Do You Really Need a Degree for a Career in Law Enforcement?

Obtaining a degree is expensive, time consuming, and for many, a daunting endeavor. So if you want to have a successful career in law enforcement or criminal justice, do you really need to earn a degree? In short, yes. While there are still a few law enforcement jobs that don't require a college degree, the large majority do. Whether you're interested in a career in law, corrections, law enforcement, criminology, or some other field of criminal justice, a degree from an accredited higher education institution is a common prerequisite for most entry-level positions.

However, before you can get where you're going, you have to know where your going. Earning just any old degree won't do. In order to determine which degree will best help you launch a successful career in law enforcement, you have to know which field you want to work in. Earning a bachelor's degree in criminal justice will qualify you for several law enforcement jobs, but so will a degree in chemistry. As will a degree in cybersecuity, information technology, forensic science, financial analysis, and psychology. There isn't one best degree for a career in law enforcement. It all depends on what you want to do.

Below we'll review in several of the most useful degree programs and college majors that will prepare you for career opportunities within the fields of law enforcement and criminal justice.

Law Enforcement Degree
Earning a college degree in law enforcement is adequate preparation for various entry-level positions in police work, correction, conservation and legal support. If you're not sure exactly what field of law enforcement you want to work in, then earning a degree in law enforcement may be a good choice. You may also want to consider earning a degree in criminal justice with an emphasis in law enforcement.

Criminal Justice Degree
Earning a degree in criminal justice is the most traditional and popular path to launching a successful career in law enforcement or criminal justice. Criminal justice degrees equip students with skills and knowledge that can be applied, or adapted, to just about any entry-level position. Most criminal justice programs also allow students to select a concentration during their junior or senior year. This provides students the ability to develop specialized knowledge and skills applicable to a specific career path once they've completed their general education and core curriculum.

Rehabilitation Degree
Rehabilitation is a growing emphasis of the U.S. corrections and penal system. While apprehending, convicting, and putting criminals behind bars is important, some within the criminal justice system would argue that rehabilitation is just as important, if not more important. Rehabilitation is now a major focus of the criminal justice system. Earning a degree in rehabilitation will prepare you for various criminal justice careers, including mental health counselor, correctional officer, rehabilitation specialist and substance abuse counselor, among others. Rehabilitation specialists attempt to help criminals address the crimes they've committed and successfully reintegrate into society. They also work with troubled people to help prevent crimes from occuring.

Criminology Degree
If you were to ask most people what the difference is between criminal justice and criminology they probably couldn't tell you. Not surprisingly, most criminal justice students often confuse the two terms too. Criminal justice and criminology are similar, but different. The field of criminology attempts to understand and analyze the causes, costs and impact of crime, where criminal justice revolves around the societal systems put in place to deal with crime. Colleges that offer degree programs in criminal justice often offer stand alone programs in criminology. However, many colleges offer criminology as a major concentration within a criminal justice degree program. Earning a degree in criminology will prepare students for a career as a criminologist, criminalist, penologist, or even a forensic psychologist. (Although, to become a forensic psychologist also requires a graduate degree in psychology following the completion of an undergraduate degree in criminology.)

Corrections Degree
Corrections is a growing field of law enforcement that includes corrections officers, parole officers, probation officers and prison wardens. To get started in this field of law enforcement typically requires an associate or bachelor degree in corrections, or in criminal justice with a focus on corrections. Other corrections jobs, including juvenile probation counselor or substance abuse counselor, usually require a more specialized education in counseling or psychology.

Paralegal Degree
When most people think about becoming a paralegal, they envision themselves assisting attorneys by researching cases, researching the law, and preparing documents for court. While it is true that paralegals assist attorneys with civil and criminal proceedings, paralegals can also find various career opportunities with local, state and federal law enforcement agencies including the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), Department of Justice (DoJ), as well as the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). The minimum requirement for becoming a paralegal is an associate's degree in paralegal studies or legal assisting, although most employers prefer hiring candidates with a bachelor's degree.

Law Degree
If you're interested in a long, exciting and fulfilling career in law enforcement and criminal justice, then you can't go wrong by earning a law degree. Law is one of the most versatiles degrees you can obtain. Not only will you be able to find employment opportunities with just about every law enforcement agency in the United States, you'll also have the opportunity to work for the courts prosecuting criminals, or later in life in the private sector as a criminal defense attorney. While there are schools that offer bachelor degrees in criminal justice with concentrations in law, most employers are seeking candidates with a graduate level law degree from a law school accredited by the American Bar Association.

