Criminal Justice Doctoral Programs

Criminal Justice PhD programs provide students with the highest level of study in fields such as criminalistics, criminology, and criminal psychology. People who pursue degrees at this level often have a main interest related to crime which anchors their own research. For some it is the desire to understand criminal behavior. Others might be drawn to crime control policy, justice administration, or the analysis of evidence. Whatever your preference, a doctorate degree may help you make an impact, lead, and establish your professional expertise.

Compare Criminal Justice PhD Programs

Criminal justice PhD programs are interdisciplinary, exploring a wide range of topics in areas such as law enforcement, crime, sanctions, psychology, sociology, public administration and more. Most programs help students to apply a variety of research methods to the study of crime causation, social reaction, and the legal system. As a broad field, criminal justice may be studied holistically, or, students might choose to narrow their focus. Some of these sub-categories are listed out below.

PhD in Criminal Justice: Criminal Justice students often explore biological, psychological, sociological, cultural and political theories of what causes crimes to occur. Coursework might also delve into current issues in law enforcement and criminal law. Within this larger context, students might be able to pursue an area of emphasis such as organizational leadership, behavioral sciences, juvenile justice, corrections, criminology or higher education. 

PhD in Criminology: The field of criminology explores the nature of crime and its prevention, along with the study of criminals and their treatment. Students in this field study the criminal justice system with the aim to develop new theories for how to deal with issues such as juvenile delinquency, gangs and punishmen. In some programs, students might select from a list of ‘area courses’ to refine their niche of inquiry. Examples might include property crime, violent crime, victimization, corrections and public policy.

PhD in Criminalistics: Known as ‘forensic science’, criminalistics explores the relationships between the laboratory, the courts, law enforcement, corrections and the criminal justice system. Students might study topics such as crime scene investigation, drug analysis, genetics, physics and organic chemistry. Courses might also cover criminal procedures and the U.S. criminal justice system.

PhD in Criminal Psychology: Like forensic psychology, criminal psychologists work with the legal system. While professionals from both field generally have a doctorate degree, the fields are dissimilar in some key ways. Most notably, criminal psychologists often help to identify and profile criminals before they have been caught or identified. Their work is largely research focused. By comparison, a forensic psychologist tends to evaluate persons who are already identified by the courts. 

DID YOU KNOW? When surveyed, 46% of Criminal Justice and Law Enforcement Professors at the postsecondary level responded they had a doctorate degree.i

Criminal Justice PhD Timeline

One of the variants between Criminal Justice PhD programs is the time to completion. This is partly set by the school, and partly a function of how much time a student devotes to their degree. Another contributor to just how long a PhD might take is whether a student enters with a bachelors or masters degree. Students who pursue their doctoral degree with a masters degree in hand may need about three to four years to complete their PhD. This might be broken down as follows, but do check the specifics of the schools on your list. 

  • Coursework: Typically, 3 to 4 semesters of required classes and dissertation work along with a conference paper
  • Qualifying Exam: May take the form of doctoral papers that are submitted for evaluation
  • Dissertation: Proposal may be defended by the end of the third year and a completed dissertation defended during the final year

Which Criminal Justice Doctorate Degree is Right for me?

Of the more common doctoral degrees are the Doctor of Philosophy (PhD), Doctor of Business Administration (DBA) and Doctor of Psychology (PsyD). All represent the highest level award for completion of study in their field, however, there are some differences to watch for. As a rule of thumb, the PhD is an academic research degree. To earn a PhD, students must submit and defend a dissertation that reflects original research and zeros in on a significant problem or issue in criminal justice. By contrast, both the DBA and PsyD are practitioner degrees, where the goal is to find ways to apply research to industry concerns.

PhD in Criminal Justice

The PhD in Criminal Justice is a research focused degree with courses exploring crime, crime control, and justice administration. Along with that, students might be exposed to social science theory and research methods.

To apply, applicants to some criminal justice PhD programs need a masters degree from a regionally accredited institution. Other programs may accept students with a bachelors degree, as long as they have fulfilled some prerequisite courses. Other material such as minimum 3.0 GPA, recent letters of recommendation and a personal essay may also be expected. Some universities ask for GRE and GMAT scores, and might want to see a copy of a completed masters thesis, capstone or a sample of published work. Also, some grad schools ask for a copy of a current resume and may interview students as part of their admissions process.

PhD in Criminal Justice Curriculum

Criminal Justice PhD programs vary in scope. In some universities, a Criminal Justice PhD entails the completion of 60 to 96 credits. These credits are allotted differently in each school, but often involve core courses, electives, concentration classes and dissertation courses. You will want to look inside the syllabus of the schools on your list to see whether the program addresses your needs. Some examples of required topics that might be explored are listed below. 

  • Criminal Justice Theory
  • Justice, Security and Democracy
  • Analysis of Crime Data
  • Criminal Justice Policy and Administration
  • Contemporary Issues
  • Leadership

Criminal Justice PhD Concentrations

Another variant amongst criminal justice doctoral programs are the areas of emphasis that a university presents. Typically, the way a concentration works is that students are required to take a set number of courses in their chosen area. These are in addition to the core topics.

Organizational Leadership: A focus in organizational leadership is likely to take on various organizational systems such as information, policy, politics and finance. Students may also examine related topics like power and conflict resolution. Some coursework might be designed to foster a deeper grasp of managerial concepts and approaches, as well as an exploration of leadership strategies. Other classes might examine current issues to help students develop best practices to handle challenges. 

