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Criminal Justice Majors: What You Need to Know

August 10, 2021 | Staff Writers

Criminal Justice Major
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Choosing a career path is not an easy thing to do. It can often be a daunting, overwhelming task. Even as we pursue our major, chasing the exact path we want to take can be something we put off, worrying about whether we are making the right choice. While we may have a decent idea of what we want to pursue, we sometimes avoid narrowing things down, concerned that we might get stuck with nothing more than a routine, mundane job instead of the career we are looking for. A job can offer all the perks we might be looking for coming out of school, like good pay and health and retirement benefits, but can fall short on providing exactly what we wanted. A career offers all those benefits but also leaves us doing something we truly love to do. A job is something you work hard at for the short term. A career is something you are passionate about, and it is often less stressful and more fulfilling.

One of the most popular and in-demand career paths today is one in the criminal justice system. Careers are plentiful, and options are seemingly limitless. Careers for a criminal justice major can include anything from police officers, corrections officers, criminal investigators, and crime scene investigators, just to name a few. People are fascinated with criminal justice. That’s why true crime documentaries are so popular and that fascination can lead to a rewarding career that can provide the passion and enjoyment that many seek these days.

What Can You Do With a Criminal Justice Degree?

The path chosen with a criminal justice program can be seemingly endless as the choices are numerous and often overwhelming. Before discussing what can be done with that criminal justice degree we must differentiate it from a couple of other, similar degrees.

  1. Criminal Justice Degree vs. Legal Studies Degree

There are many similarities and overlaps between criminal justice and legal studies. These are subtle differences that could determine a person’s career path. Simply put, criminal justice will focus on criminal behavior, the reasons behind the criminal behavior, and the best ways to address it, while legal studies will focus more on the law aspect, including litigation and courtroom proceedings. A legal studies degree expands critical and analytical thinking and helps you prepare for higher-level legal positions like a lawyer or a judge. A criminal justice degree is built towards those who want to be part of the front lines and get up close and personal, with the criminal world. A criminal justice major will be open for careers in anything from social worker to detective to crime scene investigator.

  1. Criminal Justice vs. Criminology

The ‘ology’ portion of the word criminology refers to the ‘study of’. Criminology is the study of crime. A criminologist will study, analyze, research, and advise on the aspects of criminal behavior. Criminology is the study of how, where, and why crimes occur and in turn, suggests ways to not only respond to crime but prevent it. Criminal justice is then the study of the response to that crime. The two associate degrees can overlap in many ways, the key difference is that criminology seeks to answer the ‘why’ while criminal justice deals with the ‘what’. While it is true that the two degrees can lead to similar career paths, criminology is more closely related to the academic field as opposed to the law enforcement field that a criminal justice degree would be associated with.

  1. IT Degree vs. Computer Science Degree

You may have read that heading and immediately wondered, ‘what does this have anything to do with criminal justice?’. A lot of people are looking to expand on degrees that they already might have. An IT degree focuses more on improving computer systems and networks. A computer science degree on the other hand is a study of everything that relates to computers. So, what does that mean for Criminal Justice? While you can use either with a criminal justice degree, computer science can open more opportunities when used with a criminal justice degree. If someone were to combine their computer science degree with a degree in criminal justice, it opens an entirely new world of criminal justice careers. Careers like data analysts, system integrators, cyber-forensics, and even computer forensic investigators can have someone working anywhere from the local police department to homeland security.

Whether you see yourself putting on a uniform and walking a beat to protect and strengthen your community or sitting at a desk analyzing data to use as evidence in a criminal case, the options for someone with a criminal justice degree are seemingly endless. And the degree doesn’t have to stop there but often can be a stepping stone for other degrees like legal studies and criminology, which will then open up a whole new world of career pursuits. 

Top 10 Jobs for Criminal Justice Majors

Before we examine the top jobs for someone with a criminal justice degree, we should at least address the education aspect. Everyone must start somewhere, but it is not easy to determine which school might be best to pursue. When it comes to choosing the right school, the options can be overwhelming. Most schools across the country offer studies in criminal justice, and it is next to impossible to narrow down which one is the best as they all offer their benefits. The right school for you will boil down to what you are looking for in a school, and personal factors, like location or the cost, will differ from person to person. Take the time to consider what is important before choosing the university that you think will have the best criminal justice program for you.

