Criminal Justice Major: Courses, Jobs, Salaries

Policewomen pulling over man in convertible
Hill Street Studios / Getty Images

Criminal justice studies is one of the ten most popular undergraduate majors in the United States, with over 60,000 students earning degrees in the field annually. This field of study can lead to a wide range of careers, and students typically study the legal, social, and political contexts of the criminal justice system.

Key Takeaways: Criminal Justice Major

  • The criminal justice field is interdisciplinary and spans political science, sociology, psychology, and more.
  • Hundreds of colleges offer criminal justice majors with both onsite and online options.
  • Possible careers include security, forensics, law, corrections, and policing.

Careers in Criminal Justice

Many students who major in criminal justice go on to jobs related to public service, but this diverse and interdisciplinary field can lead to a wide range of career options.

  • Criminal Law: The criminal justice major is a popular choice for students planning to go to law school to earn a JD and become an attorney. The major can be particularly beneficial for students interested in practicing criminal law.
  • Corrections: Correctional officers might work with people who are on probation or parole, and others oversee those who have been arrested within a prison. Being a correctional officer often does not require a bachelor's degree, but a strong educational background can quickly lead to a promotion into supervisory roles.
  • Human Services: Criminal justice is about much more than policing, and many majors go on to help keep juveniles out of trouble, rehabilitate criminals, and protect victims of crime.
  • Security: Security jobs can take many forms, including working for a private security firm or working for a federal agency such as the Department of Homeland Security. Criminal justice majors can also work as Secret Service agents or FBI agents.
  • Forensics: Careers in forensics can have a range of specialties, from crime scene investigators to forensic psychologists and forensic accountants. Each specialty requires different specialized and technical training.
  • Crisis Management: Some criminal justice majors go on to work for organizations to protect them from major threats such as security breaches, both physical and electronic.
  • Cybercrime Investigator: Students with technical expertise will find that criminal justice and computer science can make a powerful combination in the high-demand field of investigating cybercrime.

College Coursework in Criminal Justice

Students majoring in criminal justice typically take numerous specialized courses in the field as well as a range of relevant courses in the social sciences, especially political science, psychology, and sociology. Students learn about the causes of crime, security management, and the challenges of balancing crime control with civil liberties. A student's exact coursework will often depend on their area of concentration. Typical core courses include:

  • Introduction to Criminal Justice
  • Criminology
  • Criminal Procedure
  • Research Methods

More specialized courses would be selected from topics such as:

  • Policing
  • Corrections
  • Courts and Sentencing
  • Delinquency Prevention
  • Juvenile Justice
  • Private Security
  • Forensic Science
  • Investigation Procedures
  • Homeland Security
  • Cyber-Crime and Cyber-Security

Different colleges and universities often have different areas of specialization, so you'll want to look carefully at a school's course offerings. One university may have strengths in policing while another has a strong pre-law track.

Best Schools for Criminal Justice

Hundreds of four-year colleges and universities across the U.S. offer bachelor's degree programs in criminal justice or a closely related field. Many universities also offer master's and doctoral degrees in the field, and the options for online degree programs has grown significantly in recent years. The schools listed below all have well-regarded programs that tend to do well in the national rankings.

  • American University: With its location in Washington, D.C., American's Department of Justice, Law and Criminology sits just a short walk from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and other federal offices focused on criminal justice. The program offers majors a range of internship and research opportunities.
  • CUNY John Jay College of Criminal Justice: Located in New York City, John Jay is an affordable public university dedicated entirely to criminal justice. Over 1,400 students earn degrees in criminal justice each year, and other popular majors at the university include Criminology, Forensic Psychology, and Legal Studies.
  • Florida State University: Florida State's College of Criminology and Criminal Justice graduates over 450 Criminology majors each year. The college also offers a Cyber Criminology degree and online programs at both the bachelor's and master's levels.
  • George Mason University: Criminal justice is the largest field of study at GMU, with roughly 350 students earning their bachelor's degrees in the field annually. Students can choose from a BA or BS in Criminology, Law and Society.
  • Michigan State University: The School of Criminal Justice at Michigan State has been granting degrees in the field for longer than any other program in the country. At the undergraduate level, the school graduates roughly 150 Criminal Justice majors each year.
  • Northeastern University: The School of Criminology and Criminal Justice at Northeastern offers bachelor's, master's, and doctoral degrees in criminal justice. The university also has combined JD-MS and JD-PhD for students interested in entering the law with a strong background in criminal justice. The undergraduate program has a strong experiential learning component.
  • Rutgers University, New Brunswick: With about 225 bachelor's degree recipients each year, the criminal justice major at Rutgers is one of the university's more popular options. The program takes pride in blending pre-professional training with a liberal arts education.
  • University of California, Irvine: At UCI, nearly 400 students graduate each year with a degree in Criminology, Law and Society. The program focuses on the social, political, cultural, and economic forces that impact the criminal justice system.
  • University of Cincinnati: UC graduates about 200 criminal justice majors each year through its onsite and online programs. The bachelor's degree program requires seniors to complete 112 hours of internship work in which students gain practical field experience.
  • University of Maryland: The Criminology and Criminal Justice major at the University of Maryland is an LEP (Limited Enrollment Program) that restricts enrollments to maintain program quality. Students admitted into the program will discover a wide range of internship and extracurricular opportunities related to criminal justice.

Average Salaries for Criminal Justice Majors

Some of the highest paying jobs for criminal justice majors require an advanced degree, but students with bachelor's degrees generally earn comfortable wages. PayScale.com lists the mean early career pay for criminal justice majors as $40,300, and that number goes up to $65,900 by mid-career. The numbers for criminology are similar: $41,900 and $69,300, respectively. For students going into policing, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics lists the median pay as $65,170 per year. Private detectives tend to make a bit less than that, with a median salary of $50,510 per year, and correctional officers have a median salary of $45,300 per year.