Pros Expose 6 Things You Should Know Before Becoming a Probation Officer
By Brianna Flavin on 03/30/2015
The life of a probation officer is both fascinating and mysterious. Movie depictions give us glimpses of brave men and women running down offenders and interviewing ex-cons for illegal activity.
It makes a good addition to a crime plot, but the work of a probation officer is far more extensive than that. If you’ve ever wondered what a day in the life of a probation officer looks like, or if you think you have what it takes to become one, you came to the right place.
We summoned the pros to reveal some of the things they wish they knew before becoming a probation officer. This insider insight will help you determine if this is the right career path for you.
Before becoming a probation officer, you should know …
1. You may find yourself in a dangerous situation
“Be friendly, but don’t expect to make friends,” advises Robert Sutter, a retired probation officer of 17 years and current Rasmussen College instructor. This shouldn’t be a huge surprise considering you’ll be interacting directly with convicted offenders, but it’s still important to note.
"Be friendly, but don't expect to make friends."
Sutter recalls two occasions where his personal safety was threatened on the job. In both cases, he had warrants to arrest a client for violations but his clients’ friends or gang members were there to intervene.
Sutter explains that with no weapon, he relied on critical thinking and strong communication skills. Successful probation officers must be able to remain calm and level-headed even in a potentially dangerous situation.
2. You’ll spend a lot of time doing paperwork
Filling out paperwork probably wasn’t included in those movie scenes we mentioned earlier. While it may not be glamorous, it is a very important aspect of working as a probation officer, according to Dr. Currie Myers, retired sheriff and Rasmussen College School of Justice Studies dean. Probation officers represent the legal system they work for and need to report back constantly.
“They will be writing many reports and communicating with offenders as well as the court,” Sutter says. He admits this aspect of the job was the most challenging for him. Because communication is such a huge part of the job, both Myers and Sutter advise prospective officers to strengthen their written and oral communication skills as much as possible.
3. Organization is not optional
“One of the most challenging parts of this job is time management,” says Rose Pogatshnik, School of Justice Studies instructor at Rasmussen College. Probation officers are often managing very large caseloads. It’s imperative that all of the paperwork described earlier remains organized and manageable. Pogatshnik believes strong organizational abilities are crucial for anyone interested in the field.
4. You’ll have to put up with pessimists
Unfortunately, clients aren’t the only ones who give probation officers a hard time. Most people don’t realize how successful the probation system is, according to Sutter. “They think probation is a slap on the wrist. They have a ‘nothing works’ attitude,” he explains.
Sutter believes probation departments don’t put enough effort into advertising their successes and illuminating how useful and functional the system really is. Many people treat the department like a waste of money, which is much more frustrating to a probation officer than an offender with a bad attitude.
Regardless of the cynical attitudes, Sutter says his favorite part of the job was knowing he was making a difference. Probation officers “watch individuals make a conscious commitment to improve their life,” says Rasmussen School of Justice faculty Rose Pogatshnik, “it’s really rewarding.” That feeling, and every client you help toward rehabilitation, can be enough to keep you going despite the bad press.
5. You’ll need to be motivational
Though the movies tend to depict probation officers as stern or dictatorial, Sutter argues that the job demands a much more uplifting tone. He believes in encouragement and even humor when meeting with clients.
“[You need to] engage them in the process and get them to buy in to the need to change,” Sutter says. It’s no cakewalk to keep things friendly with potentially hostile and unappreciative clients, but he claims officers who can manage it will have more success—and more fun on the job.
6. You’ll have to meet several requirements
Depending on where you are now, landing work as a probation officer might take some extra effort—or extra schooling. Dr. Myers explains that most agencies require applicants to have at least a bachelor’s degree in an area such as criminal justice, counseling, sociology or psychology.
Some agencies may accept an associate degree if it’s accompanied by experience in a similar line of work, such as social services, criminal investigation or counseling. Most probation officers are also required to take a government-sponsored training course, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Pogatshnik says you can improve your odds by volunteering in the field. She adds that a successful candidate has experience on their resume and volunteer work is one of the best ways to acquire that invaluable experience.
Do you have what it takes?
It’s clear based on the insights shared above that becoming a probation officer isn’t for everyone. But if you think you’ve got what it takes to make a difference in this position, learn a human services degree could be the first step in preparing for this rewarding career.