Growing concerns about the causes and consequences of crime have fueled the popularity of criminology programs. Graduates of online criminology master's programs can expect expanding career opportunities as investigators and researchers in a variety of settings. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects a steady 5% growth rate in protective services occupations between 2016 and 2026. Projections for the same period indicate much higher growth for positions in forensics, information security, and social and community services.
An online master's degree in criminology can accelerate career advancement for those already working in criminology-related professions, and offers a valuable credential for those with a bachelor's degree who plan to enter the field. This guide introduces prospective students to earning a master's degree in criminology online, and provides information about career prospects, financial aid opportunities, and other resources.
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What to Know About Online Master's in Criminology Coursework
An online master's degree in criminology equips graduates for a range of career possibilities in law enforcement, government, and social service agencies. Students acquire a broad background in theory and research, statistical and analytical tools, and technological applications that lead to a variety of professional opportunities. While curriculum and program requirements differ by school, students can expect to take courses in statistics, research methodology, and theories of criminal behavior. Specialized classes in areas like forensics, conflict resolution, corrections, and policing are also a part of any curriculum.
Students pursuing a master's of criminology online complete the same coursework and degree requirements as those enrolled in a traditional on-campus program. Both formats usually require 30-36 credits. While full time students earn their degree in about two years, those in accelerated programs may finish in as little as one year. Students taking classes part-time may take three or more years to complete their master's.
What Common Courses Are Offered in a Master's in Criminology Program?
Graduate requirements vary from school to school. While each criminology master's program offers its own distinctive curriculum and concentrations, most programs share a similar structure of required core courses, electives, and a culminating capstone or thesis component. This list describes five common courses that students encounter in most criminology master's programs.
Classical and Contemporary Criminological Theory
This course presents the major social science paradigms for the study of criminology, including rational choice, social disorganization, social strain, and differential association. Students also explore more recent approaches from feminist theory and critical criminology perspectives. Additionally, learners analyze theoretical paradigms and apply them to current issues in crime and criminal behavior.
Research Methodology in Criminology
Students in this course learn the methodological applications and statistical skills to conduct independent research, analyze and report empirical findings, evaluate academic studies, and assess policy statements in criminology. Topics include experimental, case study, and survey methods; research design; hypothesis formulation and testing; data collection and analysis; and scientific report writing.
Policing in Society
Students explore the shifting nature of contemporary policing and how police function as agents of social control within contemporary societies. Topics include the development of policing as a profession, contemporary police organizations, community-based policing, problem-oriented policing, and current and future trends in law enforcement. The course addresses policy debates about policing and crime control in diverse demographic settings.
Juvenile Delinquency and Juvenile Justice
This course explores historical and contemporary approaches to juvenile delinquency, its current challenges, and the changing social constructions of childhood and adolescence. Students examine trends in juvenile crime and violence in the 21st century. Themes include gangs, bullying, racial and gender inequalities in the juvenile justice system, juvenile sentencing, and restorative justice alternatives.
Restorative Justice and Conflict Resolution
Restorative justice is an alternative to traditional criminal justice models. In this course, students investigate the major theories and applications of justice, with a focus on the legal rights of victims within the criminal justice system. The course explores various techniques of conflict resolution, mediation, and negotiation, as applied to the restorative justice model.
What Specializations are Available in a Master's in Criminology Program?
Many online master's degrees in criminology offer specialized concentrations that allow students to focus on a particular set of courses directly related to their career goals or research interests. Specializations vary across criminology programs, and reflect areas of faculty expertise and current trends in the field. This list provides some representative examples.
The study of international security has grown in popularity due to increasing concerns over domestic and international terrorism. Designed for those interested in law enforcement, global security, and risk assessment, this specialization covers the international security environment as well as traditional and emerging transnational threats. Students explore organized crime, cybercrime, insurgent groups, and government-sponsored terrorism.
