Homeland Security vs. Criminal Justice: How to Decide Between Two Degrees With Big Opportunities

Homeland Security vs. Criminal Justice: How to Decide Between Two Degrees With Big Opportunities
Graduates of both criminal justice and homeland security advanced degree programs have numerous career options in cyber security, law enforcement, and border security. Image from Pexels
Lucien Formichella profile
Lucien Formichella August 23, 2021

Completing a homeland security or criminal justice master's degree can lead to excellent and rewarding national defense and law enforcement careers. The hard part is deciding which degree to earn.

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A Pew Research Center survey from earlier this year revealed that American’s top priorities for the president and Congress included “defending [the US] against terrorism” (cited by 63% of survey respondents), “reducing crime” (47%), and “addressing criminal justice system” (46%).

Since public safety and defending the nation from terror threats are significant and perennial concerns, it follows that the United States devotes an enormous amount of public spending in these areas. According to the Vera Institute of Justice, the US lays out more than $295 billion annually on policing, the court system, prisons, and probation and parole, while the Department of Homeland Security has budgeted $52.2 billion (including $2.1 billion for DHS’ Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency) for the coming fiscal year.

To meet all of the responsibilities tasked to the host of institutions involved in these fields, government agencies, corporations, and related nonprofit organizations urgently need qualified, highly-educated, and experienced professionals to help keep Americans safe at home and from threats from abroad. Professionals already working in these fields may be considering a criminal justice master’s or homeland security master’s to help advance their careers, and people working in related fields may be interested in earning these degrees to increase their breadth and depth of knowledge.

Graduates of both criminal justice and homeland security advanced degree programs have numerous career options in cyber security, law enforcement, and border security. And while there are similarities between these programs, there are differences that matter, depending on your anticipated career path. So, how do you decide which course of study to follow?

This article on homeland security vs. criminal justice: how to decide between two degrees with big opportunities addresses relevant questions like:

  • What is homeland security?
  • What is a homeland security master’s?
  • What are the prerequisites/admission requirements for this degree?
  • What is the curriculum?
  • Which jobs can I get with a homeland security master’s?
  • What is criminal justice?
  • What is a criminal justice master’s?
  • What are the prerequisites/admission requirements for this degree?
  • What is the curriculum?
  • Which jobs can I get with a criminal justice master’s?

What is homeland security?

According to an article in The Journal of the NPS Center for Homeland Defense and Security, “There are at least seven defensible definitions of homeland security, based on claims about what homeland security emphasizes or ought to emphasize.”

The article lists them as:

  • All hazards
  • Government efforts to curtail civil liberties
  • Jurisdictional hazards
  • Meta hazards
  • National security
  • Terrorism
  • Terrorism and catastrophe

Not every organization focuses on all definitions, though there’s certainly overlap. The government focuses on overall national security, while nonprofits are more likely to focus on protecting civil liberties or assisting with disaster response.

Countering terrorism is, of course, one of the crucial responsibilities of homeland security, but the threats can come in so many different forms, including cyber terrorism. When private institutions are hacked, national security can suffer—for instance, hackers jeopardized a large component of America’s food supply, the entire beef supply chain, by hacking JBS.

The concept of homeland security is most frequently linked to the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), which was created in response to the September 11th terrorist attacks. The DHS employs a significant number of homeland security professionals (240,000), all with the shared goal to “secure the nation from the many threats we face.” There are 14 agencies operating under DHS jurisdiction, including:

  • Cyber Security and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA)
  • Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA)
  • US Coast Guard
  • Transportation Security Administration (TSA)
  • United States Customs and Border Protection (CBP)
  • United States Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE)
  • United States Secret Service (USSS)


University and Program Name Learn More

What is a homeland security master’s?

A homeland security master’s is a two-year graduate degree that leads to leadership positions in defense and emergency response.

Earning a homeland security master’s is an excellent way to advance in this field, or an adjacent one, such as law enforcement. US News & World Report states that homeland security programs accept new college graduates, current professionals, and retired military service members. However, this degree is most common among professionals with relevant work experience, rather than those looking for a career change. Programs attract those working in government—such as for the DHS, Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), and Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI)—planning to advance to leadership positions within their agencies.

