What Can I Do With a Bachelor’s Degree in Criminal Justice?

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Now more than ever, the primetime crime dramas on television mirror the real stories unfolding on the news. Most people shake their heads in disbelief and wonder: when will things get better? When will a critical sense of order be restored? Those working in criminal justice know first-hand that social change happens by engaging with a problem and not avoiding it. With a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice, a world of career opportunities opens up to those who want to be a part of the solution.

An array of criminal justice careers at the state, local, and federal levels of law enforcement are available to those seeking a job to affect social change. With a wide range of opportunities, having a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice offers numerous careers for people with different skill sets to enact change in their communities.

Should criminals be deterred through preventative or punitive actions? Is prosecution through legal proceedings or preemptive action through social support systems the best way to decrease crime rates? These questions are at the heart of criminal justice curriculums that prepare graduates to solve the most significant problems plaguing public safety.

Read on to learn more about careers available with a four-year degree in criminal justice.

Why Choose a Bachelor’s Degree in Criminal Justice?

A comprehensive, reliable, and highly versatile degree such as a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice offers distinct advantages. Here are three primary reasons to consider the degree.

1. Career Access

More entry-level positions require college degrees. While a high school diploma is a minimum requirement for entry-level police officer positions, those with four-year degrees have better access to jobs over time. A study (an old but informative study) published by Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce confirms this: “Of the 11.6 million jobs created so far during the [economic] recovery, nearly 75 percent have gone to people with a bachelor’s degree or higher.”

A bachelor’s degree is statistically more recession-proof. According to the Georgetown University study referenced above, during the 2008 economic recession, bachelor’s degree holders suffered far fewer job losses overall, while the unemployment for high school graduates dropped sharply and showed little improvement in the recovery.

The study indicates that bachelor’s degree holders lost 66,000 jobs during the recession and gained 4.7 million jobs in the recovery. In comparison, people with some college or associate degrees lost 1.8 million jobs, and people with a high school education or less lost 5.6 million jobs.

2. Opportunity for Advancement

More education means more opportunities for advancement. While on-the-job experience is a valuable career asset, police officers hoping to transition and advance to more decorated leadership positions are often required to possess a bachelor’s degree for consideration. The US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) shows that police officers with four-year degrees can access more advanced roles with specialized skills such as scientific knowledge and foreign language abilities.

Those with bachelor’s degrees in criminal justice can earn coveted roles with more autonomy. An article published by Norwich University outlines the path from officer to detective: “After spending a few years as a patrol officer, the next stage might be to become a detective.” The article notes that the competitiveness of the detective position means an exceptional record of service paired with a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice is necessary for career advancement.

3. Higher Pay

More education means higher pay. According to (June 2022), the average median salary for a police lieutenant, a position that often requires a bachelor’s degree, is $81,280. Compared to the average yearly (median) wages of police and sheriff patrol officers (a position that requires only a high school diploma) who earn $64,610 per year, having a bachelor’s degree equates to a pay difference of 20.5 percent (BLS May 2021).

In 2019, research from the Federal Reserve Bank of New York reported that college graduates earn average salaries of $78,000 per year compared to $45,000 made by high school graduates. These numbers show that college graduates earn nearly 55 percent more per year on average than their degreeless counterparts.

Another study by Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce called the “The College Payoff” found that “bachelor’s degree holders earn 31 percent more than those with an associate’s degree and 84 percent more than those with just a high school diploma.”

What Types of Degrees and Specializations Exist for Criminal Justice?

Four-year degree-seeking students choose from either a bachelor of arts (BA) or a bachelor of science (BS) degree in criminal justice. Depending on the school program, specializations are available in homeland security, criminology, law enforcement, corrections, or cybercrime. Earning a degree specialization involves completing a unique course sequence of classes to deepen one’s knowledge and prepare for a career or graduate degree in a related field.

An example of a school that offers both bachelor’s of arts (BA) and bachelor’s of science (BS) degrees with specializations is Seattle University. Students can earn a BA in criminal justice and choose from one of four specializations: administration of justice, criminology & criminal justice theory, forensic psychology, and forensic science. In the BS track, students can choose from a specialization in forensic psychology or forensic science.

What Jobs Require a Bachelor’s Degree in Criminal Justice?

As stated above, a four-year degree is essential to stay competitive in today’s workplace, and the field of criminal justice is no exception. While some can earn these opportunities without a degree, the opportunity cost of having a bachelor’s degree is not to be underestimated. Simply put, bachelor’s degree holders have access to better-paying career opportunities and more job security in the long term. Here is a shortlist of jobs that require a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice:

  • Air Marshall
  • Corrections Officer
  • Crime Scene Investigator
  • DEA Agent
  • Detective
  • FBI Agent
  • ICE Agent
  • Probation Officer
  • Secret Service Agent

An example of a criminal justice career that offers increased opportunities with higher levels of education is a police officer. A high school diploma or post-secondary training is required for entry-level positions, but a police officer with a bachelor’s degree can qualify for senior-level jobs.

Featured Criminal Justice Careers

A bachelor’s degree in criminal justice offers a multitude of career opportunities. Here’s a list of careers with positive projected growth in criminal justice.

Become a Police Officer

The work of police officers is highly varied, though they are primarily responsible for patrolling designated areas of a city, enforcing laws, and protecting the safety of citizens and property. Additionally, they are responsible for enforcing traffic laws, issuing parking citations, investigating crimes, and administering first aid at crime scenes.

