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Exploring Law Enforcement Careers How to Become an FBI Agent or Go to School to Protect and Serve

Students who are interested in law enforcement might dream of a career as a sheriff or lawyers or want to be a genius special agent like their favorite character on a TV crime drama. Law enforcement is a multifaceted field, and the many law enforcement agencies across the U.S. need people of all ages and educational backgrounds to operate smoothly and effectively. On-the-job training is one great selling point for entry-level careers, but law enforcement may also provide a lifetime of advancement opportunities in a variety of related specializations. Explore the different paths you can to take to make protecting and serving a fulfilling, lifelong career.

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Career and Salary Profiles: How to Become a Police Officer & More

With such a range of law enforcement career opportunities, it can be tough to decide which path to explore. The skills gained through law enforcement training and on-the-job experience tend to transfer well between different careers, giving the ability to branch out and advance without having to start from square one. Take a look at what you need to do to get some of the most popular jobs in law enforcement below.

POLICE OFFICER

  • Median Salary: $61,600

  • Job Growth Projection through 2024: 5 percent growth

Police Officers are tasked with enforcing our laws and protecting lives and property. They can work for cities and municipalities, as well as the State Patrol and other local, state or federal government agencies. Working in the field is often high-stress, physical and dangerous, however officers report very high job satisfaction.

How to Become a Police Officer
  • Step 1

    Earn your high school diploma or complete the GED.

  • Step 2

    Research and make sure you meet law enforcement academy application requirements in your area. Some may favor applicants who have completed some college credits or have earned an associate or bachelor’s degree.

  • Step 3

    Take and pass the law enforcement entrance exam. Exams vary by law enforcement agency.

  • Step 4

    Attend and graduate from a law enforcement academy. Programs include both classroom and hands-on physical training. Graduates will continue on-the-job field training with a senior officer post-graduation.

  • Median Salary: $56,750

  • Job Growth Projection through 2024: 26.6 percent growth

Forensic science technicians—or crime scene investigators—observe, document and collect evidence at crime scenes. Much of their work is done in laboratories, where they use a variety of scientific techniques to analyze evidence, however their work also moves outdoors and may be done in all types of weather, wherever there is a crime scene to process.

How to Become a Forensic Science Technician
  • Step 1

    Earn a bachelor’s degree in a natural science, like biology or chemistry. If possible, take classes related to forensic science or criminal justice.

  • Step 2

    Apply for an internship, apprenticeship or entry-level lab position in forensics, or continue schooling to earn a master’s degree in forensic science.

    NOTE: A master’s degree may not be necessary for a forensic science career, most forensic science-specific programs graduate level or higher.

  • Step 3

    Work and train under an experienced forensic investigator to learn proper collecting and documenting procedures. This is a likely starting point for any forensics job, regardless of specialization.

  • Step 4

    Pursue additional on-the-job training or advanced schooling towards a more specialized or senior role within forensics. Job specializations could include: blood spatter analyst, ballistics expert, crime scene photographer, forensic odontologist (dentist), forensic chemist, etc.

  • Median Salary: $78,120

  • Job Growth Projection through 2024: 1.2 percent decrease

Detectives and criminal investigators work to solve criminal cases by gathering different types of evidence. They may participate in arrests, interview leads and observe suspects. Many detectives specialize in specific types of investigations, like homicides, narcotics, gang crimes, etc. and are assigned cases that can take an extended amount of time to solve.

How to Become a Detective or Criminal Investigator
  • Step 1

    Earn your high school diploma or complete the GED.

  • Step 2

    Pass the law enforcement entrance exam, and graduate from a law enforcement academy.

  • Step 3

    Gain work experience as a police officer.

  • Step 4

    Becoming a detective can take years of practical field experience. Detectives are often promoted through their supervising officers after expressing interest in promotion.

  • Median Salary: $42,800

  • Job Growth Projection through 2024: 3.7 percent growth

Correctional officers work within jails and prisons to oversee those serving time or awaiting trial for criminal activities. They are responsible for keeping inmates and facilities safe and secure. Correctional officers may have to restrain and escort inmates between facilities and keep logs of shift activity and inmate behavior.

