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Master of Criminal Justice (MCJ) | Context - Context
Online Master of Criminal Justice (MCJ)
Master of Criminal Justice (MCJ) In Context

A Master of Criminal Justice degree enables graduates to get ahead in a highly diverse, crowded job market. It also opens the door to careers in management, policymaking, research, and academia, helping to shape the future of the justice system for the benefit of society.

  • As of 2016, approximately 3 million Americans were employed in the field of criminal justice. [1]
  • Many people mistake criminal justice for law enforcement. In fact, criminal justice professionals include corrections, forensic science, private security, homeland security, federal agencies, academia, and the legal sector.
  • The median salary for criminal justice careers that favor master’s graduates is between $45,900 and $77,210. [2]
  • The criminal justice sector has long been one of the fastest-growing in the United States. Nationally, there continues to be a heightened focus on immigration, public safety, security, and law enforcement, which has fed the demand for well-qualified professionals. While some areas of the sector are now slowing in growth, the BLS estimates that police and detective employment will grow 4% through 2024. [3]
  • The average wage for criminal justice teachers was $58,770 in 2015. Job growth for criminal justice academics is expected to grow substantially: 13% through 2024. [4]

Varying widely from school to school, and with a huge number of concentrations, electives, and double majors on offer, the MCJ broadly enables students to explore the structure of the criminal justice system — including law enforcement and correction — in depth. Commonly combined subjects that you may be able to study include forensic behavioral analysis, psychology, sociology, criminology, criminal law, and information security.

With the criminal justice field constantly evolving, prospective students are faced with a huge number of potential study options, schools, and programs. In this guide, we’ll break down the different decisions to work through, including the practical elements of tuition, fees, and study methods, as well as how to choose a degree program to fit your career aspirations.

What is criminal justice?

Criminal justice refers to the established law enforcement systems that operate to deal with crime. These include the detection of crime, the detention of criminals, and the processes for prosecution and correction. By contrast, criminology is the scientific study of the anatomy of a crime’s causes, immediate consequences, and wider costs.

Today’s criminal justice system is more interdependent than ever. Each facet (law enforcement, the courts, and corrections) has to have an understanding of the others’ challenges to remain effective. Studying criminal justice at the master’s level should help prepare graduates for the complex nature of emerging crime issues, as well as refine their decision-making ability for leadership positions in any of those professional fields. As the criminal justice system becomes more complex, there’s an evolving need for well-informed, outward-thinking professionals who understand the wider implications of every decision.

Common practice areas

MCJ graduates can go on to work in a wide range of roles and settings, including:

  • Emergency management
  • Homeland security
  • Computer forensics/cyber security
  • Corrections
  • rime scene investigation
  • Criminology
  • Law enforcement/policing
  • Safety
  • Forensic science

The BLS has published average salaries against some of the most common graduate job titles: [8]

  • Chief of police or sheriff ($102,092)
  • Detectives and criminal investigators ($79,620)
  • Forensic science technicians ($60,090)
  • Postsecondary teachers ($72,470)
  • Transit and railroad police officers ($59,670)
  • Police and Sheriff’s Patrol Officers ($58,320)
  • Fish and Game Wardens ($52,780)
Who is the MCJ for?

Most people who enroll on an MCJ program have some work experience in the criminal justice sector that they wish to build on in order to move forward in their careers. This includes making the transition into a position in education. Criminal justice professors help to shape the next generation of practitioners as well as influence policy through research. Here are some common reasons students enroll:

Career advancement

A master’s degree can be just the thing to give you the edge when pursuing a higher position. Having a degree of any level is increasingly demanded by law enforcement agencies, but the complex knowledge and expertise gained through a master’s program can help you shine. The level of education also depends largely on the area of justice you want to enter. At a local policing level, most officers don’t have master’s degrees. However, having a master’s degree or higher may help you to get hired by specialist agencies like the FBI.

Entry into college teaching

An advanced degree like an MCJ or Ph.D. is almost always needed to enter teaching at the university level. Some criminal justice professionals choose to pursue an adjunct instructor position while working in practice full-time. Even if you decide to teach as a side project, a master’s degree can help you to achieve an additional level of income.

Advising public policy

There is an array of legislative bodies that require well-educated advisers to contribute to shaping criminal justice policy at a local or national level. To obtain credibility, a master’s or doctoral degree is often required to inform representatives and senators on the hot topics of crime and law enforcement.

Other things to consider

Asynchronous or synchronous

MCJ programs can be delivered in the classroom or online (or a blend of both). Online courses can be conducted asynchronously (at your own pace) or synchronously (with specific login times). The flexibility of online programs can help students with families, military engagements, or full-time jobs.

