Criminal justice is the practice of enforcing the law and penalizing citizens who violate it. At the master’s degree level, it is understood that you already have a background in criminal justice and you are ready to discuss theories and ethical issues at play in the criminal justice system. While undergraduate criminal justice programs discuss procedures and logistics in law enforcement, graduate programs discuss why these processes are in place. A master’s degree program examines advanced concepts in the discipline and prepares you for high level positions in the field.

Why a Master’s Degree?

This degree level is usually geared toward criminal justice professionals who want to take their careers to the next level. A master’s degree in criminal justice is ideal if you want to transition out of a law enforcement role and into an administrative role. The advanced coursework in a master’s program prepares you for the kind of decision-making and program design that is part of many criminal justice administrative positions. Also, when you get an online master’s degree in criminal justice, you have the option to continue working while you complete your degree. If you already have a bachelor’s degree and want to begin a career in criminal justice, a master’s degree program can also help you make that transition.

Getting Into a Master’s Degree Program

The best online master’s degree in criminal justice will have competitive admissions standards. You can expect a more rigorous admissions process than at the undergraduate level and will need the following items to be considered for many programs:

  • Bachelor’s degree in related subject
  • 2-3 letters of recommendation
  • Passing GRE Score

Inside a Criminal Justice Master’s Degree Program

Criminal justice master’s programs usually require 30-60 course credit hours. As a result, the length of a criminal justice master’s program can vary from one year to three years. Some may take longer to complete if you enroll part time, but many online programs in this field allow for flexible scheduling, a major benefit to the online format for working professionals. You can expect to attend classes in an online program by logging in to or watching video lectures each week. These lectures are often paired with reading assignments and other projects, like research papers or exams. These projects are designed to exercise your research, analysis, and critical thinking techniques and test your knowledge of the material covered in class.

Unlike undergraduate curricula that include general education courses, a master’s curriculum jumps right into intermediate and advanced courses in criminal justice. You can expect to take a combination of major courses and related electives. Major classes might include topics in policy analysis, program evaluation, research methods, statistics analysis, and advanced criminology. You will also take a capstone class in many programs, in which you will focus on an independent research topic that you present in a final paper called a thesis. Some online programs may have a non-thesis option, in which you will take a comprehensive exam instead of presenting your thesis research.

What’s Next for Criminal Justice Master’s Degree Holders?

If you don’t have experience working in crime control or the justice system, a master’s degree can lead you to a career in high level law enforcement or corrections. With experience, it can position you to move into administration. For experienced criminal justice or law enforcement professionals, the master’s degree can advance your career to leadership positions in policy and program development. It can also lead to a career in academia.

After completing a master’s degree in criminal justice, you still have options for further education. Post-master’s certificate programs allow you to specialize in specific areas of criminal justice and usually take less than a year to complete. However, if you want to pursue a career in academic research and teaching, you can also complete a doctoral degree in criminal justice.