Is a Degree in Criminal Justice the Right Choice?

Earning a degree is a big decision? Not only does it require a substantial investment of time (typically four years) and money ($15,000 to $60,000), it will in large part determine your future career path. If you're interested in pursuing a career in law enforcement, corrections, law, or the courts, then earning a degree in criminal justice, criminology, or a specialized field of study is probably your best option for getting started on the right foot.

However, before you can select an educational path, you need to have good idea of where you're going. Earning a degree in criminal justice will allow you to pursue a career in law enforcement. So will a degree in criminology. As will a degree in accounting, computer science, forensics, chemistry, foreign languages, and psychology. Which degree you choose will be a function of your long-term personal and career aspirations. The reality is that you don't have to have a degree in criminal justice to have a successful career in criminal justice.

Below we'll explore some of the more popular, and useful, degrees and college majors as they relate to a myriad of career paths and job opportunities in the ever evolving - and exciting - fields of criminal justice and law enforcement.

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A Degree in Law Enforcement
If you want to become a police officer, detective, sheriff, conservation officer, or be involved in corrections, a degree in law enforcement is probably a good choice. You may also consider earning a degree in criminal justice with a concentration in law enforcement. While many police academies do not require any college education of their applicants, a growing number now do. Earning an associate degree (2-year college degree) is now a prerequisite for entry into police academy in several states. A degree in law enforcement is a general degree that will provide you the foundational knowledge and skills you'll need to pursue a variety of positions and career options.

A Degree in Rehabilitation
The criminal justice system isn't just about aprehending, convicting and sending criminals to prison.It's also about rehabilitation. Rehabilitating those who've ended up on the wrong side of the law and are now in prison, as well as those who may end up becoming criminals if they don't receive the help, is a major role of the criminal justice system in the United States. Majoring in rehabilitation prepares students for a myriad of career opportunities, such as substance abuse counselor, mental health counselor and rehabilitation specialist. Rehabilitation is one of the few areas within criminal justice where you can actually help prevent crimes from every happening.

A Degree in Criminology
Many people often confuse criminal justice and criminology, or they mistakenly think they're the same thing. They're not. Criminology explores the anatomy of crime, its causes, consequences and costs. Criminal justice deals with the established systems used to deal with crime, such as criminal prosecution and punishment. Criminology is offered as a stand alone major in some schools and in other's it's included as concentration within a criminal justice degree. Students who pursue a higher education in criminology will study sociology, psychology, and other subjects that help to understand why crime takes place. Majoring in criminology is an excellent choice for people seeking a career as a criminalist, criminologist, penologist, or forensic psychologist. (Typically, a Phd in psychology in addition to bachelor's degree in criminology would be required to become a forensic psychologist.)

A Degree in Corrections
Corrections is one of the "staple" jobs within the field of criminal justice. Demand for correction officers and professionals is typically stable and predictable. Those looking for a career in criminal justice can always fall back on a career in corrections. Those interested in a career in corrections should consider earning an undergraduate degree in corrections. A degree in corrections is great preparation for a career as a corrections office but can also lead to a career as a parole officer, probation officer or prison warden.

A Degree in Paralegal Studies
Earning a degree in paralegal studies or legal assisting can pave the path to a long and successful career in law enforcement and criminal justice. A degree in paralegal studies prepares students with the skills and knowledge necessary to assist lawyers and attorneys with criminal and civil proceedings. In addition to jobs with law firms, paralegal specialists can find career opportunities within the criminal justice system with federal law enforcement agencies such as the Central Intelligence Agency (see Paralegal Support Professional), Federal Bureau of Investigation (see FBI Paralegal Job) and Department of Homeland Security (see DHS Careers). The minimum requirement to become a paralegal is usually an associate's degree from an accredited community college or higher education institution.

A Degree in Research Methodology
The need to discover, analyze and organize information is becoming critical to the success of law enformement on a world wide scale. Consequently, law enforcement agencies - especially those at the federal level - are seeking professionals with experience and training in research methods and statistics. Earning a criminal justice degree with a concentration in research methods will prepare you for a growing number specialist positions within the field of criminal justice and national security.

