ip target image
You are currently browsing our site with content tailored to students in your country

Our cookies

We use cookies to offer you a better browsing experience with personalized content, relevant ads and enhanced functionalities. By allowing all you agree to the use of cookies as per the cookie policy and remember you can manage your preferences anytime.
The basics
Study abroad : Subject Guides

Why study criminal law?

Considering a career as a criminal lawyer? Want to know more about criminal law? Check out our guide here.

share image

Grew up watching every crime procedural drama out there? Stayed up late just to catch the latest episode of CSI or Criminal Minds? Want to fight on the side of justice? Then a degree in criminal law might just be for you.


What is criminal law?

Criminal law is a system of laws that deals with the punishment of individuals who commit crimes. A crime is a deliberate or reckless action that causes harm to another person or his/her property. The punishment varies with the severity of the crime.


Entry requirements

What do you need to have to gain admission into a criminal law course? In general, you will need either a high school diploma or two A levels or the equivalent of these. Depending on the country that you’re coming from, you might need to take the IELTS exam and get a score of 6.0 (or the equivalent of this). Some universities, like the University of Essex, are more flexible and have an “open entry” route. Students who have good GCSE O level results and at least three years of relevant work experience and an IELTS score of 6.0 if applicable.


Study route

Criminal law, or sometimes known as criminal justice, can be taken at undergraduate level. You can choose to take either an associate’s degree or a bachelor’s programme.


Students in these programs will take courses in criminology, criminal procedure, forensic science, public policy, sociology, psychology and criminal behaviour. You will also be exposed to practical training and labs. Students will also learn about the different aspects of the legal system, such as courts, corrections, law enforcement, police administration, and juvenile delinquency. Depending on the kind of career that you want to embark on, some might require that you take further training programmes.


An associate’s degree programme will take two years to complete and will provide students with a basic understanding of the criminal justice system. By the end of the programme, you will have fundamental knowledge of the parole system, law enforcement, corrections and investigations. The social science component of the programme equips students will the necessary knowledge about how society and criminal law are related and looks at issues such as race, class, gender and international crimes.


A bachelor’s programme can take between three to four years to complete. You will cover the same topics in an associate’s programme but are studied in more depth and will also include other topics such as victimology, case management, research methods, crime prevention, cyber-crime, deviance, transnational crime, human rights, prisons and penology, economics of crime and offender profiling. If you intend to be a criminal lawyer, this is a good programme to take prior to your entry into law school.


Further education

You can choose to take a bachelor’s degree programme once you’ve completed your associate degree. Alternatively, you can seek employment in an entry-level position while earning a bachelor's degree.

Those who have finished their bachelor’s degree can go on to take a master’s in criminal law. A master’s will give students an advanced understanding of criminal law and training in research design and methodology. Some of the issues that you might be learning include:

  • Criminalisation
  • Reaction of society to victims and the crimes
  • The role the media plays in crime
  • Control, prevention and management of criminal behaviour
  • History of the penal system


Students will typically be assessed by a mix of essays and exams, and the final assignment you’ll complete is likely to be a dissertation that demonstrates the research and analytical skills you’ve acquired during your degree. Depending on your selected course, your master’s programme can be between one to two years. Many master’s programmes combine theory with practice and may involve you completing a relevant work placement within the criminal justice system.


If you don’t have an associate’s or bachelor’s degree in criminal law but are interested in pursuing a master’s in criminal law, several universities will accept students with a degree in any discipline. Some universities even accept students who don’t have a bachelor’s degree but possess the relevant practical work experience that demonstrates their ability to study at the master’s level. You are most likely required to submit a personal statement and perhaps attend an interview.


Want to be a lawyer specialising in criminal law? You can go to law school and take either a LLM (Master of Laws) or J.D (Juris Doctor) in law. In order to practice as a lawyer, and depending which country that you choose to practice in, you will need to pass the national bar exam or any qualifying examinations of the law society in the country.


Graduate law degrees will have a greater focus on academic research and they are referred to as a PhD in Law, (JSD) Doctor or Juridical Science or Doctor of Laws. These are great if you intend to pursue a career in academia.


A J.D is offered in countries such as the US, Japan, Canada, Hong Kong and Australia. A J.D takes three years to complete. Students are also presented with the option of earning a Master of Laws (LLM) in a chosen area of specialisation after completing their J.D. For lawyers who don’t possess a J.D, they can study a LLM which will allow them to practice in countries that require a JD. Prospective students who intend to study in the US are required to take the LSATs (Law School Admission Test) in order to gain admission into American law programmes.



Skills required

What sort of skills do you need to excel in a criminal law career? It is highly advisable that you develop these skills during your degree programme:

  • Analytical skills
  • Research skills
  • Critical thinking skills
  • Report writing
  • Problem solving skills
  • Strong interdisciplinary knowledge in fields such as sociology, psychology and politics
  • Team work


Placement opportunities

It’s commonplace today for most universities to provide abundant opportunities for their students to gain practical experience to supplement their degree. Michigan State University offers their students several study abroad programmes, students can choose to study the legal systems in Australia or Caribbean and even go beyond their field of study to explore the Madagascar’s biodiversity crisis, how cool is that? This means that not only will you be experiencing the unique culture of the university that you’ve chosen, but you can expand your knowledge even further by exploring cultures from another country. A few universities like the University of Minnesota has student-edited law journals and most institutes have specialised law clinics that allow their students to get hands-on exposure. Other universities like RMIT, include work placements as part of the programme and they take place during the student’s final year.


Career paths

With a degree in criminal law, you can choose to enter into a variety of fields. An associate's degree in criminal justice, will enable students to apply for several entry-level positions, including:

  • Corrections officer
  • Juvenile detention officer
  • Court clerk
  • Detective
  • Police officer
  • Criminal investigator
  • Deputy sheriff
  • State trooper
  • Security guard


With a bachelor’s degree, you can choose to seek employment in local, state and federal positions, such as:

  • Private investigator
  • Social worker
  • Court counsellor
  • County police officer
  • Correctional administrator


Other careers that you can opt for include:

  • Fraud investigator
  • Insurance investigator
  • Legal consultant
  • Criminal pathologist
  • Immigration and customs


Within the courtroom

If you want to work within the courts, you can become a bailiff, courtroom assistant, court clerk, criminal law supervisor, court manager, case administrator, court operations specialist, pretrial services officer and family law mediator. Salaries vary greatly by position and geographic location. Currently compensation rates are anywhere between $38,000 to $100,000 each year.


Best places to study criminal law



Oxford University

University of Cambridge

University of Portsmouth



Stanford University

Yale University

Harvard University

University of Pennsylvania



Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology (RMIT)

Griffith University

Monash University


Aside from the universities listed above, these countries also boast strong criminal law programmes- SwedenCanadaGermanyKoreaJapanChinaSingapore, and Ireland.


Must read

article Img

Why study law: Top 10 benefits of becoming a lawyer

What do Margaret Thatcher, Benazir Bhutto, Barack Obama and Mahatma Gandhi have in common? Interestingly, they are world leaders who studied law. One of the oldest academic fields in the world, a law degree is a highly regarded qualification and promises great career opportunities.   For some, to study law is to uphold justice, a noble call that is most commendable (and the world needs more of them); nevertheless, law is not just for lawyers or in the

article Img

What are professional degrees?

When evaluating your study options and doing your research you’ll probably have come across qualifications that are categorised as professional degrees. Perhaps you’re not entirely sure what this means or what differentiates such programmes and courses from academic degrees. You may also be asking yourself if they have a particular impact on your career trajectory. We take a closer look at professional degrees for you and examine what they’re all about.