Before pursuing any career, people want to know what they will get out of it. Education is expensive, and nobody wants to spend that kind of money on a wasted degree. One of the easiest ways to determine what degree is best for you is to know what careers are open to someone with that degree. If the career or careers seem right for you, then you know that schooling is not a vain pursuit. Here is a list of the top ten careers you could expect to get from a criminal justice degree.

  1. Law Enforcement

Law enforcement is perfect for those who want to have their feet on the ground and want to be up close and personal with the criminal world. A career in law enforcement often stands out to those who are looking to make a large, immediate impact on the people and places in their community. This can be anything from patrol officers like a local police officer or a state trooper to a conservation officer, implementing programs and enforcing laws associated with fish and wildlife. While many associate law enforcement careers with local or state police departments, a career in law enforcement can also mean working at a federal level with agencies like the FBI or Homeland Security.

  1. Criminal Investigator

Criminal investigators work closely with other areas of law enforcement to collect evidence, interview suspects and witnesses, and make arrests all about specific criminal investigations. While a patrol officer is often the first on the scene of a crime, a criminal investigator does the follow-up work needed to get a conviction. Criminal investigators will often spend weeks and sometimes months on a single case to ensure the correct suspect is apprehended and provide the proper evidence to prove so.

  1. Corrections Officer

Corrections officers work at the local, state, and federal levels to oversee individuals who have been arrested and those who are currently serving jail time. A corrections officer must do anything from keeping order in prisons by enforcing rules to supervising inmate activities and ensuring that facilities are up to proper safety and security standards. Working as a corrections officer is often a dangerous career and has one of the highest rates of injury and illness, often as a result of confrontations with unruly inmates. While the demand for corrections officers is high, it is not a career for everyone.

  1. Homicide Detective

As a criminal investigator, a homicide detective works closely with law enforcement professionals to collect evidence, conduct interviews, and make arrests pertaining specifically to deaths caused by criminal activities: homicides. A homicide detective can often spend months investigating a single case and are a crucial part of any law enforcement agency in local, state, and federal settings.

  1. Forensic Psychologist

A forensic psychologist is similar to other psychologists in that they examine individuals to determine their thought processes and motivations for doing what they do. They work within the criminal justice system and civil courts and with specific cases to help investigators determine the suspect’s mental state and even counsel victims of the crime. In many cases, a forensic psychologist’s professional testimony is the final piece of the puzzle when obtaining a conviction. Forensic psychologists specialize in the aftermath of a crime. When we think of a forensic psychologist when often picture them working intently on criminal minds, but they can also be the key factors in civil issues such as civil lawsuits, custody battles, and insurance claims.

  1. Criminal Psychologist

Many see forensic psychologists and criminal psychologists as the same. While the two fields have many similarities, some things differentiate the two. Both work closely with other law professionals to investigate and solve crimes. A forensic psychologist works on the aftermath of a crime, but a criminal psychologist creates a suspect profile or helps determine a motive. You can often find criminal psychologists working within a police department or other law enforcement agencies to provide said departments with guidance and counseling, but they can also work as private firms acting as consultants to law enforcement agencies.

  1. Forensic Accountant

A forensic accountant’s job may be similar to other types of accountants but are in a law environment. A forensic accountant will use their financial data skills to detect criminal activity. Forensic accountants also use their skills to investigate the financial properties of individuals or businesses. Then, they provide analysis for evidence in legal cases, like fraud or embezzlement. Forensic Accountants not only supply visual aids and evidence for trials but are also often asked to testify. This testimony can be the key to conviction. 

  1. Crime Lab Analyst

A crime lab analyst takes the physical evidence provided by investigators and processes it to identify what is and isn’t important to an investigation. Crime lab analysts are given pieces that they then use to put together the crime scene puzzle. Many crime lab analysts are broad and extensive in the work they do, some specialize in a specific area of analysis, such as handwriting, blood spatter analysis, tire impressions, fingerprinting, or ballistics. Crime lab analysts can work in both the public sector like local, state, or federal agencies as well as the private sector acting as consultants to those agencies.

  1. Parole Officer

A parole officer is an officer who supervises offenders with a criminal record that have been released from prison and are remanded to parole. A parole officer ensures that the offender abides by the terms of release, helps them re-enter society, and helps prevent any re-offending. While parole officers usually have offices in which offenders are expected to check-in, they will also pay visits to offenders’ homes and workplaces to ensure that they comply with their terms of release. Parole officers also work closely with government officials and community organizations to help offenders gain access to things like drug and alcohol rehab, job services, and education.

