If you’re passionate about making a real difference in your community, you might consider pursuing a career in criminal justice. You could apply to many types of jobs when you earn a justice studies or criminal justice degree. When you think about criminal justice degree careers, you likely picture a uniformed police officer or perhaps an FBI agent.
While these are certainly common choices for individuals with criminal justice degrees, they aren’t the only ones to consider. This career guide will help you explore both conventional (e.g., law enforcement) and less-conventional options in the field.
Criminal Justice Careers in Local and State Law Enforcement
Local and state law enforcement officers fulfill a vital role in society. They help protect communities and enable crime victims to get justice. The work can be challenging and dangerous but these professionals can derive satisfaction from knowing that their work truly does make a difference.
The job of a police officer is among the top choices for graduates with criminal justice degrees. Police officers are charged with protecting both lives and property by enforcing the law. A police officer’s typical daily activities can include:
- Patrolling their designated area, watching for signs of criminal activity
- Observing drivers for traffic violations, making traffic stops and writing tickets
- Responding to calls for emergency assistance
- Carrying out search and arrest warrants
- Making arrests and escorting suspects to the holding facility
- Compiling detailed reports and keeping paperwork organized
- Testifying in court
Police officers typically start out as patrol officers. After demonstrating a strong commitment to professional ethics and hard work, patrol officers may apply for higher-level positions. For example, a patrol officer may eventually become a detective.
The requirements to become a police officer differ by jurisdiction. In some areas, a bachelor’s degree is required. Even if a bachelor’s degree isn’t required, aspiring police officers can benefit from earning one, as it can improve their employment prospects and help future officers do their jobs more competently.
Aspiring police officers must also meet other requirements, such as passing a background check and possessing a valid driver’s license. They must also complete a period of training at the local police academy. If academy graduates are hired, they are then assigned to a veteran police officer who will mentor them during an on-the-job training period.
If you’re interested in law enforcement but you decide that being a police officer isn’t quite the right choice for you, then you might consider pursuing a career as a correctional officer instead. Correctional officers are responsible for maintaining order and safety in jails and prisons. Like being a police officer, being a correctional officer can be a dangerous and stressful job.
The typical job responsibilities can include:
- Supervising the inmates and ensuring that rules are enforced
- Inspecting the correctional facility to ensure safety and security standards are being met
- Compiling reports on inmates’ conduct
- Escorting inmates from the correctional facility to the courtroom and vice versa
- Conducting searches for contraband items
- Processing inmates’ mail and visitors, searching for contraband items and potential security risks
The qualifications to become a correctional officer vary from one jurisdiction to the next. Even when a college degree is not a strict requirement, it’s helpful for aspiring officers. A justice studies or criminal justice degree will help future correctional officers develop the critical thinking skills necessary to do the job well.
While police officers primarily deal with suspects and correctional officers primarily deal with defendants or convicts, probation officers work on the rehabilitation side of the criminal justice field. These professionals are responsible for overseeing and directing the rehabilitation of convicted offenders who have been placed on probation or parole.
An offender can be placed on probation in lieu of jail time or they may be paroled from prison, in which case they’ll need to re-enter society, find secure housing, possibly complete vocational training and find gainful employment. Parole is intended to facilitate the process of re-entering society and reduce the risk that the person will commit another crime.
Probation officers may do any of the following:
- Conduct regular interviews with offenders at the office and at the offenders’ homes
- Interview the offenders’ relatives and friends to determine their progress
- Conduct drug testing
- Connect offenders to community resources, such as vocational training and substance abuse treatment programs
- Write reports and maintain case files
- Testify in court
Although requirements can vary, probation officers are generally expected to have a bachelor’s degree. Aspiring probation officers must also pass a background check, drug test and, possibly, a competency exam after a training program. Many new probation officers work as trainees for a time.
Federal Law Enforcement Careers With a Criminal Justice Degree
Along with local law enforcement options, federal agencies offer other criminal justice careers. Federal law enforcement officers are charged with enforcing federal laws, conducting investigations that go beyond state lines and protecting the security of the nation. These criminal justice degree careers have stricter requirements than local law enforcement careers but the rewards of being able to serve the country can be well worth the effort.
FBI Special Agent
The Federal Bureau of Investigation hires special agents with a variety of backgrounds. Although you can apply with a justice studies or criminal justice degree, the FBI also welcomes applicants with diverse skillsets in areas such as cybersecurity, international studies, accounting, psychology and linguistics. All aspiring special agents must meet the following eligibility requirements:
- Be a U.S. citizen
- Remain in compliance with the agency’s drug policy
- Be capable of getting a Top Secret Sensitive Compartmented Information (SCI) Clearance
- Be willing to be deployed throughout the country or even internationally long-term
- Be able to work irregular, long hours under physically demanding conditions
- Be willing to handle a firearm and use deadly force if necessary
There isn’t a typical day in the life of an FBI special agent. An agent may testify in federal court, conduct investigations and gather evidence, make arrests and maintain case files. A special agent does anything necessary to uphold the U.S. Constitution and protect the country from criminal activity.
