Career Paths within Criminal Justice and Criminology

Choosing a career within criminal justice and criminology can be an exceptionally rewarding decision. Unlike other professions, there are many avenues an individual can pursue within this field. It is common for an individual to move from one career path to another or to become involved in multiple career paths. For example, a police officer can go to law school at night, practice law and then teach courses at a local college. Additional education allows professionals to be rewarded with increased career mobility within and across a variety of categories. What are the various career paths in criminology and criminal justice?

Law Enforcement

A high school diploma is required in order to begin a law enforcement career. Often, a civil service examination is administered to potential candidates. Candidates must pass physical fitness tests while meeting the specified health requirements. There are different career paths involved with law enforcement at the city, state and federal levels and it is important for candidates to consider which area of law enforcement they may want to pursue.

At the local level, police officers will find career advancement through specialized training, competitive testing for rank and college education. Earning a masters degree in criminal justice will give officers the opportunity to teach police related courses at the college level while tying in their real-world experience. Career advancement between the state and local levels is similar. However, at the state level there are different specialized jobs available. The specific advancement requirements vary by jurisdiction, but state agency websites typically list what candidates need.

Federal law enforcement is a considerably different path than jurisdictionally restricted law enforcement. Federal law enforcement careers include the opportunity to work for the United States Department of Justice. However, in terms of career advancement from the local and state police levels, there are federal agent positions that require prior related work and educational experience. For example, on the website it indicates that if one were a police officer, the qualification requirements would be a JD degree, a BS/BA degree with 3 years work experience, or an advanced degree with 2 years work experience. If an individual posses a valuable language skill, these requirements may be waived.

As college undergraduates, students are encouraged to take on internships at federal agencies. Additional information can be found on the corresponding federal websites regarding application to these internships. Also, within each federal agency there are specific pathways for advancement. They share a common career advancement plan known as the General Schedule (GS) or U.S. Civil Service pay. Depending on the career track, different jobs will correspond with different levels of the GS pay scale. Federal law enforcement agents are required to take multiple assignments in various locations over the course of their careers.


Within the legal profession it is not uncommon for paralegals to advance their careers with job training, certifications and college degrees. Paralegals may even hold masters level degrees. If a paralegal wants to advance to the next level, they would need to earn a law degree from a certified law school and passage of their state’s bar examination. Lawyers also have the unique opportunity to become commissioned officers in the military as judge advocates. Eventually, if highly successful within their profession, a lawyer could be appointed or elected to the judiciary.


Becoming a corrections officer is another career that requires at minimum a high school diploma. In addition, a preliminary examination is given to applicants. Corrections officers are more than “prison guards”. If they obtain college education, corrections officers have the ability to gain rank and become managers at their facilities. By obtaining an advanced degree, corrections officers can also become specialists, such as training directors or administrators. Combining experience with education would make the corrections officer an ideal candidate if they decided to go into the advanced information technology, psychology or even legal services of the prison. Like police officers, correctional officers have the ability to pursue federal positions, whether it is working for the Federal Bureau of Prisons or pursuing a federal law enforcement role.

National Security

Becoming a Transportation Security Administration (TSA) airport security officer requires a high school diploma and an aptitude test. With more education, a security officer can expect supervisory and management positions. The next level of airport security would be the Federal Air Marshals Service, which arms its agents against security threats. Working for the U.S. Immigration and Customs (ICE) agency is another way to become involved with national security. The Central Intelligence Agency, or the CIA, requires their employees to hold a bachelors degree. Much like the Federal Bureau of Investigation, or FBI, they have an internship program set up for students who are interested in the various areas they cover. The private security industry has a similar organization with employment opportunities that span from entry-level to top secret clearance positions.


Teaching at the college level is another career option for graduates of criminology and criminal justice programs. An individual may want to be a research assistant after earning their undergraduate degree. Within the social sciences, working with human research subjects is common. It is recommended that researchers be certified through the National Institute of Health. Holding a masters level degree will allow professionals to teach at the community college level and gaining a PhD will offer them the chance to add to the field’s body of knowledge at a university.

Edward Weeks

  • Resident Expert

  • Edward Weeks

Edward Weeks received his Bachelors of Science and Masters of Arts in Criminal Justice at the University of Massachusetts Lowell. His research, focused on domestic violence prevention and forensic criminology, earned him professional certificates in both areas. Currently, Ed is PhD candidate in UML’s doctoral program in Criminal Justice and Criminology. He teaches courses in research methods.