Online Ph.D. in Criminal Justice: Career Opportunities & More

Earning a Ph.D. in criminal justice online prepares graduates for jobs as law enforcement agency directors, criminal investigators, and criminal justice professors. Many schools that offer criminal justice doctoral degrees report increases in enrollment, as more and more criminal justice professionals have begun to pursue advanced degrees to stand out on the job market.

The top criminal justice Ph.D. programs teach the knowledge and skills required to pursue careers in law enforcement management, criminal justice research, and higher education. This article examines job growth opportunities for candidates with a Ph.D. in criminal justice (including some nontraditional jobs), what it takes to earn an online doctorate in criminal justice, and how to help pay for a Ph.D. program.

Student Profile: Who Earns an Online Ph.D. in Criminal Justice?

Graduate students enroll in online Ph.D. in criminal justice programs for a variety of reasons. After earning a master's degree, criminal justice professionals may choose to advance their career by pursuing a doctorate-level education. Certain specializations may also require graduate training, depending on a candidate's career path. For example, a doctorate often leads to opportunities in academia and research. Working professionals may also pursue a doctorate to increase their earning potential.

Why Get a Ph.D. in Criminal Justice?

Pursuing Specialization

Earning an online doctorate in criminal justice allows professionals to pursue a specialization within their field, such as homeland security or terrorism. These specializations open new career opportunities and prepare graduates for several in-demand jobs. During a criminal justice doctoral program, graduate students can also expand their skills by pursuing less specific concentrations that appeal to a wider variety of industries, such as adding law enforcement or forensic science credentials to their resume.

Career Advancement Opportunities

Earning a terminal degree in criminal justice also prepares graduates for career advancement. Certain positions, including some of the highest-level jobs, require a doctorate. For example, academic positions often require a Ph.D. Similarly, employers looking to hire directors or executives often prefer candidates with a doctorate. Professionals who earn a Ph.D. can also pursue promotions to positions with more responsibilities and higher pay.

Online Learning Technology

During a Ph.D. criminal justice online program, graduate students rely on the latest communication technologies to work with their cohort, faculty members, and doctoral adviser. This experience builds criminal justice graduates' familiarity with different technologies that may benefit them in the workforce.

Prerequisites for Online CJ Ph.D. Programs

Most online Ph.D. programs in criminal justice require incoming students to meet prerequisites before enrolling in the program. Prospective students should carefully review these requirements before applying.

  • Work Experience: Online Ph.D. in criminal justice programs typically prefer applicants with work experience, and some programs may ask that applicants hold a minimum amount of experience. However, many programs admit candidates with little to no experience who recently graduated from bachelor's or master's programs.
  • Exams and Test Scores: Most online doctorate in criminal justice programs require that applicants submit GRE scores. Programs may also set minimum or suggested scores for admission. Applicants can look up average GRE scores or test score ranges for admitted students at potential programs.
  • Coursework: Criminal justice Ph.D. programs may require students to complete certain prerequisites before enrolling, and some schools offer separate tracks for students with/without a bachelor's or master's degree in criminal justice. Programs may also set a minimum GPA requirement for admission.
  • Recommendations: Most programs require two to three letters of recommendation, which should speak to the applicant's academic and professional preparation. Prospective students can request letters from former professors or professional supervisors. Applicants should give their letter writers several weeks to complete these recommendations.
  • Essays: Applicants to online Ph.D. in criminal justice programs may also need to submit an essay as part of their admission package. In general, programs request an essay that describes how a candidate is prepared for graduate study, their proposed focus during their doctoral program, and their professional goals after graduation.
  • Interviews: Some programs require applicants to submit to an interview with faculty members during the admission process. During interviews, a panel assesses an applicant's likelihood of succeeding at the doctoral level and their fit with the program. Some online programs also assign an admissions adviser to walk applicants through the process.
  • International Students: International students may need to provide additional material during the application process. Some programs require TOEFL scores to demonstrate English language proficiency; however, these may be waived if the candidate holds a degree from an English-speaking college or university. International students may also need to provide a translation of transcripts.