How to Become a Correctional Officer
  • Step 1

    Earn your high school diploma or complete the GED.

  • Step 2

    Research the type of agency you’d like to work for. Different agencies have different minimum requirements, such as a minimum age, job experience or academy training. If pursuing work in a federal facility, earning a bachelor’s degree, or gaining 1-3 years full-time experience in counseling, supervisory position or similar may be required.

  • Step 3

    Apply for an officer position and successfully complete the correctional academy required training program.

  • Step 4

    Begin work in a correctional facility. New officers will likely spend their months on the job receiving additional field training with a senior officer.

  • Median Salary: $48,190

  • Job Growth Projection through 2024: 5.2 percent growth

Private investigators split their time between the office and the field researching and investigating a variety of legal, personal and financial issues as hired out by clients. Most private investigators work for investigation services branches of businesses or are self-employed. Because surveillance and meeting with people is a large part of the job, erratic work schedules are common.

How to Become a Private Investigator
  • Step 1

    Earn your high school diploma or complete the GED.

  • Step 2

    Study criminal justice or apprentice with a working private investigator. A two- or four-year criminal justice degree can provide a strong background and increase your chances of getting hired, but higher education isn’t always required.

  • Step 3

    Gain work experience. Many private investigators have military, police or other law enforcement careers before moving into private investigation. Others have other relevant industry experience, such as insurance claims investigators.

  • Step 4

    Gain licensure. Requirements vary by state, so prospective private investigators should be sure to get licensed in the state or states they plan to work.

  • Median Salary: $50,160

  • Job Growth Projection through 2024: 3.6 percent growth

There are different types of probation officers, or correctional treatment specialists, but generally these professionals help those who have violated the law by providing rehabilitation services, support and access to social services. These officers and specialists may work with people before, during and after their trial or sentence.

How to Become a Probation Officer or Correctional Treatment Specialist
  • Step 1

    Earn a bachelor’s degree in a relevant field, like behavioral sciences, social work or criminal justice.

  • Step 2

    Pass required drug tests, competency exams and criminal background checks needed to be cleared to work in your state. Also check to make sure you meet any other minimum requirements.

  • Step 3

    Complete a state- or federally sponsored training program, and pass the corresponding exam.

  • Step 4

    Work as a trainee or receive specific training required for any desired specializations, like working with juvenile offenders or substance abuse cases.

The 10 Highest Paying Careers in Law Enforcement

When it comes to law enforcement careers, the largest salaries are found in legal services rather than protective or investigative jobs. However, field-based law enforcement careers often come with very high job satisfaction rates. From improving your community and helping those in need, people who pursue a career dedicated to protecting and serving typically do so for those reasons. Here are the highest paying general law enforcement and field-based career salaries on average in the U.S.