Non-cohort or cohort

Cohort models are designed to keep groups of students together throughout the program, allowing you to develop a rapport with your classmates. Non-cohort models allow you to meet new students in every class.

Master of Criminal Justice (MCJ) Career Advancement
What can you do with a master’s degree in criminal justice?

The threat of terrorism, increasingly sophisticated methods used by criminals, and the rise in cybercrime make the need for justice professionals as clear as ever.

The criminal justice profession is constantly evolving to meet these threats, birthing new career opportunities in the fight against crime. Broadly, a master’s degree in criminal justice empowers graduates to become an asset to their community and equips them with the theory and practical skills needed to make a tangible difference. [16]

Criminal justice master’s degrees can open many doors beyond a career in law enforcement. Graduates can go on to fill a variety of roles in the legal sector, military, corrections, and federal agencies like the FBI and DEA, for instance.

A bachelor’s degree affords a level of employability increasingly demanded by agencies and police academies for entry-level positions. But a master’s degree is a more advanced and specialized qualification that can be useful in paving the way to a fulfilling career at an advanced level, as well as ensuring that graduates have all of the tools at their disposal to be effective on the front line of justice.

A master’s degree can also be the stepping stone toward teaching positions or further study at doctoral level. If your interest lies in researching criminal behavior and the justice system, further study could put you in a position of shaping policy and the future theories used in the pursuit, prosecution, and correction of criminals.

Many criminal justice roles are based within government at a city, county, state, or federal level. In the private sector, criminal justice jobs can include positions in agencies, corporations, and not-for-profits.

What’s the average salary for an MCJ graduate?

Your MCJ degree can help you find employment in a number of positions in criminal justice and related fields. Here are some of the most common job titles and median salaries for MCJ graduates:

  • Detectives and criminal investigators ($78,120) [25]
  • Postsecondary teachers ($72,470) [26]
  • Transit and railroad police ($66,610) [23]
  • Forensic science technicians ($56,320) [22]
  • Police and sheriff’s patrol officers ($59,680) [17]
What is the current state of the criminal justice industry?
The BLS projects slowing growth in many criminal justice-related occupations over the next 10 years. However, for some specialized fields relevant to MCJ graduates, a rise in growth is projected:

DEA agent

DEA agents exist to enforce drug laws, actively working to beat the production and distribution of narcotics. According to the BLS, the starting salary for a DEA agent is approximately $45,000. After a few years of service, that rises to an upper tier of $90,000 or more. [12]

Forensic psychologist

Forensic psychologists study the behavior of criminals. The American Psychological Association defines the occupation as the “professional practice by psychologists within the areas of clinical psychology, counseling psychology, school psychology […] in an activity primarily intended to provide professional psychological expertise to the judicial system.” [19]

A relatively new and progressive field, forensic psychology is expected to grow. O*NET projects a 14% rate of growth — higher than the national average. [20] A Ph.D. or Ps.yD. may be preferred for these careers, but a master’s degree is considered essential to enter forensic psychology.

Intelligence analyst

Intelligence analysts usually work for government agencies (such as the FBI, DEA and CIA) or private organizations. According to data compiled by, yearly average wages for intelligence analysts are around $65,000, [13] but senior intelligence analysts may earn more than $90,000 a year. [9]

Case Manager

The Federal Bureau of Prisons defines case managers as staff who “perform correctional casework in an institutional setting; develop, evaluate, and analyze program needs and other data about inmates; evaluate progress of individual offenders in the institution; coordinate and integrate inmate training programs; develop social histories; evaluate positive and negative aspects in each case situation, and develop release plans.” [21] A bachelor’s degree is considered essential for entry into this field, although a master’s degree must be obtained for the higher-paying, more prestigious positions.

Master of Criminal Justice (MCJ) Curriculum

Criminal justice degrees are designed to prepare graduates for further study or the higher tiers of a career in a variety of related fields. The curriculum can vary widely from school to school, so it’s vital to find out as much as possible about each program before applying. MCJ programs can also differ hugely in the following ways:

  • Their length and study methods (on-campus, online, or blended)
  • The main subject or focus of the degree (such as forensics or homeland security)
  • Your job prospects after graduation with a degree from that particular institution

Based on an analysis of several online MCJ programs, you will typically be required to take about five or six core courses, which cover a range of subjects like the following:

  • Analytical methods
  • Crime causation
  • Crime prevention
  • Criminal justice management/administration
  • Criminal justice theory
  • Criminological theory
  • Ethics
  • Judicial process
  • Policy analysis
  • Research methods
  • Statistics
  • Victimology
  • White-collar crime
What are the overall learning goals?

