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Careers with a criminal justice degree

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No matter what career in criminal justice you are interested in, a college degree can give you an advantage. For some career paths, an associate or bachelor’s degree is required for entry-level positions. For other jobs, including police officer or security guard, a formal education prepare you for promotion or specialization.

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Advantages of education in a criminal justice career

While it’s possible to get hired for some jobs in criminal justice with only a high school diploma, having an associate or bachelor’s degree could open doors for you. More and more, local law enforcement agencies are requiring at least an associate degree in addition to police academy training. This is especially true in large metropolitan areas, where starting pay tends to be higher.

Even within the same department, you could make more money if you have a college degree. Police pay scales are based on a number of factors, such as rank and years of experience, but many also figure in level of education.

Having a degree can also give you opportunities for advancement in your organization. For example, within a police department, you may need an associate or bachelor’s degree to move up through the ranks to sergeant, lieutenant, or captain. Higher ranks like commander or chief may require a master’s or doctoral degree.

Criminal justice careers options

Specific job requirements, including level of education, can vary widely due to influences such as location, organization size, demand, and competition. Still, there are some specific careers that almost always require a college education.

Careers that require an associate degree

Police Officers:
A high school diploma may be enough to get hired by some police departments, but in other locations, local, county, or state police require an associate degree or a minimum number of hours of college education.
Correctional Officer:
As with police and patrol officers, there’s a growing trend to require associate degrees for entry-level correctional officers and jail attendants.
Paralegal or Legal Assistant:
The Bureau of Labor Statistics states that an associate degree is necessary for entry-level position as a paralegal, but exact qualifications can vary. Some states require bachelor’s degrees or certification.

Careers that require a bachelor’s degree

Forensic Science Technician:
Whether they work at a crime scene or in a laboratory, forensic science technicians need to be educated in chemistry, biology, and technology so that they can analyze and interpret evidence.
Probation Officers:
Probation officers supervise people convicted of crimes but not sent to prison. They need training in counseling, rehabilitation, and communication.
Legal Arbitrators or Mediators:
Arbitrators and mediators are needed to resolve conflicts both in the private and public sectors. They may work with subjects of domestic violence or in community-based policing models.
Customs and Border Patrol Agents:
Like most federal jobs, Customs and Border Patrol Agents are required to have bachelor’s degrees.
FBI Agent:
A bachelor’s degree is the minimum education you’ll need to be considered for a position as an FBI special agent. Master’s degrees may be preferred for some positions.

Careers that require a master’s or doctoral degree

Substance Abuse Counselors and Correctional Social Workers:
Prisoner rehabilitation often involves counseling or therapy. These positions usually require a master’s of social work or psychology.
Forensic Psychologists:
Forensic psychologists work with law enforcement, courts, and lawyers to assess the mental fitness of subjects, analyze criminal behavior, or serve as jury consultants.

Promotions and career paths in criminal justice

Criminal justice is a broad field of practice, and each career path is unique. In general, the higher up you go in positions of leadership and responsibility, the more knowledge and education you’ll need.

Work experience is vital, but education can “fill the gaps” in knowledge, according to Cody Telep, associate professor of criminal justice at Arizona State University. “You’ll learn the latest research and knowledge to be best prepared to lead,” he said.

For instance, in the typical career trajectory of a law enforcement officer, you can work your way up through the ranks and qualify for promotions by serving a certain number of years, getting specialized training, and increasing your level of education. The progression of ranks is similar to those in the military, and proceeds from the lowest rank of patrol officer to the highest, superintendent or commissioner.

In many cases, newly-hired officers have a high school diploma, and perhaps some college credits. As they continue to work, they may complete their associate degree, and then go on to earn a bachelor’s degree.

Many law enforcement agencies will require increased levels of education for each rank, but that can differ greatly. Even if a degree is not specified, having a degree can make your application more competitive. For instance, it’s becoming more common for officers at the highest ranks to pursue a master’s degree in order to learn management skills, according to Telep.

“It’s particularly useful for people already working in the field to know about organizational leadership and change management,” he said.

Careers FAQ

Do you need a college degree to get a job as a crime scene investigator?

Possibly. Larger police departments usually require a degree, but small and rural departments might not. The educational needs also depend on the specific role. Crime scene investigation involves many roles such as evidence technician, forensic technician, and crime scene analyst. Some work at the crime scene, while others work in laboratory analyzing evidence. CSIs who work in a laboratory, such as a forensic scientist, will need a bachelor’s degree.

In addition to a criminal justice degree, do you need additional training to get a job?

For almost all roles in criminal justice, you will need on-the-job training that can last a few weeks to a few months. Police and correctional officers attend a training academy. Federal agents must undergo training at the federal facility in Quantico, but for other careers, such as probation officer, an internship or other experience is recommended.

Do certificates give you the same knowledge as a college degree?

Earning a certificate in a criminal justice subject can give you valuable knowledge and skills that you can apply immediate to your career. However, a certificate is not equivalent to a college degree.

A college degree program is intended to give you a general education with wide-ranging and in-depth knowledge in your field of study. A certificate’s focus is narrowed to just one area of criminal justice or one particular skill.

Most certificate programs last only a few weeks or months while degree programs typically take several years to complete.

Are criminal justice degrees only for people who want to work in police departments or prisons?

No. There are many careers available in private companies and nonprofit organizations for people with knowledge of laws, security, and public safety. Journalists and other writers sometimes study criminal justice. It can also be a great undergraduate degree for those who hope to go to law school.

karen hanson

Written and reported by:

Karen S. Hanson

Contributing Writer

cody w telep

With professional insight from:

Cody W. Telep

Associate Professor and Associate Director, School of Criminology and Criminal Justice at Arizona State University