What Can You Do With a Criminal Justice Degree?
Reviewed by Jacob Imm
Aug 12, 2022
What Can You Do With a Criminal Justice Degree?
Through TV, movies and streaming, most of us have developed a familiarity with the idea of criminal justice. But the discipline goes far beyond the tense courtroom exchanges and action-packed chase scenes you see on screen.
Professionals in the criminal justice field have a dedication to honor, integrity and justice. It’s this passion for the judicial system and law enforcement that draws many to a criminal justice degree.
If you share these strong beliefs in upholding the law, then a criminal justice major might be the major for you. But what can you do with a criminal justice degree, exactly, and is criminal justice a good major? Let’s look at the many career and education opportunities for criminal justice graduates.
Potential Careers for Criminal Justice Graduates
To begin with, what is criminal justice, exactly? Criminal justice touches nearly every aspect of society and a degree in the field gives you access to a broad range of criminal justice jobs. In fact, it’s one of the most versatile undergraduate degrees out there.
To give you a taste of some of the career options available to you within the criminal justice system, we’ll break down the salaries and on-the-job responsibilities of each most common criminal justice career.
Police Officer or Detective
Police officers are criminal justice professionals that work to protect the lives and property of others. Whether it’s an emergency call or a routine stop, they’re there to keep the peace and ensure everyone’s safety. Other officers monitor railroads, transit hubs or fishing and hunting areas to maintain order and work to prevent any criminal behavior.
Detectives come onto the crime scene after a felony has occurred. They handle evidence in a criminal investigation and follow leads in an attempt to arrest the perpetrator and bring them to trial. A private detective works independently of a police department and is often hired to investigate more severe crimes, such as fraud, homicide or drug cases. Detectives attempt to understand the means and motive of criminals through:
- Record analysis
- Suspect monitoring
- Raids and arrests
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the median salary for police and detectives is $67,290 per year, though there are often opportunities for overtime.
Policing and detective jobs are also on the rise; the BLS expects the field to grow by 7% between 2020 and 2030.
Probation Officer or Correctional Treatment Specialist
Probation officers are part of the rehabilitation process; their goal is to help individuals on probation or parole transition into life after prison. Also called community supervision officers, these criminal justice professionals are in constant contact d with their assigned individuals, visiting them frequently to ensure they are making an effort to fit into society and that they don’t pose a threat to their communities.
In a similar vein, correctional treatment specialists support the rehabilitation of parolees and probationers. Sometimes called case managers, these specialists evaluate the activities of legal offenders and develop rehabilitation plans for them.
With a criminal justice degree and some on-the-job training, you can start earning a median annual salary of $55,690 for these positions according to the BLS.
The projected growth rate for probation officers and correctional treatment specialists is 4% between 2020 and 2030 according to the BLS. That figure translates to around 8,100 new job openings each year.
Social workers are a type of criminal justice professional that covers a lot of ground, helping people from all walks of life cope with difficult situations. In many cases, individuals who have come through the court system are assigned a social worker. Typical responsibilities of a social worker include:
- Supporting clients through challenging moments
- Acting as a psychotherapist
- Referring clients to community resources (food stamps, childcare, etc.)
- Keeping accurate records and updating case files
- Responding to mental health emergencies
The median salary for social workers is $51,760 a year per the BLS.
Demand for social workers is expected to increase by 12% from 2020 to 2030 according to BLS projections. With an average of 78,300 new job openings predicted each year, social work is a rapidly expanding field that uses many of the skills you’ll learn in a criminal justice degree program. A social worker can work in a law enforcement agency or in criminal justice administration.
In courtrooms around the world, lawyers represent their clients in various disputes that require criminal justice knowledge. From advising clients before their trial to arguing on their behalf in the courtroom, lawyers fulfill a vital function of our legal system.
Some lawyers work for established criminal law firms, while others start their own practices. As a lawyer with a background in criminal justice, you may also be interested in pro bono work—that is, taking on clients who can’t afford traditional representation.
Lawyers can earn a median salary of $126,930 per year according to the BLS. Keep in mind that a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice is not enough to practice law. However, it is an excellent foundation for a higher education law degree.
It’s also worth noting that the demand for lawyers continues to rise, with the job expected to grow 9% over the next decade per the BLS.
Judge or Hearing Officer
Judges and hearing officers preside over the courtrooms walked by lawyers, hearing cases of every nature—from traffic violations to homicides. Their responsibilities vary by the type of case they are ruling on and the level of their judgeship, but they typically:
- Read through legal documents
- Listen to arguments from both sides of cases
- Make use of precedents and existing laws to settle cases
- Determine sentences and set bail
- Complete post-trial write-ups
With a legal degree (and several years of experience as a lawyer), you can be appointed a judge or hearing officer or run to be elected as one. The median annual salary for this respected position is $124,200 according to the BLS.
