Is a justice career in your future? Find out key information about educational and career paths in justice in this riveting interview with the Director of the School of Justice Studies at Rasmussen College, Matt Petz.
1) Why did you get in the current profession you are in?
My background is in law enforcement. I served many years as a police officer before joining Rasmussen College full time. I became interested in law enforcement when I started studying martial arts. My instructor was a deputy sheriff. The more I got to know him the more I saw the opportunity to make a difference in the world, to stand up for those who needed protection, but couldn’t protect themselves.
It was a career that required a lot of sacrifice, I found out – but a ton of personal reward. There were never many thank-yous, but I could go to sleep knowing I was doing my part to make the world a better place. It’s still one of the things that matters most to me: working at something that really impacts people’s lives in a positive way. That’s one of the greatest things about the field of justice studies.
2) What some career avenues someone could pursue in criminal justice?
One of the great things about criminal justice is that there are a ton of career options available. Even within law enforcement, there are a lot of areas of opportunity from crime prevention and public safety speeches, to SWAT teams and K9 work. You can be a detective, traffic cop, hostage negotiator, or police administrator. Criminal justice offers even more diversity, where you can become a unformed corrections officer working directly with offenders, a program coordinator for inmates looking to improve themselves through educational opportunities, a probation or parole officer, a juvenile services specialist, or a victim’s advocate, for example. Expand the career path even further than criminal justice and look at other Justice Studies professions, and the pathway gets even broader. Paralegal or legal assistant, case aide working with families and social workers, or working with citizens in group homes needing additional care. The job opportunities where you can improve peoples’ lives and impact public safety are endless.
3) What is the typical career path for a criminal justice degree graduate?
Depending on which degree pathway you prefer to pursue in school, there are a lot of different options. For someone going into law enforcement, the graduate can expect to start out in a corrections or community service officer role if they do not start our right on patrol. Security agencies are also a great place to work for grads, where professionals newly out of school can build their skills and really get to know the community they serve. For the grad who gets picked up by a police agency and gets put right out on patrol, expect to start working on dogwatch, or the night shift.
After some years of service in patrol, the grad can expect to have some opportunities start to open up in specialized assignments like investigations or SWAT. From there, promotion is a possibility as well. If the graduate prefers to enter a career in corrections, then the shift work will still be there and typically you would start at the bottom of the seniority list and get whatever shift is left over when the more senior personnel are done picking their shifts. As the career progresses, there are opportunities to get on the corrections version of SWAT teams inside the correctional facility, as well as promotional opportunities. If it’s a career in victims’ advocacy or juvenile work that the grad is looking for, the possibilities are really pretty open – although there is common theme of starting “at the bottom” in criminal justice careers, where seniority and time on the job typically lend themselves to expanding opportunities.
4) What would be the profile of interest/personal strengths for someone who would fit well in a criminal justice career?
Really, the biggest thing that is needed as a strength in these careers is a heart for public service and a commitment to sacrifice for people you don’t even know. The shift work is challenging and the jobs are mostly thankless, but for someone who has the heart and the desire to make a difference it can be the most rewarding thing in the world. You also have to have some great skills in communication and critical thinking – this career can be fast-paced, tense, and stressful – and if you can’t talk to people who are in crisis, and who may hate the very fact that you are wearing a badge or working for a government agency, then it’s very difficult to succeed.
You also have to have a real comfort with the unknown and with change. Some people who need structure and routine will really struggle in this type of career, because no two cases are the same and every day is something new. Finally, honor and integrity have to be cornerstones of your belief system. We see people at their worst, and there are a lot of opportunities to compromise who we are and what we stand for – so it’s key that someone going into this profession has a solid foundation of morals and good values. And above all, you have to have a great sense of humor! We’d never be able to get through the rough times if we couldn’t laugh at some of the crazy things that people do.
5) Can you describe a day in the life of a criminal justice practitioner?
A day in the life of a criminal justice practitioner is never typical – which is one of the most exciting things about the career. No two days are the same, and you never know what’s going to happen next. Typically you’ll report for your shift – whether it is at a group home, violence shelter, correctional facility, or law enforcement agency – and get your report or briefing from the staff going off-duty before you. From then on, anything can happen! It may be a totally uneventful shift where you pass the time looking to be proactive, or it may be so busy that you miss every break and every meal. Sometimes you can’t wait until the clock ticks away to the end of your shift because there is just nothing happening, and sometimes the time flies by so fast because there is hardly even a chance to breath. Sometimes you will work for hours past your scheduled shift, because the justice system doesn’t recognize quitting time. It’s really one of the most exhilarating aspects of the profession!
6) What sort of courses can you expect to take as a criminal justice degree seeker?
Typically, coursework in criminal justice degree programs have a very common foundation because of some key concepts like corrections philosophy, policing strategies, juvenile justice, criminological theory, criminal law and procedures, and domestic violence issues. Some programs allow for some specialized study beyond the core courses, which allows for a student to really dive into areas of personal interest like homeland security policy, psychology for law enforcement, or legal principles in corrections. At the Bachelor's degree level, students can expect to take some criminal justice research courses and statistics courses too, since you will need to know how to manage data in the criminal justice profession.
7) Can you share one piece of advice for current justice studies students?
This profession is all about public service. Volunteer while you’re in school – it’ll give you an opportunity to serve now, which is what you are building your career around – and it will give you an opportunity to see how people who struggle and are less fortunate can still live with joy. Those will be the moments that keep you going when you don’t want to take one more test or write one more paper – those moments where you can see what good you will be able to really do when you graduate and get out in the field.