Many homeland security master’s programs focus on policy. Two objectives of the Virginia Commonwealth University degree are to “prepare for career growth with the tools you need to impact your community on micro and macro levels” and “learn the principles of public policy leadership and ethics to collaborate with key officials and agencies.” Their curriculum focuses on using public policy to understand and combat homeland security threats.

Notably, a homeland security degree is not typically the only continuing education you’ll complete. For example, if you’re a firefighter or another type of first responder, you’ll likely go through several other training programs to build specific skills before completing a master’s.

Prerequisites/admission requirements

It can be tricky to determine exact admissions requirements. Even if a school doesn’t ask for work experience, students can self-select or be selected by their employer. The Naval Postgraduate School—the top homeland security program—requires applicants be: “Employed full-time by a local, tribal, territorial, state, or federal government agency or the US military, and have homeland security experience and responsibilities.” Heather Issvoran—the program’s director for strategic communications—said in an interview that the degree is designed for those who are “mid to senior in their agency.” The school doesn’t put an ironclad number on required years of experience because each agency has different needs.

Other programs have a minimum experience requirement. For instance, George Washington University asks for at least two years of experience in a sector like:

  • Critical infrastructure
  • Federal/state/local law enforcement
  • Homeland security
  • Information technology
  • Intelligence
  • Public safety

Pace University has no experience requirements, just that applicants complete an accredited bachelor’s degree program in any subject. The school does not even require GMAT or GRE scores.


From an academic standpoint, a homeland security master’s degree’s goal is to improve your leadership and response skills. Remember, you’ll likely enter the program with a working body of knowledge of emergency and threat response tactics. Coursework typically includes core subjects like:

  • Emergency management
  • Law and ethics of emergency management
  • Leadership, including incident command
  • Managing preparedness and mitigation systems
  • Disaster preparation
  • Response planning
  • Risk assessment

Many homeland security curricula are based directly on the Naval Postgraduate School’s, which includes classes like:

  • Comparative Government for Homeland Security
  • Critical Infrastructure: Vulnerability Analysis and Protection
  • Intelligence for Homeland Security: Organizational and Policy Challenges
  • Internet, Society, and Cyber Conflict
  • Strategic Planning and Budgeting for Homeland Security
  • Technology for Homeland Security
  • The Unconventional Threat to Homeland Security

Students also complete a capstone project (Knowledge into Practice: A Homeland Security Capstone Course) to demonstrate what they’ve learned.

Homeland security degree programs often offer concentrations for students to further specialize in an area of homeland security or emergency response. However, this differs by school. The Naval Postgraduate School does not offer any concentrations—each student completes the same training, even though they will take on different roles after graduating. Many other programs have a set curriculum.

For example, Penn State has two track options:

  • International: Students focus on homeland security from a global perspective.
  • Business: Students take courses from the Penn State online Master of Business Administration program, learning additional management and leadership skills.

Students also can complete one of six specialization areas:

  • Agricultural Biosecurity and Food Defense: Focuses on protecting the food chain, including from biochemical attacks.
  • Counterterrorism: Includes a history of terrorism, plus teaches about terrorist recruiting techniques.
  • Cyber Threat Analytics and Prevention: Addresses policy solutions to the growing threat of cyber attacks.
  • Geospatial Intelligence Option: Teaches students to gather intelligence to combat individual threats effectively.
  • Information Security and Forensics: Addresses cyber security from a technology and information security perspective.
  • Public Health Preparedness: Helps prepare graduates to mitigate natural and human-made emergencies.

Related degrees

Rather than complete a specialization, you may choose one of the several distinct degrees under the homeland security umbrella, each with a slightly different focus. These can include:

  • Master of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness
  • Master of Information and Cyber Security
  • Master of Arts in Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness
  • Master of Arts in Security Studies
  • Master of Emergency Services Management
  • Master of Public Administration with Specialization in Emergency Management
  • Master of Science in Counterterrorism and Homeland Security
  • Master of Science in Disaster Medicine and Management
  • Master of Science in Emergency Management
  • Master of Science in Emergency Preparedness
  • Master of Science in Homeland Security and Emergency Management
  • Master of Security and Disaster Management

These degrees may share core coursework with a traditional homeland security degree, but students typically focus on classes in their chosen specialty.

