Career Advice

All students have questions about their proposed field of study and what they will do with the rest of their lives. The fact that you may not have your entire life planned out at this time is not a cause for concern. However, it could be useful to have some basic information to consider when thinking about what you want to do when you leave school. Therefore, the following comments are to help criminal justice majors think about the variety of career options that await them upon graduation. It is part reality check and partially designed to open your eyes to potential careers that you may not have considered before. Like other majors, many CJ graduates will never work in the field that they studied. There are many police officers with history and business degrees, just like there are bank employees and people in the computer industry with criminal justice degrees. The following information may help answer some common questions and concerns for those of you that have no idea what you want to be when you grow up. There are also a number of reference books that provide rather detailed information about specific occupations and contact information such as, Your Criminal Justice Career (2000) by the Justice Research Association, and Careers in Criminal Justice (1999) by W. Richard Stephens, Jr. Beyond this basic information, you should talk with a faculty member about your concerns and plans.

Perhaps you already know this, but the "cool" criminal justice jobs that you see on TV and in films are largely a fantasy. There are very, very few people whose sole job it is to investigate serial killers. Similarly, the media image of what detectives and federal agents actually do (and how they dress!) is grossly misleading. Let's lay down a few basics:

  1. Most careers in the criminal justice system require that individuals start at the bottom and work their way up to investigative or supervisory positions. This means that most jobs will require work experience as a patrol officer, probation/parole officer, or correctional officer. In some cases, military experience can count as field experience, but not always. Nearly all detectives, undercover officers, and special agents began their careers as patrol officers. While the federal government does not have "patrol" officers, most federal law enforcement agents have had some previous state law enforcement or military experience.
  2. By far the most competitive jobs in law enforcement are those in the federal government. Remember that the vast majority of crime in this country is a state/local matter, not federal. Therefore, most people who work in the criminal justice system work for local and state agencies. When federal agencies have job openings, they often receive numerous applications from candidates who have bachelor's or master's degrees AND years of experience working at the state or local level. A graduate degree may make you more competitive for federal law enforcement, but many students' "dream" jobs require previous law enforcement experience. Again, nearly everyone starts at the bottom.
  3. Many jobs in criminal justice - especially some of the more "exciting" ones - require specialized degrees or backgrounds in areas other than criminal justice. For the past several years it has been the case that the FBI has primarily been interested in hiring accountants, lawyers, and those individuals with computer expertise. Similarly, forensic and arson investigation almost always require a background in chemistry or other science-related areas. Working with offenders who exhibit mental illness or psychiatric problems often requires graduate study in psychology. These are very specialized jobs that require unique skills and knowledge. Students interested in those careers (or others such as food, occupational, or environmental safety and enforcement) should consider degrees in those areas, a dual degree, or graduate study.

Despite the previous comments, there are a number of careers in criminal justice that actually are available to those with an undergraduate degree in criminal justice! Although not all city, county, and state police agencies require that you have an undergraduate degree, there is an increasing trend of law enforcement agencies seeking applicants with college degrees. Working as a probation/parole officer with juveniles or adults is another common career choice for our students and typically require a bachelor's degree. There are also positions within county, state, and federal institutions, not all of which are typical prison settings. Finally, there are a variety of jobs within the human services field such as working with juveniles or at-risk families.

While the above positions are directly related to the criminal justice system, there are other agencies that deal with issues related to human services, corporate operations, domestic and foreign policies, and various regulations and laws. Many of these jobs will require you to work near the state capital or Washington, D.C. where most agencies' headquarters are located. Examples of these include working for a legislative agency, in a department of state, or a human services agency. Finally, there are jobs in the private security and investigation fields. These can range from hunting down worker's compensation fraud to working in a firm that provides corporate security. The knowledge and experiences required of these will depend on the specifics of the position.

Every year several of our students go on to graduate school or law school. These can be rewarding experiences both professionally and personally. However, these are time, money, and effort-intensive endeavors and should be considered thoroughly. Graduate degrees in criminal justice, public administration, business, and psychology can benefit criminal justice professions. As previously noted, depending on the specific career, simply having a graduate degree will not guarantee obtaining your ideal job. It can, however, improve your chances of career advancement - though you may still need to start initially at the bottom.

Law school is another area of interest for many of our students. Contrary to popular belief among CJ students, most people who go to law school do not work in the field of criminal law after graduation. Most undergraduates who graduate from law school practice in areas such as public interest law, copyright, civil rights, corporate law, etc., that may be of interest to you.

What you finally decide to do after graduation will likely be the result of considering a number of factors. We cannot tell you what you should do - but we can offer you some suggestions to help you decide for yourself. The following list is to help you think about what type of career you will find the most rewarding.

  1. How comfortable would you be carrying a firearm? This is an important question. If you are not comfortable around firearms and do not believe you could use one against another person, even if the circumstances required it, then you should avoid jobs that will require this. This includes policing (patrol and detectives), parole in some states, and several federal law enforcement agencies.
  2. How comfortable would you be working with offenders? Careers in corrections (probation, parole, and work within institutions) and counseling/psychology in the criminal justice system will require daily interaction with offenders, many of whom have committed serious offenses. This is different from the work of police who typically have little interaction with offenders and usually for only for brief encounters.
  3. How important is the salary? This is a tough question to answer and will likely require balancing other considerations (e.g. how much you enjoy what you do, benefits, hours, etc.). Careers in criminal justice tend to pay reasonably well. However, you will not become wealthy working in the criminal justice system. If earning six figures is important to you, you should change majors or attend law school and focus on areas other than the criminal law. Salaries for police officers are becoming increasingly competitive and many larger police departments begin officer salaries in the upper $30K (and some over $40K) plus the potential for overtime. Despite what popular culture tells us, this is a substantial sum of money - and is more than many criminal lawyers and Ph.D.'s earn! Probation and parole officers tend to start at the mid to upper $20K per year. Careers working with juveniles are usually some of the lower paying jobs, though they clearly have the potential to be rewarding in a number of other ways.
  4. Personal values and identity. This refers to a number of issues and questions that all students should think about when making major decisions that will affect their lives and the lives of others. Remember that most people change jobs and or careers during their lifetime. There is no reason why your first job out of college must be the one you stay with until retirement! There are, however, some basic questions you can think about to decide whether you would be happy with a particular job. People tend to be happiest in their work when it is consistent with and reinforces their own beliefs, values, goals, and principles. So what is important to you? What type of person are you? Would you feel more comfortable in a law enforcing role, a counseling role, or a combination of the two? Do you like to work with others or would you rather rely on your skills and abilities? What kind of life do you want? What type of job would you find rewarding - protecting people, helping others, being in a position of authority and responsibility, being intellectually or physically challenged? There is no single answer and it is likely that no job will match perfectly with your expectations. Perhaps this is a process of elimination more than anything else and you could always change jobs or careers if you are not happy.

Remember, you are not alone in your search. There are a number of resources that describe particular jobs related to criminal justice. Perhaps the greatest resource you have is the faculty. Plan on sitting down with a faculty advisor on a regular basis to discuss your plans, ask questions, and gather information in your search. 

Updated: 08/14/2019 12:43PM