Pros and Cons of a Criminal Justice Degree

The Basics

While some college degrees lead to a very specific career – an education degree, for example, for a future teacher – a criminal justice degree offers you many different options.

With a criminal justice degree, you can pursue a career in law enforcement, advocacy, or even counseling. This is just one reason why so many students opt to major in criminal justice.

Of course, as with any degree, there are some downsides to majoring in criminal justice. To get the best jobs, for example, you need to have an advanced degree.

Weighing these pros and cons is an essential part of thinking about your future. To help you in that endeavor, we’ve devised this list of important pros and cons of a criminal justice degree.

Pros of a Criminal Justice Degree

There are Many Career Paths

Armed with a degree in criminal justice, you can pursue many different career paths. You might start work as a police officer after college. Another option is to work as a bailiff or correctional officer.

Rather than working with accused or convicted persons, you might use your degree to work with victims as an advocate. You could use your degree as a springboard for further education in counseling or psychology.

Yet another pathway you might consider is to become an attorney. A bachelor’s degree in criminal justice is a great start for higher-level studies in law school.

You get the picture…

A degree in criminal justice can lead you to any number of future educational or career pursuits.

These Degrees are Available Anywhere

Pick just about any college or university in the nation, and the chances are very good that they have a criminal justice degree program.

Not all programs are the same, so it’s important to vet each program in which you’re interested. But having such a wide variety from which to choose can make it easier to select the college or university that’s right for you.

You Can Finish Your Degree Early

Many undergraduate programs in criminal justice require you to complete around 120 semester credits to graduate. Usually, this takes about four years for full-time students. However, you might be able to speed up the process.

Most courses in a criminal justice program don’t have to be taken in sequence. This makes scheduling your courses much easier. It also means you can more easily take more courses in a semester.

So, for example, a typical student might take 15 credits per semester for four years. But, if you take 18 credits each fall and 18 credits each spring for three years, you can cut about a year off your timeline to graduate.

In Some Cases, You Might Only Need an Associate’s Degree

An associate’s degree usually takes about two years to complete. It’s a basic degree, yet offers many different employment pathways after you graduate.

For example, you can be a police officer or a corrections officer with an associate’s degree in criminal justice. You can also pursue a job as a security guard or security technician. You might even be able to become a private investigator or a police dispatcher.

You won’t find the highest-paying jobs with an associate’s degree, but it does offer you the advantage of being career-ready after just two years.

You Can Get Your Degree Online

Criminal justice degrees aren’t just popular on college campuses – they’re also popular online.

Studying online gives you the freedom to attend to your studies when it fits in your schedule. Many classes don’t have set meeting times, so if you work during the day or have other obligations, you can do your coursework in the evenings or on weekends as your schedule allows.

Online degrees are accepted just as much as on-campus degrees, too, so there’s no worry that potential employers will skip you in favor of a similar applicant with a degree earned in person.

You Build Transferable Skills

One of the best features of getting a degree in criminal justice is that you learn a lot of skills that transfer to other occupations.

For example, in a criminal justice degree program, you’ll learn the basics of the criminal justice system. This is a great foundation for going to law school or for getting a job in law enforcement.

As another example, criminal justice programs usually include courses in communications, working with diverse populations, and sensitivity training. This type of knowledge and skills is useful in any profession, whether you work with inmates in a prison, abused children in the court system, or as a teacher with students in a college classroom.

Criminal Justice Degrees are Light on Science and Math

If you aren’t fond of science or math, a degree in criminal justice might be for you. In some cases, you might find that you only need a handful of science and math courses to graduate.

As an example, the criminal justice bachelor’s degree program at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, requires that you take six credits of science, including one course with a lab component, and three credits of math. As another example, the same program at Rutgers University requires you to complete eight credits of natural sciences and three credits of quantitative reasoning.

You Can Learn About the Application of Criminal Justice in Many Populations

Many criminal justice degree programs have a multiculturalism component that allows you to learn how criminal justice theory is applied in many different populations.

For example, you might take courses that focus specifically on women, immigrants, or minorities. You might learn how laws in the United States are similar or different from laws in other countries, too. Additionally, the chances are good that you’ll take courses in the application of criminal justice to vulnerable populations, like people with mental disorders or the elderly.

You Can Double Major to Expand Your Learning

Some students elect to double major and choose a companion major to the criminal justice program.

For example, if you double-major in criminal justice and psychology, you set yourself up well for a graduate program in forensic psychology. Likewise, if you double-major in criminal justice and accounting, you will be well-equipped to pursue a career as a forensic accountant.