Which jobs can I get with a homeland security master’s?

A homeland security degree can prepare you for positions in fields like natural disaster preparation, terrorist attack prevention, and border security. Though many homeland security professionals work in the public sector, there are numerous career options in the private sector, especially in banking, transportation, safety, and manufacturing.

Top homeland security jobs include:

  • Counterintelligence specialist
  • Cyber security analyst
  • Director (or assistant director) of emergency management
  • Emergency manager
  • FBI intelligence analyst
  • Fire chief or police captain
  • First-line supervisor of police and detectives
  • Health services manager
  • Information security analyst
  • Medical and health services manager
  • Program manager
  • Risk management specialist

A homeland security master’s is likely a single aspect of qualifying for a top position in the field. For instance, becoming a fire chief likely requires decades of experience, first as a firefighter, then in administrative functions—especially if you’re working in a large city. That means you will likely complete leadership certifications and even other degree programs before earning a homeland security degree.

What is criminal justice?

Cornell University Law School defines criminal justice as “a generic term that refers to the laws, procedures, institutions, and policies at play before, during, and after the commission of a crime.” The two primary tenants of this definition are: “criminals and victims of crime have certain rights,” and “criminal conduct should be prosecuted and punished by the state following set laws.”

What is a criminal justice master’s?

A criminal justice degree helps you advance your career in the justice system. The Boston University degree “will prepare you to understand age-old issues and navigate the increasingly complex challenges—both tangible and intangible—facing law enforcement, corrections, and the judiciary system.”

The purpose of this master’s depends on the type of criminal justice degree you earn. Boston University prepares students for careers in writing and implementing policy. The City University of New York’s John Jay College of Criminal Justice program is more open-ended, for a variety of students who seek to either:

  • Advance their criminal justice career
  • Prepare for a doctorate (to teach above the associate degree level)
  • Start their criminal justice career
  • Teach criminal justice in community colleges

According to US News & World Report, professionals working in related fields can earn a criminal justice degree to improve current performance by widening their breadth of knowledge. These professionals, who often are not intending to change careers, can include:

  • Journalists
  • Nonprofit administrators
  • Social workers
  • Victims’ advocates

Ultimately, the purpose of every criminal justice degree is to help graduates better understand and improve the field. Classes, regardless of degree title or specialization, focus on developing techniques to enhance performance in your current role, attain the skills necessary for leadership positions, and learn about ways to reform the system.

Prerequisites/admission requirements

Like homeland security programs, criminal justice degrees have a variety of admissions requirements. John Jay only asks the applicant to have completed an accredited bachelor’s degree with at least a 3.0 GPA. Students must write a personal statement, provide two letters of recommendation, and show they have successfully taken (or promise to take within their first year) an undergraduate-level statistics course. Students do not need to submit standardized test scores.

The University of California, Irvine explicitly requires a relevant criminology or criminal justice background to apply to the Master of Advanced Study (MAS) in Criminology, Law and Society. The school seeks “well-rounded candidates with a proven history of academic and/or professional success…The committee is especially interested in the demonstration of your ability to think analytically and act strategically.” Applicants write two personal statements, including one that outlines a possible capstone project, which must be completed to graduate. While it’s possible to submit this application without a relevant background, having one will make your case stronger.


