Criminal Justice - A Guide

Law Enforcement
Job Options

What Degree
Should I Earn?

Career Paths

The Career Wizard


Editor's Note

Citlali Tolia photo

Dear Reader,

Did you grow up reading Sherlock Holmes or staying up at night to watch CSI reruns? Do you have a knack for puzzles and feel passionate about justice? As the United States’ population grows, opportunities in law enforcement fields are expected to keep pace, so whether you’re interested in private security or joining your city’s police force, there are many growing career paths available to you.

At, we know that making educational decisions can be nerve-racking. That’s why we’ve created the INSIDE Criminal Justice e-guide. This collection of well-researched, impartial articles is designed to help you decide if the criminal justice field is right for you. Please visit our extensive bank of articles for more in-depth information on careers in criminal justice, law enforcement and corrections.

We hope these pages help you find your path.

Happy reading,
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Citlali Tolia
Lead Editor, INSIDE Guides

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Quick Facts

  • Prospective law enforcement officers are subjected to very stringent background checks, drug testing and even personality tests to determine their eligibility.
  • Certain law enforcement fields are expected to grow at more than double the national average from 2008-2018. For instance, opportunities for private investigators and probation officers are expected to grow by 21% and 19% respectively, compared to an average of 10% for employment across all industries.
  • Jobs in law enforcement and corrections have a wide-range of educational requirements, from high school diplomas to graduate degrees in social work, criminal justice or psychology.
  • First-time applicants to federal law enforcement must be over 21 years of age and under 37 years-old (this requirement may vary depending on the particular position).
  • Federal employment is usually more competitive and more lucrative than local law enforcement.
Criminal Justice

Is Criminal Justice Right for You?

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What Are My Job Options?

If you’re interested in public safety, crime prevention or correctional institutions, you may want to consider pursuing a career in law enforcement and criminal justice. Below are some of the most popular job opportunities in this continually growing field.

Correctional Officer

Correctional officers work in jails and detention facilities to maintain safe conditions and prevent disruptions. This profession can be physically demanding, so agility and physical strength are valuable assets. Educational requirements for correctional officers vary. Local facilities generally require a high school diploma or GED and the completion of a training program. Law enforcement and military experience are

generally accepted as forms of training. The median annual income for corrections officers is $39,000.

Police Officer and Detective

Police officers protect people’s lives, homes and property. Along with patrolling and investigating, writing reports is an important part of the work. Police officers may choose to work as detectives, state police officers or federal law enforcement officers.

If you are interested in police work, you need to have at least a high school diploma, be physically fit and be able to withstand the physical demands of the position. You must also participate in a local police academy training program. Training programs typically take 3 months to complete.

Criminal Justice

If you are interested in becoming an FBI police officer, you need a high school diploma or GED; to join the FBI as a special agent you need a bachelor’s degree and at least 3 years of professional work experience. The median annual income for police officers is $52,000; detectives and investigators earn about $61,000; and FBI agents can expect a median wage of about $81,000.

Private Detective or Investigator

Private investigators and detectives help businesses and individuals by offering both protective and investigative services. Private investigators conduct surveillance, provide bodyguard services and perform background checks for a variety of purposes. As a private detective, you may conduct

Crime scene tap
Serious Police Office

investigations into identity theft, financial matters, forensics, missing persons, child protection, infidelity, etc. This job requires an understanding of the law as well as covert-observation and information-gathering skills.

Strictly speaking, there are no set educational or training requirements for this line of work, but a background in criminal justice or police studies is useful if you are interested in breaking into the field. Corporate investigators often have a background in finance; computer forensics investigators are well-served by a degree in computer science or accounting. Licensing regulations vary from state to state, so check the licensing laws in your area. Wages for private investigators also vary widely according to the area of specialty, but salaried investigators earn an annual median income of about $43,000.

Security Guard

Working as a security guard is another career option in the field of protective services. This work requires an alert demeanor, fast reflexes and strong observational skills. Security guards provide protection to banks, museums, hospitals, nightclubs, department stores and private property. Most states require security guards to have a license, and you must undergo some type of training, generally provided by the employer in order to begin work. In addition, you will

go through a rigorous screening process, including a background check.

