We all know that launching a career as a legal professional can be both fulfilling and lucrative, but lately it’s not that easy. With many recent law school grads having difficulty finding a suitable career right away, many students are turning criminal justice as a practical alternative. Moreover, while there may not be a huge demand for attorneys in the United States these days, there certainly remains a demand for criminal justice professionals who, for all intents and purposes, help keep our legal system running smoothly and efficiently.
If you’ve recently been second guessing your plans to attend law school, or are looking for a great way to be a part of the legal system without the time commitment and expense of obtaining a law degree, then a career in criminal justice may be the best fit for you. Below is a guide that will help you better understand what an education in criminal justice entails, as well as some great tips and advice on how to begin planning for your career in the field upon graduation.
Part I. The Criminal Justice Field
Unlike a law degree, which is largely general in nature (aside from a law student’s chosen specialization), a degree in criminal justice is mostly applicable for a career with local, state and federal judicial and law enforcement agencies. Even if obtaining a law degree is your ultimate goal, earning a degree in criminal justice can be a great way to familiarize yourself with the legal system, and can even provide you with several years of on-the-job experience before you decide to dive headfirst into law school. Below are several areas that offer great career choices for criminal studies graduates.
- Local and State Law Enforcement: With a degree in criminal justice, you will have learned much of what you need to begin a great career in local and state law enforcement. Within this particular field, many candidates are able to become police officers, state troopers, or park rangers. However, many of these positions require rigorous training, physical fitness exams and detailed background checks – so make sure you are well prepared before beginning the application process.
- Federal Law Enforcement: For many, launching a career in federal law enforcement (ex. FBI or CIA) has long been a childhood dream (and not always for the right reasons). Jobs in federal law enforcement, like local and state law enforcement, are not to be taken lightly, nor are they to be pursued because a movie or TV series sparked your interest in becoming a special agent. Keep in mind that the application process for federal law enforcement careers, such as the FBI, is extremely intensive and should be planned for well before submitting your job application.
- Corrections: As the United States begins to tackle the growing problem of prison overcrowding and the public’s demand for a fairer, more efficient correctional system, there remains growing need for qualified correctional officials with an educational background in criminal justice. While it may not be the most glamorous profession in the world, working with inmates as either a corrections counsellor, parole officer, or even a juvenile probation officer is a great way to make a positive difference for many individuals whose actions have landed them in jail.
- Legal and Courtroom: A degree in criminal justice could also make you especially suitable for many professional roles within our country’s legal system. While you shouldn’t expect to become an attorney or judge without obtaining a law degree, becoming a paralegal, legal assistant or court clerk are more than viable options for the criminal justice graduate. Moreover, if you are still mulling over the possibility of attending law school, taking a few years to work for an attorney or judge with your degree in criminal justice could be a great way to get your feet wet before sending in those law school applications.
- Crime Scene Investigation (CSI): Like the prospect of working for the FBI and CIA, many people are sometimes led to believe that a career in CSI will be similar to what we see on TV. Unfortunately, this couldn’t be farther than the truth. A career in crime scene investigation can be an extremely rewarding and stimulating profession, but it can also require long hours of grueling work and careful examination of forensic evidence. Moreover, careers in crime scene investigation can end rather quickly after even one slip up. The good news is that a degree in criminal justice should more than adequately prepare you for the role, should you choose to pursue it!
Salary and Career Outlook
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the median salary for police officers and detectives has been determined to be $55,010 per year as of 2010. Probation officers and correctional treatment specialists can expect to earn around $47,200 per year. Median salaries for other related occupations, such as crime scene investigators and other forensic technicians, are estimated to be in a similar range. While these aren’t some of the biggest professional salaries out there, many positions in law enforcement and criminal justice offer a wide range of supplementary benefits, such as paid overtime, pensions and robust insurance benefits.
Finding the right career path with a degree in criminal justice can be tough, but once you do, chances are you won’t regret your decision. Because so many people find fulfilling, and in many cases, life-long careers in the criminal justice system, the demand for new professionals can vary depending on which career path you choose.
For example, the BLS expects there to be only a 7% increase in job growth over the course of this decade for police officers and detectives. The demand for forensic science technicians, on the other hand, is expected to grow by an astounding 19% percent by 2020. In the end, given the sheer number of possible jobs within the field, the career outlook for graduates with a criminal justice degree will always be good, regardless of temporary job growth estimates.
Part II. Top U.S. Criminal Justice Programs
As one of the more popular professional majors at universities across the country, finding the best criminal justice program for you can take some time and careful research. Luckily, there are quite a few excellent resources online, including this one, that provide detailed information about many of the country’s top programs in criminal justice. Below are three of the greatest programs we were able to find, some of which offer you the opportunity to earn a degree by completing courses online, as well as on-campus.
University of Pennsylvania (Philadelphia, PA)
- Accreditation: The University of Pennsylvania (UPenn) is currently accredited by the Middle States Commission on Higher Education (MSCHE).
- Specialized Degrees: UPenn offers both undergraduate and graduate degrees in the field of Criminology, which is related almost entirely to the study of criminal justice, only from a more scientific/academic perspective. The department’s website states that, “Students majoring in criminology will gain a broad understanding of the socio-political context of crime and the bio-psychological analysis of violent and anti-social behavior.”
