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What Can You Do With a Criminal Justice Degree?

For those with a criminal justice degree, jobs are widespread and diverse, affording many options to pursue a variety of specialties and interests. Here, we examine many different career paths for criminal justice degree holders.

Law Enforcement

Likely the first area that comes to mind, law enforcement is a broad category with many different specialties. Overall, the Bureau of Labor Service (BLS)* expects these occupations (which the BLS classifies as protect service occupations) to grow at average rates, increasing by about 5% by 2026*. While the roles are different, the overall objective is safety: for individual people, neighborhoods, states and the country. Although some occupations may not require a degree, earning a criminal justice degree can provide a competitive edge for entry-level positions and may also help when it comes time for promotion. Multiple occupations are included in the category of law enforcement, including:

Corrections Officer/Manager

Corrections managers supervise staff at correctional facilities, including prisons. An administrative role, corrections managers work with all levels, from inmates to supporting staff, to bolster security and safety. A correctional officer is responsible to directly overseeing inmates, including keeping order, enforcing rules and supporting rehabilitation. This role supports both inmate and public safety. According to the BLS*, federal agencies may require corrections officers to have a college education. 

Probation Officer

Probation officers partner with parolees to hold them accountable for the terms of their parole, and to support them with adjusting to release. This often includes visiting the people in the probation officer’s caseload at home and work. Duties include reporting on progress, interviewing parolees, helping source additional mental or substance abuse resources, and administering drug tests. The BLS+ states that probations officers typically need a bachelor’s degree in fields including criminal justice and social work.

FBI Agent

FBI agents investigate federal crime, organized crime, civil rights violations, public corruption, major theft and cybercrime, and strive to combat terrorism, either from U.S.-based or overseas locations. As a result of these high stakes responsibilities, the process to become an FBI agent includes a rigorous interview, background check, and physical standards. The BLS* states that federal agencies like the FBI require investigators to have a bachelor’s degree. The FBI website also states that special agents must have a bachelor’s degree.

Police Officer

A police officer’s role may sound simple: to keep peace on the streets. However, pursuing this can include patrolling, responding to incidents, and blending soft skills with quick decision-making skills and physicality. Police officers also help foster goodwill in the community through community outreach and general visibility. In addition, police officers often regulate traffic and help manage crowds at large events. According to the BLS*, many federal agencies and some police departments require college coursework or a college degree. The BLS* also states that many applicants for entry-level police jobs are college graduates.

Detective

Detectives support police officers to solve crimes and apprehend suspects. There are specialties within this division, like a homicide detective, whose investigation is aimed at understanding how and when the murder was committed, who did it, and what the motivation was through obtaining evidence and interviewing witnesses. The BLS* states that many detective applicants begin their careers as police officers before being promoted to detective.

Private Investigator

Instead of taking on public cases, private investigators work on the tasks their clients put in front of them. This can be quite an array of cases, spanning from background checks to missing persons cases, and covering legal, financial or personal issues. While private investigators can work in partnership with the police force, in many cases their work is not crime-related, but used in divorce cases or worker’s compensation claims. Investigations are documented and reported back to clients. The BLS* states that some private investigator positions may require a 2- or 4-year degree in a field such as criminal justice. 

Secret Service Agent

Although the first thing that may come to mind for this role is protecting the President and other key officials, Secret Service Agents are also responsible for investigating complex crimes, including those that can impact the security of the United States financial system in general. Pursuing secure financial systems for the United States means locating and removing counterfeit currency, investigating, arresting and prosecuting criminals for breaking financial laws, and obstructing cyber-attacks on financial and banking systems. According to the Secret Service website, you must qualify for the GL-07 or GL-09 qualifications to become a Secret Service Special Agent. You qualify for the GL-07 level if you have a bachelor’s degree; GL-09 requires a master’s degree.

Legal

Criminal justice degree programs may include courses that pertain to the legal industry, including Introduction to Law and the Legal System, Substantive Criminal Law, and Criminal Investigations. The BLS** states that employment of legal occupations is projected to grow at 9% from 2016 to 2026, which is about as fast as the average for all occupations. An emphasis on efficiency in law firms is expected to create strong demand for paralegals and legal assistants.

