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

14 min read
USD LEPSL criminal justice master's degree

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.

[RELATED] Police Sergeant Achieves Career Goals After Earning Master’s Degree >>

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.

[RELATED] See the Different Agencies Represented by Graduate Students in Law Enforcement Leadership >>

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.

[RELATED] The Case for More Effective Law Enforcement Leadership Training >>

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.”

[RELATED] What It’s Like to Take an Online Degree Program >>

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.

Master’s in Criminal Justice vs. Master’s in Public Administration vs. Master’s in Law Enforcement and Public Safety Leadership

 Master’s in Criminal JusticeMaster’s in Public AdministrationMaster’s in Law Enforcement and Public Safety Leadership
Intended ForIndividuals who want to do academic research in criminal justice or criminology, or even aspire to earn their Ph.D. Criminal justice master’s programs tend to emphasize academic analysis of criminal behavior as a social construct and are typically less focused on practical training useful in confronting today’s policing challenges.Professionals working in a variety of roles, usually in government agencies and NGOs, who aspire to management and leadership positions and/or seek to better understand and influence public policy. Law enforcement professionals who are interested in becoming more effective leaders in their departments, and/or current law enforcement executives who wish to lead change and develop creative solutions to meet the evolving needs of their agencies and communities. 
Coursework Focus Areas
  • Crime Causation, Prevention and Control
  • Design and Analysis in Criminal Justice Research
  • Criminal Justice Management
  • Criminology Theory
  • Research Methods
  • Public Finance
  • Research Methods
  • Statistics
  • Policy Analysis
  • Managerial Accounting
  • Ethics
  • Public Management
  • Microeconomics
  • Fundraising
  • Organizational and Team Development for Public Safety
  • Communication Strategies 
  • Public Safety Law
  • Community Engagement
  • Conflict Resolution 
  • Decision Making
  • Public Safety Budgeting and Staffing
Potential Career Paths or Organizations Degree Holders Work At
  • Criminal Justice
  • Criminology
  • Homeland Security
  • Public Administration
  • Law Enforcement Leadership
  • Criminal Justice Professor
  • Criminal Justice Researcher
  • Urban Planning
  • City Management
  • Emergency Management
  • Public Safety
  • Environmental Policy
  • Economic Development
  • Community Development
  • Nonprofit Management
  • Police Departments
  • Sheriff’s Offices
  • Highway Patrol
  • Federal Law Enforcement Agencies
  • State Agencies
  • Private Sector Security and Investigative Departments (insurance, etc.)

Law Enforcement Master’s Degree FAQs

 Q: What can I do with a master’s degree in criminal justice?

A: A master’s degree in criminal justice, especially one that focuses on leadership skills, can set law enforcement professionals up for promotional opportunities, especially supervisory positions like sergeant, and command staff roles such as lieutenant, captain or even chief. It can also help when applying to command staff positions in another agency, as well as post-retirement teaching opportunities.  

Q: Can I teach criminal justice with a master’s degree?

A: Yes, many people who enroll in a law enforcement leadership or criminal justice master’s degree program go on to teach college-level courses in this discipline. This is particularly common for retired law enforcement professionals, who are often looking for ways to leverage their experience and make a contribution to the development of future law enforcement professionals.

Q: How long does it take to earn a master’s degree in criminal justice?

A: This will vary depending on the program and whether you’re a full-time or part-time student. Full time students can often complete a master’s degree in one year. But if you’re currently working full time, it’s more likely you’ll need a lighter class load, in which case you can expect to finish your degree in two years. 

Q: What are the prerequisites required to enroll in a criminal justice master’s program?

A: At a minimum, you’ll need to have completed a bachelor’s degree from an accredited university. Some programs will have additional requirements, for example some may require related work experience, a specific field of undergraduate study, and/or minimum undergraduate GPA. Most programs also require at least one letter of recommendation, as well as an admission essay.

Q: What types of courses are common in criminal justice master’s degree programs?

A: Criminal justice master’s degrees vary widely in their course offerings, and it’s important for prospective students to look closely at the specific classes they will be taking to make sure the learning objectives align with their career goals. Most traditional criminal justice master’s degrees offer courses in criminology, research methods, criminal justice policy, and the theory of crime in society.  Students often find the classes in many criminal justice master’s degree programs to be more closely aligned to academic and/or research pursuits than to the field of law enforcement. By contrast, a program intended for practical application such as the  Master’s in Law Enforcement & Public Safety Leadership will include coursework that is more focused on skill-building in relevant areas such as technology, community relations, budgeting and finance, conflict resolution, ethical decision making, and public safety law.