- Industry Perception: Despite recent controversies that have done much to call the university’s reputation into question, the University of Pennsylvania remains one of the best schools in the country for earning a degree, and its program in criminology is considered to be second-to-none. As such, the program is one of the most selective in the country.
- Cost and Financial Aid: Because the University of Pennsylvania is a private university, the cost of attendance can get a bit steep. CollegeData.com provides an informative breakdown of tuition costs at UPenn, with the total cost of attendance currently estimated at $59,428 per year. Most, if not all, of these costs can be covered by financial aid, which can include a combination of government and private loans, grants and scholarships.
University of California, Irvine (Irvine, CA)
- Accreditation: UC Irvine is accredited by the Western Association of Schools and Colleges (WASC).
- Specialized Degrees: The Department of Criminology, Law and Society at UCI offers a bachelor’s degree, online master’s degree and Ph.D. The school’s Ph.D. program is considered to be one of the best in the country, and would be an excellent choice for someone who wishes to earn an advanced graduate education in criminal justice. The option to complete a master’s degree online through the university is also a great plus.
- Industry Perception: As mentioned above, UCI’s graduate program in Criminology, Law and Society is one of the best in the country, and was recently ranked #5 by U.S. News and World Reports among doctoral-granting universities in the field of criminal justice. As a result, undergraduates can expect to work with and learn from some of the greatest instructors and graduate students in the field over the course of their education.
- Cost and Financial Aid: Because UC Irvine is a publicly-funded school in the State of California, the cost of tuition can vary dramatically depending on your residency at time of admission. Using undergraduate tuition as an example, California residents can expect to pay around $14,046 per year, while non-residents could end up paying $36,924 for their first year tuition. UCI offers financial aid assistance that can cover up to 100% of all tuition costs in the form of public and private loans, grants, scholarships and several other aid programs.
Florida State University (Tallahassee, FL and Online)
- Accreditation: Florida State University is accredited by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS).
- Specialized Degrees: The Florida State University College of Criminology and Criminal Justice offers a variety of degree routes for undergraduates and graduate students that can be taken both on-campus and online. The undergraduate program offers degrees in criminology, as well as computer criminology. The college’s master’s program gives graduate students the option to obtain a joint criminology M.A. in public administration or social work.
- Industry Perception: In addition to being one of the nation’s most highly ranked universities for the study of criminal justice, the College of Criminology and Criminal Justice currently counts some of the country’s leading criminologists among their instructors. Moreover, scholarly publications produced by college faculty are considered to be some of the best in the field.
- Cost and Financial Aid: Ranked by the Princeton Review as one of the “Best Value Colleges” in the country for 2013, the cost to attend Florida State University remains quite competitive. Residents of the State of Florida can expect to pay a scant $3,397 for the academic year, while non-residents can expect to pay around $18,564. In addition to accepting several standard financial aid packages offered by both public and private sources, the College of Criminology and Criminal Justice provides a detailed look at the various related scholarships and fellowships students can apply for.
Part III. Launching a Career in Criminal Justice
Once you have your degree in criminal justice, criminology, or a related field, keep in mind that you’re not quite out of the woods yet. As mentioned above, several careers in criminal justice are well known for having extremely stringent standards, and as a result, the application process for many of these careers can be a long and winding road. Making sure that you are well-prepared to take on the job search following graduation is all but required if you want to put your best foot forward right from the get go. Below are some helpful tips and advice that will help you to effectively start your criminal justice job hunt in the right way.
Organizing the Job Search
- Portfolios: In addition to being a requirement by many criminal justice programs throughout the United States, having a portfolio that comprehensively reflects your experience and achievements is essential for beginning and then continuing your career in the field of criminal justice. Some important items your portfolio might include are professional presentations, community service activities, as well as some written reflections on work you have done in the field. This portfolio requirement sheet made for criminal justice students at the University of Wisconsin-Platteville is a great guide to help you get started on a portfolio of your own.
- Cover Letters and Résumés: In the criminal justice profession, job candidates want to create and keep up-to-date a resume that acts as a brief record of your skills and experience. A cover letter should focus on key skills and achievements that make you especially qualified for the position you are applying for. For more information that is specific to criminal justice professionals, this cover letter and resume guide created by the John Jay College of Criminal Justice at the City University of New York is an outstanding resource to have in your arsenal.
- Personal Branding: Maintaining an exemplary personal record and being a model citizen is crucial for those who want to launch a career in the criminal justice system. While you most likely won’t have to worry assiduously “branding” or selling yourself online the way a marketing professional would, if you’re interested in launching a career in the criminal justice field, it is extremely important that your own personal image and conduct reflect its values.
A Catalyst for Justice
The fact is, our criminal justice system would collapse without having the right professionals around to keep things running smoothly. These very same professionals work hard each day to enforce laws, investigate crimes, counsel inmates and assist in running one of the largest legal bureaucracies the world has ever known.
These professionals are not only valued by the community-at-large, but are essential for maintaining our way of life. In the end, if becoming a catalyst for justice is something that entices you more than pushing paper at a desk job, then you owe it to yourself to consider a career in the field of criminal justice.