While the specifics will vary by school and focus, there are some common learning objectives that are shared among MCJ programs, in line with the criteria set out by the Academy of Criminal Justice Sciences (ACJS). [11] By the end of any MCJ program you should be able to:

  • Identify the influence of privilege, oppression, discrimination, and social disadvantage on the inequalities in the criminal justice system
  • Design new approaches to dealing with social injustices within law enforcement and the law
  • Understand criminal behavior and how society responds to crime from multiple perspectives
  • Articulate the ethical implications of policy and decision-making
  • Adopt the behavior and communication styles of a professional leader
  • Develop self-awareness of bias
  • Apply theoretical frameworks to understanding the origins, causes and prevention of crime, criminalization, correction, and law enforcement
  • Develop a working practice involving different research methods, drawing links between theory, research, and practice
Core and elective courses

Core (standard) courses are the classes that make up the bulk of your foundational learning. Depending on the specific focus and style of your degree, these can vary enormously among MCJ programs, so it’s important to choose one that fits your own learning and career objectives.

Electives allow you to focus on a topic of your choice, improving your readiness for a specific career path (such as focusing on forensic science electives to enter a career in forensics after graduation), or simply tailoring your program to your particular strengths and interests.

Elective courses vary from institution to institution. Bear in mind a program’s list of electives when selecting the program that’s right for you. Some degree programs allow you to specialize in subjects such as:

  • Terrorism
  • Behavior analysis
  • Homeland security
  • Rehabilitation
  • Forensics
  • Cybersecurity
  • Emergency management
Course delivery

In the same way that MCJ programs vary from school to school in terms of content, so too do the methods of delivery. Online criminal justice degree courses are becoming increasingly popular — and a growing number of programs are offering blended courses with one or two days a month in class, supplemented by at-home online learning and close mentorship.

MCJ students often work in law enforcement, the military, or the legal system at the same time as taking classes, so these new, more versatile study methods might fit their busy schedules better. Students are increasingly able to study from anywhere in the world and at a time that suits them.

Culmination of program

Different programs offer different assessment methods to test students’ abilities at the end of the program, but capstone projects and thesis papers are common. Capstone projects, which usually involve a final paper and presentation, are favored in most programs over undertaking a thesis. Some programs offer students the choice between the two.

The thesis option might be a better choice for MCJ students who have a particular research interest, want to pursue a career in policy development, or would like to go on to study at the Ph.D. level.

Experiential learning and field placement

Some criminal justice degree programs offer students the opportunity to undertake an internship or field placement in an organization operating in their area of interest. These opportunities, typically worth between three and 12 credits (depending on the program), can give students the experience of working in a specialist field and networking with professionals, helping to expand their career horizons. Programs normally specify criteria for students who wish to participate in experiential learning.

Licensure and certifications

The Academy of Criminal Justice Studies (ACJS) certifies programs that meet their basic criteria. If a program is certified, it has been reviewed according to the standards set by a group of academics and top-tier criminal justice professionals. At present, only six programs have been certified by the ACJS. [15]

Acceptance of transfer credit

Most MCJ programs indicate that they will accept transfer credits from other programs, though the number accepted varies. Schools will typically accept between six and 15 transfer credits. You should carefully review a university’s policies before applying. They may place limits on the number of credits accepted, and these may not count toward your final GPA.

Master of Criminal Justice (MCJ) Program Length

Most criminal justice master’s programs comprise 30 credit hours split over three semesters of full-time study (or about seven to 10 semesters part-time). Online courses can vary in length depending on the school. Some online programs might allow as much as five years for students to finish, making them ideal for students with families, full-time jobs, or busy lifestyles. [16] Internships, field placements, and experiential learning components can serve to extend the total length of the degree, but this requirement varies widely from school to school.

Students typically take a core of mandatory courses that provide a strong foundation in the theories that shape the modern criminal justice system. Depending on the school, there can then be the option to take electives or specialized credit hours to develop a more specific understanding of a subject area that is of particular interest or could serve to steer a student’s career in a more focused direction. Most MCJ programs culminate in either a research-based capstone project or a master’s thesis.

Master of Criminal Justice (MCJ) Admissions Requirements

While each program will set its admissions requirements based on its own criteria, many requirements are universal across all programs. No matter where you apply, you can expect to provide items like transcripts from previous degrees or coursework; standardized test scores; a personal statement or essay; letters of recommendation; and an overview of relevant work experience.

In certain cases, some of these requirements may be waived.

For more information about admissions, please visit our admissions requirements page.

