One of the most commonly asked questions is, “What should I go to school for? Do I need a degree in criminal justice?” On the surface the answer is, “No.” But…it can also be yes. Let me explain what education really means when pursuing that career in corrections or law enforcement! Many criminal justice programs make it sound like not only do you need a degree in CJ to be hired, but that getting said degree somehow mystically bestows upon you the knowledge and experience to instantly fight crime and leap buildings in a single bound.
The truth is that law enforcement recruiters and background investigator’s just don’t care what your degree is in. For the most part as long as you have that shiny piece of paper that says the educational system somehow magically beamed knowledge into your cranium, you are good. There are several reasons agencies want educated applicants.
Educated candidates tend to be more articulate.
Okay you military readers out there….remember when you would be in training and the instructor would impart some golden pearl of knowledge and then stomp, or cough or stare meaningfully at you? That is what Scooby Doo would call a clue! You will see this later they said! This is on the test! Articulate is the same. It is a word you hear a lot in law enforcement. It can mean the difference between your actions being lawful or unlawful. From your use of force being perfectly justified or you giving your house away to some bozo with a rap sheet as long as Santa’s Naughty List.
Being articulate means you can communicate better with suspects, citizens and yes…even the admin. You have to be able to explain the WHY of your actions. The better educated you are, the better you are at explaining yourself in a clear fashion. Both verbally and in writing. Being able to write, believe it or not is a critical skill for law enforcement and corrections. Yes we have all seen THAT GUY who writes his reports with a crayon…but he also spends a LOT of time in court getting hammered, because he failed to articulate himself well in his report.
The other thing that actually gets looked at during the hiring process is your grades.
Pick a degree or course of study that you find interesting!
Do NOT pick a degree because you think you should. Trust me, I know…I took business and just about leapt out the window. Sure it was only the second floor, but I figured if I got a running start, I could at least impact the ground hard enough to not have to sit though. just. one. more. minute.
Your grades count. It is another one of those things that tells the agency what kind of person you are.
If possible pick a degree that is practical outside of law enforcement.
Believe it or not…not everyone who applies for law enforcement jobs gets hired. Sometimes it’s the background check. Sometimes people just get sick of jumping through hoops and go elsewhere. Once you are hired, not everyone passes the Academy. Some academies are extremely difficult and have a very high attrition rate. Then if you pass the academy you may not pass FTO. If you pass FTO, you may realize…”I fucking hate this job.” It is always nice to have something to fall back on.
So the other side of the coin…
I’m not saying a degree in criminal justice is horrible and don’t do it. I’m saying if there is something else out there, regardless of how different it is from criminal justice (Or maybe because of its difference), you should consider going to school for that instead.
Some people would have you believe the criminal justice degree will actually harm you when you apply, because they are a “dime a dozen.” It’s true a lot of cops and corrections peeps DO have degrees in criminal justice. I don’t believe it somehow harms your chances of being hired however. While a CJ degree doesn’t necessarily make you better at your job, it does let you enter the field already being familiar with the process. I mean how law enforcement, corrections, the courts, probation and parole etc all work together to form the big machine known as the “Criminal Justice System.”
I’m also a firm believer that the more you learn about something the easier it gets. If you can be sitting in the Academy class during some lecture on criminal procedures or case law and think, “Oh yeah…I remember reading about this!” That is one less thing you have to try to cram into your skull completely dry, without any sort of ability to correlate it to something you have already learned. Some people enter the law enforcement field completely cold with no prior knowledge or experience and find the learning curve extremely steep.
So in conclusion, should you get a degree in criminal justice? Do what interests you the most. Preferably something useful you can fall back on. If you are going to pay better attention and get higher grades in criminal justice than you would in another field and you plan on going into the field however…then have at it! Otherwise…just get a degree and make sure you can write and articulate yourself.
Also published on Medium.