master’s Graduates

Career Stats Description

Police or Detective

Median Pay: $62,960

Job Growth: 7%

Police officers defend property and protect lives. They respond to calls, patrol designated areas, and enforce traffic laws. Detectives collect evidence and interview persons of interest to solve crimes. These professionals generally specialize in a type of crime, such as fraud or homicide, and regularly testify in court.

Ideal for: Criminal justice professionals willing to undergo specialized training and physical conditioning.

Probation Officer or Correctional Treatment Specialist

Median Pay: $51,410

Job Growth: 6%

These professionals help rehabilitate offenders in custody and those on probation or parole. Working with adults or juveniles, probation/parole officers keep track of their clients' progress, ensuring they follow treatment plans. Correctional treatment specialists develop the aforementioned plans, including the requirements needed for full release. They also help clients develop personal and professional skills.

Ideal for: Criminal justice specialists with exceptional communication skills who can work in emotionally fraught situations.

Criminal Investigator or Special Agent

Median Pay: $79,970

Job Growth: 9%

These professionals gather, analyze, and present information crucial to criminal investigations. They also observe suspects and interview witnesses to verify cause and other case specifics. Investigators and agents usually concentrate on a type of crime, like civil rights violations, financial crime, public corruption, or copyright infringement.

Ideal for: Individuals with high stress tolerance and self-control.

Police Identification and Records Officer

Median Pay: $79,970

Job Growth: 9%

These law enforcement professionals collect evidence at the crime scene and analyze findings in laboratory settings, including autopsies. Record officers also occupy administrative roles, packaging, storing, and retrieving evidence for court proceedings. These officers may present evidence and testify in court proceedings.

Ideal for: Criminal justice specialists with advanced IT skills.

Non-Traditional Careers for Criminal Justice Master’s Graduates

Career Stats Description

Emergency Management Director

Median Pay: $72,760

Job Growth: 8%

These leaders usually work for government agencies, developing plans and procedures for natural and human-made disasters. They create and implement training programs for employees and volunteers. These professionals also coordinate relief efforts during emergencies, rescuing people and minimizing property damage.

Ideal for: Professionals with extensive work experience in criminal justice, law enforcement, disaster planning, and/or public administration.

Postsecondary Teacher (Criminal Justice)

Median Pay: $60,400

Job Growth: 15%

College and university teachers provide classroom instruction and laboratory training to students. They also help learners outside of the classroom with research guidance, field training, and career preparation. Postsecondary teachers pursue their own projects, publishing academic articles and presenting findings at field-specific conferences.

Ideal for: Skilled educators with a master's or doctoral degree in criminal justice.

Sources: Bureau of Labor Statistics, ONetOnline.org, 2017-2018

Paying for an Online Master's in Criminal Justice

Colleges and universities provide ample financial support to distance learners. On top of funds obtained through the FAFSA, online students can access institutional awards, including general academic grants and scholarships specifically for criminal justice majors. Degree candidates also save money by enrolling in accelerated degree tracks or applying for transfer credits. Schools may grant credits for prior academic work, career experience, certification/licensure, military training, and volunteer positions.

Tuition Timelines

Whether they are recent undergraduates or seasoned criminal justice professionals, the right graduate program exists for all students. The following section covers three degree plans students can pursue and how they affect tuition and graduation.

Part-Time Path

Working professionals prefer the flexibility of part-time enrollment because it allows them to balance school, career, and family responsibilities. However, certain higher education institutions do not allow part-time students to access financial aid.

Real-Life Example:

School Name: Michigan State University
Total Credits Required: 30
Summary: MSU enables online students to enroll full time or part time. On top of core classes, students can take courses in either a security management or judicial administration specialization. The university allows students to transfer up to nine credits toward degree completion.

Full-Time Path

This conventional degree timeline enables students to obtain an online criminal justice master's degree in two years. Full-time candidates benefit from full university resources, including internship placement and fellowship programs.

