Best Online PhD in Criminal Justice

Doctorate Programs, Timelines and Resources for Criminal Justice Students

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Criminal justice is an interdisciplinary field with career options spread across law enforcement, the legal system and corrections. A doctoral degree in criminal justice can open doors to occupational opportunities in research, academia and leadership. Whether in juvenile justice, probation or international law, PhD graduates bring a research-oriented perspective to understanding the foundations of crime, prosecution and treatment. Find out more about academic options, criminal justice PhD programs, the application process, learning objectives and potential post-graduation paths.

The Online Criminal Justice PhD Timeline

Doctoral programs are both highly competitive and highly selective. Additionally, students must be prepared to spend between four and seven years completing required coursework, conducting research and writing a dissertation. Learn more about what criminal justice departments seek in competitive candidates, the academic process and what it takes to graduate.

Application Process

To be admitted to an online PhD in criminal justice program, applicants must fulfill a range of requirements that ensure prospective students are qualified and prepared to handle the rigors of doctoral studies. Before starting on an application process, review the list below of commonly required items admission committees use to review and assess prospective doctoral candidates.

Bachelor’s degree from an accredited institution

Students must hold a bachelor’s degree and complete a minimum number of criminal-justice related classes for admission. Although a criminal justice major is not required, it is highly recommended, as some institutions may require students to have 18 to 24 hours of criminal justice study at the undergraduate level.

Master’s degree in Criminal Justice or related field

Applicants should have a master’s degree in criminal justice or closely related field (e.g., political science). Admission committees review master’s level coursework to ensure candidates complete sufficient study in criminal justice courses. In certain cases, students may be asked to complete master’s-level prerequisites prior to admission.

PhD Minimum GPA requirements

Most online criminal justice programs require candidates to meet minimum GPA requirements. Students should have a cumulative undergraduate GPA of 3.0, with many programs expecting candidates to have a 3.5 or higher. For master’s level work, students may need a 3.5 GP or higher to be competitive applicants.

Graduate Record Examination (GRE)

Criminology and criminal justice departments may use scores from the Graduate Record Examination (GRE) to screen applicants. However, GRE requirements vary widely by institution and program— some programs may not have a minimum score requirement, while others may seek candidates that meet certain percentiles on the verbal, quantitative or analytic components of the exam.

Letters of Recommendation

Students must submit two to three letters of reference from faculty members or industry professionals that speak to the student’s ability to succeed in an online PhD program in criminal justice.

Personal Statement

The application packet also includes a personal statement that describes the student’s academic background, research interests in criminal justice and criminology, career objectives and any special qualifications that apply to the PhD program.

Academic writing sample

An academic writing sample, such as a paper written during master’s study, is used to assess the candidate’s ability to write at the doctoral level. Length varies, but usually must be at least 2,000 words long to be considered.

Year 1 Milestones

The first year of a criminal justice PhD program introduces students to doctoral-level graduate work, professional development work, and submitting a plan of study. This plan guides the remainder of the student’s work in the program.

Introduction to Core Criminal Justice Coursework

During the first year, students typically complete seven to eight required courses in areas such the foundations of criminology and criminal justice theory, criminal justice policy and research methods and statistics. They also select elective courses in research-focused fields, such as qualitative research design.

Establish Supervisory Committee and File Plan of Study

During the spring semester of their first year, students establish an academic committee that includes a chair persona and two additional faculty members. This group is responsible for approving the student’s plan of study that guides their criminal justice research and coursework.

Participate in Professional Development Activities

In their first year, students also begin participating in professional development activities, such as attending conferences as the American Society of Criminology, on-campus seminars and brown bag lunches or criminal justice colloquiums.

Year 2 Milestones

The second year of the PhD program concentrates heavily on specialized coursework in the student’s academic track, engaging in additional professional development activities, teaching and preparing for comprehensive examinations.

Begin Elective Coursework

During the second year, students begin classes in their chosen criminal justice academic track, including courses in research methods or advanced statistics. Sample areas of study include corrections; policing; economic analysis of crime; emergency management; and cybercrime.

Submit ASC Paper Abstract

Criminal justice doctoral programs may ask students to attend a conference and to submit a paper to the American Society of Criminology. This paper does not have to be in the student’s dissertation field, but of an area of interest or in research

Prepare for and Pass Comprehensive Examinations

These exams assess the student’s understanding of the central issues in criminal justice, covering criminology theory, research methods and real-world applications. Students complete a standard examination that covers law enforcement, corrections and the administration of justice. Passing these examinations allow a student to transition into PhD candidacy.

