Master of Arts in Criminal Justice or Master of Science in Forensic Psychology?

May 23, 2019 · 7 min read · By ASU Online

The study of criminology can take several forms. Criminal justice focuses on the practicalities of crime, corrections and policing, while forensic psychology is the study of how the law, crime and mental health fields overlap. The expertise required to investigate crime and an understanding of why people perpetrate it are related but require different specializations.


Master of Arts in Criminal Justice

Students who wish to pursue or advance in careers related to criminology can explore two degree options: an online Master of Arts in Criminal Justice or an online Master of Science in Forensic Psychology. Initial courses for either program typically cover crime, courts and sentencing, corrections, research methods and analysis to prepare graduates for positions that require an educational foundation in criminal justice and strong critical thinking skills. However, the skills acquired throughout the separate programs as well as the potential career paths they can prepare students for vary. Understanding these different outcomes can help aspiring professionals choose which one is best suited to their interests and goals.

The criminal justice system provides the framework within which criminals can be identified, detained, tried for their crimes and punished or rehabilitated. A master’s degree in criminal justice provides graduates with the knowledge and skills to advance their career in this field. Students review the larger context of crime, why it exists and its impact on society, as well as acquire a thorough understanding of the concept of justice and its applications.

“Criminal justice emphasizes the criminal legal system, which includes the criminal courts, law enforcement and policing, and corrections,” according to ASU Online faculty. “A Master of Arts in Criminal Justice program is a good option for students interested in criminological theory, crime trends, policing issues, best practices in investigative techniques, court outcomes, supervision of offenders pre- and post-sentencing, correctional philosophies and practices, as well as probation and parole.”

Such programs are designed to give graduates a comprehensive education in criminology and the operation of the criminal justice system. They may also include training in research methods and statistics, program planning and management, policy analysis and program evaluation.

Criminal justice coursework

Students working toward a master’s degree in criminal justice take core coursework to obtain a grounding in aspects of policing and corrections.

“A MACJ curriculum should cover criminological theory, an overview of the criminal justice system, criminal justice organizations and management, and a host of specialty electives that relate to corrections, law enforcement and courts as well as specific offender populations, such as gangs, sex offenders, white collar offenders and terrorists,” ASU Online faculty notes.

Classes may include:

  • Criminal justice
  • Criminology
  • Punishment and society
  • Violent crime and criminal behavior
  • Applied data analysis

Students can often focus on narrower topics related to their desired specialties by selecting elective classes, often including policing, juvenile delinquency and justice, gangs, prison or jail administration and more. Furthermore, effective curriculum likely include capstones focused on theory and practice in criminal justice, tying together everything learned throughout the program.

Criminal justice career paths

Graduates of an online Master of Arts in Criminal Justice program typically seek out careers in law enforcement organizations, correctional facilities and state or federal government agencies. Positions may be available in a variety of sectors, including:

  • Law enforcement: Police officers, sheriff’s deputies, detectives and special investigators
  • Criminal analysis: Crime scene investigators, forensic science technicians, financial crime specialists and criminologists
  • Intelligence and security: Private investigators, bodyguards, gaming surveillance officers and fraud investigation specialists
  • Correctional systems: Corrections officers, jail administrators, juvenile detention managers and wardens
  • Federal agencies: FBI or Secret Service agents, U.S. Marshals, Homeland Security operatives or Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, openings for protective service jobs are projected to increase 5 percent from 2016 to 2026. This covers a range of criminal justice careers, including police detectives, private investigators, security professionals and federal law enforcement agents. Median salaries for these roles are between $40,000 and $60,000, with higher salaries available for applicants who have work experience in addition to advanced education.

Master of Science in Forensic Psychology

Forensic psychology is the study of how mental health and human behavior intersect with the law and the criminal justice system. A master’s degree in forensic psychology allows students to develop skills and acquire knowledge that can prepare them for a career in several sectors, including law enforcement, corrections, mental health administration, crime analysis and more. With additional education and clinical training, graduates may also practice as forensic psychologists.

“For students interested in mental health and psychology, or a broader array of the legal system, a Master of Science in Forensic Psychology is a better option than a criminal justice track,” according to Nicholas Schweitzer, associate professor for the School of Social and Behavioral Sciences at ASU. “Forensic psychology is where mental health issues are studied with respect to the law. It includes areas of study such as mental health assessments and understanding the mental processes that might make someone more or less likely to commit a crime.”

Such subjects can be explored thoroughly through the coursework of a forensic psychology program, allowing students to prepare for careers where the relationship between mental health and criminal law is at the forefront.

Forensic psychology coursework

Online Master of Science in Forensic Psychology degrees provide advanced knowledge of criminal law, criminal behavior, the diagnosis and treatment of mental disorders, and legal decision-making. Students will explore core courses that may include:

  • Legal psychology
  • Forensic psychology
  • Correctional psychology
  • Psychopathology

Additional classes and electives, such as research methods, courts and sentencing or quantitative analysis, can allow students to specialize in line with their existing or aspiring career paths.

Forensic psychology career paths

“Forensic psychology graduates typically hold positions in government, law enforcement, corrections, nonprofit, education or health care sectors and have a need to understand how mental health intersects with the law in their specific setting,” Schweitzer says.

Online forensic psychology program graduates typically seek out positions related to:

  • Law enforcement: Forensic science technician, criminal investigator, police consultant
  • Correctional and rehabilitation: Jail supervisor, inmate counselor, probation officer, rehabilitative counselor
  • Social work: Child services counselor, victim advocate
  • Mental health: Social services director, youth or family counselor
  • Legal or judicial: Jury consultant, expert witness, judge

As for those who pursue further education or experience to specifically become forensic psychologists, the job outlook is appealing. According to the BLS, positions for psychologists, which include forensic psychology careers, are projected to increase 11 percent from 2016 to 2026, and the median salary for these roles was $97,740 in 2017.

Making a choice: criminal justice or forensic psychology

Students choosing between a master’s degree in criminal justice or a master’s degree in forensic psychology must decide which program can equip them to pursue their professional goals. Either degree can lead to working closely with the criminal, correctional and judicial systems.

An online master’s in criminal justice can help prepare a student for an active role in a law enforcement agency, correctional facility or private security firm. The careers this degree offers may appeal to students who are:

Seeking a role in the criminal legal system
Interested in the applied study of crime
Seeking a law enforcement career

An online master’s in forensic psychology is designed to support individuals who work in or want to begin careers in the legal and mental health fields. The careers this degree offers may appeal to students who are:

  • Seeking a role on the forensic sciences track
  • Intrigued by the connections between mental health and criminal law
  • Interested in a psychology-related career.

Earning a master’s degree from ASU Online

For those pursuing careers in criminology, ASU Online offers two programs that can help students follow their passions: a Master of Arts in Criminal Justice and a Master of Science in Forensic Psychology. Students interested in crime, corrections and policing should consider the former, while those captivated by mental health issues in respect to the law should explore the latter.

These flexible online programs allow students to earn their degrees while maintaining their current professional and personal commitments, and graduates of either program can leverage their advanced education to progress into specialized positions in the criminology field.


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