Law Enforcement and Public Safety Leadership

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

Erik Fritsvold, PhD

Erik Fritsvold, PhD

Academic Director, M.S. Law Enforcement and Public Safety Leadership

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. Here are the different criminal justice master’s degree specializations you could consider:

  • Criminology
  • Criminal Justice
  • Homeland Security
  • Public 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. These degree programs will prepare you for a wide variety of career paths, ranging from FBI Agent to Policy Management to Chief of Police. 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’s in Criminal Justice

A master’s degree in criminal justice 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 historically been a common path for those who have aspired 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 may lack practical application for law enforcement leaders.

This degree is often best suited for individuals who want to do academic research in criminal justice and perhaps even go on to 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 policing challenges.

Master of Public Administration (MPA)

The objective of a master’s degree in public administration is typically to prepare law enforcement professionals for managerial roles in firehouses, police or sheriff’s departments, or other governmental or non-profit agencies. 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 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’s in Law Enforcement and Public Safety Leadership

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

This leadership-focused master’s degree offers practical (rather than theoretical) curriculum that emphasizes tangible skill building in management and staffing, communication, conflict resolution, budgeting, public safety law and other skills required of today’s law enforcement executives.

Core course examples include:

  • Data Fluency and Analysis
  • Public Policy Innovation
  • Budget and Finance for Law Enforcement Leaders
  • Best Practices in Community Engagement
  • Law Enforcement Management and Conflict Resolution
  • Communication Skills 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. This degree is also appealing to law enforcement professionals who are nearing the end of their career and looking for a practical professional development program that will support their post-retirement aspirations.

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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 by transferring to another department or agency
  • 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 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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Choosing Your Criminal Justice Master’s Degree: 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 degree help me position myself for promotion and career growth in the criminal justice field?
  • Will a master’s degree enable me to earn a higher salary in my department or agency?
  • How long does it take to get the criminal justice master’s degree I’m considering?
  • 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 titled “Policing Around the Nation: Education, Philosophy and Practice,” found that nearly 40% of departments and agencies offer at least a 5% pay increase for officers who obtain a master’s degree, while 20% increase pay by 7.5% or more.

According to the same study, 35.1% 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 type of graduate degree program makes the most sense for you?

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

Many law enforcement and criminal justice professionals prefer an online format because it offers 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 an online degree program is that they generally require more writing — a skill that is extremely valuable in many fields, but especially in law enforcement leadership. 

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

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 provided input to ensure that the program has a relevant, real-world focus.
  • Faculty is comprised of experienced criminal justice professionals rather than academic professors.
  • Tuition discounts are offered for working law enforcement professionals, active duty military and veterans. Veterans should confirm that the university accepts G.I. Bill® funding and participates in the 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 colleges 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. Additionally, if you decide to transfer to another university mid-stream, you may find that the units you earned at a nationally accredited university cannot be transferred. This is the unfortunate situation many students have recently experienced after the closure of several for-profit schools.

Master’s Degree Curriculum: Leadership Skills vs. Criminology, Public Policy 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
  • Budgeting, staffing 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 amid today’s evolving landscape
  • Communication – to the media, with the community, between colleagues, with political officials, and more
  • 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 Brian Goldberg, Captain (Retired) 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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Paying for Your Criminal Justice Master’s Degree

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

There are definitely financial aid opportunities and scholarship programs available; and some departments and agencies offer tuition reimbursement and educational incentives. Some universities may offer transfer credit for law enforcement specific training programs such as Command College, FBI National Academy coursework, FBI-LEEDA and other regional or national trainings. This can help reduce your required course load and corresponding program cost. 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.

With so many options when it comes to selecting a criminal justice master’s degree program, it’s imperative to do your due diligence to  find the right option for you. Beyond the specific career path you want to pursue, the learning format – online or in person – and financial aid options will also impact the program you choose. If you find a program that checks all the boxes, start the process by requesting more information and speaking with someone in admissions.

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