The fields of criminal justice and law are closely related and filled with many career opportunities for those interested in shaping, enforcing, or arguing the law.
Earning a criminal justice degree can lead to a career in law enforcement, corrections, advocacy, or politics. Criminal justice programs can also establish a foundation for aspiring lawyers before they pursue a law degree.
The fields of criminal justice and law attract students interested in criminal psychology, victimology, ethics, and American courts and correctional systems. This guide explores the broad career options for criminal justice professionals with varying education and experience.
What Kinds of Criminal Justice or Law Degrees Are There?
With broad applications across multiple fields, criminal justice degrees lead to career options at all levels of education. As outlined below, each degree is unique in its preparation for a particular career path, with increased advancement and salary prospects for advanced education levels. For example, students interested in becoming a judge must earn at least a JD.
Associate Degree in Criminal Justice
Earning an associate degree in criminal justice can provide students with the training they need for entry-level jobs in security, law enforcement, and corrections. Most two-year associate degrees include introductory coursework in social science, criminal law, and the American justice system.
Because many law enforcement jobs use on-the-job training rather than requiring a college degree, candidates who hold an associate degree with adequate field experience may be extra qualified for police and detective jobs. Other opportunities for associate degree-holders include court clerk and security guard.
Bachelor's Degree in Criminal Justice
Bachelor's degrees in criminal justice build on the foundational skills learned in an associate program and prepare students for an expansion of career opportunities. Unlike in an associate program, bachelor's students can choose a criminal justice specialization. Common specializations include corrections, criminology, and homeland security.
A typical program explores topics like communication, criminology theory, and criminal justice trends. Schools may offer a BS or a BA in criminal justice, with most degrees spanning four years (or less, for accelerated online programs). Graduates qualify for positions like parole officer, victim advocate, and corrections officer.
What Is the Difference Between a BA and a BS in Criminal Justice?
While schools most commonly offer BS degrees in criminal justice, some schools offer BAs. A BS in criminal justice is typically a more precise, technical program than the broader BA degree. Courses in a BS might explore policing in the U.S., the American correctional system, and technology in criminal justice, while BA curricula cover topics like criminology, white-collar crime, and juvenile delinquency.
Like courses, specializations offered under either a BS or BA in criminal justice tend to vary by degree type, with the BS offering more career-oriented concentrations and the BA featuring more philosophically driven focus areas. Either program may require an internship or field experience. Some BAs also require a final thesis.
Master's Degree in Criminal Justice
A master's degree in criminal justice can enhance the job and salary prospects of existing law enforcement, criminal justice, and homeland security professionals. Additionally, earning a master's degree in criminal justice can provide learners with the credentials they need to transition into practicing law or behavior management analysis, or become a professor.
Most master's degrees in criminal justice take two years to complete. Common courses in an MS in criminal justice program include criminology, research methods, and criminal justice administration and ethics. While options vary, many programs offer advanced specializations in crime analysis, federal law enforcement, cybercrime investigation, or behavior analysis.
Master's Degree in Law
Must be obtained after a Doctor of Jurisprudence (JD) degree.
Earning an LL.M. enables students to focus on a specialization within law for professional practice. Programs commonly offer specializations in business and trade law, environmental law, human rights, taxation, and dispute resolution. An LL.M. is a specialized program, and it's optional for lawyers who hold a JD and have passed the bar exam. LL.M. graduates can expand their practices to include international clients in their areas of expertise.
LL.M. programs typically offer coursework tailored to a student's choice of concentrations. Some schools enable students to design their own curriculum entirely based on their specializations. While the LL.M. typically takes two years to complete, many programs offer flexible completion options, such as full- or part-time enrollment. Others offer accelerated online programs.
Though career tracks depend on each student's individual specializations, LL.M. graduates may practice in fields such as transnational law, global securities, or international arbitration.
