A Career in Criminal Justice
How Much Education is Required?

So you want to launch a career in criminal justice but aren't sure where to start. Many people think they need to a college degree in order to have a successful career in criminal justice. While a college degree helps, it isn't necessary for all criminal justice career paths. A college degree is expensive, time consuming and doesn't always payoff in the way people think it will. This is particularly true when it comes to criminal justice and criminology careers.

To make sure you get the best return on your education investment, it's important to know how much (if any) college is required for your career path - and which degree you should pursue.

How Much Education is Too Much?
The field of criminal justice is quite diverse and education requirements can vary dramatically from one career to the next. For example, if you want to become a police officer the most you'll be required to obtain is an associate degree, and in many states all you need to get started is a high school diploma. Once you become a police officer you can receive on-the-job training and slowing climb the career ladder. Conversely, if a career in forensic science is your goal, you're going to need to earn both an undergraduate degree and doctorate degree. Many criminal justice professionals are surprised to find that earning potential and level of education are not always commensurate. A corrections officer who starts his career after completing his high school diploma may eventually make just as much as a corrections officer who took the time to earn his or her college degree.

Criminal Justice Careers fo High School Graduates
Surprisingly, there are still several careers paths in criminal justice that you can pursue with just a high school diploma or GED. A few of these include police dispatcher, loss prevention specialist and corrections officer. While more and more police academies are requiring applicants to have completed two years of college, many still do not require college education as a prerequisite.

Salary and earnings for criminal justice professionals just getting started with a high school diploma typically range from about $25,000 to $35,000 a year. However, within 4 to 5 years they can expect to increase what they're earning as they get promoted.

Even though a college degree isn't required for these careers, earning a college degree may lead to higher earning potential and greater career advancement opportunity. For example, a police officer who takes the time to earn a college degree may find it easier to make a career transition in homeland security or another field of law enforcement down the road.

Criminal Justice Jobs Requiring an Associate Degree
There is a growing trend for law enforcement agencies to give preference to candidates who have completed at least two years of college. In many states, a 2-year associate's degree is a prerequisite to joining the police academy in preparation for a job as a uniformed police officer. Other criminal justice careers that require an associate degree (or a commesurate number of college credits) include crime scene investigator and juvenille justice officer. Starting salaries for criminal justice professionals with an associate degree range from $30,000 to $40,000 a year.

Criminal Justice Jobs Requiring a Bachelor's Degree
A large number of local, state and federal law enforcement agencies actively recruit professionals who have earned a four year college degree (bachelor's degree). Many larger police departments now require their officers to have completed a four year bachelor's degree program. And most federal law enforcement agencies require candidates to have a bachelor's degree (if not master's). Police officer, special agent, probation officer and community control careers all require a bachelor's degree in most cases. Criminal justice professionals with a bachelor's degree can expect to earn between $40,000 and $70,000 a year just starting out - depending on the agency, location and experience.

Earning a bachelor's degree is also a good idea if you have any aspiration of furthering your education down the road. Many graduate level programs in criminal justice require that applicants have a bachelor's degree in a relevant field of study.

Criminal Justice Jobs Requiring a Master's Degree
Earning a master's degree in criminal justice will open the door to several exciting careers and positions in criminal justice and law enforcement. If you plan on applying for anagerial or supervisorly positions, earning a master's degree in criminal justice, or closely related discipline, is highly recommended. Criminal justice professors, researchers and advisors are also required to have at minimum a master's degree. If you want to become a criminologist or criminal profiler you'll also want to earn a master's degree, if not Phd.

If you want to get a job with a federal law enforcement agency (ie. FBI, CIA, DEA, Department of Homeland Security, etc.) having a master's degree in a specialized and position relevant field of study is extremely helpful. Remember, these days law enforcement agencies are looking for criminal justice professional with diverse and varied backgrounds and educations. Earning a master's degree in forensics, computer science, psychology, engineering, foreign language, or accounting will land you top jobs with many criminal justice and law enforcement agencies.

Criminal Justice Jobs that Require a Doctorate Degree
While a master's degree is sufficient for many top criminal justice jobs, for some careers a doctorate degree is preferrable. If you decided to pursue a doctorate, you'll want to make sure it's specifically relevant to your chosen career path. For example, if you want to become a forensic psychologist then you'll need to earn a Phd in psychology. If you're set on becoming a forensic pathologist, anthroplogist, ondotologist, etc. you'll want to earn a Phd that is directly relevant the discipline.

A Word of Advice
Many criminal justice jobs offer on-the-job training, continuing education and advanced degree programs for their employees at low or no cost. If you're able to get started in a criminal justice career now, and then complete your education while you're advancing your career, it will cost less and you'll be farther along in your career by the time you earn your degree.

Online and distance learning programs now make it possible to earn a degree or certificate in criminal justice, psychology, computer science, forensics, and many other disciplines, entirely online. Earning a degree online provides ultimate convenience, flexiblity, and best of all, you can do it while you're pursuing your career.

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