Real-Life Example:

School Name: Missouri Southern State University
Total Credits Required: 36
Summary: The MSSU online master's in criminal justice program contains such classes as ethics in criminal justice, research methodologies, and civil law and liability. Electives comprise one-third of the degree plan, enabling students to individualize their education. Applicants need a regionally accredited bachelor's degree earned with a minimum 2.75 GPA.

Accelerated Path

By enrolling in an accelerated program or completionist track, students can earn their graduate credentials in just one year. Eight-week classes and full `course loads every term characterize the accelerated path.

Real-Life Example:

School Name: Liberty University
Total Credits Required: 36
Summary: Liberty offers an online master of science in criminal justice in public administration. Students take courses like public policy analysis and management of public sector organizations. Blackboard powers the eight-week asynchronous classes. To apply, candidates need a minimum 3.0 GPA.

Subject-Specific Financial Aid, Grants & Scholarships

The following list contains five scholarships and grants for graduate criminal justice students. The financial aid application process typically includes personal statements and recommendations that demonstrate the candidate's achievements and dedication to a field or cause.

What to Expect from a Master's Level Online Criminal Justice Program

Criminal justice master's programs for online students typically span two years and require at last 30 semester credits. For most learners, the virtual classroom experience consists of asynchronous classes powered by such platforms as Blackboard and Desire2Learn, allowing students to individually pace their curriculum. However, some schools operate cohort learning, which requires students to advance through the program at the same pace as their peers. Here, distance learners usually take one class at a time. The next section details milestones for graduate criminal justice students.

Major Milestones

  1. Practicum Experience: Anytime during program

    Through field training, guided research, internships, and fellowships, graduate students cultivate the skills and professional relationships needed for career success. Colleges and universities generally allow distance learners to complete practicum experiences with local organizations, including current employers. Some schools facilitate internship placement with institutional partners.

  2. Capstone Requirement: Last year of program

    Capstone experiences differ based on program structure and academic outcomes. Some students pursue self-motivated research, leading to written work and oral defense. Other students implement a project with the support of a sponsoring organization. Some students may only need to take a senior seminar.

  3. Comprehensive Examination: Final semester of program

    Online students take comprehensive exams under the guidance of a school-approved proctor. Like the capstone requirement, these tests enable students to demonstrate mastery over key concepts and skills by solving real-world challenges.

  4. Professional Certification or Licensure: Post-graduation

    Graduates pursuing careers in law enforcement must complete state-sponsored training and licensure. For other criminal justice professionals, optional certification displays industry-specific expertise and experience.

  5. Continuing Education: Post-graduation

    Post-graduate certificate programs and noncredit courses enable professionals to stay up-to-date with evolving theories, practices, and regulations in criminal justice. For those pursuing positions as dedicated researchers, consultants, or postsecondary educators, doctoral programs represent the next step.


Online criminal justice master's degree plans consist of such core classes as applied research methods, criminological theory, policy analysis, and victimology. Advanced courses differ by program focus, specialization, and elective choices. Below, are five popular criminal justice courses.

Criminological Theory

A fundamental topic for all criminal justice professionals, criminology covers the biological, sociological, and psychological theories concerning crime causation. Students examine these theoretical approaches and their applications in the judicial system and public policy.

Social Administration in Criminal Justice

Students explore contemporary organizational structures in the U.S. justice system, including those for law enforcement, corrections, courts, and social services. They also learn to design and implement programs to improve agency efficiency.

Digital Forensic Investigation

Using Virtual Security Lab and EnCase software, students conduct forensic examinations of digital devices and computer networks. Learners also study the nature of cybercrimes, identifying, analyzing, and documenting related evidence using real-world samples.

Restorative Justice

This course covers restorative justice as an international social movement. Students analyze the movement's religious/spiritual roots and its manifestations in the United States. They also study the needs of relevant parties, including victims, offenders, and communities.


Students examine the history, ideology, and consequences of major terrorist incidents, with an emphasis on domestic hate groups. Additional topics include counterterrorism efforts, globalization and human rights, and the roles of politics and the media.