Master of Criminal Justice (MCJ) Alternative Degrees/Fields of Study

Along with the range of options for specialized focus and elective credits in MCJ programs, there is a variety of master’s-level degrees in related subjects. A master’s degree in criminal justice can be seen as the springboard to careers in academia, research, policy, and criminal justice management and administration. Likewise, some related alternative master’s degrees can open doors to similar career paths.

Some of the most popular alternative degree subjects include:

  • Criminology
  • Criminalistics
  • Information security (or cybersecurity)
  • Sociology and criminology
  • Forensic science
  • Forensic psychology/criminal psychology

Many of these subjects overlap in terms of theory with what is commonly studied in an MCJ program.


A degree in criminal justice can examine the foundations of the justice system, including detecting and preventing crime, the prosecution and correction of criminals, and society’s response to criminality. Criminology is a closer study of why crime exists in society, including the psychology of criminal behavior. Coursework may include theory of criminology as well as criminal justice, along with statistics and research methods.

Information security/cybersecurity

A master’s degree in cybersecurity can prepare graduates to tackle the rising threat of cybercrime, protect sensitive information, secure networks, and engage in forensic analysis. Suited to those with specific work experience or an educational background in technology or IT, this degree helps graduates go on to work for federal agencies, law enforcement, or private organizations.

Forensic psychology

Forensic psychology master’s programs develop students’ psychological expertise and apply it to understanding the minutiae of criminal behavior. Forensics is an academically rigorous field to work in, and a master’s or Ph.D. is often considered the minimum level of education required to enter a career as a forensic psychologist. The master’s program borrows broader elements from an MCJ to ground graduates in the criminal justice system.

Master of Criminal Justice (MCJ) Accreditation

Accreditation is not provided for MCJ degrees. The Academy of Criminal Justice Studies (ACJS) is the only body to review and certify MCJ programs on the basis of quality, outcomes and potential employability — but at the time of writing, only six MCJ programs nationally have been awarded ACJS Certification.

Regional accreditation is the most prestigious type of accreditation that an online or traditional college or university can receive. It is granted only after careful consideration by private, not-for-profit organizations tasked with evaluating educational quality.

Regional accreditation is particularly important if you anticipate that you might want to transfer credits from one online degree program to another or use those credits to pursue another degree. Most regionally accredited schools will only accept credits from other regionally accredited institutions of higher learning.

You can learn more on this topic at our regional accreditation page.

The History of Criminal Justice

From its roots in ancient Rome and medieval Britain, the criminal justice system has evolved to provide different forms of correction and varying rights for victims and criminal offenders. Law enforcement reforms over the generations have reflected changing cultural norms, politics, and economics.

The concept of centralized policing in the United States dates back to 1838 Boston, replacing the then-popular system of volunteer watchmen informally patrolling the streets. In the following decades as cities continued to expand, similar police departments sprang up across the country in New York City, Albany, Chicago, New Orleans, Cincinnati, Philadelphia, Newark, and Baltimore. [10]

The academic study of crime emerged as police forces shifted their focus toward scientific methodology. By the late 1960s, via the Law Enforcement Assistance Administration (LEAA), the federal government began offering funding and incentives for police forces to participate in research and educational programs.

At the university level, criminal justice has been studied for more than 100 years, with the first program being initiated at the University of California, Berkeley in 1916, though it didn’t gain popularity as a discipline until programs and curricula began standardizing their content and philosophies in the 1970s and 1980s. [5]

Today’s criminologists and law enforcement professionals look for better ways to treat witnesses, victims, society, and suspects or criminals. Ultimately, their job within the criminal justice system is to solve crimes and protect citizens more effectively.

Master of Criminal Justice (MCJ) Tuition and Fees
There are a number of factors that can greatly affect how much your education will cost. These include whether you attend a public or private institution; whether you attend as an in-state or out-of-state student; and whether you qualify for financial aid like grants or scholarships. For a more detailed breakdown of tuition, fees, and other financial issues, please visit our tuition and fees page.
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

Key attributes to look for in a Master of Criminal Justice degree include:

  • Accreditation: Is the program accredited?
  • Flexibility: Is the program on campus vs. online?
  • Student support: What support systems are in place for your success?
  • Travel requirements: Will you need to pay for additional travel arrangements to meet degree requirements?
  • Interactive learning: What tools are used to help you apply the curriculum?
  • Faculty expertise: Do faculty have a strong theoretical and practical knowledge base in the field?

Accreditation helps determine if an institution meets or exceeds the minimum standards of quality set out by recognized regional or national accreditation agencies. [27]

Credit hours for a Master of Criminal Justice degree will vary by university. Based on a survey of 10 MCJ programs, the average number of credit hours is around 38.

