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Pursuing a Doctorate in Criminal Justice Online

Pursuing a doctorate in criminal justice online invites you to delve into the historical and contemporary theories, practices, and issues that shape national and international criminal justice. When you earn this degree, you will also explore the research methodologies and tools that educators, researchers, and leaders use to enhance and advance the field.

Top 3 Things You’ll Study to Earn a Doctorate in Criminal Justice Online

  1. The theories and real-world practical applications that shape criminology and criminal justice as a field and discipline. In some types of doctorate programs, you will also study theories and applications in psychology, sociology, or political science that influence criminal justice as a field and industry.
  2. The methods and statistics academics, researchers, and administrators use to conduct original and independent research in criminology and criminal justice.
  3. A specific area of criminology or criminal justice such as administration, homeland security, policy, policing, or corrections.  

What Will I Learn through My Studies?

Ultimately, it depends on the doctorate degree and its intention. Some programs help you enter the intellectual community as an instructor or a scholar; others help you pursue leadership and administration roles.

In the first case, you might learn advanced research methodologies and how to teach at the college level. In the second case, you might learn how to provide leadership in diverse and dynamic criminal justice settings. No matter the case, however, there are some things you are likely to learn when you pursue a doctorate in criminal justice online.

Here Are the Top 5 Things You Might Learn:

  1. How to influence the criminal justice system and create positive change.
  2. How to evaluate policies , practices, and procedures to assess their effectiveness and success.
  3. How to synthesize research and theory on historical and contemporary issues and trends to develop new practices.
  4. How to consider the root causes of crime and how they impact the criminal justice system.
  5. How to conduct research in criminology or criminal justice using statistics, data analysis, and research methods.

What Courses Will I Take When I Earn an Online PhD in Criminal Justice?

To kick off your program, you may take a foundational course that helps your understand doctoral study and its demands, requirements, and challenges. You may also take several courses that steep you in the history and contemporary issues of criminology and criminal justice. Beyond that, you’ll explore subjects across areas of criminology and criminal justice. For example,

Your core required courses might cover subjects such as:

  • Communication and leadership
  • Diversity and dynamics in criminal justice
  • Criminal justice theory and practical application
  • Criminal justice policy and administration
  • Assessing criminal justice theory and policy
  • Justice, security, and democracy
  • Historical issues in criminal justice
  • Contemporary issues in criminal justice
  • Globalization and the criminal justice system

Your courses connected to conducting research might cover subjects such as:

  • Critical analysis and research methodologies in criminology and criminal justice
  • Quantitative and qualitative design and analysis
  • Introductory and advanced research design
  • Introductory and advanced statistical analysis
  • Special problems in quantitative and qualitative methods

Your elective courses might cover subjects such as:

  • Emergency management
  • Global leadership
  • Homeland security policy and coordination
  • Justice administration
  • Law and public policy
  • Policing  
  • Teaching in higher education  
  • Management and leadership in public and private sectors

Your courses will support you in gaining 3 primary abilities:

  1. A mastery of the body of knowledge of criminology and criminal justice
  2. The capacity to think originally and independently in the fields and disciplines of criminology and criminal justice
  3. The ability to conduct significant independent research that contributes to the body of knowledge in criminology and criminal justice

5 Common Options for Pursuing a Doctorate in Criminal Justice Online

Option 1 - The Doctor of Philosophy in criminology, criminal justice, or justice studies. 
This type of degree will focus primarily on the theories, practices, policies, and research that shape the primary field of study. You might study criminal justice or criminology broadly, or you might choose a concentration such as policing, corrections, or public policy.  

Option 2 - The Doctor of Business Administration with an emphasis in Criminal Justice

Option 3 - The Doctor of Philosophy in Social Work with an emphasis in Criminal Justice

Option 4 - The Doctor of Psychology with an emphasis on Criminal Justice

Option 5 - The Doctor of Management with an emphasis on Homeland Security

Note that degree types 2 through 5 will likely emphasize their respective subjects (business administration, social work, psychology, and management). Students will place a secondary focus on criminal justice or an aspect of criminal justice as it relates to the primary subject.

How to Pick a Degree

Different Tracks: Different programs offer different tracks of study depending on the degrees you have earned previously. Some tracks are for students who already have a masters degree in criminal justice or a closely related field; others are for students who have a masters degree in an unrelated discipline. Either track will likely require you to earn the same number of credits, but the coursework might be different.  

Concentrations: Some programs offer concentrations within the discipline of criminal justice. Examples include:

  • Emergency management
  • Global leadership
  • Homeland security
  • Law and public policy
  • Teaching
  • Management and leadership

When considering these and other options for earning a doctorate in criminal justice online, consider how you want to apply your knowledge and skills. 1. Do you want to work as criminology or criminal justice faculty at a college or university? 2. Do you want to work as a researcher at a university or agency that deals with criminal justice? 3. Do you want to work as a leader or administrator in criminology, criminal justice, social work, or criminal justice administration? 4. Do you want to focus on psychology or social work as they relate to criminal justice? 5. Your interests and goals will influence the type of degree you pursue. 