A Law Degree
A law degree is one of the most useful and versatile degrees you can obtain if you want to work in law enforcement or criminal justice. Just about every law enforcement agency, at the local, state and federal level, employs or works with lawyers. Earning a bachelor's degree in criminal justice with a focus on law will prepare candidates for some entry-level positions. However, a person will generally need to earn a graduate degree in law, from an ABA accredited program, in order to qualify for most positions. The higher the level of education obtained in this field, the more career advancement opportunities you'll receive.

A Degree in Psychology
Believe it or not psychology is a great degree to obtain if you're interested in pursuing a career in criminal justice. Psychology majors are uniquely qualified to fill positions such as substance abuse counselor, criminal profiler and criminologist. Many high profile positions, including forensic psychologist, also require a psychology degree. Psychology students who focus their studies on criminology and understanding the criminal mind will develop a unique skill set that will open up the door to a myriad of job opportunities in law enforcement and criminal justice. In order excel as a psychologist, within the field of criminal justice, it may be necessary to earn a Phd. Many psychology positions, inside and outside the field of criminal justice, require job candidate to have completed a Phd and become licensed.

A Degree in Information Technology
Ever watched a series of the hit TV series 24? Have you envisioned yourself fighting crime behind the scenes, providing mission critical support to America's front line of law enforcement officers and federal agents? If so, you just might be a perfect candidate for a career as an information technology specialist within law enforcement. There is a huge and growing demand for information technology professionals within just about every local, state and federal law enforcement agency in the United States. If you're sure about a career in criminal justice, and want to earn a degree that will give you a leg up on the competition and set apart as a specialist, then we highly recommend pursuing a degree in technology (eg., computer science, cybersecurity, networking, systems analysis, etc.). Information technology is the new frontier of law enforcement and information technology specialists are the new breed of law enforcement professionals that fight crime at every front.

Accounting and Finance
White collar crime is one of the fast growing sectors of crime in the world. And white collar criminals are some of the most notorious, crafty and skilled of all criminals. Ever heard the saying, "it takes a crook to catch a crook?" Well there's a lot of truth in that saying. In order to catch white collar criminals, it takes people who understand how they think and how they function. It also takes someone that understands financial systems, processes, and laws. Earning an advanced degree in accounting or financial analysis is the perfect degree for someone interested in pursuing a career as an analyst or special agent within the field of white collar crime. Most local, state and federal law enforcement agencies only hire specialists who have a master's degree in accounting, finance or financial analysis. Having professional experience in auditing is also a big plus.

Undergraduate or Graduate Degree?
So now that you have an idea of what degree you should pursue, should you obtain an undergraduate degree or graduate degree? In most cases, you'll want to earn a both. First, complete your undergraduate degree and then pursue a graduate degree.

There are two types of undergraduate degrees: associate and bachelor's. The associate degree is a two-year degree offered at most community colleges and vocational schools. Earning an associate degree will qualify candidates for entry-level support positions in various criminal justice fields, such as police work. It will also prepare students to pursue a bachelor's degree at a four-year college or university. The bachelor's degree is a four-year program offered by traditional colleges and universities. Earning a bachelor's degree in a relevant field of study will prepare students for entry-level career opportunities in criminal justice and law enforcement.

More and more law enforcement agencies - especially at the federal level - are seeking candidates who have a master's degree or Phd in their chosen field of expertise. This is especially true of positions that require specialized knowledge, skill and ability. Earning a two-year master's degree (after completing a bachelor's program) will prepare students to pursue specialize criminal justice positions in financial analysis, profiling, research, interrogation, investigation, technology and more. While not always necessary, a Phd will help set professionals apart as experts within their discipline.

Online Degree Programs
Online degree programs are growing in popularity among aspiring criminal justice students and professionals. These programs are advantageous for several reasons. First, they are typically much more convenient, flexible and accessible for working professionals, and non-traditional students, than traditional campus-based college programs. Secondly, they're often less expensive than traditional college campus classes. Lastly, online degree programs can be complete at a pace that works for the student and his or her current lifestyle. All in all, online degrees are a good option for those seeking to advance their education while pursuing a career in law enforcement or criminal justice.

When evaluating criminal justice programs you'll want to select a programs that is regionally accredited. Regional accreditation ensures the programs, and degrees offered, meet the highest industry standards of quality and that you're degree will be worth something after you graduate.

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