Yes. To enroll in a Master of Criminal Justice degree program, you will need to have an undergraduate degree in any discipline.

To find the curriculum that’s right for you, explore the Master of Criminal Justice program’s courses and structure thoroughly to determine whether it is a general program in criminal justice or has a certain focus.

If you are seeking a general understanding of criminal justice, you should look for an interdisciplinary curriculum that will prepare you to become a forward-thinking leader. Typical MCJ programs might cover subjects such as corrections and rehabilitation, law, statistics, and criminal psychology.

If you’re hoping to pursue a more specialized career, look for a curriculum that has concentrations geared toward developing the types of skills that are relevant to your field. For example, a curriculum for a MCJ concentration in cybercrime and cybersecurity might include coursework on insights into cyber-criminology, legal practices, and practical digital investigative knowledge.

Asynchronous coursework can be completed on your own time — a big plus for many online graduate students. Synchronous coursework has to be completed within a set timeframe. This is typically done for group projects, seminars, presentations, and other learning initiatives that require multiple attendees. The elements of asynchronous and synchronous learning in your online program depend on the professor and class itself. Once you enroll, reach out to teachers for specifics, but remember that the curriculum may be divided into these two subsets.

There are a plethora of specializations for criminal justice programs. Common concentration subjects may include:

  • Cybercrime investigation and cybersecurity
  • Behavioral science
  • Policy analysis
  • Statistical analysis
  • Organizational leadership
  • Criminology
  • Forensic Science
  • Forensic Psychology
  • Public Safety Administration
  • Counseling Psychology

The main reason for choosing a concentration versus a general criminal justice degree is to pursue a specialized role in the criminal justice field. If you are still deciding on the role you’d like to pursue in the criminal justice field, then a general criminal justice degree can provide you with a comprehensive knowledge base that you can apply to a variety of roles.

In addition to law enforcement careers, court system and corrections careers are also available. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), employment of protective service occupations is expected to grow by approximately 4% from 2014 to 2024. As of May 2015, the median pay for protective service occupations was $37,730. [30]

Some of the job titles the BLS lists include:

  • Correctional officers and bailiffs
  • Fire inspectors
  • Firefighters
  • Police and detectives
  • Private detectives and investigators
  • Security guards and gaming surveillance officers

No, attaining management/senior positions is not guaranteed through the completion of a master’s degree. These positions often require many years of experience and a significant level of career achievement. However, an advanced degree can help you develop the necessary knowledge and skills required for these positions and also prove your dedication to the field.

Length of Master of Criminal Justice program can range from about 18 to 24 months, if you study full-time. If you choose to study part-time, some programs allow you up to five years to complete.

Yes. Many institutions offer criminal justice degrees online.

Online and on-campus degrees typically look identical. Most institutions do not indicate on the degree that it was earned online.

Yes, typically schools follow the same curriculum for their online programs as they do for their campus-based programs.

Tuition can vary significantly based on a number of factors. Based on a sample of 10 typical programs, the average cost of tuition was approximately $21,000.

Generally there are supplementary costs apart from tuition. The tuition does not usually include the cost of books or additional fees. These additional costs will vary from program to program.

The largest provider of student financial aid in the nation is the Federal Student Aid office in the U.S. Department of Education. It supplies college-level or career school students with loans, grants, and work-study funds. You can apply for federal financial aid through the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, commonly known as FAFSA.

There are numerous other scholarships available, but you will need to research which opportunities you’re qualified to pursue. Many states, associations, websites, and businesses award scholarships based on specific criteria. Be sure to do your research and apply for any scholarships you’re qualified to be awarded. [29]

Whether you will need to complete the GRE prior to applying for a program will largely depend on what school you have chosen. There are many programs that do not require a GRE. Check the admissions requirements for your school before applying.

Accreditations are a strong indication of quality, but are also required for students who plan to apply for federal financial aid. Accreditation ensures that your degree is recognized by employers, professional associations, and other accredited institutions of higher education.

SARA (State Authorization Reciprocity Agreement) applies only to distance education programs in the United States that cross state lines. This agreement is made between member states and establishes comparable postsecondary national standards for distance education courses.

Not every state is a SARA member. Through SARA, member states only have to receive authorization in their home state. Without SARA, non-member states would have to receive authorization in their home state and the state of each of their online students. [28]

Every school has a department or team responsible for online education. This department will be able to answer questions regarding compliance for your home state. Additionally, you can locate the school through SARA (if it is a SARA institution) to confirm compliance.