How Much Can I Make with a Ph.D. in Criminal Justice?

Graduates with an online Ph.D. in criminal justice can pursue careers in a variety of lucrative fields. Many criminal justice career paths, both traditional and nontraditional, offer above-average wages. Salaries for detectives and criminal investigators, for example, range from $42,880 at the 10th percentile to $135,530 at the 90th percentile. Graduates can also pursue careers in academia. A doctorate provides hard skills and demonstrates a candidate's advanced knowledge in their field, which can translate into high-salary job opportunities with a large amount of responsibilities.

Traditional Careers for Criminal Justice Ph.D.s

Career Stats Description

Emergency Management Director

Median Pay: $72,760

Job Growth: 8%

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security and other government agencies enlist emergency management directors to prepare for and help during public safety crises, including natural disasters and criminal attacks. Workers perform this job in the office and in the field as emergency situations arise.

Ideal for: Quick-thinking strategists who can stay calm and provide leadership in high-pressure situations.

Detective or Criminal Investigator

Median Pay: $79,970

Job Growth: 4.5%

Detectives and criminal investigators work at the federal, state, and local levels to enforce laws and investigate crimes. They work for a variety of law enforcement agencies, using their training to prevent and solve crimes.

Ideal for: Analytical thinkers with problem-solving skills and leadership abilities.


Median Pay: $104,700

Job Growth: 8%

Executives work in many sectors, including law enforcement, legal services, and corrections. They devise strategies and policies to meet an organization's goals. Executives also plan, direct, and manage operational activities.

Ideal for: Individuals with strong leadership, management, and analytical abilities.

Criminal Justice Professor

Median Pay: $60,400

Job Growth: 12.1%

Criminal justice and law enforcement professors teach classes at two-year and four-year institutions. They design syllabi, create lectures, and grade papers and exams. Many professors also conduct research and publish their work in scholarly journals.

Ideal for: Those with research, interpersonal, and organizational abilities.

Nontraditional Careers for Criminal Justice Ph.D.s

Career Stats Description

Fraud Investigator

Median Pay: $64,690

Job Growth: -1%

Fraud investigators work for insurance companies and law enforcement agencies, investigating cases of suspected fraudulent or criminal activities. This can include arson, false insurance claims, or staged accidents. Investigators may also perform surveillance work.

Ideal for: Individuals with strong analytic and creative-thinking abilities.

Information Security Analyst

Median Pay: $95,510

Job Growth: 28.5%

Information security analysts monitor computer networks and digital information systems, designing upgrades to improve security. They check security controls to safeguard digital files and electronic infrastructure. Criminal justice professionals with a background in computer technology may pursue opportunities at law enforcement agencies.

Ideal for: Analytical thinkers with strong computer and data analysis skills.

Higher Education Administrator

Median Pay: $92,360

Job Growth: 10%

Higher education administrators -- also known as postsecondary administrators -- work at two-year and four-year institutions. They oversee faculty research, participate in hiring and tenure decisions for faculty, and manage student services. Administrator titles include dean, provost, and chief academic officer. These positions may require prior experience as a professor.

Ideal for: Individuals with strong organizational, interpersonal, and problem-solving skills.


Median Pay: $82,450

Job Growth: 14%

Consultants help agencies and organizations increase efficiency and achieve their goals. Consultants work in all sectors, including law enforcement. They work with managers, directors, and other executives to improve an organization.

Ideal for: Self-motivated, analytical thinkers with strong communication skills.

Sources: Bureau of Labor Statistics, Projections Central, 2017-2018

Paying for an Online Ph.D. in Criminal Justice

Before applying to online Ph.D. programs in criminal justice, prospective students should look into the total price of a graduate education. Costs vary depending on the institution, the number of required credits, and the student's timeline. For example, choosing an accelerated path to an online doctorate in criminal justice may help save money. Most criminal justice doctoral students pay for their degree through a combination of savings, loans, and other forms of financial assistance.

