If you’ve ever watched an episode of Law & Order, devoured an installment of Serial or picked up a detective novel, chances are, you’ve at least imagined what it would be like to work in the criminal justice field.
Of course, the reality of criminal justice is much different than how it’s portrayed in the media — but that doesn’t mean it isn’t an incredibly satisfying career path.
The criminal justice system is comprised of multiple, interconnected pillars that present a wealth of job opportunities for master’s graduates, and entering the field doesn’t automatically lead to a position in law enforcement (although that is the goal for plenty of students).
Speaking with faculty from the online Master of Science in Criminal Justice program at USC Bovard College, we identified the diverse, burgeoning career options available to graduates.
What Jobs Can You Land in the Criminal Justice Field?
“A degree in criminal justice can give you various options as to what you can do within the criminal justice system,” Juan Mejia, an MSCJ professor and forensic psychologist, emphasized to USC Online.
First and foremost, you can pursue a career as a law enforcement officer, which includes becoming a police officer, federal agent, probation officer, administrative specialist and more.
“Many students that I’ve taught have been in law enforcement. They want to use the degree to further their career, or they want to make themselves more marketable to a federal, state or local law enforcement agency,” Victor Fazio, an MSCJ professor and chief of police for the city of Moorpark, told USC Online.
But that isn’t the only path available. As a forensic psychologist, Mejia spends much of his time testifying in court, providing judges and attorneys with the “psychological concepts and principles” that may be unfamiliar to them.
Pursuing a career in forensic psychology might mean working with the court system to evaluate a defendant’s competency or insanity plea, or assisting with community supervision and probation to reduce recidivism.
Overall, a criminal justice degree prepares you for any aspect of working within the legal system, whether it’s as a judge, lawyer, administrative employee or general staff member, said Mejia. More job opportunities can be found in the military, with positions as commissioned officers or criminal investigators in the U.S. Air Force Office of Special Investigations, U.S. Army Criminal Investigation Command and the Naval Criminal Investigative Service.
“The military always places a premium on education, including for promotion,” said MSCJ professor Louis Morlier, a licensed social worker and former federal agent for the Department of Homeland Security and Immigration and Naturalization Service. “An educated workforce adds to the military’s credibility, but the military must be prepared to answer tough questions about current policies if they expect an educated workforce. This program prepares graduates to ask tough questions and develop workable solutions to criminal justice problems.”
For military members entering the civilian workforce, the MSCJ degree can be a “huge advantage” that catapults students “outside the normal range” of criminal justice careers, such as working for nonprofit agencies that support the court system, according to Morlier.
Another example could be exploring a role as a social worker, whom Morlier calls the “backbone of the criminal justice system.”
“They enforce civil child safety laws. They interview suspects, victims and witnesses. They provide mental health services for victims and offenders. They manage cases, make recommendations to judges and document violations,” he said.
A master’s in criminal justice can springboard you to other fields, too, such as research, academia, private investigation or policy. Another possibility? Entering the flourishing industry of true crime media by becoming a journalist, podcast host, author or TV personality.
A criminal justice degree can also open the door to the world of politics, according to MSCJ professor Mischelle Van Brakle, who previously served as a congressional fellow assigned to the Senate Judiciary Committee.
“We need people who know about the system, who can inform politicians about the real aspects of crime and criminality,” she said. “When I was working with Congress, I had the opportunity to help other staffers understand some of the different issues that were related to the politics of crime and criminality.”
Helping others comprehend the sociology behind crime is a career path that can move you across industries, Van Brakle said.
“It’s important to recognize that you can take your degree and use it to provide information to people who might not necessarily be within law enforcement. There are opportunities in politics, [and] there are opportunities with nonprofit organizations that study crime and criminality,” she added.
The key might be as simple as finding your passion within the criminal justice field and tailoring your studies around it. For example, Van Brakle has taught various students whose families have struggled with drug addition, leading them to pursue careers in drug-related crime prevention.
“There are many opportunities to provide resources and support within corrections facilities. You could work as an addiction counselor. You can work as a reentry counselor to help people make that transition from incarceration back into society,” she explained.
Whatever the exact career is, one of the most exciting and meaningful parts of working within criminal justice is the chance to make the world a better place.
“You could work to improve systems and policies and ethics within law enforcement bodies. You could go into any one of the systems — judicial system, a correctional system or even law enforcement — and you be the individual who develops policy on ethical leadership, on how leaders can model ethical behavior in the system,” said MSCJ professor Stephen Abanise. “There’s a lot of room, whether you’re a probation officer, law enforcement member, attorney, forensics [employee] or dispatcher. You can not only propel yourself, but also improve the system and make it better.”
Why Should You Study Criminal Justice?
So, why obtain an MS in Criminal Justice in the first place? While a master’s degree isn’t always a job requirement, it helps applicants stand out in an incredibly competitive field and provides graduates with a deeper understanding of both theory and application across the criminal justice system and related fields.
“When you look at a criminal justice master’s program at USC, it really gives people the ‘why’ of the job and the best approach to deal with huge issues like homelessness, racial injustice, drugs and so on. There are not really new problems in the world. There are new solutions, and this program really gives students the opportunity to find new solutions,” Fazio said.
Even if you’re unsure about making a career out of one specific facet of criminal justice, Van Brakle upholds its critical value as a field of study “because it touches so many lives.”
With approximately two million people in jails and prisons in the U.S., mass incarceration has become a “normative experience” for many, whether they have been incarcerated themselves or have loved ones who have experienced the criminal justice system.
“The more people who are informed about the criminal justice system in a real way — and not just what you see on Law & Order — it’s a good thing … It has such a huge impact on our lives, our society,” she said.
Studying criminal justice also equips you with the skills to promote lasting, systemic change, which is one of the most rewarding aspects of entering the field.
“Students in this program are at the forefront of new research to improve a criminal justice system that, at this period of time, is very salient in terms of opportunities for reform. I think a student that chooses this program, especially the USC Bovard College program, really puts themself at the forefront of improving such systems,” Abanise said.
What to Expect in the USC Bovard College Criminal Justice Program
The online MS in Criminal Justice program offers a full-time, one-year track or a part-time, two-year track and includes courses such as “Criminology,” “Criminal Justice Leadership” and “Ethical Decision-Making in Criminal Justice.”
“The curriculum and our faculty provide all the foundational building blocks that you need to understand and interact with any aspect of the system in an informed manner,” Abanise explained. “[Students] are exposed right away to these systems and understanding what the criminal justice system really is before they enter the professional world.”
Above all else, the master’s program prepares graduates to become influential changemakers in a time when ethical leaders are — as USC Bovard College states — needed more than ever.
Learn more about the online MS in Criminal Justice program at USC Bovard College today.