Paralegal

Paralegals conduct legal research, draft documents, and maintain and organize files to support lawyers preparing for trial. According to the BLS**, many employers prefer paralegal applicants to have a bachelor’s degree along with a certificate in paralegal studies from a program that’s approved by the American Bar Association.

Legal Assistant

An entry-level job, legal assistants also help lawyers with tasks, including preparing for trial. As the BLS** lumps legal assistants in the same category as paralegals under Legal Occupations, the educational requirements for legal assistants are similar.

Homeland Security

The Department of Homeland Security has a variety of job opportunities for different fields of study. According to their website, a degree in criminal justice can prepare you for a career as a Border Patrol Agent; Criminal Investigator; General Inspection, Investigation, Enforcement and Compliance; and Compliance Inspection and Support. In general, homeland security officers support the safety of populations and infrastructure from outside threats. Although this is effort is often supported by federal funding and organization, the responsibility mainly sits with local and state authorities. Homeland security officers support several areas, including air safety and nuclear safety.

U.S. Marshal

U.S. Marshals play several roles: arresting fugitives, felons, protecting judges, attorneys and jurors in high profile or dangerous court cases, arresting wanted criminals, and transporting, managing and protecting prisoners and federal witnesses. One special subset of this occupation is the Federal Air Marshal, who oversees passenger and cargo transportation in connection with the Transportation Security Administration (TSA). This program was extended after the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001. According to their website, having a bachelor’s degree is required to become a Deputy U.S. Marshal.

DEA Agent

Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) Agents strive to halt illegal narcotics from being produced and distributed, honing in on high-level traffickers as opposed to minor drug violations, which would be handled by local or state law enforcement. Agents can take on domestic or international roles as part of the U.S. Justice Department to investigate and track drug traffickers and organizations, eventually to arrest and dismantle them. This work may be done through overt or covert operations. According to the DEA website, being qualified to be a DEA Special Agent requires a bachelor’s degree as well as a master’s, J.D. or LL.B or different combinations of education and experience.

Disaster Relief

According to a 2018 report by the BLS~, careers in the disaster relief industry have more than doubled from 1990 and 2017, and are projected to keep growing through 2026. State and local emergency management agencies typically have a major role in providing disaster relief in the community, while working with the federal government, private companies and nonprofit organizations. A variety of BLS occupation designations fall under the umbrella of community food and housing, and emergency and other relief services, including social and community service managers and fundraisers, both of which require a bachelor’s degree.

Emergency Management Director

Emergency management directors establish and supervise emergency response plan implementation. This can include how a community both manages the disaster and recovery and can include both natural disasters like earthquakes and wildfires and manmade emergencies like terrorist acts or mass shootings. According to the BLS++, emergency management directors require a bachelor’s degree as well as experience in law enforcement, emergency response, disaster planning or public administration.

Criminal Justice Provides Many Opportunities

As you can see, earning your degree in criminal justice provides many opportunities. However, students should conduct informational interviews, research government sites and speak with graduates to determine how to align their career goals and degree programs.

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Sources

*Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Outlook Handbook, Protective Service Occupations, on the internet at https://www.bls.gov/ooh/protective-service/home.htm (visited January 28, 2019).

+Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Outlook Handbook, Probation Officers and Correctional Treatment Specialists, on the internet at https://www.bls.gov/ooh/community-and-social-service/probation-officers-and-correctional-treatment-specialists.htm (visited January 29, 2019).

**Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Outlook Handbook, Legal Occupations, on the internet at https://www.bls.gov/ooh/legal/ (visited January 29, 2019).

~Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Career Outlook, Careers in disaster relief, on the internet at https://www.bls.gov/careeroutlook/2018/article/disaster-relief-careers.htm (visited January 29, 2019).

++Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Outlook Handbook, Emergency Management Directors, on the internet at https://www.bls.gov/ooh/management/emergency-management-directors.htm (visited January 29, 2019).

National long-term projections may not reflect local and/or short-term economic or job conditions, and do not guarantee actual job growth. Information provided is not intended to represent a complete list of hiring companies or job titles, and program options do not guarantee career or salary outcomes. Students should conduct independent research for specific employment information.

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