The phrase “to serve and protect,” or some variation thereof, is as familiar as it is sweeping. It defines, on some level, an idealized notion of the day-to-day role of law enforcement officials in our communities — serving the public good, working to protect individuals and communities from potential threats, keeping crime and criminal perpetrators in check. That may be what the job of policing looks like on the ground level, but the work of law enforcement is ultimately based on theories, policies, and practices that are grounded in social scientific research into the very nature of crime and criminal behavior, psychologically, sociologically, culturally, and even anthropologically. Ideas like “community policing,” “broken windows theory,” and even the currently controversial “stop and frisk” policy are taught at police academies, but forged in a very different sort of academy, from the social and behavioral science research and theories that emanate from colleges and universities.

This is the work of criminology, a cross-disciplinary field that seeks to measure, illuminate, and address the social, psychological, political, and economic causes of crime systematically, theoretically, and, ultimately, practically. Becoming a criminologist generally begins with a master’s degree program that addresses a range of issues, from sociology and psychology of crime and criminal behavior, to the legal and ethical issues surrounding law enforcement policies, correctional philosophies, and the judicial process. A master’s in criminology can be a starting point either for further, doctoral-level study in the discipline, or for an array of employment options in the fields of law enforcement, criminal justice, corrections, or policy study. And, it remains a platform for developing a rigorous understanding of one of the most pressing concerns of our time.

Master’s in Criminology Concepts

  • Correctional philosophy
  • Law enforcement strategies
  • Victimology
  • Juvenile delinquency
  • Modern theories of crime
  • Origins of law
  • Psychology of criminal behavior
  • Human development
  • Mental health and psychopathology
  • Issues of human diversity
  • Statistics and psychometrics
  • Professional ethics
  • Traditional criminological theories
  • Functions of criminal justice organizations
  • The impact of the application of law on society

Benefits of Earning a Master’s in Criminology

The criminal justice system is a vast, interconnected network that encompasses prosecutors, criminal defense attorneys, law enforcement officers, corrections officials, politicians, community activists, forensic and behavioral psychologists, educators and school officials, politicians, and, on some level, every member of society. In other words, it’s complicated. And the closer you look at it, the more evidently complex it becomes. Criminology has traditionally been a way to comprehensively and comprehensibly systematize our study and understanding of crime and criminal behavior at a societal level — to weave together various ways of approaching the problems associated with crime in a discipline designed to actively and effectively address the root causes of criminal behavior.

A master’s degree in criminology can therefore lead to numerous potential career outcomes, depending on your specific area of interest. There are criminologists who work in policing, in the justice and correctional systems, in research and advocacy positions, in education, and in administrative positions, crafting and implementing policy. While there are bachelor’s degrees available in criminology, it is primarily thought of as an area for graduate-level research and study. And, a master’s in criminology is generally the best way to begin a career in the field.

What to Expect from a Criminology Master’s Program

Master’s degree programs in criminology may be located within sociology departments or, as is increasingly common, in schools of criminal justice. That often determines whether the degree offered is a master’s of arts (MA) or a master’s of science (MS), and it may have some bearing on how the subject matter is approached over the course of study. However, the general requirements for master’s degrees in criminology are essentially the same for MA and MS programs. The programs are typically designed to be completed in two years of full-time study, and often include a master’s thesis requirement or option that entails original research of some kind.

Studying criminology has many facets, but it’s rooted in developing an understanding of the interactions between sociology, psychology, and the legal/criminal justice system. A master’s degree in criminology will introduce these concepts and explore the ways in which social science research is deployed in the interest of addressing the problems of crime and criminal behavior. Here are some courses that are typically part of a criminology master’s program:

CourseAreas of Study
Social Science Research MethodsDesigning, implementing, and analyzing research in the social sciences related to crime and criminal behavior
Statistical Analysis in CriminologyUsing quantitative research and statistical modeling to analyze crime and criminal behavior
Theories of Criminal JusticeThe history of various approaches to crime and criminology in terms of psychology, sociology, political science, and economics
Evidence-Based Crime PreventionUsing data and quantitative methods to address crime and criminal behavior
Psychology of Criminal BehaviorThe behavioral issues associated with studying and understanding crime and criminal behavior
Sociology and CrimeThe social forces that influence crime and criminal behavior
Law and the Criminal Justice SystemAn overview of the various ways the legal and criminal justice systems are set up to address the problem of crime
Theories of Community PolicingHow law enforcement functions in neighborhoods and local communities

Specializations in Criminology

Because of its cross-disciplinary nature and its scope, criminology offers many opportunities for specialization, usually through elective coursework and thesis projects at the master’s degree level. For example, criminal profiling, as popularized in the long-running TV crime drama Criminal Minds, is one area that a criminology student might pursue through electives and a master’s thesis. One of the newer, growing specializations in criminology is in the realm of computers and cybercrime prevention.

Areas of Specialization may Include:

  • Computer Criminology
  • Criminal Justice Administration
  • Domestic and Family Violence
  • Environmental Crime
  • Gender and Crime
  • Juvenile Delinquency and Crime Prevention
  • Offender Rehabilitation and Reentry
  • Race, Ethnicity, and Crime
  • Social Justice
  • Substance Abuse and Drug Policy
  • Terrorism and International Crime
  • Victimology and Crime
  • White Collar Crime

In addition, the American Society of Criminology (ASC) currently has 10 separate divisions devoted to different areas of professional practice and academic study within the realm of criminology:

Divisions of Criminology

  • Corrections and Sentencing
  • Critical Criminology
  • Developmental and Life-Course Criminology
  • Experimental Criminology
  • International Criminology
  • People of Color and Crime
  • Policing
  • Terrorism and Bias Crimes
  • Victimology
  • Women and Crime

Careers, Salaries, and Certifications in Criminology

For many graduates of master’s degree programs in criminology, the next step can be enrollment in further graduate work, at the PhD level in criminology, criminal justice, or sociology, or in law school, which can lead to a career in the legal profession as a prosecutor or defense attorney. However, there are also a variety of careers open to those who have completed a master’s degree in the field, each of which is governed by its own professional licensing and certification requirements at the state level. Unlike forensic psychologists and clinical social workers, who often provide critical counseling services as an integral part of their practice, criminologists do not necessarily require state licensure and/or professional certification. Of course, this depends on an individual’s particular career track.

Some of the careers that are open to those holding a master’s in criminology include parole and probation officer; correctional officer; crime analyst; pretrial services officer; and crime prevention specialist. A criminology degree can lead to a career in drug and alcohol abuse counseling, community activism, or other areas of the social services. Local and state police agencies, and federal law enforcement agencies like the FBI, DEA, ITS, Secret Service, and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms also recruit from among the ranks of those who have completed a master’s degree in criminology.

These are widely divergent careers, with very different salary projections and growth estimates that can vary state-to-state and region-to-region. The Bureau of Labor Statistics does not collect data for “criminologists,” but the chart below illustrates typical salary ranges and job growth expectations in some of the careers that are common for graduates with a master’s in criminology;

JobAverage Annual SalaryGrowth Projection Through 2022
Corrections Officer$38,9705%
Police and Detectives$56,9805%
Probation Officers and Correctional Treatment Specialists$48,1901%
Substance Abuse and Behavioral Disorder Counselors$38,52031%
Private Detectives and Investigators$45,74011%
Forensic Science Technicians$52,8406%

All data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2014-2015 edition

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