Police officers are often required to testify in court for legal proceedings and are first responders in dangerous situations. These positions are highly versatile, and employment opportunities are growing nationwide. The BLS (2021) projects a rate of 7 percent growth from 2020 through 2030, which is about as fast as the national average (8 percent) and shows the median salary for police and sheriff’s patrol officers is $64,610 (BLS May 2021).

PayScale (June 2022) offers similar salary comparisons for detectives and criminal investigators at $62,206 per year, while police lieutenants earn $81,280 in April 2022.

Become a Crime Scene Investigator

Due to the rise in popularity of television shows such as CSI, competition for crime scene investigator jobs is at an all-time high. Working as a CSI, a type of forensic science technician, requires detail-oriented and hands-on experience at crime scenes.

CSIs are responsible for locating, collecting, and preserving evidence such as blood, hair, fingerprints, and DNA. They are highly trained in analyzing this evidence and actively investigating, working, and building criminal cases.

According to PayScale (June 2022), the average annual salary for a CSI in the United States is $49,558. However, the BLS shows a more promising estimate for forensic science technicians who earn median wages of $61,930 per year (BLS May 2021). The need for qualified CSI and forensic science technicians is increasing, and positions are expected to grow 16 percent from 2020 to 2030 (BLS 2021), a rate of growth that is double the national average for all occupations (8 percent).

Become an ICE Agent

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents form the Department of Homeland Security’s investigative branch. Primarily, they are responsible for enforcing our nation’s immigration and customs laws. ICE agents operate nationally and internationally.

Its mission is: “to strengthen border security and prevent the illegal movement of people, goods, and funds into, within, and out of the United States.” ICE agents enforce federal immigration law statutes at national land borders, airports, and other administrative offices. According to Zip Recruiter (June 2022), the average annual salary for ICE agents is $41,588 per year as federal employees.

Become a Secret Service or Special Agent

While the protective roles of the secret service and special agents are well-documented, they are also responsible for investigating various complex crimes.

The Houston Chronicle shows that secret service and special agents are paid according to the General Scale (GS) and are hired at the GL-07 or GL-09 level. Special agents hired at the GL-07 grade in 2019 start earning anywhere from $45,319 to $58,477. Special agents can work their way up to the GS-13 level throughout their careers, which in 2019 paid anywhere from $75,628 to $98,317.

According to PayScale, in June 2022, special agents earn an estimated $87,449 per year, and these positions almost exclusively require a bachelor’s degree for consideration.

Become a Federal Air Marshal

In response to the September 11th terrorist attacks, the federal government rapidly expanded the Federal Air Marshal Service and Law Enforcement program. Today, federal air marshals operate as employees of the Transportation Security Administration (TSA). The mission of TSA is to “protect the nation’s transportation systems to ensure freedom of movement for people and commerce.”

Federal air marshals are the eyes and ears in the sky, performing investigative work on the ground and working undercover on passenger and cargo flights. They provide a unique form of aviation security for civilians and flight crews on commercial flights. In 2022, Glassdoor estimated the annual salary for federal air marshals to be $85,944, and compensation depends on experience and location. TSA offers an engaging inside look at the position on their YouTube channel.

Become a Probation Officer

After an inmate has served time in prison or is released early on parole, a probation officer helps incarcerated people reintegrate into civilian society. The BLS shows most probation officers can work in state government offices (54 percent) or local government (44 percent) or, in very rare cases, social assistance programs (1 percent).

Probation officers, also known as community supervision officers or correctional treatment specialists, provide state-supported advice and rehabilitation plans to prevent people from becoming re-offenders. Through regular check-ins with the adults and juveniles that come through the legal system, parole officers work to help people find work, learn new skills, and rehabilitate from substance abuse issues.

Probation and parole officers stay in regular contact with probationers and parolees and their families to support them in living healthy and productive lives. Probation officers with bachelor’s degrees earn median salaries of $60,250 per year (BLS May 2021).

Become a Private Investigator

Those who picture themselves working in an office behind a frosted glass door or taking surveillance photos with a long zoom lens from a car should consider becoming a private investigator. While a high school diploma is required for entry-level positions, private investigators with a bachelor’s degree can demand higher salaries set forth by government salary schedules or charge premium wages as a reputable personal service.

The BLS (2021) shows the majority of private detectives work in the investigation, guard, and armored car services (36 percent) or as fraud examiners in finance and insurance (9 percent), government (9 percent), or as self-employed workers (5 percent).

Private investigators search for information to resolve legal, financial, criminal, and personal matters. By interviewing people and combing through paper and computer-based records, they gather information for prosecution in criminal investigations. The median salary for private investigators is $59,380 (BLS May 2021).

Featured Undergrad Criminal Justice Programs
Purdue University Global BS - Criminal Justice (BSCJ)Visit Site
Purdue University Global BSCJ - Crime Scene InvestigationVisit Site
Arizona State University Criminology and Criminal Justice (BS)Visit Site
Strayer University BS - Crime & Criminal BehaviorVisit Site
Strayer University BS - Criminal JusticeVisit Site

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Rachel Drummond

Rachel Drummond is a freelance writer, educator, and yogini from Oregon. She’s taught English to international university students in the United States and Japan for more than a decade and has a master’s degree in education from the University of Oregon. Rachel writes about meditation, yoga, coaching, and more on her blog (Instagram: @racheldrummondyoga).