The growth rate for judges and hearing officers between 2020 and 2030 is expected to hover around 3% per the BLS. In total, that equates to an average of 2,200 job openings per year.
Professor of Criminal Justice
If you want to pursue criminal justice without working directly in the field, education is an ideal choice. Teaching in a public or private institution is a rewarding way to connect with enthusiastic new students of criminal justice. As a professor, you’ll develop a syllabus for each course and guide your students through it.
Post-secondary teachers can earn a median annual salary of $80,560 according to the BLS; exact earnings depend on the number of courses you teach and the institution in question.
The anticipated growth rate for all professorships is 12% per BLS projections—faster than the U.S. average of 8% growth for all careers.
A criminal justice degree can also set you up for a career in crime journalism—especially if you pursue a double major. Whether you work in print, online or broadcast journalism, you can stay connected to criminal justice by reporting on individual cases and overall criminal statistics.
Journalists earn a median annual salary of $49,300 according to the BLS. As you gain recognition, you may eventually make your way into the top 10% of earners and gross up to $127,370 per year.
The BLS expects the journalist career category to grow by 6% from 2020 to 2030. This category also includes news analysts and reporters.
Further Education Opportunities for Criminal Justice Graduates
Some of the above roles require an advanced degree. For example, if a career like judge or lawyer appeals to you, you will need to go to law school after earning your bachelor’s degree.
Even if you aren’t vying for a specialized role, further education can unlock more opportunities and higher-paying positions in most careers.
With a master’s in criminal justice, you’ll learn the skills needed to advance your career and gain access to more lucrative roles. For example, some post-secondary institutions will hire professors who hold master’s degrees.
In a graduate criminal justice program, you’ll be confronted with simulated ethical dilemmas close to what you’re likely to encounter in your field. Depending on your program, you’ll also explore criminal justice topics in more depth, including policing and prison reform.
Master’s degrees typically require two years to complete. However, professionals that want to keep working can often enroll in flexible programs that take longer.
Students looking to reach the top of their academic field can pursue a Ph.D. in criminal justice or a doctor of criminal justice (D.C.J.). Both are terminal degrees—that is, the highest possible degree in the discipline.
With a doctoral degree, you’ll be eligible to teach criminal justice at most colleges and universities. You can also apply for high-level or supervisory positions in:
- Social work
Some institutions combine criminology and criminal justice into a comprehensive doctoral program. While there are differences in criminology vs. criminal justice, combining the two in your curriculum teaches essential lessons that any criminal justice professional should know. Doctoral programs typically take around four to six years to complete. Once again, you may be able to join a flexible program if you hope to work and study at the same time.
Those looking to pursue law will need to earn a Juris Doctor (J.D.) degree for work in the U.S. Other options for more international opportunities include a doctor of juridical science degree (J.S.D) or a master of law (LL.M.) degree. These programs typically take between three and five years.
Entering law school post-undergrad requires scoring well on the Law School Admission Test (LSAT). You’ll also need a high GPA, and while any bachelor’s degree is acceptable for admission, a criminal justice degree will help set you up for success.
What Will You Do With Your Criminal Justice Degree?
With a criminal justice degree in hand, your opportunities are practically endless. And when that degree comes from a respected institution—like North Central College, for example—your chances of landing that dream job increase.
No matter what you do with your degree, you’ll know you’re making a real difference in your community—even if it won’t be broadcast on screen.
Jacob Imm is the associate director of communication in the North Central College Office of Marketing and Communications. He has 12 years of collegiate communications experience and has worked with hundreds of college students. He has a bachelor’s degree from the University of Notre Dame and a master’s degree from Northern Illinois University.
U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. (2021, October 20). Police and Detectives: Occupational Outlook Handbook. U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Retrieved April 4, 2022, from https://www.bls.gov/ooh/protective-service/police-and-detectives.htm
U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. (2021, September 8). Probation Officers and Correctional Treatment Specialists: Occupational Outlook Handbook. U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Retrieved April 4, 2022, from https://www.bls.gov/ooh/community-and-social-service/probation-officers-and-correctional-treatment-specialists.htm
U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. (2022, March 24). Social Workers: Occupational Outlook Handbook. U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Retrieved April 4, 2022, from https://www.bls.gov/ooh/community-and-social-service/social-workers.htm
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