Using electives to focus your knowledge: Whether you’re considering homeland security PhD programs or a doctorate degree in criminology online, choosing your electives carefully could help you deepen your knowledge of a key area. For example, in criminology, you might focus on crimes of the powerful, organized crime, the ecology of crime. In homeland security, you might focus on international security, religion and crime, and stateside threats to security. Your electives can help you round out your knowledge in an area that you find fascinating or is connected to your career.

What Is the Structure of a Doctorate in Criminal Justice Online?

There are 5 key components of an online criminal justice PhD.

  1. Core classes. Your core classes will likely have two parts: One that covers theory and research in criminology and criminal justice and one that covers research methods and analytical techniques used by the discipline and field. These classes help you become a master in the field.
  2. Elective classes. Your elective classes may cover criminology and criminal justice, or they may cover related or connected fields such as business, psychology, sociology, or political science. These classes help you dive into areas most interesting to you depending on your research and career goals.
  3. Comprehensive exam(s). A comprehensive exam tests your knowledge across your field, discipline, and specialization. When you earn your doctorate in criminal justice online, you might need to take two exams: one that tests your knowledge of criminology and one that tests your knowledge of research methods, analytical tools, and statistics. 
  4. Dissertation. A dissertation is a guided research project that requires students to ask an original research question and provide an answer using various research methodologies. When you pursue a doctorate in criminal justice online, your ultimate goal is to generate original scholarship that contributes to the field and discipline of criminal justice.
  5. Defending a dissertation. In addition to researching and writing a dissertation, you’ll have to defend it. This means that you’ll present your paper and your research to a group of experts in the field and respond to their questions, concerns, and criticisms. 

Beyond these key components, it’s important to consider the length and format of your doctorate in criminal justice online.

Credits: The doctorate in criminal justice online typically requires 85 to 95 credits of coursework. (Note that if you’re a transfer student or a student with a masters degree, you might not be able to transfer all of your credits into your doctorate program. Many of them limit the number of credits students can transfer in from masters and other doctorate degree programs.)

Your program credits are divided between:

    • Required core coursework
    • Elective coursework
    • Dissertation coursework, research, and seminar work

Proving your knowledge: once you’ve earned your credits, you’ll take your comprehensive exam(s) and submit and defend your dissertation. After a successful test and dissertation submission and defense (and fulfilling other requirements depending on your program), you’re off to graduate having earned your doctorate in degree in criminal justice online.

Completing residencies or intensive seminars: While you can complete the majority of an online PhD in criminal justice virtually through a digital platform, in many cases, students must visit campus for residencies or intensives. These residencies and intensives are typically connected to the dissertation. The visits allow instructors to guide students through drafting a research plan, discussing ideas with faculty and peers, and writing and submitting a final research plan. Residencies and intensives might last anywhere from multiple weekends stretched across the duration of the program to several weeks at once. (Note: not all programs require on-campus visits. Ask a program director about requirements and options.)

Potential Careers for People Who Earned a Doctorate in Criminal Justice Online

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics:

  • Criminal Justice and Law Enforcement Teachers at the College Level earned a median annual salary of $59,590 as of May, 2016. The majority worked at junior colleges. After that, the largest number worked at colleges and universities. The minority worked for state governments.i
  • Social and Community Service Managers earned a median annual wage of $64,680 as of 2016. The majority worked in individual and family services; after that, they primarily worked in governmental, grant-making, civic, professional, and similar organizations.ii
  • Emergency Management Directors earned a median annual salary of $70,500 as of 2016. The majority worked for local government.iii
  • Management Analysts earned a median annual salary of $81,330 in 2016.iv Twenty-two percent worked in management, scientific, and technical consulting services and twenty percent worked in company management or for local, state, and federal governments.v
  • Training and Development Managers earned a median annual salary of $105,830 as of 2016.vi Eighteen percent worked in educational services, healthcare, and social assistance.vii

Note that you might not need a doctorate degree to work in some of these occupations (though higher education will likely be the exception). However, earning a doctorate in criminal justice online could enhance your resume and help you understand how to teach, manage, and succeed within an incredibly diverse and dynamic system. Plus, some occupations, especially those in education, research, and management, could benefit greatly from your advanced knowledge and research skills.    

I Want to See Program Options for Earning My PhD in Criminal Justice Online. What Do I Do Next?

Your next step is easy. Browse through the programs you see listed on this page. Simply by looking at them, you can see some information—often available degree types and school names. By clicking on them, you can see additional information, or you can click “Request Info” to contact the school and request more thorough information. That’s all you have to do!

Exploring your options here can launch you into an exploration of criminal justice and criminology. You might graduate from your program knowing how to work with courts, correctional facilities, and policing and other governmental institutions, and having developed your ability to asses a situation, evaluate what’s happening, and find solutions that serve employees and members of communities. You may also find yourself firmly rooted in your ability to think and act ethically and using situational awareness and analysis. Each of these opportunities presents a great reason to begin your journey. Good luck!


i. bls.gov/oes/current/oes251111.htm | ii.bls.gov/ooh/management/social-and-community-service-managers.htm#tab-1 | iii.bls.gov/ooh/management/emergency-management-directors.htm#tab-1 | iv.bls.gov/ooh/business-and-financial/management-analysts.htm | v. bls.gov/ooh/business-and-financial/management-analysts.htm#tab-3 | vi.bls.gov/ooh/management/training-and-development-managers.htm | vii. bls.gov/ooh/management/training-and-development-managers.htm#tab-3