Year 3 Milestones

Year three of an online PhD in criminal justice program revolves around completing coursework, gaining research skills and preparing for the dissertation. Students engage in original pieces of scholarship and gather a dissertation committee.

Completion of All Coursework Requirements

In year three, students complete the remainder of the criminal justice coursework, including their elective classes. This step paves the way for students to focus on dissertation research.

Assemble Dissertation Committee

With their advisor, students begin assembling a committee of faculty members for their dissertation. This committee guides the dissertation process, handles the dissertation defense and approves the student for graduation.

Begin Work on Research Manuscript

Criminal justice students are required to write an article that includes independent research ready to submit to a peer-review journal. Although the piece doesn’t need to be accepted for publication, it does prepare the student to conduct research and write an academic piece of content.

Serve as Teaching Assistant

Students gain valuable classroom experience by working as a teaching assistant. In this role, they prepare and teach undergraduate courses in criminal justice.

Year 4 Milestones

The fourth year of an online PhD in criminal justice program is dedicated to preparing to research and write a dissertation. Students assemble and defend a proposal, research and write a dissertation and defend it in an examination prior to graduation.

Complete Dissertation and Prospectus

In order to write their dissertation, students must first write a proposal that outlines the scope of their project, the objectives and the impact of their research on the field of criminal justice.

Defend Dissertation Proposal

After submitting their dissertation proposal, students must defend their proposal through an oral examination with their dissertation committee. Passing this examination allows students to transition to the research and writing phase of their dissertation.

Dissertation Research

Upon receiving approval of their committee, students embark on a year or longer research project into their field of study (e.g., crime management). This research forms the foundation of the original dissertation which is the final requirement to graduate with a PhD in criminal justice.

Write and Defend Dissertation

Submitting and defending the dissertation are the final steps before graduation. When completed, the dissertation committee reviews and schedules an oral defense. Students are asked about their area of interest, research methods and why their research matters. When passed, students are prepared to graduate from the program.

Graduation Requirements

Doctoral study is unique to each student. However, most online PhD in criminal justice programs share common degree requirements. Learn more about the standard steps necessary to complete a doctoral degree in criminal justice.

PhD Credit Requirements

Doctoral programs in criminal justice require a minimum of 60 to 78 credit hours of graduate study beyond the bachelor’s degree. Some programs allow students to transfer between 30 and 36 credit hours from a previously completed master’s degree. Students complete a set number of coursework hours in criminal justice and an additional 12 to 18 credit hours for a dissertation.

Core coursework typically covers criminology and criminal justice theory; data analysis in criminal justice; research methods; crime analysis; criminal justice systems; and human rights. In addition, students also satisfy elective credits for their academic track, such as international crime and justice. Example coursework includes international relations, international criminal law, and immigration.

Minimum Grade Requirements

Students must earn a grade of B or better in all required classes. A score less than B may require the student to retake the class until a grade of B is achieved. Criminal justice programs may also have minimum GPA requirements— a score of 3.5 or better is typically required.

Time Requirements

Students must complete all requirements for their criminal justice doctoral degree within seven years of starting the program. Upon receiving PhD candidacy, students have five years to complete degree requirements.

University Residency

Students may be required to complete in-person, on-campus residencies to complete their online criminal justice PhD. Residencies vary by program. These may include summer sessions or longer learning sessions on campus.

Comprehensive Examinations

Students may be required to receive passing grades on two or more comprehensive examinations. These examinations cover distinct areas of study, such as research methods; criminology and criminal justice theories; and the student’s academic track (e.g., international crime and justice). Once students pass these tests, they are admitted to PhD candidacy.

Criminal Justice Dissertation and Defense

Online PhD in criminal justice students must research, write and defend a dissertation. A dissertation is a supervised, original research project that contributes to the body of knowledge in criminal justice and criminology.

Skills Learned: Online Criminal Justice PhD

The PhD in criminal justice prepares students to become leaders in academia, the private sector and government law enforcement organizations. Curriculum exposes students to contemporary issues in criminal justice and teaches them to apply research methodologies to address issues in public policy, law, crime and administration of the criminal justice system.

