July 18, 2017

Degrees Needed for Law Enforcement Careers

It used to be that a high school diploma or General Educational Development (GED) credential was sufficient to get you started on a career in law enforcement. In recent years, however, with an increased focus on security and law enforcement being more detailed and specialized than ever before, many law enforcement careers require a college degree. Most police academies now require applicants to have minimally an associate’s degree in law enforcement. In addition to obtaining a job as a police officer, degreed individuals can also obtain entry-level jobs as security officers, security guards, corrections officers, or bodyguards.


As a result of the heightened attention to public, private, and national security, funding for the law enforcement industry has increased, as have the number of available career opportunities. This has created a demand for qualified, educated individuals. In some areas of the country, competition for police jobs is great, and while law enforcement agencies look for applicants who are well-rounded and have good interpersonal skills, they also look for those who have received specialized training in law enforcement or criminal justice-related subject matter. Colleges and universities have added law enforcement and criminal justice coursework to their curricula; graduates can earn a bachelor’s or master’s degree in these fields upon successful completion. There are also online and/or distance learning law enforcement degree programs available.

If you want to enter the field of law enforcement, the reasons for getting a law enforcement degree are many: 1) You will have a greater selection of law enforcement careers available to you depending on your level of college education; 2) The higher your level of education, the more qualified you will be for the job of your choice; 3) Once you are in a law enforcement job, a college degree can help you earn an advancement or promotion more readily; and 4) You could be eligible for higher pay, the higher your level of education. To be successful in today’s workforce and job market, many professions require applicants to have some form of higher education and learning. The same holds true for law enforcement careers. If you are considering entering the field of law enforcement, you should also consider post-secondary training and education to help pave the way.

  • Associate’s Degree
    Because most police academies at the state and local levels now require applicants to have a minimum of two years of college, associate’s degrees are the most popular degree for those aspiring to any number of law enforcement careers. An associate’s degree can lead to a career as a police officer, a corrections officer, or a private investigator, among others.

    The two-year associate’s degree program covers law enforcement at the local, state, and federal levels. While the curriculum is very generalized, it is also quite comprehensive. It includes coursework in the standard practices and procedures of police and law enforcement organizations, as well as how to conduct law enforcement investigations. Students will also learn how police and other law enforcement organizations are structured. Associate’s degree courses include Criminal Justice, Criminal Procedures, Criminal Investigation, Police Report Writing, Juvenile Delinquency, Ethics in Law Enforcement, and many others.

    To enter an associate’s degree program an applicant must have a high school diploma. While each college’s entrance requirements are different, the applicant’s high school studies should have included four years of English and preferably three years of mathematics, three years of social studies, two years of science, and some studies of a second language. In addition, a potential student should be computer literate and have good writing skills in order to meet class requirements.

    If you wish to become a police officer, upon completion of a law enforcement associate’s degree program you will still be required to complete additional training at a police academy. If you wish to become a security guard or correctional officer, you will now have the solid background in law enforcement that these jobs require. One of the advantages of obtaining an associate’s degree in law enforcement is that the job outlook for police officers, correctional officers, and private investigators is favorable, thanks to job turnover and an increase in demand for these positions in the foreseeable future.

  • Bachelor’s Degree

    Law enforcement careers at the state and federal levels require a bachelor’s degree. And although most police academies do not require prospective students to have a bachelor’s degree, in light of the demand for increased security, many police academies are expected to soon begin requiring applicants to have a bachelor’s degree. Law enforcement technology is growing and fast becoming a popular area of study due to the explosion in the use of computers and the advances in science and forensics that aid in solving crime. Students in bachelor’s programs at criminal justice colleges will be able to learn about and employ the latest police technology.
    The programs of study for a bachelor’s degree in law enforcement are similar to those in an associate’s degree program. But because the bachelor’s program lasts four years, the coursework is much more in-depth and detailed. Students who already have their associate’s degree in law enforcement or who have completed training at a police academy might be able either to transfer their credits or test out of some of the classes, possibly obtaining their bachelor’s degree in just two years.

    Examples of courses in a law enforcement bachelor’s degree program include Criminal Justice, Minority Relations, Sociology and Psychology, and Families in Crisis. Students will learn how to apprehend suspects, deal with criminals, and preserve and explore evidence. In addition, over the course of their bachelor’s program studies, students will acquire judgment and decision-making skills, and learn to use logic and reasoning when identifying and solving problems. They will also learn valuable negotiation and persuasion skills.