  1. Victim Advocate

Unfortunately, the role of the victim advocate often goes overlooked as it doesn’t seem as glamorous as other careers that a criminal justice degree can lead. The other careers on this list deal directly with the crime itself, but a victim advocate deals with the aftermath of that crime, specifically the victim or the victim’s families. Being the victim of a crime is a traumatizing ordeal for anyone, and it is the victim advocate’s job to use emotional, practical, and legal avenues to support the victim’s needs as they process the experience and attempt to carry on with a normal life. A victim advocate uses counseling, social work, and practical support to help victims and witnesses cope with stress and navigate the criminal justice system.

As I noted earlier in this article, criminal justice is a fascinating subject. Most people are intrigued by it to some degree. It’s why true crime stories and documentaries and podcasts are so popular these days. For much of the population that has a fascination with criminal justice, that is usually where it begins and ends. For others, though, it evolves from a fascination to a passion and even an obsession. These are the people who take it to the next level and decide to pursue a career in the field. So even if it is a small percentage of the people fascinated with criminal justice that actually take it to that level and pursue their career accordingly, it stands to reason that a criminal justice major is becoming more and more popular.

Add to that the unrest in the country regarding policing, and it is not at all wrong to think that more and more people will want to be the ones to make a difference, and a degree in criminal justice could be a great avenue in doing just that.

While we discussed the option of using a criminal justice degree to obtain a position in regular law enforcement, often overlooked are criminal justice jobs in the military. The military can offer many careers in criminal justice. Military Police Officer jobs are an obvious one, but criminal justice positions in the military can also be Department of Defense Police Officers, NCIS Special Agents, Air Force Special Investigations Agents, and Defense Criminal Investigations Special Agents. All are special military divisions where many are not aware they can use their criminal justice degree.

  • Military Police

Military Police provide a similar role to the public policing agencies. It is their job to investigate crimes and make arrests, specifically maintaining law and order on the military base. What many people don’t realize, however, is that military police must also be ready for battle. Then can be deployed to any conflict where their duties would include providing base camp security, assisting with protection details, and training host-nation police forces.

  • Department of Defense Police Officers

DOD Police Officers perform the duties of a military police officer without the aspect of being deployed. A DOD officer performs patrol functions such as investigating crimes and enforcing traffic laws on base. Because a DOD officer does not get deployed to conflicts, they help to free up military police personnel to train for deployment.

  • NCIS Special Agents

NCIS Special Agents investigate major crimes committed by or against civilian or military members of both the U.S. Navy and the U.S. Marine Corps. An NCIS agent will investigate anything from robbery to murder. These agents are also used to conduct anti-terrorism investigations and intelligence operations.

  • Air Force Special Investigations Agents

Air Force Special Investigation Agents are employed to conduct unbiased, independent investigations of Air Force personnel. Air Force personnel suspected to be involved in criminal activity are investigated by Air Force Special Investigations Agents.

  • Defense Criminal Investigations Special Agents

A Defense Criminal Investigations Special Agent looks into financial crimes, fraud, and cybersecurity threats within the DOD. These agents both protect the DOD’s interests and ensure the safety of their military personnel. 

There is a key difference between a correctional officer and a probation officer. While a correctional officer works directly with convicted criminals in a prison setting, a probation officer works with those convicted but not sentenced to serve time in a correctional facility and are serving probation. A probation officers’ duties are more akin to a parole officer in that a probation officer must supervise convicted criminals not incarcerated. The difference between a parole officer and a probation officer is that parolees are criminals that have served time in prison while someone on probation has not served prison time. There might be many factors that would persuade someone to choose a correctional officer, probation officer, or parole officer as a career, but more often than not, a big factor in this persuasion is the pay grade.

Average Salaries in the U.S.

When it comes to psychology, clinical psychology is the more popular path for people to take than forensic psychology. Again, salaries are a big factor when choosing what path you will follow as specializing can often mean spending more money on education. Currently, the average salary for a clinical psychologist is around $78,200 per year.  A forensic psychologist can expect to make an average of $63,423. There is a significant difference no doubt, but this is where you would have to weigh the difference between a job and a career. If being a psychologist is the career path you want to take, and it doesn’t matter if you specialize in anything, then it could be an easy choice based on salary. If you love psychology but are more passionate about the criminal justice aspect, then consider whether it is better to take a pay cut to do something you enjoy and will continue to enjoy down the road. After all, that is what having a career is about.

