Law Enforcement and Public Safety Leadership

What Master’s in Criminal Justice Degree is Right For You? [Comparison Guide]

Advice for Choosing a Law Enforcement or Criminal Justice Master’s Degree Program

If you are an experienced law enforcement or criminal justice professional who is thinking about earning your master’s degree, chances are you’re motivated by some of the following reasons:

  • To advance your career via internal promotion or at other departments/agencies
  • To better position yourself to move up the ranks into future leadership roles
  • To learn more about many of the strategies, trends and technologies that are reshaping police work in the 21st century
  • To broaden your perspective by interacting with fellow criminal justice professionals representing a wide range of different agencies and geographies
  • To lay the groundwork for a second career after retirement, in law enforcement or criminal justice, or perhaps a private-sector role that leverages your valuable experience and expertise
  • To develop a deeper understanding of highly relevant topics like organizational dynamics, communication techniques, collective bargaining and contract negotiation, budgeting and more
  • To embrace the personal and professional challenge of fulfilling a long-held goal
  • Or, bottom line, to make an even greater impact on the communities that you serve

These are just some of the reasons why many law enforcement professionals consider earning a master’s in criminal justice. And while an increase in pay may not be your primary motivation, many departments and agencies do offer salary increases to officers with advanced degrees. Having your master’s degree will also give you a competitive edge when putting in for promotion or applying to a new department or agency.

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Master’s Degree in Criminal Justice: Key Questions to Consider

There are plenty of questions that come to mind when exploring your options for earning a master’s degree in criminal justice. Depending on your situation, these may include:

  • How will a master’s in criminal justice help me position myself for promotional opportunities?
  • Will a master’s in criminal justice enable me to earn a higher salary?
  • How long does it take to get a criminal justice master’s degree?
  • What does the curriculum look like for various criminal justice master’s degrees?
  • Does an online degree carry the same weight as an on-campus degree?
  • I’ve got a lot on my plate with young kids at home and an unpredictable work schedule. How will I fit a master’s degree into my schedule?
  • I earned my bachelor’s degree 20 years ago. How well will I be able to readjust to academics and stay focused in an online graduate program?

You probably already have some clear ideas about your career aspirations and how a master’s degree can help you reach those goals.

Maybe you want to rise to the rank of chief of police in your hometown or city department. Or if you’re nearing retirement, perhaps you’re looking to start teaching the next generation of law enforcement professionals at a college or university as a criminal justice professor.

But one common denominator is that — whatever your goals — your master’s degree in criminal justice may be instrumental in helping you achieve them in several ways:

  • By expanding your knowledge and expertise, and sharpening your leadership acumen
  • By giving you a clear competitive edge against applicants who lack your educational credentials
  • By potentially qualifying you for a salary increase

One study found that nearly 40 percent of departments and agencies offer at least a 5 percent pay increase for officers who obtain a master’s degree, while 20 percent increase pay by 7.5 percent or more.

According to the same study (“Policing Around the Nation: Education, Philosophy and Practice”), 35.1 percent of law enforcement CEOs have earned at least a master’s degree; and officers with higher education tend to be perceived as more effective in a broad range of law enforcement duties.

The time commitment for earning your master’s degree in criminal justice is typically 20-24 months. But what graduate degree makes the most sense for you?

Master’s in Criminal Justice: Investigating Your Options

Today there are many more options than just the traditional criminal justice degree. Universities understand that students have varying goals and career ambitions, which is why there are so many law enforcement and criminal justice master’s degree programs now being offered.

When evaluating your options, it’s important to consider what type of specialization you are most interested in. For example:

  • Criminology
  • Criminal Justice
  • Forensic Science
  • Homeland Security
  • Public Safety Administration
  • Law Enforcement Leadership

To best select your higher education path, be sure to explore the options to see which criminal justice master’s degree will be most helpful to your specific career goals. Here is a comparison of four of the most popular master’s degree programs related to the field of criminal justice.

