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Top Criminal Justice Careers: Detective, Police Officer, Criminal Investigator

If you’re searching for a career that’s constantly evolving while being based on foundational truths, then a job in the criminal justice industry may be your ideal fit. Much like any other industry, the criminal justice system features hundreds of different job and career options. While some of these career options require advanced-level degrees, others are attainable with an undergraduate degree in criminal justice. Even though the “top” criminal justice career for you may be different than any other person, the following list is considered the top criminal justice career options due to their expected job growth and salary. If you’re interested in entering the world of criminal justice, but aren’t quite sure what career is best for you, consider the following as your starting point.


The exact level of education required to become a detective can vary; however, an associate or bachelor’s degree in criminal justice is typically required. Based upon the type of detective work you wish to enter, you may be required to successfully complete a police training academy program before being considered for this position. While this job can be quite challenging, its challenges are rewarded with a handsome salary. As of May 2012, the average detective salary is just under $57,000 per year.

Police Officer

Do you have a desire to make a true difference in your community? If so, then you should consider a career as a police officer. If you’re looking for an entry level position within the police force, then an associate degree in criminal justice may be required. Check with Your-Police-Career and your local police department for specific requirements set forth by your state. Regardless of where you live, the average salary for a police officer is just over $70,000 per year; however, the majority of police officers earn just under $60,00 per year.

Criminal Investigator

Criminal investigators work alongside police and detectives to inspect and investigate suspected violation of local, State or Federal laws. Their work is vital in solving or preventing crimes. While the requirements to enter this career can vary by state, most require completion of a training academy along with an associate or bachelor’s degree. Of course, a master’s degree in criminal investigation will establish you as an expert within this field, which yields higher pay and higher responsibilities. The average compensation for criminal investigators is just over $86,000 per year.

Other Career Options

There are literally hundreds of potential jobs available to someone who holds a criminal justice degree. The following careers are typically held by those with this degree; however, some of the positions will require graduate-level degrees.

  • Substance Abuse Counselor – Average salary of $59,000 per year
  • FBI Agent – Average salary of just under $80,000 per year
  • Secret Service Agent – Average salary of just under $70,000 per year
  • Insurance Investigator – Average salary of $56,000 per year
  • Fraud Investigator – Average salary of $56,000 per year
  • Legal Secretary – Average salary of $54,000 per year

Criminal Justice Degree Program – In the Classroom

Criminal justice degree programs are some of the most dynamic and complex. Throughout its course offerings, students will delve deep into social behaviors and criminal justice system processes. While the career opportunities for those with a criminal justice degree are wide – ranging from law enforcement to substance abuse counseling – the classroom studies for this degree are universally the same. Before delving into this complex world and before you find criminal justice schools, it’s essential to understand what’s expected of you and what courses you will likely encounter. Of course, the best course of action is to review the required coursework for the institution you plan on attending. It’s with this information you’ll be able to make an educated decision regarding whether or not this is truly the degree path for you.

Coursework Within a Criminal Justice Degree Program

The exact level and type of courses you’re expected to undergo will vary based upon the online program or training institution you are enrolled in. Along with the actual college, coursework is also decided based upon your desired level of education. For example, those seeking an associate’s degree will have different courses than those seeking a bachelor’s degree. Regardless, the following courses and course topics must be covered to provide students a well-rounded education.

  • Criminology – This course offering discusses the various elements involved with crimes. Within a criminology course, students learn theories regarding: crimes, criminal behavior, victims, elements of a crime and how society affects the level of crime.
  • Juvenile Law – Even those who aren’t seeking to work in the juvenile justice system will be required to undergo juvenile law training. This coursework delves into theories regarding the social upbringings that foster criminal behavior in juveniles, rehabilitation techniques for juvenile offenders and correctional facilities for underage offenders.
  • Criminal Procedures – Regardless of the area of law you wish to work in, holding a strong understanding of criminal procedures is a fundamental element of any criminal justice degree program. Throughout the course offerings, students will learn each step involved within the criminal procedures, which include: arrest, booking, trials and post-trial steps.
  • Constitutional Law – The constitution makes its self known in every aspect of the criminal justice system. Therefore, in order to succeed within this industry, one must be well-versed in constitutional law and how its elements factor the behavior and outcomes of criminal offenders.