Tuition Timelines

Online doctoral programs in criminal justice use a variety of formats, including part-time, full-time, and accelerated options. Working professionals may benefit from a part-time option, while other students may prefer to earn their degree more quickly.

Part-Time Path

Many programs offer flexible options for part-time students, where participants can enroll in just one or two classes each term.

Real-Life Example:

School Name: Capella University
Total Credits Required: 96 quarter credits
Online Tuition Cost: $697 per credit
Pace: 6 Credits / 2 Classes per Semester
Total Semesters: Up to 8 years
Summary: Part-time students at Capella can take one or two classes each 10-week quarter. Tuition rates may increase over time.

Full-Time Path

On a full-time path, doctoral students typically earn their degrees in three to four years.

Real-Life Example:

School Name: Northcentral University
Total Credits Required: 60
Online Tuition Cost: Total cost $63,936
Pace: 12 Credits / 4 Classes per Semester
Total Semesters: 5 semesters; 45 months
Summary: Students complete 20 courses at Northcentral University, earning their doctorate in approximately 45 months.

Accelerated Path

With an accelerated path, graduate students can complete their program in as little as two years.

Real-Life Example:

School Name: Walden University
Total Credits Required: 83 quarter credits
Online Tuition Cost: $620 per quarter hour
Pace: 18 Credits / 6 Classes per Semester
Total Semesters: Minimum of 9 quarters
Summary: The fast track option at Walden lets students take additional classes each term. Students complete 63 credits of coursework and at least 20 credits of dissertation classes (i.e., a minimum of 83 quarter credits).

Subject-Specific Financial Aid, Grants & Scholarships

Students earning an online doctorate in criminal justice may qualify for a variety of grants and scholarships, including awards from professional organizations.

What to Expect from an Online CJ Ph.D. Program

While pursuing an online criminal justice Ph.D., graduate students complete required coursework, pass examinations, and write a dissertation. It typically takes about three years to complete the program's curriculum, study for comprehensive examinations, defend a dissertation proposal, and write a dissertation. Doctoral students work closely with their faculty adviser throughout the process. At the end of their program, doctoral students present their research to a faculty committee.

Major Milestones

  1. Admission Process - Three to four years before graduation

    During the admission process, applicants submit essays, letters of recommendation, transcripts, resumes, and other documentation demonstrating their ability to succeed at the doctoral level. After gaining admission, new students may participate in an orientation.

  2. Coursework - Two to three years before graduation

    Doctoral students complete two to three years of coursework before moving into the dissertation process. This coursework prepares learners to write and defend a dissertation.

  3. Comprehensive Examination - One to two years before graduation

    Most programs require students to pass comprehensive examinations, where participants demonstrate their mastery of coursework before moving into the dissertation writing process.

  4. Dissertation - One year before graduation

    After defending a dissertation proposal, doctoral students conduct research, work with their faculty adviser, and write a dissertation on their chosen topic. This process may take one to two years.

  5. Dissertation Defense - Graduating semester

    During their dissertation defense, a doctoral student presents and defends their dissertation to a committee, which includes their adviser. After a successful defense, the doctoral candidate can graduate.

  6. Graduation - At end of program

    After meeting coursework requirements and defending their dissertations, doctoral students in criminal justice earn their degrees.


Online Ph.D. programs in criminal justice typically design their own curricula, although many incorporate some of the following course options.

Issues in Criminal Justice

Doctoral students learn about the history of criminal justice as well as current issues in the field, from crime statistics to law enforcement organizations. This course includes scholarly readings, and students also discuss the challenges facing criminal justice professionals.