HIGHEST PAYING GENERAL LAW & ENFORCEMENT CAREERS

LAWYERS AND ATTORNEYSAverage Annual Pay: $139,880

Highest Paying Industries for Lawyers and Attorneys

  • Civil Aviation / Air Transportation

    Average Annual Pay: $214,630

  • Industrial Machining & Manufacturing

    Average Annual Pay: $209,020

  • Beer, Wine & Spirits Mercantile

    Average Annual Pay:
    $81,450

  • Degree Level Required: Professional

  • Possible Majors: Law

Highest Paying Industries for Judges and Magistrates

  • State Government

    Average Annual Pay: $134,920

  • Local Government

    Average Annual Pay: $96,120

  • Degree Level Required: Professional

  • Possible Majors: Law

Highest Paying Industries for Hearing Officers and Administrative Judges

  • Federal Executive Government

    Average Annual Pay:
    $126,510

  • Local Government

    Average Annual Pay:
    $81,760

  • State Government

    Average Annual Pay:
    $81,450

  • Degree Level Required: Bachelor’s

  • Possible Majors: Public Administration, Criminal Justice, Law

Highest Paying Industries for Police Supervisors

  • Federal Executive Government

    Average Annual Pay:
    $119,540

  • State Government

    Average Annual Pay:
    $91,970

  • Local Government

    Average Annual Pay:
    $85,830

  • Degree Level Required: Bachelor’s or Master’s

  • Possible Majors: Criminology, Criminal Justice, Public Administration

Highest Paying Industries for Detectives and Criminal Investigators

  • Federal Executive Government

    Average Annual Pay:
    $103,620

  • Postal Service

    Average Annual Pay:
    $94,900

  • Local Government

    Average Annual Pay:
    $69,370

  • Degree Level Required: Bachelor’s to Master’s

  • Possible Majors:Criminology, Criminal Justice, Forensic Science

Highest Paying Industries for Arbitrators, Mediators and Conciliators

  • Federal Offices of Emergency Services

    Average Annual Pay:
    $121,890

  • Professional, Scientific and Technical Services

    Average Annual Pay:
    $100,930

  • Colleges, Universities and Professional Schools

    Average Annual Pay:
    $98,110

  • Degree Level Required: Certificate to Associate

  • Possible Majors: Criminology, Criminal Justice, Public Administration

Highest Paying Industries for Forensic Psychologists

  • Local Government

    Average Annual Pay:
    $114,140

  • State Government

    Average Annual Pay:
    $111,460

  • Federal Executive Government

    Average Annual Pay:
    $90,520

  • Degree Level Required: Doctorate

  • Possible Majors: Criminology, Criminal Justice, Forensic Psychology, Psychology

Highest Paying Industries for Transit and Railroad Police

  • State Offices of Emergency Services

    Average Annual Pay:
    $80,480

  • Rail Transportation

    Average Annual Pay:
    $68,660

  • Local Offices of Emergency Services

    Average Annual Pay:
    $66,860

  • Degree Level Required: HS Diploma to Bachelor’s

  • Possible Majors: Criminal Justice

Highest Paying Industries for Criminal Justice and Law Enforcement Professors

  • Colleges, Universities & Professional Schools

    Average Annual Pay:
    $67,650

  • Junior Colleges

    Average Annual Pay:
    $66,860

  • Technical and Trade Schools

    Average Annual Pay:
    $57,110

  • Degree Level Required: Master’s to Doctorate

  • Possible Majors: Criminology, Criminal Justice, Forensic Science, Law

Highest Paying Industries for Criminal Justice and Law Enforcement Professors

  • Federal Offices of Emergency Services

    Average Annual Pay:
    $72,300

  • Psychiatric and Substance Abuse Hospitals

    Average Annual Pay:
    $67,970

  • Local Offices of Emergency Services

    Average Annual Pay:
    $67,820

  • Degree Level Required: Certificate to Associate

  • Possible Majors: Criminology, Criminal Justice, Public Administration

HIGHEST PAYING IN-THE-FIELD LAW ENFORCEMENT CAREERS

CareerSupervisors: Police and Detectives

  • Degree Level Required

    Bachelor’s or Master’s

  • Median Pay (?)

    $88,400

  • Where They Work

    Varying law enforcement agencies, typically in-office after extensive prior fieldwork and experience

  • Degree Level Required

    Doctorate

  • Median Pay (?)

    $80,000

  • Where They Work

    Private practice offices and law enforcement agencies

  • Degree Level Required

    Bachelor’s to Master’s

  • Median Pay (?)

    $78,120

  • Where They Work

    Varying law enforcement agencies, both in-office and in the field

  • Degree Level Required

    High School Diploma to Bachelor’s

  • Median Pay (?)

    $66,510

  • Where They Work

    Railroad yards, transit stations

  • Degree Level Required

    Certificate to Associate

  • Median Pay (?)

    $65,100

  • Where They Work

    Varying correctional facilities, typically in-office after extensive prior fieldwork and experience

  • Degree Level Required

    Academy Training

  • Median Pay (?)

    $59,680

  • Where They Work

    Varying law enforcement agencies, most work done in the field

  • Degree Level Required

    Academy Training

  • Median Pay (?)