Other courses that you’ll likely encounter include:

  • Correctional Facility requirements and treatments
  • Comparative criminal justice theories
  • Justice System Administration
  • Criminal Psychology

However, as stated above, your  classroom experience will be determined by the degree level you wish to obtain. For example, the average bachelor’s degree program requires the aforementioned courses; however, students must select a concentration of study. Based upon this concentration, the following courses will vary. Standard areas of concentration include: forensic psychology, justice system management, security management, homeland security, corrections, juvenile justice, criminal investigator or substance abuse counseling.

Criminal Justice Degree Specializations

Does the thought of working within the criminal justice system seem appealing to you? Do you have a strong desire to work with your local and nationwide community to provide a safe and equal justice system? If so, then a career within the criminal justice system may be your ideal choice. In the most fundamental sense, a criminal justice degree involves the study of regulations, laws and correctional techniques. However, this degree program offers opportunities far more than being a lawyer or working in a correctional institution.

However, in order to work within a specific branch of the criminal justice system, students must pursue degree specializations. While each criminal justice degree specialization requires unique coursework, and some additional training, if you’re seeking a solid career post-graduation, then undergoing a specific educational pathway is highly recommended.

Criminal Justice Degree Specializations Broken Down

The following degree concentrations are just a sampling of what students may specialize within their criminal justice degree program. If any of these interest you, perform further research to determine exactly what’s required to graduate and begin work within this field.

Police Officer – Along with a standard associate or bachelor’s degree, students must specialize in topics within this field. Along with this level of education, police officers are required to complete police academy training. Each state regulates the requirements for aspiring police officers. Therefore, contact your state’s police licensing board to determine exact educational and post-graduation training requirements.

Corrections Officer – This profession works directly with convicted offenders within a jail or prison system. Along with a general criminal justice degree, the most successful professionals in this field concentrated their studies to focus on corrections. Specific coursework involves theoretical study of correctional techniques, counseling and life within the correctional system.

Immigration Enforcement – Do you wish to work within a field that’s constantly shifting and changing? Do you have a desire to maintain immigration law while showcasing compassion for those who wish to become American citizens? If so, then you should gain a concentration in immigration enforcement. Upon graduation, students may be required to obtain additional training within a government agency. Once hired, students will work directly with the federal government to uphold immigration laws and policies.

Forensic Scientist – Have you experienced the CSI effect, or the desire to work closely with law enforcement officers to help solve crimes? Are you in love with the idea of combining scientific research with criminal investigations? If so, then a degree specialization in forensic science may be your ideal choice. Forensic scientists typically require graduate-level degrees. Enhance your employment opportunities by earning a double major – criminal justice and a science-related degree, such as biology or chemistry.

Criminal Justice Degree and Career Training Overview

Regardless of your career goals, professionals within the criminal justice system are required to undergo extensive training. While the majority of criminal justice graduates seek out employment within the correctional system, there is a myriad of other career opportunities designed for those with a criminal justice degree. While some career options require only an associate’s degree, the majority of high-paying and advanced criminal justice system careers require a bachelor’s or master’s degree. The following information can be used to help clarify questions regarding basic training a criminal justice student will encounter.