Criminal Justice Policy

Classes that focus on criminal justice policy examine the development of policy, evaluate whether policies meet their objectives, and use analytical methods to assess criminal justice policy. This course may also explore corrections, sentencing, juvenile justice, and policing.

Criminal Justice Leadership

Doctoral students learn how to apply theories related to the criminal justice system to practical situations. This class includes material on organizational thought, leadership methods, policy implementation, and collaboration in the pursuit of criminal justice.

Quantitative Reasoning

Doctoral students build research skills, including applying statistical concepts and techniques. The course teaches students to design quantitative evaluations, assess data, and choose the right statistical tests for a research project.


Working with an approved dissertation proposal, doctoral students design and conduct a research project under the supervision of a faculty adviser. Students continue to take dissertation credits while writing their dissertation.

Requirements to Practice

Graduates with a doctorate in criminal justice work throughout the criminal justice system, dealing with policy, law enforcement, and the legal system. The requirements to practice in each area vary by profession and by state. For example, most states require that law enforcement officers receive a license to carry a weapon. Because requirements vary, graduates should carefully look into the specific processes used in their state and for their target profession. In addition to licenses, criminal justice professionals can also pursue certifications to enhance their credentials.

  • Law Enforcement Registration Requirements: Each state sets its own requirements for law enforcement officers who carry a weapon as part of their jobs. Detectives, investigators, and other law enforcement professionals may need to earn a license, undergo a background check, and/or complete an exam as part of the process.
  • State License for Criminal Justice Professionals: Many states require that legal professionals, including lawyers, bail bonds agents, law enforcement officers, and private investigators, apply for a license from the appropriate state agency before practicing in the state.
  • POST Certification: Law enforcement professionals can pursue POST certification: also known as Peace Officer's Standards and Training. This credential, based on standards created by federal, state, and local law enforcement experts, signals that a law enforcement professional adheres to the most current standards.
  • Certified Criminal Justice Addictions Professional: Offered according to standards set by the International Certification and Reciprocity Consortium, professionals with a background in criminal justice and addiction can earn this credential by passing an examination.

Professional Organizations & Resources

Professional organizations connect criminal justice workers and scholars with valuable resources and research materials, including scholarly journals, current news in the field, and technical standards. Joining a professional organization can lead to several benefits, including the ability to network with other professionals and access continuing-education opportunities. Many organizations also offer career services geared toward students and recent graduates, including job boards, resume tips, and career counseling.

  • American Correctional Association: Founded in 1870, ACA determines professional standards for corrections professionals. The association also hosts an annual conference, which provides networking opportunities.
  • American Jail Association: This association offers trainings, publications, and development resources to professionals who work in U.S. jails. AJA also hosts an annual conference.
  • American Criminal Justice Association: ACJA offers resources for criminal justice students, including graduation awards, curated career resources and job boards, and journals and newsletters.
  • Federal Law Enforcement Officers Association: An organization designed for federal law enforcement professionals, FLEOA consists of more than 25,000 members and grants awards each year.
  • American Bar Association: Dating back to 1878, ABA promotes the legal profession and accredits law schools. The association offers technical resources, training, and networking opportunities. Criminal justice professionals need not be lawyers to join.
  • National Criminal Justice Reference Service: Sponsored by the U.S. Department of Justice, NCJRS provides crime-related information for research, policy development, and other uses. The service also hosts trainings and conferences.
  • National Institute of Justice - Publications and Multimedia: Students, scholars, and professionals can access these resources to learn about corrections, the court system, and law enforcement techniques.
  • American Society of Criminology: By conducting research related to the prevention and control of crime, ASC provides valuable information for criminal justice professionals. The society also publishes data on crime and crime statistics.
  • National Criminal Justice Association: Criminal justice professionals can benefit from the advocacy resources at NCJA, which promotes effective policies at the local, state, and national levels.
  • ABA - Resources on Criminal Justice: These ABA resources contain videos and publications related to the U.S. criminal justice system, including Supreme Court cases that influence criminal justice.