Exploring Other Criminal Justice Careers

From working in law enforcement at a local level to working in forensics for a federal agency, there are options for criminal justice jobs. It’s one of the reasons why majoring in criminal justice is becoming increasingly popular. While we’ve covered many of the most popular and well-known career paths when it comes to having a criminal justice degree, there is one that is widely overlooked: Emergency Management. Emergency management is not just a career on its own, but rather many branches of a specific sector. Here are a couple of the top career paths when it comes to Emergency Management.

  • Homeland Security Officer

Homeland Security is not something most people would associate with Emergency management, but the fact is that they play a huge role. It is the job of a homeland security officer to analyze data and predict and intercept threats before they can cause damage or an emergency. While their primary role is to prevent an emergency from happening, a homeland security officer can also be deployed to a disaster or emergency to support ongoing relief efforts.

  • Response and Recovery Manager

A major part of the private and public sector, a response and recovery manager can work in hospitals and healthcare facilities or with local government to handle internal disasters and emergencies. Typically, the response and recovery manager will help develop emergency response plans, ensure the proper implementation of these plans, and train others accordingly.

Criminal Investigators play a huge role in criminal justice by working closely with local, state, and federal law enforcement agencies solving ongoing criminal cases. These cases can and do go on for weeks, if not months, and sometimes years, so it is a job that requires an abundance of dedication but pays off with the satisfaction of knowing that you have done your part in putting criminals behind bars and off the street. Television and movies do a great job of glamorizing criminal investigators, and because of this, it is often a popular career path when it comes to criminal justice majors. While the glamorization draws people in, it is important to remember that it takes a special person to be a criminal investigator. Not everyone is cut out for a career opportunity like this as it takes incredible communication skills, empathy, and leadership skills, all of which need to combine with patience and dedication. Becoming a criminal investigator is a great choice when choosing a career path, but it is not for everyone.

A big choice for criminal justice graduates to make when coming out of school is whether to work in the public sector or the private sector. While the decision is usually made based on the availability of jobs in either sector, it is more common for graduates to end up in the public sector for reasons like job availability, benefits, and pay. All of those aside, the best way to prepare and seek out a career in public service is by knowing exactly what you want to do with your criminal justice degree and try to be as specific as possible. A criminal justice degree can take you just about anywhere you want it to, but some positions are specific to the public sector. Maybe you want to work in homeland security, or with the FBI, or just as a local police officer, all of which are public sector jobs. Knowing what path you want your career to take you down is important when coming out of school as it is the key to finding a job in the public sector.

How to Get a Job in Criminal Justice

No matter what path you want to take towards your criminal justice profession, some jobs are considered entry-level. Graduates should be aware that higher, more specific career paths often start at an entry-level position. Something in law enforcement like a police officer, or a probation officer, or even a social worker is going to be the first step in your path to a career in criminal justice. These entry-level positions and positions like them give you the work experience that you might need to obtain positions higher up in both the public and private sectors. While the work experience required for some of these positions will vary greatly, know that entry-level spots are the first stepping stone to gaining that experience. Sure, sometimes you can obtain positions right out of school, but those who expect big things right out of school are often left disappointed and discouraged, which can lead to a wasted degree. Here is a quick list of the best entry-level positions to use that criminal justice degree to your advantage.

  • Police Officer
  • Private Detective
  • Customs and Immigration Officer
  • Corrections Officer
  • Parole Officer
  • Social Worker
  • Border Patrol Agent
  • Conservation Officer

With the extraordinary times we face these days, many students are opting to do more of their schooling online, and in some cases have no choice but to do so. The benefits of learning online can be great. Online learning provides students with benefits like learning outside of their geographical area, increased flexibility and accessibility, and opportunities to connect with students and faculty around the world. But this can be concerning to students as well. It is still a common misconception that an online degree is not considered as valuable as a degree obtained in class. The truth is, any level of a criminal justice degree, be it an associate degree, a bachelor’s degree or a master’s degree can be obtained online and are considered no different than a degree earned in class. So, what does this mean for finding a job when school is done? It means that in the eyes of your potential employer, your online criminal justice degree is no different and the career paths are the same as they would be with an in-class degree. Don’t let the misconception that an online degree is a lesser degree stop you from pursuing the career you have always wanted.

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