    $58,440

  • Where They Work

    Varying firefighting agencies, working in the field wherever fires occur

  • Degree Level Required

    Bachelor’s

  • Median Pay (?)

    $56,750

  • Where They Work

    Laboratories and crime scenes

  • Degree Level Required

    Bachelor’s

  • Median Pay (?)

    $54,760

  • Where They Work

    Outdoor environments, areas with fishing and hunting

  • Degree Level Required

    Bachelor’s

  • Median Pay (?)

    $50,160

  • Where They Work

    Varies but can include offices, homes of parolees or their families, correctional facilities, courtrooms and rehabilitation centers

Working for the FBI & Other Dream Law Enforcement Jobs

High-tension, action-packed—the life of an FBI Agent or high profile lawyer can seem glamorous on TV crime dramas, but what does it actually take to work in some of the most coveted positions in law enforcement? We’ve broken down some of these dream careers to give students a better understanding of the job requirements and steps it takes to land a job with the FBI, CIA or other high-profile department.

The FBI aims to combat major crimes and protect the United States from criminal organizations, terrorism, cyber-attacks and foreign intelligence operations. There are two major types of career paths within the FBI: special agent and professional staff. Working for the FBI could entail anything from administrative work and intensive research to preventing cybercrime or de-escalating hostage situations.

Potential Careers
  • Entry Level: Intelligence Analyst

    Intelligence analysts gather and assess information and provide recommendations to decision-making personnel based on their findings. They work with Special Agents and other Intelligence partners to create strategies and gain a stronger understanding of potential threats and vulnerabilities.

  • Mid-Level: Special Agent

    The roles of Special Agents vary, so individuals with all types of work and educational backgrounds may find opportunities to put their skills to use in this role. Special Agents investigate criminal activity and work to ensure public safety.

  • High Level: Evidence Response Team Member

    The Evidence Response Team (ERT) is one of the FBI’s advanced tactical units. These supervisory Special Agents, forensic operations specialists, logistics and management specialists and forensic canine consultants assist many different units within the FBI by providing evidence collection and preservation training to new agents.

How to Get Your Foot in the Door at the FBI
  • Do your research – Prospective FBI employees enter the field fairly young, but prepare for what could easily be a lifelong career. By doing some detailed research, students should prepare their career and educational plan before pursuing an FBI job. This show the agency that you know what you’re interested in and ready for.

  • Get in shape, both mentally and physically – Not every FBI position requires physical prowess, but those looking to be special agents will need to be able to pass physical fitness tests and have their mental strength pushed as well. Get to know the eligibility requirements before you apply.

  • Participate in an FBI internship – The FBI internship program is highly valuable not only to students, but to the agency as well. The intern pool is one of the first places hiring personnel turn to when looking for new agents and administrative employees.

The job is about getting people to relax, getting witnesses to help you, getting criminals to confess, getting guys to work for us instead of us for them. Likability is a very important trait at the FBI.”

Gary Noesner, former FBI Crisis Negotiator

(Business Insider, “What it’s REALLY Like to Work for the FBI”)

The CIA’s mission is to protect the President and other government officials, and to strengthen and develop U.S. national security through the collection, analysis and protection of relevant intelligence. CIA employees are part of one of four groups within the agency: the National Clandestine Service, the Directorate of Intelligence, the Directorate of Science and Technology and the Directorate of Support. Careers range from engineering and legal positions to highly intensive spy analyst positions.

Potential Careers
  • Entry Level: Operations Officer

    Operations officers work on clandestine assignments, assessing and working with non-U.S. citizens to gather foreign intelligence. They receive foundational training for one to two years before moving into advanced training for specific work assignments, often spending multiple years at a time on each assignment.

  • Mid-Level: Directorate of Operations Language Officer

    Language officers play a significant role in clandestine CIA operations. Their advanced language and cultural skills are vital in establishing relationships and collecting accurate and timely foreign intelligence.

  • High Level: Protective Agent

    Protective agents work around the world on sensitive operations and operational assignments. Military or S.W.A.T. experience is preferred, and often these agents travel extensively. They must be effective communicators and have sound judgement and negotiation skills.

