How to choose a criminal justice program that's right for you

criminal justice scales

If the thrill of chasing down a perp, solving a crime or fighting for social rights is something you're looking for, spend some time investigating criminal justice careers. Since the degree is so flexible — those with a bachelor's can wind up working in local or state agencies, law enforcement, research firms, social advocacy organizations, court systems, nonprofits or legal fields — education programs vary tremendously in terms of curriculum, focus and how well they prepare students for the job market. Here's what you need to know about choosing a criminal justice degree program that's right for you.

1. Have a career plan

The first step to finding the right criminal justice program is having some idea of where you'd like to work after college, says Emily Owens, undergraduate chair in the Department of Criminology at the University of Pennsylvania. While some institutions provide a more generalized curriculum, others specialize in a particular area such as forensic psychology, correctional studies or computer criminology.

"At Penn we're a little bit different from a lot of other criminal justice programs in that [we offer] an applied social science degree," which offers a mix of psychology, criminology, sociology, policy analysis, statistics and economics classes, Owens says. "In many other criminal justice programs, they're training people to be police officers for example, or there will be very practical courses."

For students who haven't chosen a college yet, Owens recommends comparing criminal justice curricula to see what fits your post-college goals. Bill Wakefield, acting director of the University of Nebraska Omaha's School of Criminology and Criminal Justice, advises students already enrolled in school to check out ways to tailor the degree program around to career interests and educational goals. At Nebraska, for example, all criminology majors are required to complete a minor which "helps add to their marketability in the real world out there" Wakefield says. Areas such as computer science, public administration or a foreign language, fields which students can use in tandem with their main degree, are strongly encouraged.

2. Read up on school resources

The criminalistics program at California State University, Los Angeles, maintains a forensic crime lab that shares resources with the Los Angeles Police Department. The University of Maryland operates its own terrorism research and education center that funds undergrad and graduate research projects. The University of Nebraska Omaha offers its criminal justice students the chance to tour maximum security prisons and learn from the best at New Scotland Yard on a two-week trip to London.

But you won't know about any of those programs if you don't explore the resources schools have to offer, both in and outside the classroom. Katie Dean Williams, career liaison for Florida State University's College of Criminology and Criminal Justice, recommends that students look for experiential learning programs, such as internships, job shadowing, police ride-alongs and research opportunities, as well as joint degree programs if they're planning on attending graduate or law school. For those with an eye on further education, Florida State offers a joint bachelor's/master's program that allows students to earn their bachelor's and take four master's-level courses as well as an accelerated law program.

"Your fourth year of your bachelor's, you can start taking law school classes," Williams says, adding that students can also apply undergrad scholarships and financial aid to those costs. "You can actually graduate in four years and only have two years of law school left."

If you aren't sure of what your educational trajectory should be, reach out to employers, suggests Thomas Stucky, director of Criminal Justice and Public Safety Programs at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis.

"If a student has a strong interest in working in a particular federal agency for example, they might actually think about contacting the recruiters at those agencies and ask them what kinds of things would allow them to be a serious candidate for those positions," Stucky says.

3. Research the research

One way for undergraduates to stand out, to both employers and graduate admissions reps, is by having a serious research project on their resume, Stucky adds. While schools like the University of Pennsylvania require students to complete a research-intensive senior capstone class, others offer a thesis option, summer research programs or the chance to work on graduate or faculty studies.

"As an example, you would have a situation where a student could do data collection or data entry, or sometimes even data analysis relating to research projects that are going on," Stucky says. "That could be a very valuable experience."

It could also be a way to earn money while building up your resume. Several schools, including the University of Richmond and Villanova University, for example, offer paid research opportunities for eager undergraduates.

Check out a list of the ten best careers in criminal justice to get started on your path today.

School of Criminal Justice and Criminalistics, California State University, Los Angeles,
B.S. to M.S. Program, Florida State University College of Criminology & Criminal Justice,
Law Program, Florida State College of Criminology & Criminal Justice,
Emily Owens, Ph.D., Undergraduate Chair in the Department of Criminology at the University of Pennsylvania, Interviewed by the author on Oct. 1, 2014
Thomas Stucky, Ph.D., Director of Criminal Justice and Public Safety Programs at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis, Interviewed by the author on Oct. 1, 2014
Bill Wakefield, Ph.D., Acting Director of the School of Criminology and Criminal Justice at the University of Nebraska, Omaha, Interviewed by the author on Oct. 1, 2014
National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism, University of Maryland,
"London Study Abroad Program: Compare Criminal Justice Systems in the UK and the US," University of Nebraska Omaha,
Department of Criminology: Undergraduate, University of Pennsylvania,
Arts & Sciences Summer Research Fellowship, University of Richmond,
Villanova Undergraduate Research Fellows (VURF) Program, Villanova University,
Katie Dean Williams, Career Liaison for Florida State University's College of Criminology and Criminal Justice, Interviewed by the author on Oct. 1, 2014