Doctoral Degree in Criminal Justice
Graduates of a doctorate in criminal justice are qualified to pursue high-level research and leadership roles in criminology, science, and education. A doctoral degree, such as a Ph.D. in criminal justice, prepares students for scholarly research and teaching positions, achieved through coursework in criminal justice management, theory and improvement of criminal justice practices, and corrections crisis management.
While completion times vary, many students can complete this Ph.D. in roughly four years of full-time study. Like most Ph.D.s, doctoral degrees in criminal justice require a dissertation. Graduates of a doctoral program commonly pursue careers as criminal justice professors or public policy consultants.
Doctor of Jurisprudence
While there are post-graduate program options, the JD is widely considered the terminal degree for attorneys. A JD meets the minimum education requirement for lawyers to practice in the U.S., and most lawyers earn a JD before passing the bar exam and earning their licenses.
Compared to an LL.M., a JD imparts a general law curriculum. In many cases, applicants are required to hold a JD for admission into an LL.M. program. Most JDs take three years to complete and include courses in torts; courtroom and civil procedures; and criminal, public, international, and business law.
Doctor of Juridical Science
Must be obtained after a Doctor of Jurisprudence (JD) degree.
The SJD is the most advanced degree in the field of law, typically pursued only by aspiring legal scholars. Most aspiring attorneys only complete a JD, allowing them to practice law professionally; students who go on to earn an SJD often become researchers or writers of legal studies.
A typical SJD requires coursework in topics like law and humanity, American legal theory, and legal scholarship. Additionally, students must give a series of colloquial presentations, complete an oral examination, and develop and defend an original dissertation. While completion times vary, most SJD programs last 3-4 years.
What Is the Difference Between an SJD and a Ph.D. in Law?
SJD and Ph.D. law programs are similar, and major universities tend to offer one or the other as their most advanced law degree. In many cases, schools distinguish an SJD from a Ph.D. in law in name alone, as the programs share many of the same types of courses and graduation requirements. For example, Harvard Law School offers an SJD, while Yale Law School offers a Ph.D. in law.
Most SJDs and Ph.D. law programs require a minimum of three years of full-time study. Both degrees examine the philosophical study of law through first-year coursework in legal scholarship, research methodologies, and social science and humanities disciplines. To earn the degree, students must complete qualifying examinations and teaching experiences and present a dissertation.
What Can You Do With a Criminal Justice or Law Degree
Earning a criminal justice degree can lead to a variety of careers. While aspiring lawyers can follow a standard career path toward becoming an attorney by earning a law degree, students can also pursue a higher degree, such as an SJD, on the path toward scholarly research.
Students with a law or criminal justice degree can pursue careers as paralegals, mediators, probation officers, police officers or detectives, legislators, or lobbyists. Fields beyond law and criminal justice — such as business, education, and counseling — also offer career opportunities, like corporate lawyer, forensic psychologist, and correctional counselor.
While criminal justice and lawyer programs teach students about the American legal system, the best criminal justice degrees also emphasize soft skills in analytics, problem-solving, communication, and research that can be applied in a variety of occupations. Students may also choose to immerse themselves in a specialization, like one of those listed below.
Students equipped with an associate or bachelor's degree in law or legal studies often pursue employment as paralegals or legal assistants. While the Bureau of Labor Statistics projects a steady job growth of 12% through 2028 for these roles, candidates with a master's degree can go on to become lawyers and earn nearly triple the salary of a paralegal.
Other graduates of criminal justice programs pursue entry-level jobs as mediators, using their skills in critical thinking and communication. While some employers in this field require only a bachelor's degree in a criminal justice specialization, like arbitration, many prefer candidates with a master's degree.
Graduates of a bachelor's program in criminal justice can become probation officers or correctional treatment specialists. In addition to holding a formal degree, students aspiring to become a probation or parole officer must complete a state or federally funded training program and pass competency exams and criminal and drug screening tests.
Students may also earn a criminal justice degree on the path toward becoming a police officer or detective. While requirements vary, most employers require police officers to complete an associate degree and police training to qualify for entry-level jobs. Aspiring detectives should hold a bachelor's degree in criminal justice or a related field, especially those looking to work for a federal agency, such as the FBI.