Criminal justice degrees typically include coursework on both the practice and ethics of criminal justice, though naturally, it depends on the program’s focus. Many also hone in on criminal justice reform and improving techniques. Boston University students complete core coursework like:

  • Applied Analytical Methods
  • Criminal Justice Administration and Ethics
  • Criminology and Crime Policy
  • Research and Evaluation Methods

The Arizona State University, Tempe program provides an “in-depth understanding of crime, its causes and its impact on society.” It includes core coursework in:

  • Applied Data Analysis in Criminal Justice
  • Criminal Justice Planning and Program Evaluation
  • Seminar in Criminal Justice
  • Seminar in Criminology

Programs can offer a wide array of concentration options, including:

  • Corrections
  • Crime Analysis
  • Criminal Law and Procedure
  • Criminology and Deviance
  • Cyber Crime Investigation & Cyber Security
  • Law enforcement
  • Legislation
  • Policing
  • Strategic Management
  • Terrorism Studies

While many students opt to complete a concentration, they don’t always need to. BU allows students to not specialize in any area but instead build upon their existing knowledge or pursue a new interest by completing elective courses like:

  • Criminal Justice Policy and Planning
  • Cyber Crime
  • Forensic Behavior Analysis
  • Policing in a Democratic Society
  • Trauma and Crisis Intervention
  • Victimology
  • White-Collar Crime
  • Youth Crime Problems

Related degrees

Before delving into related degrees, it’s useful to discuss other types of criminal justice programs. UC Irvine offers two master’s options:

  • Master of Advanced Study in Criminology, Law and Society
  • Master of Legal and Forensic Psychology

Arizona State offers four distinct but related master’s programs. They are:

  • Emergency Management and Homeland Security (MA)
  • Executive Master of Public Administration (EMPA)
  • Public Safety Leadership and Administration (MPSLA)
  • Public Safety Leadership and Administration – Executive Police Administration (MPSLA)

Finally, if you have a computer science background, you can complete a cyber security master’s. This specialization is closely related to both homeland security and criminal justice. It is quickly becoming one of the top careers in the nation, especially considering the growing number of cyber threats to national security.

Cyber security can be offered as a concentration option in both homeland security and criminal justice degree programs. The main difference is that these programs usually approach the field from a policy standpoint, rather than looking to build the hard technical skills you’ll likely develop in a dedicated cyber security master’s degree.

Which jobs can I get with a criminal justice master’s?

The outcome of these degrees depends mainly on your field of study; different concentrations have different uses. According to one redditor, earning a master’s degree didn’t have an impact on their career as a law enforcement officer. However, the poster did qualify the statement by saying, “I work for a smaller agency, so promotions are usually based on your reputation and past work. When you get to bigger agencies, you’ll need extra stuff to separate yourself from other people.” Because much can depend on where you work—even between agencies in the same field—you should ensure a master’s is worth your time before jumping into a program.

That said, a criminal justice degree can help you earn a promotion or qualify for one of the many excellent careers outside of traditional law enforcement roles. According to US News & World Report, these roles include:

  • Criminologist
  • Cyber defensive operator
  • Cyber security investigator
  • Emergency management director
  • Federal Marshall
  • Forensic examiner
  • Forensic psychologist
  • Fraud investigator
  • Intelligence analyst
  • Policy analyst

Which degree is right for you?

Figuring out which of these degrees best meets your needs can be difficult, mainly because they are so closely related. Ultimately, the one you choose depends primarily on your professional goals and where you are in your career. A homeland security master’s is a leadership degree, through and through. You’re likely to enter a homeland security program as a special agent; a criminal justice degree can help you become one, even though a criminal justice degree can lead to advanced positions—especially for those in law enforcement.

Don’t discount the fact that you can earn both degrees. While certainly not common, it is possible, and can be advantageous. It’s not completely out of the question to decide to earn both at different points in your career. For instance, a police officer may earn a criminal justice degree to become a police captain, then return to school years later for a homeland security master’s to qualify for department chief. Upper-level positions in justice and defense can require education in both fields, including training and certification outside of a traditional degree program.

Additionally, you may opt for a different degree altogether. A cyber security master’s can lead to excellent careers in national defense, especially if you have a technical/computer science background. Of course, you can earn high-level administrative positions in cyber security with a homeland security master’s as organizations and government agencies increase their focus on ramping up their cyber defense.

If your decision comes down to money, a homeland security master’s is the better option. According to PayScale, the average salary for those with a homeland security degree is over $64,000 while the average salary for those with a criminal justice degree is $57,000.

(Last Updated on February 26, 2024)

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