Law Enforcement and Public Safety Leadership

Comparing Programs: What Criminal Justice Master’s Degree is Right For You?

Advice for choosing a criminal justice or law enforcement master’s degree program

If you are an experienced law enforcement or criminal justice professional and are exploring ways to advance your career, you may be thinking of returning to school for a master’s degree. But what graduate degree makes the most sense for you?

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

Before selecting 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.

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

Choosing Your Program

Whatever program you select, 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 makes it possible for you to complete your coursework without interfering with your work or family demands
  • 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 drop-out rate and that most of the students who enroll are able to complete the program.

Online vs. On-Campus

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.

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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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