Criminal Justice Degree Not Always A Requirement

Is a Criminal Justice Degree a requirement if you want to work in law enforcement?

Several years ago, when I first started researching law enforcement careers, I was under the impression that a criminal justice degree is a mandatory requirement. Heck, I thought any 4-year degree had to be a mandatory accomplishment. After countless hours of research, interviews, and reading emails I learned more about how a lot of police departments in the country work when it comes to applicants with or without a degree.

First of all, contrary to the popular belief, a degree in criminal justice is not a requirement to be a police officer. In most departments, which require a degree to be completed prior to the application process, the applicants can have a degree in any discipline they got it in. Plain and simple. If you have a degree in Business, or a degree in History, you are a successful college graduate and you are past the educational hurdle, at least for now. This is for those “hard-to-get-into” police departments and Federal law enforcement agencies, like: FBI, DEA, or ICE.

Secondly, did you know that a criminal justice degree is not always a requirement? Better yet, did you know that any degree from an accredited academic institution in not always required? Yes, it’s true. Many police departments across the country will hire a high school graduate or a person who’s completing their college. However, within X number of years, the completion of at least 60 semester credit hours, or a full 4-year degree, is mandatory to keep your job. So, for example, the state of Wisconsin is trying to implement a 5-year term from hire to the time the educational requirement has to be completed – I think it’s 60 regular semester credits / 90 quarterly credits, or an equivalent of an Associates degree in 5 years. Each state has its own rules and time frames, some don’t have any at all – at least not yet.

Some departments, like the Chicago Police Department, requires that the applicant has 60 college credits at the time of application.

So, keep in mind that although you may need no education, some education, or a full 4-year degree at the time of application, you are still going to see those that have their degrees completed get the better pay and perhaps faster/better promotions. In my opinion, no matter if you work for a small/rural police department or a large/metropolitan police department, education is key.

Now, about Criminal Justice Degree as the absolute requirement. Despite what I said about a degree in Criminal Justice not being required, it is wise to take such a degree if you know that you would like to become a LEO. Think of a degree in Criminal Justice as a strong background for law enforcement and administrative duties while working for a Police Department, Sheriff’s Office, State Patrol, of Federal Government.

In any case, consider that there are many incentives for those completing college, with completed Bachelor degree, or an advanced degree, like: Master’s or Doctorate. Many medium and large law enforcement organizations give a percentage of salary increase per educational level completed. That can be substantial if you have a Bachelor’s degree or above. Also, certain positions within the organization require certain educational requirements, which can mean a move to a better position and a salary increase as well.

To recap:

  1. In many cases, you don’t need a degree to start, but you may need one after X number of years
  2. A degree in Criminal Justice is not the only degree accepted, but is often preferred in law enforcement agencies (see agency’s website / brochure for more info as there are some agencies that may prefer a Business or a Law Degree)
  3. Usually, smaller departments start you off with a high school degree, medium departments with high school or 60 credit hours or Associate’s, big departments 60 credits / Associate’s or Bachelor’s
  4. In the long run, a Bachelor degree is better than no degree
  5. Education pays more and positions you for better promotions
  6. Bonus: there’s a growing trend amongst law enforcement agencies to reward those who embark on a quest towards a degree, or advanced courses, with tuition assistance. Often the assistance can cover your college costs 100% and will most likely be based on the grades you get.

I always recommend to see more details about hiring information and application requirements from the agency in question. Most law enforcement agencies have websites or an information hotline for interested candidates.

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Article written by Radek Gadek

Radek holds a Master’s degree in Criminal Justice from Boston University. He is currently doing consulting work and runs this blog to provide relevant information on criminal justice degrees, colleges and related careers.

11 comments… add one
  • Daniel Fenner

    I’m 18, and would like to become a LEO. I plan on getting a degree eventually, but in the mean time, how do I become a police officer before getting said degree? Is there a course I must take? How old do I have to be to get my badge?

    • Radek M. Gadek

      You need to pick the police department or LE agency that you wish to apply with. Big and medium police departments have easily accessible info right on their website, while smaller agencies may not. Then, while visiting the site or calling your local PD directly, you’ll need to find out when they are hiring, what the requirements are and how to apply. Some departments have the application on their website and some you’ll have to pick up the app at the police department or precinct . Also, some departments may require prior State certification for law enforcement candidates before applying. You can find out if you need prior State certification, or if you’ll obtain one by going to the academy, by contacting the law enforcement agency in question.

  • Stephanie

    hi im a 16 year old female that’s still in high school.
    i want to become a detective or crime scene investigator and im planning to attend college to get a criminal justice degree. I was wondering that if it matters what college i attend ?
    thank you

    • Radek M. Gadek

      Yes, it can matter a lot. Choose wisely.

      • Al

        I disagree. The school doesn’t really matter, just that you have the degree. If you go to a really prestigious school maybe it would make a small difference but I doubt it.

  • Jordan

    I’m currently attending Purdue University, I’d like to eventually work for the FBI, specifically the BAU. Since the school doesn’t have a degree in criminology, or forensics, I’m debating whether I should major in Sociology or Criminal Justice? Also, I’d like to eventually get my Masters, should I go for Criminology or Forensic Psychology? Thank you!

    • Jordan

      I’m looking to switch my major to Sociology or Criminal Justice. My current major is Human Development with a concentration in Child and Family Services, this won’t get me into the FBI, right?

  • Jesse Reynolds

    I am becoming a cop and where I live if you have a degree, you just get a big bonus check. There is no degree required here!

  • Tongela

    Hello Mr. Radek

    I’m currently in my 3rd year of my Bachelor’s Degree in Applied Science in Criminal Justice at Kaplan University. I want to be a crime scene tech or maybe a non-sworn crime scene detective. When i complete my degree, I’m thinking about getting my crime scene tech certificate. Would that be helpful? I’ve also completed a Citizen’s Police Academy and I also do volunteer work during the week at the police department. Am i heading in the right direction for my career? P.s I’m only 28 years old.

  • Surita

    I am working on my 3rd year to get my bachelors degree…. I am wondering what type of job can I get with a sociology:criminal justice degree… I attend Shaw University

  • Tabatha Lambrecht

    I was wondering, the school I would like to attend doesn’t have a criminology or a criminal justice major option, the school does offer a sociology field with an emphasis in criminology though. Would I be able to become a csi with that degree or should I look at different schools?

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