Master of criminal justice: advancing law enforcement careers

By Candice Mancini

Criminal justice professionals who serve society may also wish to advance their careers and enhance their expertise. An online master of criminal justice degree is designed for professionals already working in this field. However, career experience is not always a prerequisite for these programs. Students of criminal justice include individuals with diverse backgrounds, such as psychology, sociology, science and the liberal arts.

No matter what a student's background is, a bachelor's degree is required of those applying to graduate school. Online master of criminal justice programs can usually be completed within two years. Attending part-time generally implies taking courses year-round, including during the summer. Sometimes programs require a minimum number of credits to be taken per semester.

Certain online master of criminal justice programs require students to complete a thesis. Other programs let students choose between writing a thesis and taking the non-thesis route, which typically means more coursework. Some programs do not offer a thesis route at all.

Courses in online master of criminal justice programs

Coursework varies by program, but students can explore subjects spanning the criminal justice field, including the following or related courses:

  • Criminology
  • Forensic behavior analysis
  • Risk assessment
  • Terrorism
  • Victimology
  • Youth crime

Some criminal justice programs offer students the option to focus on a particular sub-field, such as homeland security, forensics or behavior analysis. In other programs, a curriculum is set for all students. In many programs, students must take a combination of required and elective courses.

Careers for graduates of master of criminal justice programs

Many students who attend online master of criminal justice programs already work as law enforcement agents, such as police and probation officers. Earning a master's degree represents one way to advance in a current occupation or to branch into a new one. For instance, a master's degree is often required for federal law enforcement jobs. A master's degree can also help when trying to advance to high-level local and state positions.

Graduates with online master of criminal justice degrees face an array of career options, although some positions require specific background expertise. The following jobs may require additional training or experience:

  • Federal agents, including CIA, FBI, customs and U.S. marshal
  • Police captain
  • Police chief
  • Police detective
  • Sheriff

Job outlook for criminal justice careers

For police and detectives in general, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics projects that jobs will grow by 10 percent, as fast as the average for all U.S. occupations, in the 2008-2018 decade. Employment growth of 17 percent is expected for detectives and criminal investigators, excluding private investigators. These professionals are chiefly found in local, state or Federal government agencies. The annual mean wage for detectives and criminal investigators at the Federal level reached more than $93,000 in 2010.

Although salaries vary by geographic location, level of experience and other factors, BLS cites 2010 median salaries for the following careers:

  1. $78,260 for police supervisors, including chiefs, captains and corporals
  2. $68,820 for detectives and criminal investigators
  3. $53,540 for police and sheriff patrol officers

Federal agent earnings' are partly dependent upon the geographic location they are assigned to. For instance, according to the FBI's website, first-year agents earn between $61,100 and $69,900, depending upon the region.

One celebrity detective and master's degree graduate

Criminal justice history buffs might recognize the name of Eliot Ness, the legendary police detective credited for sending Al Capone on an 11-year trip to Alcatraz in 1931. Ness began his career in a less dazzling manner. His first job was as an investigator for the Retail Credit Co. of Atlanta, performing background checks on potential clients. Seeking more challenging work, Ness earned a master's degree in criminology, and then was hired by the Treasury Department's Bureau of Prohibition in Chicago.

Tracking down Capone was no easy or safe task, but Ness was relentless. After a failed attempt to bribe Ness, Capone turned to murder. None of the assassination attempts on Ness succeeded, although Ness's good friend was killed. Finally, after years of hunts, chases and confiscations, Ness got his hands on Capone's accounting books--and the rest is history.

Law enforcement heroes are hardly reserved for film and television. Earning an online master of criminal justice degree can help ambitious and talented law enforcement professionals to make their own mark.

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