The Three Basic Elements of a Criminal Justice Degree

The exact elements of your training program are often determined by your specialization and educational institution. This can vary widely, from guard card classes online for those entering the private security industry, to hands-on training for an unarmed security license, to intensive multi-year federal training for law enforcement positions. All in all, most criminal justice degrees are built upon three primary pillars, which include:

  1. The Role of Law Enforcement – For the majority of civilians, their first contact with any person within the criminal justice system are with police officers. Therefore, one of the fundamental elements of any criminal justice degree program is the role of law enforcement in society.
  2. The Role of Court Systems – Regardless of the career path you choose, the court system will play a vital role within your daily duties. In a foundational sense, the court system is where all legal disputes are discussed and settled. It’s within this branch of the criminal justice system that laws are truly enforced and sentencing is carried out. The majority of career opportunities within the criminal justice system revolve around courtroom settings.
  3. The Role of Corrections – Those who have been found guilty in a crime are then transferred into the correctional system. This branch of the criminal justice system is one of the most important as it’s where offenders are rehabilitated. As a criminal justice major, you must fully understand the role of the correctional system. Of course, the level of involvement you have in this system is based upon your desired career. Those wishing to work as a forensic scientist won’t have to go through as many correctional-specific courses as those who wish to work directly within the corrections system.

Level of Studies

The level of study one must complete is based upon their desired career. For example, those who wish to become a police officer feature different training requirements than those who wish to become an FBI agent. The following list is some of the most commonly pursued careers within the criminal justice system, and their assigned training requirements:

Police Officer – Along with meeting basic eligibility requirements, such as being 21 years old and holding a high school diploma or GED, aspiring police officers must the hold at least an associate’s degree. However, those who wish to work in federal corrections jobs must hold a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice with a concentration in corrections. Police officers must also include a 12 to 14-week police academy training. Within this training, students are taught constitutional law, civil law, local and state ordinances and various investigative techniques.
FBI Agents – To become an FBI agent, you must undergo specific advanced-level coursework. While a bachelor’s degree is typically a minimum requirement, those with a master’s degree in criminal justice are the most desirable by this institution. Aspiring agents must also undergo an 18 week training at a federal facility – of which, there are only two in the United States.

How to Get the Most Out of Online Criminal Justice Degree Programs

It’s no secret that a criminal justice degree program offers a myriad of career opportunities. However, many students fear that by taking their courses online, they won’t be as competitive in today’s marketplace. While it’s true some employers look down upon online degrees, this does not have to be the case. As an aspiring professional within the criminal justice system, you must know how to demonstrate your learned skills and experience. However, the only way to do this is to obtain the best possible education.

Online criminal justice degree programs are ideal for those who cannot dedicate the time of attending on-campus classes. Thankfully, the online education world blossomed to be just as competitive as their on-campus counterparts. There is a myriad of informational websites available to prospective students, so it is important to properly research your online training options prior to ruling out online courses vs that of the traditional classroom structure. We recommend you get security classes information prior to making a decision regarding your security, law enforcement, or criminal justice educational institution. In order to truly maximize your time and energy, there are several tips you must follow to get the most out of your educational degree. By doing so, you’ll remain highly competitive within this dynamic and ever-evolving industry.

Tip #1 – Be Active in Your Online Criminal Justice Degree Programs

Perhaps one of the worst mistakes a student can make when it comes to an online education is to remain silent throughout course lectures and discussions. The most successful students are those that engage just as they would in an on-campus classroom. In order to truly excel within this environment, students must connect with instructors as soon as possible. Create helpful dialogue to ensure you get the most out of the course. Unlike traditional educational pathways, which force this connection, online students must take extra steps to ensure they’re grasping the topic and excelling at its requirements.

Tip #2 – Take Additional Coursework

Hiring managers receive hundreds of resume’s that feature a criminal justice degree. So, how does one stand out from the crowd? The most effective way of accomplishing this goal is by taking non-required coursework and possibly majoring in a second topic that’s related to the criminal justice system. For example, majoring in criminal justice and sociology sets students apart from those who only majored in criminal justice.

Tip #3 – Specializing Your Degree

General criminal justice degrees are a dime-a-dozen within this industry. Therefore, to get the most out of your education in terms of future employment, it’s essential to specialize your degree. Don’t go for a degree option that’s general. Rather, concentrate on a specialty, such as: victim advocacy, rehabilitation, criminal investigations, homeland security, terrorism or emergency management. Consider what specialty you wish to pursue post-graduation, and formulates a degree program that focuses primarily on this topic.