Requirements to Practice

Criminal justice is a vast, interdisciplinary field with diverse career opportunities. Police officers must go through a government-sanctioned training and licensing program to obtain work in state law enforcement agencies. Depending on their location, forensic scientists may also need to earn state licensure. For other criminal justice professionals, certification enables them to display industry-specific expertise that employers value. To occupy roles as managers and directors, candidates typically need at least five years of relevant experience.

  • Law Enforcement Training: To work as a police officer, candidates must pass an entrance exam, the structure and content of which differ by jurisdiction. Afterward, they need to undergo police academy training, usually offered by individual cities or districts. While higher education is not a hard requirement, earning a master's degree helps professionals obtain police chief roles and other leadership positions.
  • Forensic Science Training: Certain states require forensic scientists to gain professional credentials. For example, Texas forensic analysts, starting January 1, 2019, need to apply for licensure. This process includes a written exam and skill demonstration in a laboratory setting. Optional certification also exists for forensic technicians and scientists.
  • Certified Criminal Justice Addiction Professional: Practitioners who assist offenders with drug abuse and mental health challenges can gain specialized licensure for career advancement. Facilitated by a state's board of addiction programs and professionals, the certification process entails extensive academic training, professional experience, and a practicum.
  • IAI Certification: The International Association for Identification provides crime scene certificate training for investigators, analysts, and reconstructionists. To earn this credential, applicants must work full time in a relevant field. They also need to pass an examination with at least 75%. Certification lasts for five years.

Professional Organizations & Resources

By pursuing an online criminal justice master's degree, students cultivate the advanced skills, practical training, and professional experiences needed to obtain high-ranking positions. Learners can bolster career prospects through engagement with a professional organization. Members enjoy substantial benefits, including networking opportunities like local chapter meetings and annual conferences. Members also benefit from continuing education and skill development, such as the onsite and online training programs provided by the American Probation and Parole Association.

  • Academy of Criminal Justice Sciences: Founded in 1963, the ACJS advances criminal justice research, policy, and education. The organization provides career guidance and an employment bulletin. Members can also access award programs and networking events, including national conferences and doctoral summits.
  • American Academy of Forensic Sciences: Established in 1948, the AAFS is the main higher education accreditation body in the field. The academy supports its 7,000 members through career resources and summer camps centered on skill development and research.
  • American Correctional Association: As the oldest U.S. criminal justice organization, the ACA develops standards and provides institutional accreditation. Members may take advantage of comprehensive professional development programs and global corrections internship opportunities. The ACA sponsors conferences worldwide.
  • American Probation and Parole Association: On top of accessible training programs through its two professional development institutes, the APPA provides career guidance and job listings. The association's 90,000 members collaborate through organizing committees and issue-specific working groups.
  • National Criminal Justice Association: The NCJA supports state agencies and individual practitioners through certification programs and public policy advocacy. The association connects members through national conferences, internships, and the Connect2Justice online community. Members also benefit from integrative leadership training.
  • International Association of Women Police: Formed in 1915, the IAWP advocates for female law enforcement professionals through legislation and community engagement. The association operates an annual training conference and provides achievement awards and academic scholarships.
  • Justice Research and Statistics Association: The JRSA is a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization promoting the application of research in juvenile and criminal justice decision-making. The association operates a vast online library and funds social justice projects. Professionals benefit from webinars, employment opportunities, and a researcher collaboration initiative.
  • National Association for Victim Assistance: Established in 1975, the NOVA connects victims with services and resources. The association provides training for advocates, including a program specifically for crisis responders. Professionals can also take advantage of networking opportunities and job listings.
  • National Black Police Association: Based in Dallas, Texas, the NBPA promotes fairness and effectiveness in law enforcement. In addition to scholarships, the association offers employment listings and conference opportunities. The NBPA also publishes guides on individual best practices and organizational standards.
  • National Institute of Justice: As a federal agency, the NIJ advances policy, research, and education in the criminal justice field. Professionals can take advantage of its industry-specific training opportunities. The NIJ also provides financial aid, including eight fellowship programs.