This specialization presents the models and methods used to gather and analyze data in law enforcement. Students apply criminological theories to investigations, evaluate different kinds of evidence, and incorporate new technologies in the areas of surveillance, interviewing and interrogation, and analytics. Coursework also addresses the use of profiling and the ethical challenges it poses to the criminal justice system.
The emerging field of victimology explores the complex relationships among victims, criminal offenders, the police, and the legal system. Students examine how class, race, gender, and sexual identity shape perceptions of victims by law enforcement officers, the court system, the media, and the public. The course also provides an overview of different services and resources available to victims.
What Exams or Projects Should I Expect?
While graduation requirements vary by school, most online criminology master's programs require a culminating capstone course or thesis. Students typically enroll in the capstone during their final semester, which integrates their previous coursework into a case study or applied research project. Students often focus on a current topic such as white-collar crime, global terrorism, or adult sentencing of juveniles.
A thesis — approved and supervised by a faculty committee — may require students to collect and analyze data for an independent research study, or to analyze a contemporary issue using secondary data. Master's theses, for example, might focus on an empirical study of opiate addicts or an evaluation of restorative justice approaches with juvenile offenders.
How Can I Choose a Quality Online Master's in Criminology Program?
Before you pursue a master's degree in criminology, pay attention to key factors like graduation rates, in-state versus out-of-state tuition, online fees, and on-campus residency requirements. Check out the curriculum to see how the specializations and electives correspond to your career interests. Does your intended program accommodate part-time students? Does it deliver courses asynchronously, allowing the flexibility to study when it's most convenient? Or are students grouped into a cohort from the beginning, taking synchronously formatted classes together throughout the program?
Accreditation is one of the most important variables to consider when choosing a program. Regionally accredited schools are usually nonprofit institutions, while vocational, for-profit, and technical schools often earn national accreditation. Both types of accreditation indicate that an institution maintains quality educational standards and sound financial practices. Some criminology programs have also obtained specialized accreditation through the American Criminal Justice Society (ACJS) grants this programmatic accreditation to a small group of high-quality bachelor's and master's programs in the field.
Career Opportunities With a Master's in Criminology Degree
The list below describes popular career options for master's degree holders in criminology. While earning a master's does not guarantee employment in any of these fields, the degree gives graduates a competitive edge in the job market. They enter the field armed with critical thinking skills, theoretical and applied knowledge, and research tools. For working professionals, a master's degree in criminology can lead to career advancement into supervisory and leadership roles. Some specialized positions, such as those in corrections, community services, or counseling, may require additional certification or licensing. Positions involving criminal investigation, forensic analysis, cybersecurity, or other highly specialized fields may require advanced training in data analysis and technological applications.
Many organizations employ these professionals to develop and monitor cybersecurity protocols to protect computer networks from external attacks. They investigate breaches, assess damage, and implement solutions. These analysts must stay current with the latest IT security technology, software applications, and developments in the field. They monitor external threats, protect against breaches and hacking attempts, assess damage, and provide protection from future assaults. A master's degree in criminology with training in computer forensics or information systems provides graduates a competitive advantage.
Median Salary: $95,510 per year
Currently Employed: 100,000
Expected Job Growth in next 10 years: +28%
The duties carried out by police officers and detectives differ based on the specific requirements of each law enforcement agency. In general, these professionals perform surveillance, question suspects and witnesses, and collect evidence for criminal investigations. Many police officers pursue a master's degree to improve their chances for promotion and higher salaries. Detectives and federal agents find that a master's degree with a specialization in criminal investigation helps them advance into supervisory positions.
Median Salary: $62,960 per year
Currently Employed: 807,000
Expected Job Growth in next 10 years: 7%
Probation officers and correctional specialists supervise the rehabilitation of individuals released into the community on probation or parole. These professionals work with people to fulfill the conditions of their release, avoid repeat incarceration, and find placements in rehabilitative services, including job training or drug counseling. While a bachelor's degree serves as the minimum educational credential for these positions, federal correctional facilities and some state systems require their officers and specialists to pursue a graduate degree and certifications.
