Standing Out From the Competition: How to Get Into the Criminal Justice Field  

Published on: June 28, 2023

Whether you end up working as a police officer, detective, corrections officer or any other role—criminal justice can be an incredibly rewarding field. However, getting your foot in the door isn’t always easy. Not only do many agencies prefer candidates with a degree or certificate, but relevant experience and expertise may also be a factor.

No matter what kind of law enforcement role you envision for yourself, you’re bound to have a fair amount of competition. Wondering how to stand out in a competitive job market like criminal justice? We’ve got some practical tricks and tips to help you set yourself apart.

Essential Skills and Traits

Some skills can be learned in the classroom, but many essential traits are those you acquire over time. This includes decision-making abilities, critical thinking skills, time management and communication.

Tip #1: Improve Decision-Making and Critical Thinking

Working in criminal justice often means making important decisions in the blink of an eye. And depending on your specific role, these decisions may be life-altering for you or others. With this in mind, having the ability to make quick and confident decisions (even under pressure) is a must.

Strong critical thinking skills will also come in handy here, making it easier for you to quickly weigh and think through your options when it comes time to decide. Some of these skills will be picked up on the job, but there are other strategies you can work on independently to foster stronger decision-making and critical thinking skills.

Tip #2: Focus on Stress and Time Management

It’s no secret that criminal justice jobs can be stressful, but many people getting into criminal justice fail to realize just how prevalent stress and trauma can be. This is especially true in law enforcement roles, such as that of a police officer or detective. According to research by the University of Texas at Dallas, about one in four police officers suffers from a mental health condition, such as depression or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Being able to effectively manage your stress and time will serve you well in your criminal justice career. Consider working on some stress-management strategies now (such as meditating, journaling and physical exercise) to better your career prospects down the road. Time-management strategies (especially delegation) will also come in handy, as many law enforcement roles require the ability to juggle multiple tasks at once.

Tip #3: Develop Leadership and Communication Skills

Strong leadership and communication skills are also a must in the criminal justice field, especially if you aspire to work as a lead detective, captain, federal agent or other leadership role. To set yourself apart from your competition, you might consider taking some management and leadership courses as part of your degree or independently. You could also benefit from finding a mentor who will help you identify your strengths and weaknesses so you can work on them.

Written and verbal communication skills will go a long way in a criminal justice career, too. This is true not just in your application and interview but in your everyday work. You’ll be expected to communicate clearly and effectively with people from all walks of life, so don’t miss an opportunity to work on these essential skills now.

How Well Do You Know the Law?

Another important aspect of working in criminal justice is simply understanding the country’s legal system and how it applies to your work specifically. While you can study some of this independently, the bulk of your knowledge here should be acquired in the classroom.

Tip #4: Study Applications of the Law

Whether you’re working as a police officer in the field or in a more administrative role, you’ll need to stay current on laws and how they apply in your everyday work. As a police officer, for example, this will include a strong knowledge of your state’s criminal and civil laws—especially when making arrests or citations. It’s not uncommon for agencies to test applicants’ knowledge of specific laws during the interview process, so be prepared for a potential written exam.

Tip #5: Understand Legal History and Precedent

In addition to understanding the laws themselves, you’ll want to have a basic knowledge of legal history and precedent. This refers specifically to the ways in which laws have evolved and changed over time. Staying on top of more recent legal precedents will also come in handy, as you’ll be expected to be aware of changes to laws as they occur.

Tip #6: Know the Legal and Criminal Justice System

The legal and criminal justice system is complex, with many different layers and complicated inner workings. Some of these you won’t truly understand or appreciate until you’re working in the field yourself. However, having at least a basic knowledge of the different levels of the legal system, how charges and crimes are escalated and how cases move through the system will serve you well in any role.

Tip #7: Stay Up to Date with the Law

Having a means of staying on top of recent or upcoming legal changes will also come in handy as you try to break into the criminal justice field. If you don’t already, be sure to follow regulatory agency websites and other reputable sources for the latest on laws and regulations. Joining industry associations and even following different regulatory agencies on social media can help you stay abreast of changes as they occur. Likewise, being able to articulate to a potential employer how you stay proactive about your law education may help you set yourself apart from other applicants.

Gaining Relevant Experience and Finding Opportunities

While not always required, many agencies will prefer to hire applicants who have some proven experience in the field. Fortunately, there are plenty of opportunities to gain experience in the criminal justice field, even without relevant employment history.

Tip #8: Take Advantage of Internships

Internships are a great opportunity to gain some real-world experience in criminal justice and law enforcement. If you’ll be attending school to pursue a degree or certificate in criminal justice, inquire about internship opportunities through your school or through a partnering agency. Many schools with robust criminal justice programs have developed partnerships with local law enforcement agencies and other organizations that routinely hire interns (either on a paid or unpaid basis). Experience with a relevant internship can be a great way to set yourself apart on an application, especially for an entry-level position.

Tip #9: Explore Job Roles and Placement

Another thing to keep in mind as you consider how to work in criminal justice is that there are many different paths you can take. With a criminal justice degree or certificate, you can work in roles ranging from corrections police officer to detective, private security officer, criminal analyst or anything in between.

With this in mind, you shouldn’t limit your prospects by applying only for a highly specific or specialized job—especially as you’re just launching your career. Exploring different job roles and placement opportunities will help you expand your horizons. Even if you don’t land your dream job to start with, getting your first job in the field can help you gain the experience you’ll need to move up the ladder. Plus, you might even discover some new career interests or find yourself going down a path you didn’t previously expect.

Tip #10: Gain Volunteer/Unpaid Work Experience

Like an internship, volunteering and other unpaid work experience can pay off many times over when it comes to getting your first real job in the criminal justice field. Some law enforcement agencies, such as police departments and sheriff’s offices, accept volunteers for things like working with the public, data entry and even filing. While this won’t necessarily give you the hands-on experience you need to succeed in a criminal justice role, it can help familiarize you with the inner workings of these agencies. This knowledge, in turn, can set you apart from others when it comes time to interview for more specialized roles, not to mention the networking opportunity it presents.

Tip #11: Build an Established Network

After the required level of education and skills are met, finding success in criminal justice sometimes boils down to who you know. It’s never too early to start building a professional network. Depending on where you attend school, your college or university may have specific groups dedicated to networking with other criminal justice professionals—so be sure to get involved in any capacity that you can.

Likewise, you can meet others in the field at annual conferences and other industry events. You typically don’t need to work in the field to attend these events, though you may need to pay a registration fee or other costs associated with attending. Check with your school, though, as some criminal justice programs may offer sponsorships or other assistance programs to help offset the cost. The more people you meet and network with, the easier it will be for you to break into the field.

Your Story Starts at Park University

Wondering how to get a job in criminal justice? Getting started in this competitive field will require some careful preparation, discipline and focus—much like the work itself. Fortunately, you can set yourself up for a lifetime of success with the right criminal justice degree program. Whether you’re interested in an associate, bachelor’s, MPA or even a graduate certificate in criminal justice administration, Park University has options for you.

Our criminal justice administration programs provide you with the practical and essential information you’ll need to succeed. With topics ranging from criminal law and agency administration to criminology and more, our programs prepare you for the realities of this dynamic field. Get in touch with Park University today to request more information!

Park University is accredited by the Higher Learning Commission.

Park University is a private, non-profit, institution of higher learning since 1875.