How to Get Your Foot in the Door at the CIA
  • Study a foreign language – Gathering foreign intelligence and establishing relationships abroad is a critical part of CIA operations. Strong foreign language skills are highly sought.

  • Apply for the CIA Graduate Studies Program – The CIA offers a program for graduate students. Upon graduation, promising students will be evaluated for job opportunities, and they’ll already have considerable skills under their belt.

  • Get law enforcement experience – Many agents get their start by working in other areas of law enforcement or by serving in the military. The skills learned in these occupations can transfer well into CIA careers.

“The mission of the CIA drives the work and the experience. Unlike many private sector positions, the ability to directly correlate your work to the overall mission of the CIA is a root positive for all employees.”

Christopher Burgess, former CIA Operations Officer

(Clearance Jobs, “What is it Like to Work at the CIA?”)

Whether working on active cases for an agency or cold cases independently, criminal profilers use psychological and scientific theory coupled with the study of evidence, police reports and other relevant materials to identify a profile for the suspect of a crime. They could work directly for an agency or be hired on as independent contractors on a case-by-case basis.

Potential Careers
  • Entry Level: Mental Health Counselor

    After two years of clinical work under a licensed mental health professional, a mental health counselor can find work in a variety of settings. Those interested in moving into criminal profiling may look for work in a correctional facility or an addiction or victim services or rehabilitation center.

  • Mid-Level: Forensic Counselor

    With a Forensic Counseling certification, mental health professionals and psychologists working in the criminal justice system are allowed to testify as experts in court cases. This level of work may require continuing education and a doctoral degree.

  • High Level: Behavioral Analyst

    The FBI’s National Center for the Analysis of Violent Crime (NCAVC) Behavioral Analysis Unit helps law enforcement agencies solve cases by providing criminal investigative analysis that includes both physical and behavioral facts and hints.

How to Get Your Foot in the Door as a Criminal Profiler
  • Get as much formal education as possible – More advanced education allows prospective criminal profilers to deepen their studies of psychology, conduct advanced research and broaden their understanding of people and their behaviors. Most profilers hold a doctorate in behavioral sciences.

  • Allow for some life experience to set in – With life experience comes a better understanding of people. Also, criminal profiling can be very emotionally taxing, so taking time to develop coping skills will be valuable.

  • Develop law enforcement understanding and knowledge – There is still a level of tension associated with using psychological principles to help solve a crime rather than traditional policing. Understanding the law enforcement perspective of profiling can be helpful in establishing collaborative relationships.

“Good profilers have the following traits and abilities: A very logical mind, an ability to solve puzzles, and a tenacity to keep struggling for answers when your head is getting very bruised from the walls you keep slamming it into…and the belief that all of us have the ability to think like a serial killer or criminal to some degree.”

Pat Brown, Criminal Profiler

(The Pat Brown Criminal Profiling Agency, “Profiling as a Career”)

Celebrity lawyers are powerful attorneys who work on high-profile cases or have big-name clients. They generally have the same responsibilities as lesser known lawyers, but celebrity attorneys must also successfully build a brand, secure the confidence and loyalty of their clients and skillfully handle media attention.

Potential Careers
  • Entry Level: Paralegal

    Paralegals work in law firms to help attorneys with research and document preparation. This career provides a solid introduction to the legal system and allows people to make professional connections.

  • Mid-Level: Law Firm Partner

    Becoming a partner in a law firm means gaining partial ownership of the firm. This is a good way to get name recognition while taking advantage of the client base afforded by a larger law firm.

  • High Level: Trial Attorney, Private Firm

    After gaining a positive reputation, building a bit of a client base and having some successful cases under their belts, trial lawyers may even want to start their own practice, effectively putting their name at the forefront of their business and launching a recognizable brand during trials and media coverage.

How to Get Your Foot in the Door as a Celebrity Lawyer
  • Practice what you know – When starting a law career, it can be helpful to pull from your interests or personal experiences to enhance and inform your practice. Someone who has personally dealt with free speech issues can bring that experience and passion to their clients.