What’s Beyond Active Duty?

While there’s a definite thrill to staying up all-night looking for clues or staking out suspects, most members of active law-related careers eventually want to slow down. Former law enforcement officers often move on to do administrative supervisory work, start their own security or investigative agencies or work as security consultants.

Where Will I work?
Criminal Justice

What Degree Should I Earn?

Police Academy Training

If you want to be a police officer at the local or state level, you'll need to complete police academy training. Sometimes this requires only a high school diploma or GED, though occasionally agencies look for applicants with some college experience as well. In these academies, you'll get about 12-14 weeks of training split between classroom education and supervised patrol. Covered topics include instruction on laws at the local, state and federal levels; proper incident investigation techniques; and field tactics such as first aid and firearms usage.

Law Enforcement Certificate

If you're a police recruit and would like a little more formal background for your work, you could enroll in a certificate program in the field. Available online

and at some community colleges, these programs supplement the training received in police academies and include basic courses on police procedure as well as written and interpersonal communications skills. They more fully prepare you for police work at the local or state level.

Associate Degree in
Criminal Justice

Some police departments prefer to hire officers who've taken 1-2 years of college courses. If that fits your local agency, you might want to pursue an associate degree in criminal justice. These 2-year programs give a general introduction to topics in the criminal justice field like the makeup of the correctional system and the laws behind it. They also require you to take a sampling of general education courses. Even if you don't want to be a

police officer, these degrees can help you start a career in private security or in administrative or clerical work for law enforcement agencies.

Bachelor's Degree in
Criminal Justice

Bachelor degree programs in criminal justice last four years and allow you to dig a little deeper into the structure and philosophy of our justice system. Though programs include classes that highlight both the "law" and "enforcement" aspects of the field, your school may allow you to specialize by focusing your energy on one or the other. In other words, you can prepare for a career as an officer, a detective or criminologist or even lay the foundations for attending law school. Additionally, some state and local police agencies look for candidates with four years of college education, and if you plan to pursue a law enforcement career in the federal government, you'll need at least a bachelor's degree to proceed.

Master's Degree in
Criminal Justice

Master's degree programs in criminal justice typically require 36 credit hours of work and are designed for students already active in the field.

They're meant to help facilitate career advancement and can also be useful if you're looking for a career in research, teaching the subject at the community college level or going on to receive a

Female student with books

doctoral degree. While enrolled in a master's program, you'll study advanced theory of the justice system, which covers topics like ethics and sociology as it relates to crime. Many programs also require you to write a thesis.

Ph.D. in Criminal Justice

If your interest in the justice system takes a primarily philosophical basis, the academic world of criminal justice may be calling you. In that case, you can earn a Ph.D. in Criminal Justice, which prepares you for a career of research, scholarship and teaching at institutes of higher learning. Program length can vary significantly between schools, but most will require a dissertation of original work in the field.

Criminal Justice

Career Paths

Local Law Enforcement Careers

You might choose to begin your criminal justice career at the local level. Often, that involves attending a local police academy and becoming an officer in your city or town. After graduating from police academy, you'll be ready to patrol the streets of your community as a uniformed officer.

If going out on patrol isn't your style, you still have plenty of career options in criminal justice at the local level. For instance, you could take up a career as a security guard for a private company or find government employment doing

administrative or clerical work for local law enforcement agencies. You could even work in corrections as a social worker or advocate for criminal offenders. Your prospects here can be helped by earning an associate's or bachelor's degree in criminal justice.

State Law Enforcement Careers

Known as highway patrol officers or state troopers, those officers who work for the state have a significantly larger jurisdiction than their local counterparts. You'll keep vigil over your state's highways and assist local law enforcement agencies when needed. You

Security Guard Outside the Brooklyn Bridge

can also become a detective and investigate cases on a state-wide level. If you want to work for the state police, you'll need the same basic training as that of a local officer, although you would go to a different academy.

