What Can You Do With a Master's in Criminal Justice?
Understanding the numbers
When reviewing job growth and salary information, it’s important to remember that actual numbers can vary due to many different factors — like years of experience in the role, industry of employment, geographic location, worker skill and economic conditions. Cited projections do not guarantee actual salary or job growth.
Pursuing your master’s degree in criminal justice can not only help you advance your career in the field; it can also improve your communication and research skills. You'll learn more about the most current theories and trends in criminal justice. The “soft skills” you acquire can prepare you for a career and show 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 sharpen your skills as a researcher, evaluator and debater and increase 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's a career arena that demands high integrity with a deep understanding of the legal system. In addition, the field requires qualified individuals with the temperament and interpersonal skills to succeed.
As a degree program, it's the foundation of whichever facet of the system you wish to enter.
“What is criminal justice? It is well-rounded knowledge,” said David Bynum, a social sciences instructor at Southern New Hampshire University (SNHU).
“It has three distinct components: Law enforcement, corrections and courts," Bynum said. "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 (or) court reporter — this sets you up for all of them.”
If you’ve already earned your undergraduate degree in criminal justice, you're already dedicated to criminal justice. But it's a challenging field and not one to be entered into lightly.
“You need to believe very strongly in it,” said Jennifer Hulvat, a social sciences instructor at SNHU and practicing lawyer for 30+ years. “These are difficult times. Ethical vigilance is critical. These are not easy jobs.”
Hulvat said that reform has to be part of the conversation.
"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 are essential, she stressed. It's not about 'picking a side.' It's about listening. She believes we need to create socially aware professionals to be part of a positive change.
Careers to Explore With a Master’s in Criminal Justice
Whether you plan to advance in your existing law enforcement position or take your career in a different direction, a master's degree can present new opportunities.
Earning a master's degree can help, Hulvat said, if you want to become a manager or address systematic or programmatic issues.
One career option that Hulvat hopes more graduate 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 can help you advance or enter law enforcement, corrections, courtroom positions and security. Within those general justice system areas, there are many different kinds of jobs.
Bynum dispelled some common misconceptions about careers in the criminal justice field. "Not everyone has to carry a gun or bust down doors," he said, elaborating on the range of positions beyond the frontline. For example, there are needs for trainers, intelligence gatherers and aides.
He also suggests looking at USAJOBS.gov to understand the types of criminal justice jobs available. There are many opportunities to serve your community within the justice system. Administrative roles are vital to the courts' success and are valued and essential 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 everyone has administration. There’s always the operational aspect (like) budgets (and) paperwork, at the state, county and federal levels.”
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), employment opportunities for paralegals and legal assistants are projected to grow by 14% through 2031 — much faster than the average for all occupations.
There is also the need 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.
You could utilize your skills as a corrections officer, case manager, probation officer or in leadership positions like officer supervisor or warden. Security roles can be local or federal via the Department 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. “There’s asset-seizure management for tax evasion; that’s all going through the legal system," Hulvat said.
Law enforcement jobs should not be entered lightly because of the potential for high-stress and dangerous working conditions. The field is projected to show growth of 3% through 2031, according to BLS.
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 BLS, some of the highest median annual wage jobs in criminal justice include:
- First-line police and detective supervisors: $96,290
- Police and detectives: $66,020
- Forensic science technicians: $61,930
- Probation officers and correctional treatment specialists: $60,250
- Paralegals and legal assistants: $56,230
Is a Master’s in Criminal Justice Worth It?
A master’s degree can set 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. It can also give you the edge to advance your career or get your foot in the door.
The takeaways from a master’s program are threefold. You can:
- Enhance your own personal and academic skill set
- Improve your career advancement opportunities
- Increase your ability to impact your community positively
Obtaining a master's degree in criminal justice provides the recipient with a comprehensive, in-depth insight into the functioning of the three main disciplines — police, courts and corrections, Bynum explained. In addition, you can learn to make informed decisions driven by an understanding of the procedures and specific research.
“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,” Bynum said.
Here are four ways a master's degree in criminal justice can help you.
1. Get the Competitive Edge
“Law enforcement, in general, is highly competitive,” Bynum said.
He also points to federal careers — applying for them and 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,” Bynum 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 work at the Department of Homeland Security and 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," he said. "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.”
2. Hone Your Critical-thinking Abilities
Master's programs provide more than just knowledge, Hulvat said. They equip students with the tools to recognize evidence-based practice and analyze answers. Skills like these are sought after by organizations.
"These are thinking times," she said. "We need to be able to think through issues.”
3. Give a Better Interview
Bynum said the skills taught at the master's level are notable and, in many cases, what you’d be doing in a real-world position. Showcasing that knowledge in an interview or advancement query may be the deciding factor.
For example, he said it's impressive when students confidently mention their ability to conduct a SWOT analysis — evaluating strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats — during an interview.
Bynum, who teaches various courses in the criminal justice program, discussed the hands-on experience gained. One course he taught focused on intelligence gathering. In it, you'd learn to process raw intelligence and generate a comprehensive intel report, much like those produced by institutions like the National Geospace Agency or the Central Intelligence Agency.
"I try to coach them into getting their dream job and how to interview and use those tools to highlight themselves," he said. "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.”
4. Enhance Your Writing and Communication Skills
The better you are at expressing yourself as well as conducting 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.
Because the master’s program is writing, research and analytically intensive, you'd be asked to articulate problems and solutions on a higher level than their 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. It could help if you considered 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 more substantial 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 related 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.
Some universities offer concentrations in areas like:
- Advanced counterterrorism: This concentration focuses on learning about national and homeland security challenges and initiatives, covering topics like global terrorism, terrorist techniques, threat assessment and intelligence collection analysis.
- Public safety administration: This concentration can prepare you for leadership positions that address public policy by helping you understand societal challenges and how policy decisions are made and implemented at local, state and federal levels.
Where Should You Get A Master’s Degree in Criminal Justice?
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.
You can benefit by learning from those who have 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."
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 focus on local or state government and law enforcement, 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.
Discover more about SNHU's master's in criminal justice: Find out what courses you'll take, skills you'll learn and how to request information about the program.
Kathleen Palmer is an award-winning journalist and writer.
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