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Master of Science in Criminal Justice

A Master of Science in Criminal Justice degree is, in most cases, an extension of a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice, focusing on research methods, statistics, criminology and project management. Criminal justice graduate programs typically emphasize criminology research and theory over practical skills.

Core course examples include:

  • Crime Causation, Prevention and Control
  • Design and Analysis in Criminal Justice Research
  • Criminal Justice Management
  • Research Methods

While studying criminal justice has been a traditional path for those who want to move into command positions, most curricula have not changed over the past two decades. In today’s evolving law enforcement landscape, where leadership and management skills are in high demand, there’s a case to be made that the traditional criminal justice degree is losing its luster.

This degree is often best suited for individuals who want to do academic research in criminal justice and perhaps even go on earn their Ph.D. It tends to emphasize academic analysis of criminal behavior as a social construct, and is typically less focused on practical training useful in confronting today’s most urgent policing challenges.

Master of Science in Forensic Science

A master’s degree in forensic science is typically intended for those who want to work in leadership positions as forensic scientists or criminologists within crime labs — analyzing fingerprints, blood samples and evidential material — or in a closely related scientific field. Courses tend to focus on scientific techniques and methods, homicide scene investigation, evidence analysis, and concepts and research methods in forensic science.

Core course examples include:

  • Biological Evidence and Serology
  • Forensic DNA Analysis
  • Applied Statistics for Data Analysis
  • Genetics/Bioinformatics

Many students who receive their master’s in forensic science go on to pursue a doctoral degree.

Master of Science in Public Safety Administration

The objective of a master’s degree in public safety administration is typically to prepare law enforcement professionals for managerial roles in firehouses, police or sheriff’s departments, or other public safety organizations. This degree offers a broader look at the field by focusing on public safety in general as opposed to just the law enforcement segment and concentrates heavily on the skills required to manage a department — such as training, development, HR and administration.

Core course examples include:

  • Public Safety Administration and Management
  • Public Safety Law and Civil Liability
  • Multicultural Diversity
  • Human Resources Management

Law enforcement professionals with a master’s in public safety administration typically find jobs in emergency management, university campuses, environmental protection or in federal agencies such as the Department of Homeland Security. Because this degree is so broad, it can be applied to a number of positions within these sectors, from an air marshal or policy analyst to a corporate security officer or an emergency management director.

Master of Science in Law Enforcement and Public Safety Leadership

The Master of Science in Law Enforcement and Public Safety Leadership is a more modern degree that was born from an industry need for strategic law enforcement leaders equipped to deal with the challenging range of issues facing today’s criminal justice professionals, including police-community relations and the increased use of technology by both criminals and law enforcement.

This leadership-focused master’s degree offers an interdisciplinary approach that includes management, communication and conflict resolution, emphasizing tangible skill building and the immediate application of these skills to contemporary law enforcement and public safety issues.

Core course examples include:

  • Organizational Leadership
  • Budget and Finance for Law Enforcement Leaders
  • Community Engagement
  • Conflict Resolution and Decision Making
  • Communication for Law Enforcement Leaders

Professionals with a master’s degree in law enforcement and public safety leadership are typically working in (or aspiring to) command-level positions in local, state and federal agencies.

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On-Campus vs. Online Criminal Justice Master’s Degree Programs

Many law enforcement and criminal justice professionals prefer an online format because it offers great flexibility to schedule their school responsibilities around the demands of their work duties and family life. Fortunately, many universities are offering online degree programs that are just as academically rigorous, if not more so, than their on-campus counterparts. There are also hybrid programs that mix the in-person classroom experience with the virtual or online component.

The best online programs typically emphasize robust interaction with fellow students, allowing law enforcement professionals from around the country to learn from one another’s diverse experiences. Another benefit of online degree programs is that they generally require more writing — a skill that is extremely valuable in many fields, but especially in law enforcement leadership. 

