Criminal justice is one of the most challenging and rewarding occupations, dedicated to keeping people safe and society running fairly. Like any other field, though, climbing the highest rungs of the job ladder can be difficult. While it takes experience and dedication to get into leadership roles, it also takes education and credentials. But whether they’re in teaching or administration, cybersecurity or Homeland Security, you won’t hear anyone regretting the work it took to get a PhD in Criminal Justice.
What Kind of Criminal Justice Doctorate Should I Get?
There are a lot of choices out there for the highest degree in the criminal justice field, depending on your career goals and your preferred specialization. Finding the right one for your needs means asking yourself some questions.
Do you want to:
Work in Teaching or Research? Then you want a PhD in Criminal Justice or Criminology. The PhD focuses heavily on theory, research, and writing, and a career teaching or doing research in academia, government, or the private sector, is the expected career path.
Work Directly in the Field? A Doctor of Science degree is focused on getting students to the highest level of technical expertise. Areas might include cybersecurity, forensics, criminology, or other highly technical criminal justice fields. A DSci can also qualify you to teach.
Work as an Administrator or Leader? A Doctor of Professional Studies is a professional degree (rather than an academic degree) usually focused on combining technical expertise with administrative and managerial leadership qualities.
Online PhD criminal justice programs have become much more common in the last decade, even at the doctoral level, particularly because in most cases people do not realize they want or need a doctoral degree until they’ve already been working in the field. After all, you don’t invest the time and energy into getting a doctorate if you’re not sure you want to work in criminal justice.
However, by the time you get to that point, you’ve also invested a lot into your job and can’t take the risk of leaving your position to go back to school full-time. You have bills to pay, after all. Colleges and universities know that, with a fully online or hybrid doctoral program, they can get more working professionals the education they need to get to the next step. Often, online programs are more affordable than traditional residential or on-campus programs as well.
What Career Paths are Open to a PhD in Criminal Justice?
Criminal justice is one of the most varied, diverse occupational fields, but we would narrow things down to five main career paths.
A PhD in Criminal Justice or Doctor of Criminal Justice degree qualifies graduates to teach criminology and criminal justice at the college level, probably the most common reason to earn a doctorate. Criminal justice, criminology, and security are some of the fastest-growing fields, and that means universities and colleges are scrambling to start criminal justice programs, or expand their current programs to meet student demand. With more need for criminal justice professors, there is more opportunity for PhD criminal justice experts to take on teaching positions.
Criminal justice and criminology research is also increasing, not only in academic settings, but in partnerships between academia and private industry or government. Criminal justice PhD programs concentrate on research, and in most cases, the final part of a PhD program is a dissertation or original, in-the-field research project, so graduates are well prepared for professional roles doing research for any of these companies or agencies. Researchers in criminology and criminal justice may work in areas ranging from psychology to forensics, such as developing profiling tools, computer programs, or even methods of analyzing DNA for criminal investigation.
- Administrator (Department Chair, Dean, Chancellor)
- Writer (Textbooks, Criminal Justice Theory
Obviously, law enforcement is an evergreen career path – there is always a need for more police officers, investigators, and administrators to keep communities safe. A PhD in Criminal Justice, depending on the specialization or concentration, can give graduates the expertise to move into administrative roles in law enforcement; it’s one of the major reasons working professionals in the criminal justice field go back to school. A criminal justice PhD program will include courses in public policy, law, and government, giving future administrators the foundation for leadership in police departments and local government.
Other concentrations can prepare students for more investigative jobs, like forensics and criminal investigator or detective. With technology improving and expanding all the time, the BLS reports that, forensics is one of the fastest-growing sectors in law enforcement, and despite the excitement, there are still not enough well-trained, experienced forensics experts to fill the need. Criminal investigators, on the other hand, are some of the highest-paid and most respected members of the law enforcement community, and the in-depth experience and knowledge a criminal justice doctorate provides can help law enforcement professionals make that leap.
- Forensics Investigator
- Forensics Analyst (Cybersecurity, Laboratory Chief)
Federal and State Agencies and Government
The terrorist attacks on 9/11 started a boom in federal and state security agencies that has not slowed down in a decade and a half. Federal agencies like the Department of Homeland Security, the National Security Agency, the FBI, and even the IRS and Secret Service are always recruiting graduates and professionals with technical and analytical skills. Criminal Justice PhD programs can prepare professionals for a variety of career roles within government agencies, including policy analysis, forensics, investigation, management, and administration.
There’s no shortage of opportunities at the state level either. Every state has its own bureau of criminal investigation, revenue department, prisons and jails, and other agencies and organizations where a PhD in criminal justice could qualify you for leadership. While many state and local-level administrative positions in criminal justice are elected or appointed (such as attorney general in the federal or state department of justice), most middle-level positions are hired, so a PhD in criminal justice could be a stepping stone. And if you want to go into politics, having some real expertise wouldn’t hurt – although it’s by no means essential.
- Fraud Investigator
- FBI Agent
- IRS Agent
- Secret Service Agent
- NSA Agent
- DEA Agent
- Cybersecurity Analyst
- Policy Analyst
If “private security” brings to mind a mall cop zipping around on a Segway, or a burly bodyguard pushing paparazzi away from a Hollywood star, think bigger. According to Forbes, worldwide, private security workers far outnumber official police forces, and the private security industry in the US is worth more than $200 billion. There are a lot of reasons for the growth of the private security industry, but one major driver is government contracting. It’s become increasingly common for the government to contract with private industry to meet security needs; private industry can often work more efficiently than government bureaucracy. It can also be cheaper for the government. From the War on Terror to security in national parks, the trend is toward privatization.
The bulk of private security growth, however, is due to the increasing demand for cybersecurity; as more and more of business is conducted online, there is a growing need to protect information and money from hackers. Cybersecurity analysts and technicians are plentiful, but still not up to job market demand (the BLS indicates a 28% growth in cybersecurity analysts, and current median income is well over $90,000 annually). But the supply of expert professionals to handle the administration of complex cybersecurity operations is definitely insufficient – and a perfect opportunity for professionals to earn a PhD or Doctor of Criminal Justice and step into the gap.
- Cybersecurity Analyst
- Database Administrator
- Threat Assessment
It’s become a running joke that any time you see “consultant” on LinkedIn, it’s code for “unemployed.” And it’s probably true that “consultant” may be overused and abused by job-seekers trying to cover up their bad luck, but self-employed does not mean unemployed. In fact, for a professional with an entrepreneurial streak (and the guts to take some risks), consulting can be a rewarding experience. In the criminal justice and security sector, consultants are in high demand; every agency, no matter how large, at some point finds the need to hire outside expertise, whether it’s because they need someone with a niche specialization, or someone with experience that no one in the agency has.
There is no simple way to go into a consulting career; you’ll have to work in the field first. But if you have experience in the criminal justice field, earning your PhD or Doctor of Criminal Justice can give you the credentials to strike out on your own with your clients’ trust. A few qualities help:
- some area of expertise not many people have
- extensive experience in an in-demand area
- confidence and strong PR skills
- connections within the industry (ie. previous colleagues)
You may find yourself consulting for:
- private security firms
- government agencies (federal and state)
- local municipalities
- local police departments
- nonprofit organizations (such as substance abuse, social services, juvenile delinquency, etc)
It won’t be easy, and it won’t be quick, but a doctoral degree in criminal justice may be the most important 3-5 year of your professional life. A doctorate shows dedication, knowledge, and smarts, but above all, earning a PhD in criminal justice gives you the tools the make the most of your criminal justice career.