Median Salary: $51,410 per year
Currently Employed: 91,300
Expected Job Growth in next 10 years: +6%
Postsecondary educators find employment at community colleges, public and private four-year degree-granting institutions, and professional schools. They design and teach courses in undergraduate and graduate programs related to criminology, criminal justice, and legal studies. In addition to their teaching duties, they also advise students, conduct research, and serve on committees. While each institution sets its own requirements for faculty, most postsecondary teachers must hold at least a master's degree, and many college and university faculty have earned doctorate degrees.
Median Salary: $76,000 per year
Currently Employed: 1,314,400
Expected Job Growth in next 10 years: +15%
Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2018
What's the Expected Job Growth for Criminology Careers?
The career information provided above shows favorable job growth trends for criminology graduates at all levels, and opportunities for advancement for those holding master's degrees. For example, information security analyst positions are poised to increase by 28% over the next decade, making this one of the fastest growing careers in the nation. Employment possibilities also continue to expand for criminology graduates seeking careers in postsecondary education and social and community services. Projected job growth in protective services, law enforcement, and corrections remains stable, which reflects the overall national job rate.
Professional Organizations for Careers in Criminology
Joining a professional association offers graduate students in criminology a competitive edge as they prepare to enter the workforce. Student members benefit from the opportunity to network with experienced practitioners, and they learn about internships, certification programs, and new developments in their specializations. Most organizations offer students discounted membership fees, subscriptions to publications, and access to career resources and job listings.
- Information Systems Security Association ISSA represents the professional interests of information security practitioners and promotes best practices for the management of information resources. ISSA attracts its membership from a broad range of organizations, including healthcare, manufacturing, communications, financial services, government, and education.
- American Correctional Association ACA represents the interests of corrections professionals through professional development workshops, conferences, and publications. The association administers a widely recognized accreditation program for correctional organizations and practitioners through its certified corrections professional program.
- Academy of Criminal Justice Sciences Dedicated to the multidisciplinary study of crime and criminal justice, ACJS boasts a membership of over 2,800. ACJS offers programmatic accreditation to select, high quality, postsecondary programs. It also sponsors conferences, publishes research, and maintains a job bank.
- National Criminal Justice Association NCJA advocates for criminologists and criminal justice professionals. The association addresses crime control, crime prevention, and public safety issues. Student members receive discounts on conference fees, and access networking events and webinars.
- American Society of Criminology ASC promotes research, teaching, and practice in criminology and criminal justice, and sponsors a major annual conference. Students comprise 30% of the society's membership, and have access to a job bank and other career resources.
How to Pay for a Master's in Criminology Degree
Paying for a master's in criminology represents a major challenge for many students. This section identifies various sources of financial assistance available to students pursuing graduate work in criminology or a related field. In addition to student loans, make sure to check out other potential sources of external funding that do not require repayment, including scholarships, grants, and fellowships.
Submitting the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) serves as the first step in qualifying for many kinds of federal assistance programs. Almost all schools require the FAFSA to determine eligibility for federal loans, grants, and work-study funds. Students who apply for federally backed, low-interest direct unsubsidized loans and direct PLUS loans do not need to demonstrate financial need.
Many professional organizations sponsor scholarship programs to encourage careers in these fields. The Association of Certified Fraud Examiners funds scholarships of up to $10,000 to students entering a graduate program in criminology, criminal justice, or business, with the intention of pursuing a career in a fraud-related area.
The American Correctional Association sponsors this annual $1,000 scholarship for minority students who seek an undergraduate or graduate degree in corrections, criminology, or related fields. Applicants must be nominated by a current ACA member and submit a 250-word essay that discusses the significance of Dr. King's philosophy to their educational and career goals.
Many honor societies award annual scholarships to student members in recognition of academic achievements and community service. PGM, the International Honor Society in Social Sciences, offers up to 10 annual $1,000 and $2,000 scholarships to graduate students in their first or second year of a criminology or other social sciences program.