  • Evaluate and improve yourself – Assessing your strengths and weaknesses over time and striving to make improvements can increase the number of successful cases you win. More wins can help build a positive brand.

  • Be bold and driven – Nobody jumps straight into being a celebrity lawyer straight out of law school. Working hard at the bottom, watching and working under successful mentors. Make your own luck and use your charm, connections and contacts to your advantage as you work your way up. Just know, it really takes work.

“It was always through the law that I felt I could do what I wanted socially, be totally independent, and not be rule-bound.”

Martin Garbus, Celebrity Trial Lawyer

(Law Practice Today, “Do You Have What it Takes to Be a Celebrity Lawyer?”)

The Supreme Court is the only constitutionally-established court in the United States. Its nine justices are responsible for interpreting the constitution and determining the constitutionality of federal laws, hearing appeals from lesser courts and settling disputes between states. It is often isolated work, as justices are not allowed to collaborate or be influenced by outside accounts of a case when it comes through their desk.

Potential Careers
  • Entry Level: Law Clerk

    Law clerks conduct research and prepare documents to help judges in court. They sort through petitions, write summaries and memos and may draft written responses for justices. Supreme Court law clerks may need more professional experience than those working county or state courts.

  • Mid-Level: Constitutional Law Lawyer

    Though many supreme court justices have no prior experience as a judge, most have worked as a lawyer. Constitutional law is the main focus of the Supreme Court, and practicing within this specialty area would give any Supreme Court hopeful a working knowledge of the constitutional law system.

  • High Level: Appellate Court Justice

    Over the years people have taken many different paths to federal judgeship. It takes an immense amount of research to find the right candidate from the pool of qualified legal professionals across the U.S. Vetting committees look at legal qualifications, reputation and written record, as well as interview the candidate’s colleagues, supervisors, opponents and others to discuss their qualifications.

How to Get Your Foot in the Door with the Supreme Court
  • Plan early – Decisions made early into college and career can determine whether or not you’ll have a shot at the Supreme Court someday. A majority of Justices have law degrees from Harvard and Yale. Many built reputations of keeping politically neutral throughout their law careers. Be mindful of your choices and their potential impacts and consequences.

  • Build a social network – Making connections with powerful people can help relatively nameless students and newcomers build a reputation and gain influential references. Market yourself, join a professional organization and stay in touch with the people you went to school with.

  • Apply for a Supreme Court Internship – The Supreme Court offers a variety of internship opportunities to dedicated students interested in a range of Court positions, including curatorial and public information careers.

“Our system presumes that there are certain principles that are more important than the temper of the times. And you must have a judge who is detached, who is independent, who is fair, who is committed only to those principles, and not public pressures of other sort.”

Anthony Kennedy, Senior Associate Justice of the Supreme Court

(PBS, “Interview – Justices Stephen Breyer and Anthony Kennedy”)

The Lifetime Career Potential Within Law Enforcement

Law enforcement alums often report their jobs are very rewarding, lifelong careers. In fact, law enforcement is one of the unique fields that encourages those who start in an entry-level position to work their way to senior management over time—someone who worked the streets as a police officer could make a Chief of Police who really knows and understands their officer’s and community’s needs. Here are some opportunities for lifelong careers in law enforcement, no matter what education level you’re interested in.

OPPORTUNITIES TO WORK YOUR WAY UP FROM ANY LEVEL

After Basic Certification

  • Working your way up in Corrections

  • Level 1 – Correctional Officer (CO): After passing Academy certification, a CO will train under a supervising officer for a period of time before being given full correctional officer status.

  • Level 2 – Officer First-Class, Specialist: Though timelines and ranks vary by facility, if a CO chooses to continue education while working, they may receive the opportunity for advancement to Officer First-Class or Specialist. This typically means putting in at least two years of service, and also working towards an associate degree, state certifications to become a field training officer, Officer in Charge training or other specialized services within corrections.

  • Level 3 – Sergeant, Lieutenant: After continuing education and leadership training certifications, mid-level CO’s often begin taking on more supervisory assignments to earn the ranks of Sergeant and Lieutenant.