Degree in Research Methods
The ability to find, process and analyze information is a vital part of today's domestic and international law enforcement. Law enforcement agencies, including the FBI, CIA, NSA and DHS, are seeking skilled statisticians and researchers that understand research methods and know how to work with numbers. Earning a degree in research methods, statistics, or a related discipline, will prepare students for a number of very specialized positions with some of our nation's top law enforcement agencies.

Psychology Degree
Criminal justice is all about understanding, analyzing and predicting human behavior. That is why a degree in psychology is an excellent choice for those seeking specialized positions within the fields of criminal justice and law enforcement. Professionals with an advanced degree in psychology are uniquely suited for many law enforcement positions, including criminal profiler, substance abuse counselor, criminologist, and forensic psychologist. There are various entry-level law enforcement positions that can be filled by candidates with a bachelor's degree in psychology, but most career positions, and high profile positions, will require a Phd in psychology.

Information Technology Degree
There is a tremendous demand in just about every field of law enforcement, at the local, state and federal level, for professionals with advanced IT skills. Information technology professionals bring to the table a unique set of skills and qualifications for identifying, apprehending and prosecuting the criminal element at home and abroad. And in a day and age where everything, including information, is controlled by technology, information technology professionals are vital to the national security of the United States - at home and abroad. Earning a degree in computer science, networking, cybersecurity, systems analysis or programming will prepare you for a variety of career paths in law enforcement and criminal justice, and set you apart from the competition.

Accounting Degree
It is true that a degree in accounting will prepare you to become a bean counter. However, it's just as true that a degree in accounting will prepare you for a long and exciting career in criminal justice and law enforcement. One of the fastest growing areas of crime in the United States, as well as the rest of the world, is white collar crime. White collar criminals are crafty, skilled, good with numbers, difficult to catch, and even harder to convict. Often, white collar criminals also have degrees in accounting, finance or business. In order to catch and convict these criminals, it takes specialists with an indepth knowledge and understanding of financial systems, accounting processes, laws and regulations. Earning a degree in accounting or financial analysis is an ideal degree for anyone interested in becoming a special agent or analyst in a white collar crime unit within a state or federal law enforcement agency (such as the FBI or CIA).

Which Degree Should I Earn?
Not all degrees are equal. While earning an associate degree in criminal justice will enable you to apply for police academy, it won't get you a job with the FBI. Earning a bachelor's degree in law is great preparation for career as a paralegal, but it requires a master's degree in law to work as a federal prosecutor. And if you want to become a criminal profiler, tighten up your belt because you've got a six year Phd program in psychology in front of you.

At the undergraduate level, there are two types of degrees you can earn; an associate degree or bachelor's degree. Associate degrees are offered at community colleges and vocational schools and typically require two years for full time study. A bachelor's degree is a four year degree offered at traditional colleges and universities. Earning an associate degree will qualify students for police academy and prepare them for a limited number of entry-level support positions with law enforcement agencies. Many aspiring criminal justice professionals that earn an associate degree go on to earn a bachelor's degree. A bachelor's degree will qualify graduates for entry-level career positions in various fields of law enforcement and criminal justice.

Federal law enforcement agencies in particular, prefer hiring professionals with a master's degree or Phd. The FBI, CIA, DEA, DoJ, NSA and DHS, all seek candidates who have a master's degree, doctorate degree, or specialized skill set. Pursuing a two year master's degree or Phd, following the completion of a bachelor's program, will qualify you for job opportunities, positions and career advancement not available with an undergraduate degree. Positions such as criminal profiler, analyst, special agent, researcher, forensic technician and director typically require candidates to have a graduate degree in addition to a bachelor's degree.

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Earning Your Degree Online
The advent of the internet and advancements in communication technology have made it possible for aspiring criminal justice and law enforcement professionals to earn a college degree remotely via online distance learning. Online degree programs are designed for working professionals and non-traditional students who, for whatever reason, are unable to attend a traditional full-time, campus-based degree program. Online degrees are flexible, convenient and can be completed according to the students schedule.

You can explore a selection of accredited online and campus-based criminal justice degree programs at When evaluating degree programs, you'll want to make sure whichever program you select is regionally accredited.

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