How Long Does a Criminal Justice Degree Take?

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Updated: February 28, 2024, Reading time: 8 minutes

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Embarking on the journey toward a degree in criminal justice is an exciting step for those passionate about making a difference in the legal system. So, how long does a criminal justice degree take to earn? We’ll explore the typical timeframes, program options, and requirements to earn an associate’s, bachelor’s, master’s, or doctoral degree in criminal justice.

Grad School Center is an advertising-supported site. Featured or trusted partner programs and all school search, finder, or match results are for schools that compensate us. This compensation does not influence our school rankings, resource guides, or other editorially-independent information published on this site.

How Long Does a Criminal Justice Degree Take?

When we look into the timelines for obtaining a criminal justice degree, we typically find that the duration depends on several academic choices. As a full-time student, you can expect to spend about four years in an undergraduate program for criminal justice.

Here’s the typical credit breakdown for a Bachelor’s degree in criminal justice:

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Essentially, you’re aiming to complete between 120 and 128 credit hours.

If you’re considering an online program, the time frame remains roughly the same as traditional on-campus programs – typically four years. However, online degrees can offer you the flexibility to speed up or slow down your pace, depending on life’s demands.

Remember that the length can vary based on whether you transfer credits, engage in accelerated classes, or enroll in summer sessions. Accelerated online programs might allow you to finish in less than four years by taking more intense, shorter classes that go through the material faster. Conversely, if you only attend part-time while working or managing other responsibilities, it could take longer to finish the degree.

Understanding the Basics of a Criminal Justice Degree

As we explore the criminal justice field, we must understand that the degree varies by level and curriculum focus. Each program is meticulously designed to equip you with the necessary skills and knowledge to succeed in the realm of law enforcement, corrections, and the court system.

Types of Criminal Justice Degrees

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Key Components of Criminal Justice Curriculum

In any criminal justice degree program, core courses cover law enforcement, the judiciary system, and corrections facilities. Here are some typical components:

Through these courses, you understand how various aspects of the criminal justice system interconnect and operate.

Associate’s Degree in Criminal Justice

Pursuing an Associate’s Degree in Criminal Justice offers a foundation for understanding the legal system, corrections, and law enforcement. This degree serves as a stepping stone for those seeking to start their career or further their education in criminal justice.

Duration and Course Structure

The standard duration for an Associate’s Degree in Criminal Justice is typically two years when attending full-time. Programs usually require the completion of 60 to 68 credit hours. Coursework includes a mix of general education and criminal justice-specific courses that cover the basics of the legal system, corrections, and policing. Some programs are designed to accommodate working students, offering more flexible, self-paced schedules or online classes.

Community College vs. University Pathways

Two main pathways exist for achieving an Associate’s Degree in Criminal Justice: community colleges and universities. Community colleges often provide a more affordable and flexible option, perfect for students who wish to enter the workforce quickly or are planning to transfer to a four-year institution. 

On the other hand, pursuing an associate degree through a university might offer a more seamless transition into a bachelor’s program, often with the benefit of staying within the same university system. Regardless of the path chosen, the curriculum typically remains consistent, ensuring a comprehensive introduction to the criminal justice sector.

Bachelor’s Degree in Criminal Justice

In pursuing a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice, students embark on a comprehensive educational journey that typically spans four years. This path unfolds through coursework, hands-on training experiences, and adaptable learning environments that suit diverse student needs.

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Typical Length of Study

Most bachelor’s programs in criminal justice require the completion of approximately 120 to 128 credit hours, which students traditionally finish in four years of full-time study. Some programs offer accelerated options, potentially reducing this duration.

Internships and On-The-Job Training

It’s common for criminal justice degree paths to include practical training components. Internships or fieldwork provide invaluable real-world experience and are often a program requirement.

Online vs. Traditional Classroom Settings

The decision between online and traditional on-campus settings can influence the timeline and experience of earning your degree. While both platforms aim to provide a full curriculum, online degrees tend to offer more flexible scheduling, which may appeal to working students or those with other commitments.

Master’s Degree in Criminal Justice

Pursuing a Master’s degree in Criminal Justice can open up advanced career opportunities and enhance our understanding of the legal and law enforcement systems. Here we’ll explore the typical length of these programs and what differentiates thesis from non-thesis tracks.

Program Length and Advanced Coursework

Typically, full-time students can complete a Master’s in Criminal Justice in two years, while some universities offer accelerated programs that students can complete in one year. Coursework often focuses on specialized topics such as criminological theory, research methods, and policy development. Full-time students can expedite their studies through these accelerated options without sacrificing the depth of education the typical two-year route provides.

Thesis and Non-Thesis Options

Master’s programs in Criminal Justice may offer both thesis and non-thesis options. A thesis track is research-oriented, ideal if you’re considering a PhD or a career in research. Completing a thesis involves conducting original research and is often considered a rigorous academic challenge. 

The non-thesis option is more practical and may include a capstone project or additional coursework. This path suits professionals aiming to advance directly into leadership positions within the criminal justice field.

Doctoral Degree in Criminal Justice

When we talk about the highest levels of academic study within the criminal justice field, a Doctoral degree comes to mind. These rigorous programs are designed for those who aim to reach the pinnacle of educational attainment and expertise in criminal justice.

Time Commitment for Ph.D. Candidates

Typically, Ph.D. programs in criminal justice take between 3 and 5 years of full-time study to complete. The time frame can vary based on several factors, including the candidate’s pace, the structure of the program, and the nature of their research focus. Some programs are more accelerated, while others are more intensive.

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Dissertation Requirements and Post-Grad Opportunities

The dissertation is a crucial component of a Ph.D. in criminal justice and generally involves conducting original research and writing an extensive paper. The process usually culminates in a dissertation defense before a committee. 

Completing a doctoral program in criminal justice can lead to career opportunities in academia, research, policymaking, or high-level leadership roles in criminal justice. 

Frequently Asked Questions

What Job Pays the Most in Criminal Justice?

High-paying jobs in criminal justice include positions like attorneys, with an experienced lawyer earning a significant salary. Additionally, by virtue of their specialized training and the demand for their expertise, FBI agents and forensic psychologists often command higher wages.

Is a Bachelor’s in Criminal Justice Worth It?

Obtaining a bachelor’s in criminal justice is a valuable investment for many, as it opens doors to multiple career paths in the justice system, from law enforcement to corrections and legal studies. The degree also paves the way for further education or to specialize in areas such as forensics or cybersecurity.

How Challenging Is It to Pursue a Degree in Criminal Justice?

The challenge of pursuing a criminal justice degree varies with the individual, but it involves a comprehensive study of law, psychology, and the justice system. Students must be ready to engage with complex ethical issues and sometimes demanding coursework that reflects real-world scenarios in the criminal justice field.


A typical bachelor’s degree in criminal justice is designed to be completed within four years of full-time study. However, the exact timeline can vary based on individual circumstances. Many institutions offer flexible options to accommodate different needs, including part-time study paces and online degree programs.

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