Should You Earn a Ph.D. in Criminology/Criminal Justice or an Allied Field?
October 21, 2023
by Jeffrey Ian Ross, Ph.D.
Somewhere deep inside of you, or at the back of your mind, a voice calls out, urging you to pursue a Ph.D. in Criminology/ Criminal Justice (CJ).
Perhaps you like to binge on late-night TV shows featuring handsome, charismatic police officers and drop-dead gorgeous and brilliant detectives solving complex crimes.
Or maybe your passion for higher learning was ignited during your undergraduate years when entertaining, engaging, or supportive criminology professors inspired you to explore the intricacies of crime and the criminal justice system more deeply.
But now, you’re faced with a dilemma: should you commit to a Ph.D. in Criminology/Criminal Justice, or should you explore an allied field like Sociology, History, Political Science, or Public Policy?
This predicament is not uncommon. Prospective graduate students, as well as those already enrolled in doctoral programs, often find themselves grappling with this question.
To help you navigate this decision, here are several questions to consider, ordered from least to most important:
1. Are you clear about the costs and the benefits of earning a Ph.D. versus other career choices?
A Ph.D. is not for everyone and unlike many of the trades (e.g., plumber, electrician, etc.) and professions (e.g., doctor, lawyer, etc.) that people train for, there is no guarantee that you are going to get a job upon completion, or that your investment is going to pay off with a good paying career and salary.
2. Will earning a PhD in Criminology/Criminal Justice make you more marketable than securing a PhD in another field?
Research the current job market for recently graduated Ph.D.’s in Criminology/Criminal Justice and try to get a handle on the supply and demand for people with this qualification compared to individuals who have earned doctorates in other fields.
3. Can you secure funding for a doctorate in Criminology/Criminal Justice or is it easier to secure funding in another field?
Assuming that you are not rich or someone (like your parents, spouse, etc.) is going to pay for your studies (plus living expenses), explore scholarship opportunities, assistantships, and grants available in both Criminology/Criminal Justice versus cognate fields.
4. Should you do your PhD. in a department where both the curriculum and the professors emphasize Criminology or Criminal Justice or both subjects are treated equally?
Although Criminology and Criminal Justice are related, they are not the same. And not all PhD programs are equivalent. They are comprised of a variety of different people with different expertise’s, strengths and weaknesses. It’s important to check this out before you enroll least you may be surprised or disappointed a few years in to the program.
5. Is there a respected Ph.D. program in Criminology/Criminal justice close to where you live?
Consider your geographical options and the quality of programs in your vicinity. Will you have to uproot your family and disrupt your social connections or is there a compromise location that you can pursue?
6. Why not earn a Master’s degree before taking the plunge with a Ph.D.?
Although your ego might be stoked by earning a Ph.D., if you don’t have a master’s degree in Criminology/Criminal Justice already then maybe you want to start with this degree first before you consider moving to the Ph.D.
7. Is there a well-respected Criminologist (who can also act as your mentor) that you want to work with in a Ph.D. program in Criminology/Criminal Justice?
In many respects, more important than the subject matter of the discipline that you want to earn a Ph.D. in is the potential advisors who align with your research interests and career aspirations.
8. Which allied field/s also aligns with your interests?
Is it possible to earn a Ph.D. in Sociology, Political Science, or Public Policy and be able to conduct scholarship on the topics that interest you most? Is the doctorate in Criminology/Criminal Justice appropriate or can you achieve the same goal in an allied field.
9. Do you want to do your Ph.D. full-time or part-time? Are there one or more respected Ph.D. programs in Criminology/Criminal Justice that will allow you to do this part-time?
Although the thought of pursuing your PhD. part-time may be appealing it is also important to realize that few programs will allow this. And many of the part-time programs lack the due diligence of others.
10. Have you considered speaking to a qualified career counsellor, and not the admissions director at the prospective PhD. program you want to enter?
Consult career advisors who can provide insights into the job market and hiring trends for both earning a Ph.D. and in the particular field/subject matter you want to pursue. Sometimes the school that you earned your bachelor’s degree, have free career counseling services that will enable you to do this.
11. Can you achieve your career goals without a Ph.D. in Criminology/Criminal justice?
This is probably a good time to re-examine the specific career path you aspire to, and whether a Ph.D. is a necessity for your goals.
12. Evaluate your personal passions
Finally, reflect on what truly drives you and where your passion lies; this should be a significant factor in your decision.
All in all it’s important to do your due diligence by conducting as much research as you can. This involves not simply consulting the websites of prospective Ph.D. programs, but talking to instructors, and graduate students who are currently enrolled in Ph.D. programs in Criminology/Criminal Justice (and allied fields) and with those who have graduated. This process should enable you to learn about and hopefully understand their experiences and career paths. This process might also might extend to attending one or more Criminology/Criminal Justice conferences.
In conclusion, deciding whether to pursue a Ph.D. in Criminology/Criminal Justice or a cognate field is a significant decision. You want to take a calculated risk, have a plan B if the graduate program does not work out for you, and consider the possibility of pivoting into something that interests you, adequately pays the bills, and does not force you in to perpetual debt paying off student loans.
Put another way, there’s no one-size-fits-all answer, and your decision should ultimately reflect your individual aspirations and existing circumstances.