Earning Your Criminal Justice Master’s Degree: Other Factors to Consider

Choosing Your Program

Whatever program you select, the following are some of the attributes you may wish to prioritize when evaluating your criminal justice master’s degree options:

  • Leadership development is emphasized in the curriculum.
  • Coursework is designed to be practical and applied, not abstract or theoretical.
  • 21st century policing is the focus, with in-depth study of current criminal justice and law enforcement challenges.
  • Law enforcement professionals and public safety organizations have collaborated with the university to ensure that the program has a relevant, real-world focus.
  • Faculty is comprised of experienced criminal justice professionals.
  • Tuition discounts are offered for working law enforcement professionals, active duty military, veterans and military spouses. Veterans should confirm that program accepts G.I. Bill® and participates in VA’s Yellow Ribbon Program.
  • Flexible class scheduling can make it possible for you to complete your coursework without interfering with your work or family obligations
  • The path toward graduation is reasonable in duration, ideally less than two years for a master’s degree.
  • The graduation rate for the program is high, indicating there is a low dropout rate and that most of the students who enroll are able to complete the program.

Academic Accreditation (Regional vs. National)

When searching for the best criminal justice or law enforcement master’s degree for your needs, it is wise to limit your search to reputable, regionally accredited universities.

Regional accreditation is typically awarded to degree-oriented, non-profit or state-owned institutions. It is the most widely accepted and trusted in terms of transfer credit and eligibility for employer tuition assistance programs.

National accreditation customarily refers to for-profit schools or religious schools that offer vocational or technical training. Many agencies and departments will not recognize degrees or coursework from nationally accredited schools. This means that if your department offers tuition assistance or increased pay upon degree completion, you may not qualify for these benefits if you select a nationally accredited university rather than one that has earned regional accreditation.

Master’s Degree Curriculum: Leadership Skills vs. Criminology and Theory

Because criminal justice master’s degree programs typically emphasize criminology (the scientific study of crime and criminals) and theory over tangible skills in leadership and management, the most useful criminal justice degree might just be a master’s in Law Enforcement and Public Safety Leadership.

A master’s degree focused on law enforcement leadership like the one offered online by University of San Diego will include a practical curriculum that addresses the diverse set of skills needed to perform as an effective leader in today’s rapidly evolving law enforcement landscape.

These include:

  • Leadership and supervision
  • Critical-thinking and conflict-resolution
  • Business and financial management
  • Awareness of the expanding role of technology
  • Analytical skills for assessing crime trends and allocating resources appropriately
  • Comprehensive understanding of public safety and constitutional law
  • Superior communication abilities
  • The ability to engage with the community and develop policies that build trust and support a positive police-community relationship

“Now, more than ever, police officers need leaders to understand how to lead and inspire those they oversee. They need to identify and react appropriately not just to the challenges on the streets but to the ever-changing communities they work in and the political demands placed upon them,” said Lt. Brian Goldberg of the San Diego Police Department. “The University of San Diego has stepped up and embraced the leadership challenges faced daily by organizations all over the country. There is no better program or university to step up your game and take your personal and organizational worth to the next level.”

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Your Criminal Justice Master’s Degree: Taking the Next Step

Of course, one of the biggest questions for anyone who is interested in earning a master’s in criminal justice centers on money. How much does it cost? Is there financial aid or scholarships available? How does the size of my investment square with my ability to pay for my degree?

There are definitely significant financial aid opportunities and scholarship programs available; and some departments and agencies offer tuition reimbursement and educational incentives. In addition, the University of San Diego offers a tuition discount to members of law enforcement and public safety associations or unions, as well as to active duty military, veterans and military spouses.

Overall, your best bet to answer all of these questions — and to gain greater insight into such essentials as the structure of the program, your weekly time commitment needed to succeed and more — is to start a conversation with an enrollment advisor.


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