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What Can You Do With A Master's In Criminal Justice?

When you pursue a master's degree in criminal justice, you can set yourself up to advance or enter careers in law enforcement, corrections, courtroom positions and security, as well as hone your real-world skills of research, analysis and communication.

Two professionals discussing what you can do with a master's degree in criminal justice and the text Jobs in the Criminal Justice Field

Choosing to pursue your master’s degree in criminal justice can not only assist you in advancing your career in the field, it can also improve your communication and research skills, as you learn more about the most current theories and trends in criminal justice. The “soft skills” you acquire in the program can be vital to your performance and can also show current and potential employers your commitment to the field and your transferable skill set.

The field of criminal justice is an exciting and diverse one. Whether your interests point you toward the courtroom or the penitentiary, toward a career as a paralegal or a parole officer, there are many ways to serve the country’s law and order system, on a local or federal level. Your advanced degree in criminal justice will further enhance your opportunities to ascend to management and leadership roles, whether in law enforcement, as a victim’s advocate in the court system or in many other justice system positions. It could lead to serving at a federal level in border patrol or national security, or as a forensic investigator or criminologist. The career directions and employment settings are up to you. 

As you gain a comprehensive understanding of how the criminal justice system works, at all stages of crime and punishment, you’ll also be sharpening your skills as a researcher, evaluator, debater, as well as increasing your understanding of human behavior, and what drives individuals to act as they do. These latter educational results can serve you well no matter what career path you choose.

What is Criminal Justice?

Criminal justice is a constantly evolving field encompassing public safety, national security and state and local law and order. It is a career arena that demands a high level of integrity with a deep understanding of the legal system, and requires qualified individuals who have the temperament and interpersonal skills to succeed in it. 

David Bynum and the text David BynumAs a degree program, it is the foundation of whichever facet of the system you wish to enter. “What is criminal justice? It is well-rounded knowledge,” said David Bynum, adjunct professor at Southern New Hampshire University (SNHU). “It has three distinct components: Law enforcement, corrections and courts. You (learn) the in-depth processes of each, independently and as a team. If you want a career in the legal process – as a police officer, lawyer, court reporter – this sets you up for all of them.”

If you’ve already achieved your undergraduate degree in the subject, you are already clearly dedicated to criminal justice. But it is a challenging field and not one to be entered into lightly. “You need to believe very strongly in it,” said Jennifer Hulvat, adjunct professor at SNHU. “These are difficult times. Ethical vigilance is critical. These are not easy jobs.”

Hulvat said that reform has to be part of the conversation. “I think anyone who truly wants to be a productive, ethical participant in this profession must understand what’s happening in our communities right now, and be sympathetic to it,” she said. “Awareness and discussion. It’s not ‘pick a side’; it’s listen. Support positive reform. To be part of a positive change, we have to create socially aware professionals, with crisis intervention training.”

Bynum backs this up with the assertion that “Education and intelligence are great, but it’s also how you carry and conduct yourself, and your reputation.”

Is a Master’s in Criminal Justice Worth It?

Why pursue a master’s degree? 

A master’s degree always sets you apart, from other job applicants and in the eyes of your current employer. In the criminal justice realm, it shows your commitment to ensuring your knowledge of trends and best practices is current, and can also give you the edge you need to advance your current career, or get your foot in the door.

The takeaways from a master’s program are threefold. You can:

  • Improve your career advancement opportunities
  • Enhance your own personal and academic skill set
  • Increase your ability to positively impact your community

“A master’s in criminal justice gives the graduate a full-scope, detailed look into the operational processes of the three disciplines (Police, Courts and Corrections), in order to successfully interact at all levels and make decisions based on knowledge of the process and targeted research,” Bynum said. “At the same time, you’re enhancing the graduate’s ability to articulate resolutions and improvements in an unchallenged way, earning the graduate respect, admiration, and upward mobility.”

Your master's degree in criminal justice can help you:

  • Get the competitive edge. “Law enforcement in general is highly competitive,” Bynum said. Without an advanced degree, there are “too many overachievers to compete with.” He also points to federal careers – applying for them, as well as trying to advance in existing positions. “To get a federal job, you’ll at least need a bachelor's degree. But a master's sets you up for leadership roles,” he said. “It gives you a leg up for higher positions. For instance, a division chief, or to lead advanced or basic training.” 
  • In his previous career roles at the Dept. of Homeland Security and at the Air Force Special Investigations Academy, Bynum had to review job applicants, and always sought out those with advanced degrees. “Most had the same experience and qualifications, but I'd seek out those with a master's or doctorate first. They showed, more so than anything, that they can take on a daunting task, organize and accomplish it. A master's degree shows you’re willing to take on a new task and accomplish it successfully.” 
  • Hone your critical thinking abilities. “Why get your master’s? Because you're a thinker. You're aware and able to recognize evidence-based practice, and data must drive policy change,” said Hulvat. “Master's programs teach you where to find the answers and how to analyze them – and makes you valuable to organizations. These are thinking times; we need to be able think through the issues. Sound thinking instead of being myopic.”
  • Give a better interview. Bynum said the skills taught at the master's level are not only impressive, they are in many cases literally what you’d be doing in a real-world position. And being able to showcase that knowledge in an interview or advancement query may be the deciding factor. 
  • “I think it’s great when students can drop the fact that they can do a SWOT analysis into an interview. I teach several courses and one was on intelligence gathering – how to take raw intelligence and create a full-fledged intel report – the same way the National Geospace Agency or the CIA do it. I try to coach them into getting their dream job, and how to interview and use those tools to highlight themselves. For instance, going for an Intelligence Specialist; you may have no experience, but you can tell them about knowing how to do an intel report in a scholastic environment,” he said.
  • Enhance your writing and communication skills. The better you are at expressing yourself and doing and presenting research, the more valuable you can be to your team. “You’ll be a better writer and communicator, which is so important in the public safety arena,” Bynum said. And because the master’s program is writing-, research- and analytically-intensive, students are asked to articulate problems and solutions on a higher level, as compared to their time in the bachelor's program. 
  • “That writing characteristic carries over to their job. (The focus is) not what you think, but what you can factually report,” Hulvat said. “Then when you say 'we can because this source, article, etc.,' you are able to show ‘we can do it this way.’ You can prove your assertion without being challenged. That will earn you the respect of people around and above you – and that’s what gets you promoted.”

