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PhD Justice, Law & Criminology (On-Campus)

Prepare for university teaching and research, and a career as an authority and leader in fields related to justice, law, and criminology.

At the Epicenter of Effectiveness

The PhD in Justice, Law & Criminology in the School of Public Affairs draws from the breadth and depth of resources across American University. Our program is rooted in contemporary theory, principles, practices, and research methods in criminology, criminal justice, terrorism and homeland security studies, and legal studies. Students come here not only for the academics, but for the chance to study firsthand with experts in our nation's capital.

Our students organize their programs around a choice of two fields of study. In their primary field, they specialize in either Justice or Law & Society. Their secondary field can be chosen either from within the School of Public Affairs, or from a department within another school at AU--the School of International Service, for example--that grants doctoral degrees. Regardless of their selected fields, students may enroll in courses from any department within the School of Public Affairs.

Students may conduct research with faculty members who have relevant expertise in their chosen fields, or take courses in another PhD-granting department at AU or through the Consortium of Universities of the Washington Metropolitan Area, which includes George Washington University, Georgetown University, University of Maryland, and others. Along the way, SPA faculty encourage and support our students in research and publication endeavors. From their first year in the program, students gain opportunities to publish in scholarly journals and present papers at national conferences.

Connection & Impact

SPA's PhD in Justice, Law & Criminology puts our students in the middle of one the best places to influence change in crime and policing, terrorism and homeland security, and the criminal justice system. They dive into research that addresses today's most pressing challenges and produce scholarship with real-world connection and immediate impact.

Each of our doctoral programs reflects values that guide the School of Public Affairs. We encourage engagement and discourse to influence policy makers; formulate critical thinking skills that are crucial to advancing lines of inquiry; cultivate strong leadership skills; prioritize evidence-based reasoning and analytics when addressing societal issues; and challenge the guideposts on equity, fairness, and inclusion to ground students in the institutions of justice and the rule of law. Along the way, we champion truth and self-awareness, as students undertake personal and professional journeys.

The PhD degree in Justice, Law & Criminology requires 54 credit hours of approved graduate work for students entering the program with a bachelor's degree alone, or 36 credit hours if entering with a related master's degree.

All students must complete 12 credits of research design and methodology courses, 12 credits in their primary field of study, and 6 to 12 credits in their secondary field of study. Depending on the number of credits taken in the secondary field, they may take up to 6 credit hours in electives, which they choose in consultation with their advisor.

As work on the dissertation project progresses, students register for dissertation credit in order to maintain enrollment. They take Doctoral Continuing Enrollment (JLC-898) (during the third year of study if they have a master's degree or the fourth year of study if they have a bachelor's degree) and Doctoral Dissertation (JLC-899) after their dissertation proposals are approved.

A minimum grade point average of 3.20 in all coursework is required to remain in good standing and to earn the degree. Full-time status is considered to be nine credit hours per semester. Students are expected to complete the degree within four years for those entering with a master's degree and within five years for those entering with a bachelor's degree alone.

Students advance to PhD candidacy by successfully completing all required courses, passing the oral qualifier and two written comprehensive exams (one in each of their fields of study), and defending their dissertation proposals. To earn the degree, students must pass a final oral defense of the dissertation.

More information about course requirements can be found here.

For more information, please contact the SPA Graduate Admissions Office at 202-885-6230 or

Applicants are considered and students admitted for the fall semester only. Please refer to the application deadlines page for the deadline to apply. 

While previous academic or professional work in justice, law, or criminology is not required, applicants need to demonstrate a serious commitment to a career in this field. The personal statement on reasons for pursuing graduate study in the program is essential, along with the other required application materials.

We accept PhD applicants for full-time study only. Students must be funded either by the School of Public Affairs or by an external sponsoring organization (self-funding is not permitted for newly-admitted doctoral students).

For more information, please contact the SPA Graduate Admissions Office at 202-885-6230 or

The PhD in Justice, Law & Criminology is a 54-credit-hour program for students entering with a bachelor’s degree alone, or a 36-credit-hour program for students who already have a related master’s degree. To estimate the cost of tuition, please see the current cost per credit hour for graduate students.

Unless applicants expect to be funded through a reliable external source, they must request consideration for funding on their application. Upon acceptance into the program, students selected for AU funding are granted a fellowship with full funding for four years of study if they are entering with a master’s degree (five years if entering with a bachelor’s degree alone), contingent on maintaining satisfactory progress each year.

As a requirement for the fellowship, students work 20 hours a week with a faculty member. If at all possible, our graduate office will assign students to faculty members with expertise in their areas of research interest.

Students must advance to candidacy by the end of their third year of study (fourth year for those entering with only a bachelor’s degree) to continue receiving funding. If they have not achieved candidacy by then, they are required to find external funding or self-fund the remaining part of their program.

92 percent of SPA graduates are employed or in graduate school, or both