Federal Law Enforcement Careers

Careers in law enforcement abound on the federal level. If you’d like to work for the FBI, the CIA, in border patrol or even as a park ranger, you'll face more stringent qualifications than for local or state agencies. In addition to requiring background and fitness checks, federal bodies typically look for candidates who hold a bachelor's degree and, depending on the agency, a degree in a specific subject may also be required. Federal

Police line, do not cross

bodies also possess their own training academies, which you'll need to attend before you can begin your career. If working at the national level appeals to you, federal agencies offer an abundance of opportunities and advancement potential.

Academic Careers in Criminal Justice

As with many professions, you might also make your home in the criminal justice field by researching, writing and teaching in it. Usually this requires a Ph.D., although a master's degree is often sufficient to teach community college courses on the topic. For many doctoral programs, you'll have to complete a thesis or dissertation based on original research in the law enforcement field, so you'll be well-studied in the theoretical background of the criminal justice system upon completing your degree.

Criminal Justice

Criminal Justice by the Numbers

2008 Employment 2018 Projected Employment
Police & sheriff's patrol officers 661,500 718,800
Detectives & criminal investigators 112,200 130,900
First-line supervisors/ managers of police
& detectives
97,300 105,200
Median Wages for Law Enforcement

The Career Wizard

  • What's the job outlook like for careers in law enforcement?
  • In 2008, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) predicted steady job growth in law enforcement occupations over the next decade, which equates to a 10% increase in jobs by 2018. Your prospects might be best in local agencies as employees move up to the federal level or transfer to privatized security. Meanwhile, the BLS predicts you'll face stiffer competition for state and federal jobs, though several years of previous law enforcement experience (especially in investigation) might give you an edge when seeking federal employment.

  • Once employed, how can I advance my career?
  • Career advancement means different things depending on the level of government you work in. As a local or state officer, you'll undergo a probationary period of variable length, after which you can become eligible for a promotion based on job proficiency and written examination scores. That might mean you'll be able to specialize in a certain type of police work or become a detective. Earning a bachelor’s or master's degree in criminal justice or a related field can also give you a competitive edge when looking to advance your career.

    Things work similarly in federal agencies. After a certain amount of time spent on the job, in addition to meeting knowledge and skill proficiency requirements, you can move up the pay scale typical to most government jobs. When looking to replace managerial positions, government agencies typically hire from within. Federal agents can also benefit from continued education and training.

  • Is a career in criminal justice dangerous?
  • Not always, but the risk is there. The BLS reported that police officers and detectives have one of the highest rates of on-the-job injuries among all careers. That said, not all jobs in law enforcement have the same amount of danger. Clerical, administrative and advocacy work, for instance, will put you in immediately threatening situations less often, although you'll still be working in a volatile field where incidents can occur.
Criminal Justice

Criminal Justice Scholarship Central

WIFLE Scholarship Program

WIFLE (Women in Federal Law Enforcement) strives to achieve gender equality within the field of law enforcement. WIFLE offers several scholarships to women pursuing a 2- or 4-year degree in criminal justice or a related field. Applicants should have a 3.0 GPA or higher.

Irlet Anderson and Charles L. Gittens Scholarship Awards

Both scholarships are sponsored by the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives (NOBLE). They are open to graduating high school seniors pursuing a career in law enforcement or criminal justice. Winners receive awards of $5,000 or $1,500.

Martin Luther King Jr. Scholarship Award

The American Correctional Association (ACA) encourages all minority undergraduate and graduate criminal justice students to apply for this scholarship. Applicants don’t need to be ACA members, but they need the nomination of a current ACA member in good standing to be eligible for the award.

Thurgood Marshall Scholarship Award

The National Association of Blacks in Criminal Justice awards an annual scholarship to an individual pursuing a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice or a related field. Applicants should have demonstrated financial need and a B grade average.

Ritchie Jennings Memorial Scholarship

This award is offered by the Association of Certified Fraud Examiners and is open to undergraduate or graduate students attending accredited four-year colleges or universities with a declared major or minor in criminal justice. Award amounts vary from $1,000-$10,000.

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