Choosing the right criminal justice degree depends on a few key factors: whether you have any college education or even have an associates degree in a related subject already, whether or not you have any job experience in the police or legal field, and whether you’re looking to get your foot in the door for and entry-level position or want to get the education to qualify you for a more senior or more specialized job in law enforcement.
A tremendous variety of jobs exists in police departments and enforcement agencies today, partly because the security fears that arose with the 9/11 attacks led to new job functions and entire new agencies being created, like the Department of Homeland Security. In truth, the criminal justice field is far more complex than it used to be – which can make it tough to choose exactly what type of degree will be best for you. The overload of job choices in law enforcement, private security, federal security and corrections is so great that making a choice can be a bit mind-boggling.
Two good tips to follow when choosing a criminal justice degree program and a career path: 1) Be aware that salaries vary widely in this category. Top-level FBI agents can earn over $65,000 (Source: Federal Bureau of Investigation). and police officers in certain wealthy suburban counties can earn over $85,000, particularly when overtime pay is factored in (Source: Newsday). But there are also many basic security jobs that pay much closer to $25,000. per year (Source: U.S. Department of Labor Statistics). 2) Do some research to find out how future hiring will run in your particular specialty before you start school. Right now, towns, counties and states are very strapped for funds and are not able to hire very many new police officers – a situation that’s likely to persist for some time. The federal government, on the other hand, has a tremendous need for homeland security workers and very deep pockets. It’s likely that Uncle Sam will be hiring criminal justice degree graduates for some time to come.
Associates degrees in criminal justice are designed to accomplish two things: A) to get you qualified for an entry level position with enough training to be considered a specialist who will be paid relatively well and B) to give you the basic course requirements you can use for credit later on, when you want to get a bachelors degree to move up the career ladder.
The most widely offered associate-level degree, and the most popular degree in general in this category, is the “associate of applied science.” It can give you expertise that will get you a job quickly, but it generally won’t give you the liberal arts credits you can use later on if you want to trade up to a bachelor’s degree. Associate of applied science degrees generally take from 18 months to 2 years to complete, and are offered in a very wide variety of specialties, including:
- Criminal Justice
- Law Enforcement
- Criminal Investigations
- Private Security
The applied science degree will give you a basic understanding of the legal system and law enforcement standards, in addition to teaching you the technical skills needed by law enforcement agencies nowadays. It can get you started in a job as a probation officer, victim advocate, detention officer, dispatcher, criminal investigator or corrections officer, evidence technician or fingerprint technician to name a few. The employers who could hire you include government law enforcement agencies and police departments, forensic labs, hospital labs and corrections departments. Here’s a rundown of the less common associate of arts degree in criminal justice.
The bachelor degree in criminal justice can either be used as a door-opener to federal agency jobs (many federal agencies are now taking job applications only from candidates who have a bachelor’s degree), as a way to help get promoted into a more managerial position in law enforcement, or as preparation for a highly specialized masters degree in criminal justice. The degree may be offered as a bachelor of science or bachelor of arts, and can cover more managerial, analytic subjects including:
- Organizational Management In Homeland Security
- Criminal Justice In Political Science and Government
- Technology in Law Enforcement
- Homeland Security and Emergency Management
A bachelor’s degree can broaden your career horizon to work with private sector insurance companies, federal agencies from the department of defense to the FBI, and state and local police agencies (click here for an overview of federal law enforcement jobs open to criminal justice degree holders).
A master’s degree is work considering if you have gotten your bachelor’s done and also spent time working in the criminal justice field. Masters degrees can stream you into the more analytical areas of law enforcement that relate to technology, surveillance, business or law and ethics specialties. It’s a degree to pursue if you feel very sure of exactly what type of job you want to do and are willing to take very advanced and potentially challenging courses to get there.