Behavioral Sciences: Students who pursue a behavioral sciences emphasis might explore topics such as gender violence, domestic abuse, delinquency and sexual deviance. In addition, other courses might examine methods for the assessment of risk and violent behaviors, and the practices used in restorative justice. 

Juvenile Justice: A focus in juvenile justice is likely to explore ethics, policy and practices related to young criminal offenders. Coursework might delve into many of today’s significant topics. Examples include juvenile violence, gender, race, exposure to violence, drugs and gangs. Other courses might analyze the different approaches to law enforcement, juvenile-criminal procedure, juvenile justice and corrections. 

Online Teaching in Higher Education: Students who want to parlay their grasp and insight of criminal justice into a potential career in academia might pursue a focus that delves into instructional design and delivery. Coursework is likely to cover theories of how adults learn and may provide practical instruction strategies.  

DBA in Criminal Justice

The Doctor of Business Administration is a professional degree where students may explore business topics while pursuing a focused interest in Criminal Justice. Persons in a DBA in Criminal Justice program might engage in ways to apply the theories and research to advance the practice of their field. Applicants to a DBA in Criminal Justice program might need to have earned a Masters in Business Administration (MBA) or a related masters degree (e.g. Master of Finance). As an alternative, students may need a bachelors in business degree coupled with a completed masters degree.

DBA in Criminal Justice Curriculum

In some universities, a DBA in Criminal Justice could entail the completion of about 54 credits, a manuscript and DBA portfolio. Some courses are likely to cover research design and research methods. Others may be devoted to doctoral studies in business, strategy, business ethics, and statistics. Furthermore, a hallmark of the DBA is that students show proficiency in core business topics. Among these may be: Marketing, Business Finance, Accounting, Management, Law, Economics, Information Systems, Leadership, and Business Applications. For the focus in Criminal Justice, students may take courses that help prepare them for leadership within criminal justice and law enforcement. These may include the following.

  • Delinquency, Crime Spikes and Strategy
  • Narcotics and Smuggling
  • Institutional Corrections
  • Police Tactics
  • Criminal Justice Ethics

PsyD in Criminal Psychology

A Doctor of Psychology (PsyD), Criminology and Justice Studies may help students to develop their expertise in criminal behavior. However, it may not necessarily prepare them for licensure. Applicants might enter a program with a bachelors degree or masters degree. This simply depends on the university.

PsyD in Criminology and Justice Studies Curriculum

Individuals in a PsyD program might explore how institutions process criminals through the correctional system, and may learn to ensure due process. Other outcomes might include the ability to distinguish between crimes and locate them within social and economic contexts. Courses might also methods used to rehabilitate people and empower them to return as productive members of society.

Some of the coursework in a Doctor of Psychology in Criminology program may be devoted to organizational psychology and leadership. Other topics might delve into the biological bases of behavior and family systems theory. Also, students are likely to take courses in adult psychopathology, group process and assessment. The scope of a PsyD extends to research methods, statistics and a doctoral dissertation, in addition to the examples of more focused topics below.

  • Juvenile Justice
  • Mental Health and Crime
  • Drugs, Addiction and Crime
  • Evaluation and Prediction Techniques

What Might I Do with a PhD in Criminal Justice?

As there is such diversity within Criminal Justice PhD programs, students might be prepared to pursue equally varied career paths. If you see a career that sounds like a good fit, make sure to use your insights when you search for a doctorate degree. This way, you may be able to match a program to your personal and professional goals. Or, look for a university where the faculty conduct research or have the background that might support your objectives. You may wish to consider some of the following careers.

  • Criminal Intelligence Analystii
  • Criminal Research Specialistii
  • Criminal Justice and Law Enforcement Teacheri
  • Criminal Investigatoriii
  • Forensic Psychologistiv
  • Consultantv

Accredited PhD Criminal Justice and Criminology Programs

Criminal Justice PhD programs are available through regionally accredited traditional and online universities. Accreditation is a voluntary process that schools may undergo to get a ‘stamp of approval’ from an outside agency. This approval may speak to the quality of their curriculum, student services, faculty and fiscal stability. To learn more about a schools accreditation, follow up directly or contact the accrediting body.

Campus or Online Criminal Justice PhD Programs?

Whether to pursue your PhD in Criminal Justice and Criminalistics online or on campus is a personal choice. Many of today’s online PhD programs do entail some form of residency or dissertation research seminars. However, they can otherwise be convenient to the current on-the-go adult. On the other hand, on-campus programs mean you could get to know your faculty, learn first-hand and have plenty of face time when it comes time to dissertation research. In either case, refine your search by location (city, state, country), or seek specifically online programs to get a feel for what they entail.

Find Criminal Justice Doctoral Programs

Take your interest in criminal justice to the highest level. Easily compare criminal justice doctoral programs with the on-page menu. First, refine by specialty – criminal justice, criminal psychology, or criminology. Then, browse the list of programs orivuded. From there, you can connect with the schools directly to learn more. Take the next step without delay!


[i] onetonline.org/link/summary/25-1111.00 | [ii] onetonline.org/link/summary/33-3021.06 | [iii] bls.gov/oes/current/oes333021.htm | [iv] bls.gov/ooh/life-physical-and-social-science/psychologists.htm | [v] onetonline.org/link/summary/13-1111.00

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