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Explore Criminal Justice Degrees and Careers No matter what your interest, you are likely to find a home for it in criminal justice.

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A formal academic degree in criminal justice is vital to success in the field. Without it, you’re unlikely to find the sort of work you dream of. A degree can open the door to a number of law enforcement careers, such as police officer, DEA agent, or FBI investigator. But without an academic credential, your criminal justice career dreams will be handcuffed.

Even if you are starting out with an associate’s degree, you will meet colleagues who either don’t have any post-secondary education or who have not yet completed their AA.

With an academic credential under your belt, you will likely have more responsibility—but also more benefits in terms of salary.

As you elevate your level of academic achievement, your options in the criminal justice field will open up as you go. Eventually, you might specialize in certain individual crimes or a particular sort of crime, such as the white collar variety.

Not quite sure of your long-term goals? At the outset of your criminal justice career, formulate some ideas as to your general areas of interest. If you find law and the courts appealing and intriguing, you might want to aim for a paralegal degree. If you are more interested in people and being of assistance, you might look at programs that will prepare you for success as a case worker or probation officer. You can also work as a victim’s advocate and help people find justice in a very complicated legal system.

Some people are more scientifically oriented, yet still desire to solve crimes. If that’s you, the look into forensics and crime scene investigations. Are you drawn to computers and information technology? The field of cybersecurity is booming. You could find yourself tracking down nefarious hackers who threaten both private and public databases. If spreadsheets and accounting are more your thing, then forensic accounting could be the field for you.

No matter what your particular interest, you are likely to find a home for it in criminal justice, as well as a program of study that will allow you to grow and learn in that area.

Required Degrees for a Career in Criminal Justice

The amount of education you need depends on your criminal justice career goals. To prepare for criminal justice jobs, you can pursue a certificate, an associate’s degree, bachelor’s degree, or master’s degree. There are also advanced degree options for jobs such as forensic scientist, or for those wishing to teach in criminal justice degree programs.

The most common types of criminal justice degree programs are:

Associate Degree

An associate degree takes two years to complete and teaches fundamental criminal justice skills while grounding students in the liberal arts and sciences. Associate’s degree programs might emphasize technical skills that can help you embark on a successful career in local or state law enforcement.

For example, most police departments require new recruits to complete some college training, so you can kick start your criminal justice career with an associate’s degree. You might consider the following entry-level positions:

Bachelor’s Degree

Enrolling in a four-year bachelor’s degree program will provide you with in-depth training and a liberal arts education. If your goal is to find entry-level positions in federal agencies or to increase your likelihood of being promoted in a police department or private company, an undergraduate education will give you the skills you need. A bachelor’s degree program will cover topics such as criminal procedure, law, and ethics.

If you choose a specific path, such as forensics, your program will include courses relevant to the specialization. Here are some career examples:

Park Ranger:
Your job will be to protect our natural preserves from a host of threats, from clumsy campers to criminal use of public lands.
You can assemble evidence from crime scenes and interview witnesses and suspects. Your work will be to construct a case that the prosecuting attorney can present in court and win a conviction from a jury.
U.S. Customs:
Customs agents ensure that no illegal goods enter the country. As a customs agent, you might find yourself on the front lines of the war on terror.
Maintain the safety and security of a courtroom by keeping order, handling evidence, swearing in witnesses, and more.
Forensic Science Technician:
You will employ the methods and tools of science to analyze evidence for presentation in court. You must know the rules of evidence as well as have full knowledge of the criminal justice system.
Probation Officer:
This is a vital job in that it ensures that criminals abide the rules of the court for a period of time. This helps the offender re-acclimate to society, and keeps those around him safe as well.
A paralegal does vital research and other tasks for a lawyer. With an academic background in criminal justice, you will be capable of working with defense and prosecuting attorneys alike.

Master’s Degree

Earning a graduate degree in criminal justice takes about two years. A master’s degree program will cover advanced topics such as analyzing criminal behavior, research methods, leadership and law. If you plan to work in federal law enforcement, having a master’s degree could increase your opportunities for pay raises. Career examples are:

  • Forensic psychologist: With a master’s degree in forensic psychology you can assess the competence of criminal suspects. You can also work in family court to determine the competency of parents in a divorce, or to assess the ability of a person to manage his or her own affairs.
  • FBI agent: The FBI is an elite agency in law enforcement. You may need to have a graduate-level degree to join it in a professional capacity. In hot demand right now at the FBI? Specialists in computer forensics.
  • Blood Spatter Analyst: This is a subset of forensic science that specializes in the chemistry, physics, and biology of blood. The popular television show Dexter portrayed a blood spatter analyst in the title role.


A certificate provides training in specific jobs in the criminal justice field by educating students to be crime scene technicians or cyber security investigator. Students who obtain certificates usually use them as the building blocks for a future criminal justice degree or career step.

Find a Specialty and Program

As you pursue your career in criminal justice, you are likely to want to specialize and delve deeper into the areas that intrigue you the most. More and more municipalities are moving towards specialized teams that tackle issues such as human trafficking, homicide and particular narcotics. Get a leg up with a specialized degree or certification that gives you the status and credentials as an expert in that particular area.

Your field of interest may demand a full-on degree program, or you may also be able to boost your existing academic credentials with a certificate. Consider a bachelor’s degree as the minimum standard for your career. With that, you can apply for graduate school and/or sit for most any professional examination. Further, your experience with upper level coursework will prepare you for any future training or learning you may need.

Whether you’re most intrigued by cyber crime or insurance fraud, there’s bound to be a degree in criminal justice that will open the doors to the career you desire. Here are a few of the most common programs:

  • Criminal Justice (certificate, Associate, Bachelor’s): A certificate or degree in criminal justice will provide you with the technical and analytical skills that employers look for. These programs focus on topics such as crime, justice and the legal system.
  • Crime Scene Technicians (certificate, Associate’s, Bachelor’s): Crime scene technicians work at all levels of law enforcement and in legal or medical examiner’s offices. They analyze and preserve crime scenes, and become experts in proper evidence collection and storage. In addition, programs teach crime scene technicians to become effective communicators, since many need to present their findings in court.
  • Terrorism/Security Management (certificate): This certificate will be useful to individuals currently working in criminal justice careers and those who would like to find criminal justice jobs. Job seekers with training in counter-terrorism are likely to find a range of new career opportunities as this field continues to grow.
  • Criminal Profiling: The profiler on an investigative team helps to assess a pattern of crime in hopes of creating a profile of the perpetrator. Advanced software, knowledge of criminal psychology, and strong instincts will serve you well in this capacity.
  • Forensic Accounting: There are academic programs that teach this area of specialty, but there is also a certificate available from a national association to qualify you to assess accounting for criminal investigations.
  • Computer Forensics: You can get a degree in cyber security, but you might also complete a certificate program in computer forensics. Frequently, these programs are at the graduate level and will provide you with credit towards completing a full master’s degree.

These days, it is increasingly important to prepare yourself for the working world with academic credentials. While you can launch a career on an associate’s degree, you’ll soon want to finish up the remaining two years of work for a full undergraduate degree. The field of criminal justice has grown very complex, and it’s vital to distinguish yourself from the competition with a degree or certificate.