Q: How does a criminal justice master’s degree prepare me to work in a modern law enforcement organization?

A: Different criminal justice master’s programs have differing curricula — some are largely theoretical in nature and teach courses in criminology, research methods, and policy and planning, while others are geared towards more practical applications and specific job functions such as homeland security,  cyber crime, or corrections . If you’re looking for a program that is more like the latter, seek out a master’s degree designed to reflect and prepare you for the current state of affairs in criminal justice. It should be taught by current and former criminal justice professionals (who also have academic credentials), and should have a curriculum that was shaped by their law enforcement experiences and expertise. Also, make sure the program you enroll in regularly updates their courses and curriculum to stay up to date with the latest best practices and theories in criminal justice and law enforcement leadership.

Q: Does a criminal justice master’s degree teach leadership skills?

A: Not necessarily. Leadership development is not a goal of most criminal justice master’s degrees. Traditional criminal justice master’s degrees focus on criminology, which is largely theoretical in nature. Conversely, some people opt to pursue a Master’s in Leadership, but the downside of that is that these programs don’t include any criminal justice-specific instruction. If you are looking to develop your leadership skills, try to find a program that includes “law enforcement leadership” or “law enforcement administration” in its name, such as Master of Science in Law Enforcement and Public Safety Leadership. This type of program will emphasize leadership development and have an interdisciplinary curriculum covering administrative topics such as change management, budgeting and staffing, communication, community relations, and conflict resolution, all with a focus on law enforcement.

Q: Will a criminal justice master’s degree help me increase my salary? 

A: This will depend on your department’s salary scale or raise structure. But having a master’s degree will help you advance up the career ladder, which will almost certainly result in a salary increase. Some agencies have implemented educational requirements for certain ranks, meaning that you may find you need a master’s degree to even be considered for promotion. Even if your agency doesn’t have such a requirement, having a master’s degree on your resume could give you a competitive advantage.

Q: Are online criminal justice master’s degrees as reputable as on-campus degree programs?

A: Absolutely. Many online degrees have earned the same regional accreditation as on-campus programs, offer the same course options and are taught by the same faculty members. What’s more, online degree options provide the flexibility often required by working professionals who are already juggling family and work responsibilities. But it is important to restrict your search to programs that have achieved “regional accreditation,” which is considered the gold standard when it comes to academic quality. National accreditation from agencies such as DEAC is widely considered to be a less rigorous standard, and as a result some employers that offer tuition reimbursement will expressly prohibit programs with this accreditation.

Q: Will a criminal justice master’s degree provide me with networking opportunities with other law enforcement professionals?

A: Yes, particularly if you choose a program that includes law enforcement professional experience as an admission requirement. Most master’s degree programs provide opportunities for robust in-class discussions, and also offer networking opportunities with alumni of the program. Many students have found that enrolling in an online master’s degree actually provided greater networking opportunities than a campus-based program would, as classmates and alumni of the program represent agencies and departments across the country, whereas an on-campus program will attract professionals from local agencies only (which can sometimes stifle crucial conversations).  For those working in law enforcement, having a nationwide network for idea sharing can be especially valuable.

Q: Do I need a criminal justice master’s degree if I’ve already attended FBI National Academy, Command College, Magnus, FBI-LEEDA’s Trilogy or other law enforcement leadership training?

A: That all depends on your goals in terms of your law enforcement career, as well as your plans after retirement. All of these leadership programs provide invaluable learning opportunities, and are generally funded by your agency. Many law enforcement leaders find that once they attend one of these trainings, they get the “learning bug” and become inspired to go back to school. If you’ve attended one of these excellent law enforcement leadership programs and are considering going on to get your master’s degree, you may find that a leadership-focused degree program may more closely align with your professional goals than a traditional criminal justice master’s degree. You are likely already working in (or toward) a command-level position, so you may be more interested in a program that helps you further develop your leadership effectiveness than a program steeped in criminal justice theory. Also look for a master’s degree program that can offer you graduate level transfer credit for your training, reducing the time it will take you to earn your degree. 

Q: Do I need a criminal justice master’s degree to get a chief of police job?

A: Not necessarily, but having a master’s degree will drastically increase your chances of being promoted into leadership positions, including chief of police. It is important to note that many departments and agencies around the country are updating their requirements for advancement into law enforcement leadership, and will require command-level staff to hold advanced degrees. This varies by agency size and geographic area, among other things. But even without an educational requirement, the right master’s degree will help you be a more effective leader, which will also support your career advancement goals. 

Free eBook: How earning your master’s degree can help you achieve your career goals.

Moving Up the Ranks: How a Master’s Degree Can Help You Take Your Career to the Next Level