These are just two examples – there are dozens of other majors that you can pair with criminal justice, including:

  • Business administration
  • Management
  • Communications
  • Social work
  • Human resources
  • Sociology

Another great option for a double major is criminal justice and computer science. This specialty is in high demand, given the prevalence of cybercrimes. With a background in both of these fields, you can work with law enforcement agencies to track, investigate, and prevent online criminal behavior.

This goes back to the previous point that criminal justice offers so many career paths. Truly, whatever your specific interest, you can likely double-major in it to give yourself a truly custom education.

There are Many Scholarships and Grants Available

There’s no doubt that college is expensive. As a criminal justice major, you can help offset those costs with scholarships. Fortunately, there are a lot of scholarships for students in criminal justice degree programs.

Many students do a good job of looking for local and state scholarships for college. But far fewer look at national scholarship programs, which leaves potentially thousands of dollars in assistance on the table.

Granted, national scholarships like these are highly competitive, but with award amounts of $10,000 or more, it is well worth your time to apply.

The Skills You Learn Will Help You Improve the World Around You

As a criminal justice major, you’ll learn valuable skills that you can use to positively impact those around you.

For example, you’ll learn how to communicate effectively with people from all different backgrounds. You’ll also learn how to de-escalate situations so cooler heads prevail. Obviously, these skills can be of use in many different situations, and they can prevent a bad situation from becoming worse.

Beyond that, you can develop an appreciation for our nation’s laws and legal system and how that system helps maintain law and order. You can also discover the ways that our criminal justice system can be improved and better serve communities at the local, state, and national levels.

Cons of a Criminal Justice Degree

An Advanced Degree Might Be Necessary

As mentioned in the introduction, to get the highest-paying criminal justice jobs, you might need to pursue an advanced degree.

For example, the average salary for a bachelor’s-level worker in criminal justice is around $61,000 per year. But, with a master’s degree, you might be able to increase your yearly pay by $12,000 or more.

While the extra pay is nice, it takes a lot more time, money, and effort to get a master’s degree. You’ll likely need at least a year to complete a criminal justice master’s program, if not two years. And once you’re done with your degree, there’s no guarantee that you’ll see a pay increase – at least not immediately.

Entry-Level Pay Isn’t Always That Great

After you graduate with a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice, you might qualify for an entry-level position. It’s great to get a job right out of college, but entry-level positions in this field often require a lot of work and low pay.

Here’s an example: police and detectives that have recently graduated from college make around $40,500 per year. On average, police and detectives make around $66,000 per year. However, you might need several years of experience and/or an advanced degree to earn that kind of money.

The pay range for police and detectives reaches over $100,000 per year, but a select few earn that much money. Typically, police and detectives in administrative roles (e.g., police chief, sheriff) are the ones that earn the largest salaries. Of course, getting those types of jobs requires a wealth of education and experience.

Many Criminal Justice-Related Jobs are Inherently Dangerous

A lot of criminal justice graduates go into law enforcement careers to serve their communities. This is certainly an admirable job, but one that can be very dangerous.

Police officers, deputies, detectives, and other members of law enforcement might find themselves in a life-threatening situation each time they head to work. And aside from the physical harm that you might face as a member of law enforcement, there’s a significant level of stress that comes with a high-responsibility job like this.

Other criminal justice-related jobs can also be dangerous. Probation and parole agents, for example, might work with people that have been convicted of violent crimes and might be susceptible to committing such crimes again.

Some Criminal Justice Jobs Require You to Work Long Hours

When you’re in college, there are plenty of long nights of reading, writing essays, and studying for exams. This is good preparation, though, because some of the jobs for which you might qualify upon graduation require that you work long hours.

Let’s use our police officer example from earlier. In some cases, you might have a 10-hour or 12-hour shift. If there’s an emergency or the department is shorthanded, you might be at work for even longer periods of time.

As another example, some jobs in this field require that you work nights, weekends, and holidays. Probation agents are a prime example. If you pursue a career as a probation agent, you’ll have to be on call and might have to do home visits after normal business hours.

The point is that if you think college requires a lot of work, your future career in criminal justice will require far more work – and often at crazy hours of the day.

Is a Criminal Justice Degree Right for You?

For the most part, majoring in criminal justice can be a positive experience with many different advantages during and after your studies.

But it’s important to consider the downsides of majoring in this field, too. By taking a holistic view and thoroughly weighing the pros and cons, you can make an informed decision about your future and major in a field that aligns with your personal and professional goals.

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