The U.S. Marshals Service (USMS) was the country’s first federal law enforcement organization. It acts as the enforcement agency for the federal court system. U.S. Marshals are charged with the following duties:
- Protecting federal judges and other court officials
- Protecting federal witnesses and jurors
- Protecting any threatened persons who are involved with the federal court system, including federal prisoners
- Conducting federal fugitive investigations and apprehending fugitives in the U.S. and abroad
U.S. Marshals may arrest American fugitives living anywhere in the world. They may also investigate and arrest foreign fugitives who are living in the U.S. Another important duty is operating the federal Witness Security Program, also frequently referred to as the Witness Protection Program.
All aspiring U.S. Marshals must hold at least a bachelor’s degree and relevant field experience. They must also complete a rigorous, lengthy training program.
Criminal Justice Degree Careers Off the Beaten Path
If you’re interested in pursuing careers with a criminal justice degree but you aren’t interested in becoming a law enforcement official, there are plenty of other options to consider. Some unique criminal justice careers include becoming a private investigator, corporate investigator or victim advocate, for example.
If you have a problem that the police cannot address, you might turn to a private investigator. Private investigators or detectives work on all sorts of cases, including criminal and civil cases, as well as personal and financial matters. For example, a private investigator may be asked to help locate a missing person, compile evidence of infidelity in a divorce proceeding or investigate a possible stalker.
These professionals do not have the authority of police officers or federal agents, which means they must be thoroughly knowledgeable and conscientious about privacy laws and other applicable regulations. If they do not strictly abide by the letter of the law, an investigator’s evidence may be thrown out of court.
Every day can look a little different for a private investigator but, in general, these professionals may do any of the following:
- Interview people
- Conduct surveillance and take pictures
- Collect evidence
- Search for information in court records, and online or public databases
A corporate investigator is very similar to a private investigator. In fact, many private investigators specialize in corporate investigation. Some examples of corporate investigations include the following:
- Checking whether an employee who has filed for workers’ compensation is truly injured or faking or exaggerating their injuries
- Running background checks on potential employees or potential renters
- Investigating whether employees or executives are engaging in embezzlement, fraud, trade secret misappropriation or other forms of misconduct
Like private investigators, corporate investigators must be detail-oriented and adept at both conventional and unconventional forms of research. For instance, they may need to search public records and conduct surveillance operations.
Perhaps you’re interested in entering the criminal justice field but you would prefer to have more of a direct impact on the victims. You could decide to pursue a career as a victim advocate. As the job title implies, a victim advocate assists and supports victims of crimes, such as assault, sexual assault, attempted murder and domestic violence.
Crime victims’ needs can vary considerably. A domestic violence victim, for example, may need some help gaining their independence. A victim advocate can help them get a driver’s license, apply for gainful employment and find safe, secure housing.
Other crime victims need help obtaining emergency medical services, such as forensic rape exams, and need emotional support as they answer investigators’ questions. Victim advocates must ensure that their clients understand and can exercise their legal rights and have access to the support services they need to move forward.
Victim advocates may be employed by a variety of agencies, such as police departments, social services offices and prosecutors’ offices. A justice studies or criminal justice degree, along with extensive volunteer or internship work in the field, can prepare you to pursue this role. To improve your employment prospects further, it’s helpful to earn a voluntary certification that meets the requirements of the National Advocate Credentialing Program.
Earning Your Justice Studies or Criminal Justice Degree
Earning a bachelor’s degree will enable you to acquire the necessary competencies to pursue a professional career in the criminal justice field, no matter which specific career you’d like to pursue. Depending on the university you select, you may have the option of earning a justice studies or a criminal justice degree. Which should you choose?
These degrees are very similar. However, a justice studies degree explores topics in criminal justice with a focus on social contexts. In other words, you will gain a deeper understanding of how societal issues affect various topics in the criminal justice field.
In contrast, a criminal justice degree focuses primarily on how the criminal justice system is applied. For example, you’ll explore law enforcement and criminal penalties.
It’s up to you to decide which degree would best fit your needs. However, because justice studies and criminal justice are similar fields that overlap in many areas, either of these degrees would prepare you to pursue a range of criminal justice careers.
If you would like to pursue any of these criminal justice degree careers, you’re invited to apply to the College of Humanities and Social Sciences at Grand Canyon University. The Bachelor of Science in Justice Studies degree program builds strong competencies in criminal justice through the lens of social contexts, enabling our students to become well-rounded graduates. Click on Request Info at the top of your screen to learn more about joining the Christian learning community at GCU.
1U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Occupational Outlook Handbook, Police and Detectives in January 2022.
2U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Occupational Outlook Handbook, Private Investigators in January 2022.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Grand Canyon University. Any sources cited were accurate as of the publish date.