What Kind of Master’s Degree Should You Get? 

Depending on where you’d like to take your criminal justice career, there are different options for your master’s degree program. You should choose a concentration that expands on wherever your goals lie in the field.

A master's degree can help you advance into leadership or management, and into a position where you can affect change in public policy. It can prepare you to take a stronger role in the justice system, and give you a better understanding of growing trends, like high-tech cyber crimes. You'll also enhance your skills in resource planning, consensus building, ethical leadership and business management, as they relate to the justice system.

A master’s degree in criminal justice can be a generalized, broad-reaching program, where students learn the latest research, leadership strategies, and criminological theory and how to utilize them in real-world situations. There are also universities that offer concentrations in areas like advanced counterterrorism or public safety administration. 

Advanced counterterrorism would include learning about national and homeland security challenges and initiatives, covering topics like global terrorism, terrorist techniques, threat assessment, intelligence collection analysis, and more. 

A concentration in public safety administration prepares you for leadership positions that address public policy, by understanding societal challenges and how policy decisions are made and implemented at local, state and federal levels.

Where Should I Get A Master’s Degree in Criminal Justice?

Jennifer Hulvat and the text Jennifer Hulvat

When researching where to pursue your advanced degree, be sure to find a program with a breadth of coursework that hones your ability to research, analyze and solve real-world challenges. It’s also valuable to find a university that provides instructors who are also professionals in the field, who can share their firsthand experience in criminal justice. 

Look for a program that perhaps includes adjunct faculty who have worked in law enforcement, as an attorney, or at a federal agency level. “The students really benefit” from this opportunity to learn from those who have this experience themselves, Hulvat said. 

“One thing we do really well at SNHU is that we hire movers and shakers in the career fields as adjuncts,” Bynum said. “They’re the cream of the crop: Leaders with practical experience, FBI agency leaders, chiefs of police… it turns out better students."

What Can I Do With a Master’s in Criminal Justice?

Whether your plan is to advance in your existing law enforcement position, or take your career in a completely different direction, your master’s degree in criminal justice can open doors your undergraduate degree might not. “Taking on systemic and programmatic issues, or to rise to management, you have to get the master's,” Hulvat said. “At the federal level, a master's degree positions you well. You might not be able to reach the supervisory or policy making level without it.”

One career option that Hulvat hopes more grad students will consider is becoming an educator. “What students don’t talk about enough as a career is teaching. The best instructors are the ones who balance real-life experience with academia,” Hulvat said. “Because of their ability to think and analyze, they’re great potential instructors down the line. When you mix those two, what a great benefit for the students. Your real-world experience exposure for them.”

Jobs In The Criminal Justice Field 

Your master's degree in criminal justice will help you advance or enter law enforcement, corrections, courtroom positions and security. Within those general areas of the justice system, there are many different kinds of jobs. 

“Not everyone has to carry a gun and bust doors down,” Bynum said. “There are needs for trainers, intelligence gatherers, aides… I encourage people to explore www.usajobs.gov and see the many kinds of law enforcement or criminal justice jobs being offered. There are more jobs out there that don’t carry a gun than do. There’s budgets, procurement and communication; thousands of different jobs related to criminal justice and the court system.”

There are many opportunities to serve your community within the justice system. Administrative roles are vital to the success of the courts, and are valued and important pieces of the whole. “Paralegals, legal assistants, court system case managers... these allied professional roles are right-hand positions to the professionals like attorneys,” Hulvat said. “Not every agency does intelligence work. But every one has administration. There’s always the operational aspect, budgets, paperwork, at the state, county, and federal levels.”

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, employment opportunities for paralegals and legal assistants are projected to grow by 12% from 2018 to 2028 – much faster than the average for all occupations. BLS notes that "formally trained paralegals with strong computer and database management skills should have the best job prospects."

There are also needs for witness and community coordinators and criminologists. “State and district attorney’s offices need individuals who can talk to victims and be polished and professional as they do that,” Hulvat said.

In corrections, you could utilize your skills as a corrections officer, case manager, probation officer or in a leadership position like officer supervisor or warden. Security roles can be local or on the federal level via the Dept. of Homeland Security or another agency. “There are thousands of different jobs (at the federal level),” Hulvat said. “From physical security, to special agents and different federal law enforcement roles. There are even underground bunker jobs.”

There are other jobs you might not immediately associate with your criminal justice degree, Hulvat said. “There’s asset-seizure management for tax evasion; that’s all going through the legal system.”

Because of the potential for high-stress and dangerous working conditions, law enforcement jobs are not to be entered into lightly. But the field is projected to show growth of 5% from 2018 through 2028, which is comparative to most other industries.

Your criminal justice salary naturally depends on which career course you pursue, the level within it that you achieve, and your ability to rise through the ranks based on your education and experience. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, some of the best paying jobs in criminal justice include:

With a master's degree in criminal justice, you'll be well-positioned to pursue several options to serve in the justice system. Whether you decide to focus on local or state government and law enforcement, or choose to be part of the corrections system and security, or want a more community-facing role working in an advocacy or policy-making position, a master's degree in criminal justice can help you get there.

Kathleen Palmer is an award-winning journalist and writer. 

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