    Graduates from law enforcement or criminal justice bachelor’s programs can go to work as legal assistants, private investigators, secret service agents, wardens, probation officers, bailiffs, or in other supervisory/manager positions. At the federal level, FBI agents are required to have a bachelor’s degree, as well as training in accounting, computer science, law, or language. There are several advantages to obtaining a bachelor’s degree in law enforcement. One big advantage is the increase in types of job and job opportunities available to successful graduates at all levels of law enforcement: local, state, and federal. Annual starting salaries for these jobs typically range between approximately $44,000 and $62,000 a year. While many individuals enter their law enforcement career with an associate’s degree, pursuing a bachelor’s degree upfront can pay off in more ways than one.

  • Master’s Degree

    While a bachelor’s degree in law enforcement or criminal justice offers a wide range of career options and a good starting salary, a master’s degree can further enhance your law enforcement career opportunities and prepare you for law enforcement careers ranging from local law and police work to national (and even global) issues relating to criminal justice.
    One example of a master’s degree in law enforcement is the master’s of criminal justice. Students pursuing this degree take such courses as Comparative Criminal Justice Systems, Criminology, Research Basis of Criminal Justice, and Legal Processes. The student must complete up to 36 credit hours of classroom work and take a comprehensive exam upon completion of the requisite coursework.

    Another example of a master’s degree program designed specifically for law enforcement professionals is the master’s in criminal justice/law enforcement management. A bachelor’s degree is a prerequisite to this program, as is a course in statistics. The curriculum for this degree includes such courses as Contemporary Issues in Policing and Management of Complex Justice Organizations. This degree prepares individuals to develop and administer criminal justice and security programs/organizations. This program reviews both the differences between criminal justice and security organizations, as well as the areas of administrative responsibilities that are common to both organizations.

    Another, less common master’s degree is the master’s in forensic science. Areas of concentration in this program include forensic chemistry, forensic biology, and forensic anthropology. The student will be required to write and defend a thesis for each specialty, complying with academic prerequisites.

    Examples of law enforcement careers in the federal government for those with master’s degrees in law enforcement include working in the U.S. Coast Guard or in the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, working for the FBI, CIA, or DEA, or working as a federal judge or federal prison guard. Local law enforcement careers for those individuals who possess a master’s degree in law enforcement or criminal justice include police chief or deputy chief.

    Entry into a master’s program in law enforcement or criminal justice requires successful completion of a bachelor’s program in criminal justice or law enforcement from an accredited college or university. Typical master’s degree programs take two years to complete, although in some instances accelerated programs are available. Many people who enter master’s in criminal justice programs are mid-career law enforcement professionals who intend to pursue senior management positions.

  • Doctorate

    The law enforcement branch of the U.S. criminal justice system has become increasingly complex. As a result, the need arose for a doctorate degree in the field of law enforcement. Individuals with doctorate degrees in law enforcement are considered experts in their field. Those seeking to obtain a doctorate degree in law enforcement have very likely been in the field of law enforcement for some time, and might now be considering a change of career. Examples of law enforcement professionals for whom a doctorate degree in law enforcement might be suited include police and fire chiefs, as well as high-ranking professionals in the field of security.
    While there could be many law enforcement careers available to people with this exclusive, specialized degree, the individual might be most interested in becoming a professor of law enforcement, a law enforcement consultant, or a law enforcement researcher.

    Another type of law enforcement degree is the doctorate degree in criminal justice and law enforcement administration. This degree prepares law enforcement professionals to apply the theories and practices of criminal justice to structuring and directing such criminal justice agencies as police and sheriff’s departments, law enforcement divisions, and private protection services.

    A doctorate degree in law enforcement can take anywhere from three to five years to complete, and the coursework for a doctorate program generally focuses on the theory and research of law enforcement, as well as on criminal justice. The doctoral student will likely be required to write and defend a doctoral dissertation. Because of the length of time that will be invested in working toward obtaining the degree, the individual should perform in-depth research upfront in order to understand fully the requirements of the chosen program. In terms of prerequisites for a doctorate degree, depending on the program the individual wishes to enter, he or she might be required to have only a bachelor’s degree, while other programs require both a master’s degree as well as substantial relevant job experience.