PhD in Criminal Justice

  • Advanced Knowledge of Justice and Criminology

    Students gain an understanding of the major concepts of criminal justice, including its legal, political and social frameworks. Students develop knowledge of the causes of crime, the principles of crime control and prevention, the function of criminal justice institutions, and research methods used to study the integrated legal, law enforcement and corrections system.

  • Applied Critical Thinking Skills

    Armed with the knowledge of criminological theory and structure of the justice system, graduates are able to ask critical, germane questions concerning contemporary criminal justice topics and issues. As researchers, industry thought leaders, or policy analysts, PhD graduates learn how to apply their knowledge practically to a variety of problems, ranging from social inequality to racial profiling.

  • Communication Methods

    In addition to professional knowledge and research techniques, graduates also develop advanced speaking and writing skills, which are vital when working at the highest levels of research, policing and investigation and policy development.

  • Data Analysis and Research Techniques

    PhD programs teach students how to conduct research, including modern techniques used in criminology and criminal justice. Students build skills in the design of studies and the collection, analysis and interpretation of data. Using these skills, graduates can leverage information (both qualitative and quantitative) to create solutions to criminal justice issues, such as the implications of a public policy change to release non-violent offenders from prison.

Best Degree for 2017: Online PhD in Criminal Justice

Criminal justice is an expansive field with an array of professional opportunities, and a PhD positions graduates for careers as academic researchers and leaders throughout the industry. The following school rose to the top by providing a comprehensive education that equips students with the area-specific information needed to excel in the field. Check out their program offerings below.

Nova Southeastern University

Recognized by the Carnegie Foundation as a top research institution, Nova Southeastern University counts among its doctoral alumni 300 current college superintendents and 33 current college presidents. Students pursuing a PhD in criminal justice can choose from several specialty tracks, and they can select more than one specialty track, provided they complete all five courses in each track. In 2016, the university hosted and participated in events for Criminal Justice Week, which included live demonstrations and seminars from law enforcement groups. NSU is accredited by the Commission on Colleges of the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS). The program generally accepts only 20 students per year.

  • In-State Tuition$26,700
  • Student Population23,236
  • Percentage of Students Receiving Financial Aid83%
  • Number of Students per Instructor16

After Graduation: What to do with a Criminal Justice PhD

Criminal justice doctoral programs prepare graduates for research, professional and teaching careers in a variety of settings, from government agencies to universities, public policy organizations to private businesses. Graduates can work across the criminal justice spectrum, such as corrections, corporate crime, policing and law enforcement, law, as well as local, state and federal government. Explore potential criminal justice career paths for PhD graduates in the table below.

Browse PhD in Criminal Justice Careers
Criminal Justice Professor

Criminal justice professors work at both the community college and university levels, teaching criminal justice classes and conducting research into specialized areas of interest, such as international law, criminology and law enforcement.

Job Growth (2014-2024)


Median Annual Salary (May 2015)


Criminal Investigator

Criminal investigators collect evidence and gather facts and information pertaining to criminal cases. They interview witnesses, examine physical evidence and collaborate with local, state and federal agencies to conduct investigations.

Job Growth (2014-2024)


Median Annual Salary (May 2015)


Vocational Rehabilitation Administrator

Vocational rehabilitation administrators coordinate community- or local-based programs for recently released inmates to transition into careers after their incarceration. They coordinate with correctional officers, psychologists and parole officers to help them develop job skills, locate employment and get professional training.

Job Growth (2014-2024)


Median Annual Salary (May 2015)


Dispute Resolution Mediator

Dispute resolution mediators help facilitate discussion between two parties involved in a dispute. They address concerns, establish procedural guidelines, evaluate information and facts and establish equitable settlement terms.

Job Growth (2014-2024)


Median Annual Salary (May 2015)


Sources: BLS

Additional Resources

It can be a challenging decision to pursue an online PhD in criminal justice. Before getting started, students may want to learn more about the field, employment opportunities or connect with other professionals in the field. The following resources are a great starting point.

Academy of Criminal Justice Sciences

The Academy of Criminal Justice Sciences has approximately 2,800 members and is an association dedicated to furthering scholarship and professional activities across the criminal justice discipline.

American Criminal Justice Association

The American Criminal Justice Association is a nationwide organization with campus-based chapters that promotes academic and higher education programs in criminal justice.

American Society of Criminology

The American Society of Criminology is an international, membership-based organization that serves academic and criminal justice professionals engaged in research, teaching and practice.

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