However, policing is a controversial career choice, fraught with accusations of corruption and discrimination. Civic-minded people who want to help their communities should also consider non-policing career alternatives.
Aspiring legislators and lobbyists can benefit from earning a criminal justice degree. Legislators need a thorough understanding of the law, which can be obtained through a policy specialization during a law or criminal justice degree. While formal education requirements vary, most legislators need at least a bachelor's degree in law, political science, or a related field.
Similarly, lobbyist positions do not have standardized education requirements, but the majority of entry-level employers prefer lobbyists with a bachelor's degree in political science, law, or a related field. Students who complete a law or criminal justice degree — especially with coursework in American legal policy and legislation — and have extensive work experience can thrive in this field.
What Kind of Salary Can I Earn With a Criminal Justice Degree?
Earning a criminal justice degree can lead to a variety of careers, each with its own salary and growth opportunities. As shown below, lawyers and judges earn the highest median salaries, while paralegals and legal assistants earn considerably less. However, paralegal jobs are in high demand, as shown by a projected 12% job increase between 2018 and 2028.
|Position||Median Salary||Job Growth
|Judges and Hearing Officers||$120,090||3%|
|Police and Detectives||$65,170||5%|
|Arbitrators, Mediators, and Conciliators||$63,930||8%|
|Probation Officers and Correctional Treatment Specialists||$54,290||3%|
|Paralegals and Legal Assistants||$51,740||12%|
Criminal Justice Professional Organizations
As the accrediting agency for criminal justice programs in the U.S., ACJS comprises a membership of 1,800 criminal justice professionals. Members may join one of 13 subsections that include corrections, juvenile justice and delinquency, and victimology. Benefits include access to industry publications and mentors and opportunities to present research to ACJS panelists.
Founded in 1878, the ABA accredits law programs in the U.S. and offers memberships for licensed and non-licensed lawyers, law students, and legal professionals. Membership comes with perks like access to an online library of more than 600 texts, free technology resources, and a career center.
ASC supports the international fostering of criminological scholarship and education. ASC comprises 16 divisions, tailored to professionals working in fields like white-collar crime, terrorism, and policing. Members enjoy access to exclusive field publications, the annual ASC meeting, and a discounted membership rate.
Accreditation for Criminal Justice Programs
Accreditation — the standardized process of quality assurance in higher education — is critical when choosing a college program. Regardless of specialization, many criminal justice and lawyer jobs require a formal education from an accredited institution. Students aspiring to a high-level career in criminal justice should choose programs accredited by the Academy of Criminal Justice Sciences, and those seeking to become lawyers should look for accreditation from the American Bar Association.
Frequently Asked Questions
Is a Criminal Justice Major Hard?
Like any accredited college program, earning a criminal justice degree requires rigor and persistence. Criminal justice coursework covers a broad set of topics in order to prepare students for a multi-faceted career. Criminal justice majors also typically require field training.
Is It Worth Getting a Ph.D. in Criminal Justice?
While plenty of entry-level jobs in criminal justice exist for professionals with a lower degree, a Ph.D. in criminal justice qualifies students for the most prestigious and highest-paid positions. Common opportunities include lead researcher, college professor, lobbyist or policy writer, and forensic scientist.
Is a JD or LL.M. Better?
While both the juris doctor (JD) and master of law (LL.M.) are high-level graduate degrees, their scope and breadth are different. The JD is a foundational degree that covers a wide scope of general law concepts, while the LL.M. is specialized in one area of legal expertise. A JD is a prerequisite for many LL.M. programs.
What Is the Highest Law Degree?
The doctor of juridical science (SJD) is the highest law degree in the U.S.; it demonstrates a masterful understanding of the science of law. Candidates in an SJD program typically go on to conduct advanced legal research rather than practice law. Many SJD graduates become scholars in academia.
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