  • Level 4 – Superintendent, Warden: Pursuing a bachelor’s degree can help supervising officers take the next step to upper management as a Superintendent or Warden. In addition to supervising, expect to do planning, administrative and consulting work.

LIFETIME EARNING POTENTIAL Supervisor/Manager in Police/Detective Fields
  • $2.5 Million with some college

  • $3 Million with a bachelor’s degree

  • Working your way up in Forensics

  • Level 1 – Forensic Technician: Forensic grads with an associate degree can find entry-level jobs as forensic lab technicians, trainees or assistants. However, in major cities or where the market is competitive, a forensics internship might be the first step to getting that initial on-the-job experience.

  • Level 2 – Forensic Scientist: After on-the-job training and passing required proficiency tests, forensic techs can reach full Forensic Scientist status. Some departments may offer the opportunity to continue education or specialize in different areas of forensics, such as forensic chemistry.

  • Level 3 – Forensic Chemist: Forensic scientists who specialize in chemistry can continue education, earning a bachelor’s or master’s degree or graduate certificate to grow even more specialized within forensic chemistry. Practices could include toxicology, DNA and serology, drug chemistry and more.

  • Level 4 – Forensic Administrator: Forensic chemists interested in adding supervisory duties to their work can become forensics administrators. Positions may require advanced casework, a number of years of experience, or a bachelor’s or master’s level education.

LIFETIME EARNING POTENTIAL Chemist
  • $2.8 million with a bachelor’s degree

  • $3.4 Million with a master’s degree

  • Working your way up to be a criminal justice professor

  • Level 1 – Peace Officer: Peace officers take many forms, including police officers, game wardens, sheriff deputies or state patrol officers. They are sworn officials tasked with keeping the peace in various capacities. You do not need a bachelor’s degree to become a police officer; common requirements might include some college credits or military training.

  • Level 2 – Detective, Investigator: Criminal investigators respond to crime scenes, gather and assess evidence and conduct research to solve cases. They’re often promoted to this specialized position from a standard officer role. Some agencies require at least a bachelor’s degree to hold a detective or investigator position.

  • Level 3 – Sergeant, Lieutenant: Sergeants and Lieutenants take on supervisory roles within their respective departments while also maintaining officer duties. They often earn additional training and certifications to provide leadership, supervise and train new officers.

  • Level 4 – Criminal Justice Professor: Though timelines vary by department, officers can retire with a pension after approximately 20 years of service. A bachelor’s degree combined with life experience as an officer could make you an ideal Criminal Justice professor.

LIFETIME EARNING POTENTIAL Postsecondary Teacher
  • $1.8 Million with a bachelor’s (plus police pension)

  • $2.5 Million with a master’s (plus police pension)

  • Working your way up to be an FBI Fraud Investigator

  • Level 1 – Accountant, Compliance Officer: Starting a career in business compliance or accounting can help you get to know the laws and regulations behind business and finance, and usually only requires a bachelor’s degree.

  • Level 2 – Contract Specialist: Contract specialists work for a variety of government agencies doing data analysis and negotiations. New master’s level grads may also benefit from a federal internship in acquisition as a foot in the door.

  • Level 3 – Forensic Accountant: The path where investigative skills and numbers meet, forensic accountants often earn specialized certification to continue their work in fraud prevention.

  • Level 4 – FBI Forensic Accountant: One of the most highly-sought careers at the FBI, candidates must hold a master’s and professional accounting certifications to apply. Candidates also must pass a five-week FBI Academy training program.

LIFETIME EARNING POTENTIAL Compliance Officer
  • $2.7 Million with a bachelor’s

  • $3.1 Million with a master’s

  • Working your way up to becoming a judge

  • Level 1 – Law Clerk: Law clerks, court clerks or judicial clerks prepare and file court documents, keep attorneys and witnesses informed about their court appearances and help judges with research and other court duties.

  • Level 2 – Associate Attorney: After passing the Bar Exam, getting hired on as an associate at a law firm is a logical next step. Associate attorneys are lawyers who work for a firm but are not a partner, and can be entry-level junior attorneys to very senior, experienced lawyers.

