What to Look For in a Masters Degree in Criminal Justice

What to Look For in a Masters Degree in Criminal Justice


Behind each successful arrest, positive interaction with the community, and prevented crime, there’s likely a whole team of criminal justice professionals. Educators to keep police well-trained, criminologists to research and understand criminal behavior and patterns, analysts to help effectively allocate resources, advocates to protect the rights of both victims and the accused — all of them play an essential part in the pursuit of justice.

While on-the-job experience is incredibly valuable to any aspiring law enforcement professional, many of these specialized roles are best reached through graduate-level education. Pursuing your master’s degree in criminal justice can help build a strong foundation for growth and arm you with the skills required to explore opportunities in law enforcement research, education, and administration. Deciding to pursue graduate school is a big commitment, but one that can pay substantial dividends for the rest of your career and help you advance beyond the realm of uniformed duty. Choosing the right program for you, however, can be a difficult process. There are a few factors that you may want to consider as you start to research your options.

Affordable Price

One of the foremost concerns students raise when beginning their search for a master’s in criminal justice program relates to tuition cost, which is certainly an important point to consider. Graduate studies can be somewhat expensive, typically costing somewhere around $21,000 to complete.

At the right price point the return on your investment, both financial and personal, will definitely outweigh the costs of continuing your education. That said, finding a program with the perfect balance of affordability and quality can be quite the challenge, but there are definitely programs that have earned a stellar reputation and maintain tuition below $20,000.

Remember to explore what funding and student aid options are available, as the program you’re most interested in may be able to help you finance your education. If you’re a veteran, it’s also worth learning about what military benefits and aid, if any, each school and program offers.

Program Format

For any busy, full-time professional, finding the time to attend scheduled classes can be incredibly taxing and difficult. Commuting to a nearby campus only adds to this frustration, consuming your precious free time. If fitting your graduate studies into your current work schedule poses an unwelcome challenge, consider seeking out a program that’s offered in an online format.

Online learning has advanced substantially in recent years, with new technologies and collaboration tools allowing virtual courses to reflect the same level of quality, rigor, and direct faculty attention you’d expect in an on-campus program. National leaders in criminal justice education are now offering online programs that meet exacting academic standards. Beyond that, since there are no scheduled class times, you can pursue their assignments, readings, and discussions at a time of day that suits you. This level of flexibility is especially useful to those with unconventional schedules who may need to carve out their study time at odd hours.

Varying, Flexible Curriculum

As touched on above, advanced positions in law enforcement are incredibly varied. With a field this diverse, your goals and aspirations might be, and likely will be, very different from those of your classmates. You might be interested in a more sociological overview of criminal justice, or enhance you research abilities, or becoming an expert in a more specialized role like child advocacy or victim services. Your master’s program should account for that, offering you the opportunity to create a course of study that caters to your interests and ambitions.

That isn’t to say that programs with a more prescriptive curriculum can’t be beneficial, as well, but that kind of rigid structure might limit your ability to gain the specific skills you’re looking to develop. As you research master’s in criminal justice programs, having an idea for what positions you’d like to pursue after graduation will be very helpful. Look for programs that offer concentrations in the area you’d like to specialize in, professionally. Dig thoroughly into each program’s coursework to be sure that it prepares you adequately for advancement.


If you’re going to make the commitment to pursue graduate education, you’ll want to be sure that your credential comes from a respected institution with a record of high quality academics. It’s important to note that, when it comes to universities, having a recognizable brand doesn’t necessarily mean that the program itself is built to meet exacting academic standards. The rankings of the master’s in criminal justice program itself stand as a far greater indication of what to expect than the broader school’s level of prestige. Testimonials from current or former students, as well, can give you definite insight into whether or not the program is a sound professional investment.

While rankings and accolades may not be the sole measure of a school or program’s quality, high praise from numerous publications is certainly a good sign. On the other hand, reports of negative experiences and low rankings should be considered a definite red flag. The goal of graduate education is to advance, discover new horizons, and open the doors to exciting leadership opportunities. If the program hasn’t helped other graduates pursue their dreams of leadership in law enforcement, then there’s a definite chance that you’ll encounter the same problem.

Comparing programs and finally landing on the one that’s right for you can seem nearly impossible, at times, but with dedication and research, you can find a program that provides the perfect balance of these factors to suit your life.

Dr. Patrick J. Solar
Dr. Solar has been a police officer for nearly 30 years serving as a street officer, Detective, Sergeant, Lieutenant, and Chief of Police. He is currently an Assistant Professor of Criminal Justice at the University of Wisconsin-Platteville.


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Categories: Academics