  • Level 3 – Law Firm Partner: Associate attorneys can advance to become partners in their law firm. This means they have partial ownership of the firm and take a portion of the firm’s yearly profits.

  • Level 4 – State Judge: State judges preside over hearings and trials to determine the guilt or innocence of involved parties. They may be appointed or elected by voters, depending on state laws. They may hear most types of cases involving violation of state law, including criminal, probate, family law and personal injury.

LIFETIME EARNING POTENTIAL Judge
  • $4 million with a Juris Doctor

Expert Advice: The Realities of a Career in Law Enforcement

Officer Jason Jones has served as a police officer in Oregon since 1999. He has devoted his career to crisis intervention, community policing, youth delinquency prevention programs, homeless outreach and empowering domestic violence survivors. Prior to police service, he worked as a probation officer, specializing in collaborative-based programs. Jones also serves as an adjunct instructor at area community colleges and two universities, where he has developed curriculum for over twenty-five courses. He also assists as an instructor with the State of Oregon’s Department of Public Safety Standards and Training, and in his spare time works as a consultant on international development projects, focusing on social crime prevention, justice and public safety initiatives. He holds a Master of Arts degree in Behavioral Science from California State University at Dominguez Hills.

Q: What are some of the highs and lows of working as a police officer?

A: Well, the highs are that you can help people, and you get to be there at really important times in people’s lives. There’s some sense of urgency or threat or other problems that you get to be a part of in helping find solutions. If nothing more, you get to triage it and help get things stable, kind of like an ER doctor would. But you can also be like a family doctor and try to get at the root cause of problems so that the problems don’t continue. If you really like helping people, there are amazing opportunities every day to do kind things for other human beings. This is a very unique job that enables us to do that.

But there is a lot of trauma. There are a lot of awful, traumatic, horrible things that human beings do to each other, and you have to see that. I will tell you, it leaves emotional residue on you. It stays with you forever, and you’ll never be able to get rid of it. And you just have to know that. It can be very hard. Some people are able to process it and work through it pretty well. For others, it can be very emotionally taxing, and it can definitely affect their personality, their home life and their health. There can also be a lot of stress from the organization itself internally. Some officers do fine with the risk of death and the trauma and the human misery that you experience daily, and some struggle more with the change inside and the poor morale, or a perception of lack of support from the community or the chief or city officials or something like that. And that can be very stressful.

Q: What type of person would be good for law enforcement work?

A: Yes. People who have care for other human beings will do well. People who are creative and flexible enough to think outside the box with problem solving. People who have a natural curiosity about human behavior and are able to suspend judgement, to a degree. They’re not judging the people who are doing it; they are curious as to why they’re doing it. They’re looking for explanations. Also, they need a willingness to adapt to change, because that’s the one constant. The one thing that won’t change is the fact that there is change. People who are good at adapting to technological change, policy change, procedural change and change in societal norms or values will do well.

People who have power and control issues struggle. People who don’t have a strong moral compass or have issues around ethics or honesty will struggle. This job amplifies who you are. You can’t become a police officer to become a better person. This job–being exposed to all the bad things you’re exposed to–will amplify who you already are. And if you have issues with power and control, or if you’re insecure, or if you have some axe to grind and you have something you want to prove, this is not the profession for you. You have to be a stable person with that moral compass in place, demonstrated in your character, and if it’s not demonstrated in your character, find another line of work.

Q: What advice do you have for students who are interested in pursuing careers in law enforcement?

A: Do internships. Do some interviews. Really research where you think you’re going to be working and talk to people who work there, because you could potentially be working there for 30 or 35 years. I sometimes see people just apply to wherever without really doing any research, when in fact, it might not really be the best fit for their personality, their lifestyle or their family. They really don’t know what they’re getting into until they get there. So talking to people, doing job shadows, ride-alongs and things like that can be very helpful so they know what they’re getting into and see if that specific agency is the right place for them for the next 35 years of their life.

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