Joseph Libowsky,
former Special Agent

Aspiring law enforcement officers are often faced with the dilemma of what type of degree should they get in order to have a competitive advantage during the hiring process and start their career in the best way possible. In order to choose the right degree, you need to find the answer to several questions – do you prefer to study online or attend the educational institution in person, what type of a degree do you want, how long are you prepared to study and what are your specific career goals. 

While some of the law enforcement positions do not require a specific degree for an entry position, it is better for a candidate to offer a certificate or a diploma in a related field. Depending on what kind of a degree you will choose to pursue, you may spend anything from less than a year to get a certificate to ten years for a doctor’s degree in law enforcement.  

One common option is to start working in the field and then continue upgrading your education levels once you have more clarity about the options, they can give you. In many cases, the department or agency you are working for can support your education if it offers the necessary expertise needed at the moment. 

Quite often, students choose to pursue an associate degree or a bachelor’s degree prior to starting work as a law enforcement officer and then continue upgrading their skills and knowledge while advancing in their career. Still, it is a good idea to know how much each degree takes so that you can make a decision that better answers your current situation, availability and financial resources. 

Certificate programs in the field of law enforcement 

Even though a college degree is not required by some departments, a certificate in the field of law enforcement is certainly a benefit. Since certificate programs are much shorter than associate or bachelor’s degree programs, they are often a preferred option for law enforcement candidates. It usually takes a few months up to a year to complete such a program. Most of them are quite flexible so you can work full-time while studying, which is a great advantage.  

Because of their shorter duration, certificate programs are also more affordable. Still, the investment in them is quite worthy as a certificate can help you increase your earnings over time. 

There are many certificate programs that are offered online, which makes them even more accessible and convenient. A certificate will give a good start both to young adults who have just finished high school and to people who want to change their career and enter law enforcement at a more mature age 

Certificate programs are usually offered by community colleges and the programs generally include an introduction to basic elements and terminology in the field of criminal justice and law. The curriculum of such a certificate program can include the following topics: 

  • Criminal law 
  • Criminal procedure 
  • Criminal investigations 
  • Crime prevention and control 
  • Administration of justice 
  • Law enforcement management basics, etc.  

A certificate in the field of law enforcement opens the path to various careers in the field that include police officer, bailiff, corrections officer, crime lab analyst or United States Park Police.  

Associate’s degrees related to law enforcement 

An associate’s degree related to law enforcement can be a great asset for aspiring officers. Its main advantage is that it offers some college credits, which are quite often included as a requirement by agencies for certain jobs in the field. Besides, in most of the cases, the credits earned can be transferred to a law enforcement bachelor’s degree, in case you decide to continue with your studies at a later point. 

The duration of an associate’s degree program is two years but can vary slightly depending on the format of study: 

  • On-campus programs are usually full-time and take 2 years for completion. There is also the option for accelerated programs with studies in the summer semesters that allow the program to be completed in 18 months or even less. The program can also be finished at a more relaxed pace, usually part-time for two and a half years or more.  
  • Online programs can take 1 or 2 years for completion depending on the school that offers them. You can check with each institution whether there is an option for advanced or prolonged study.  

The courses that can be included in an associate’s degree program are: 

  • Introduction to Criminal Justice 
  • Legal Aspects of Law Enforcement 
  • Criminal Investigation 
  • Fundamentals of Policing 
  • Criminal Procedure and Process 
  • Court Systems and Practices 
  • Crime Scene Investigation 
  • Foundations of Psychology 
  • Crime in America, etc. 

A possible realization in the field of law enforcement for a candidate with an associate’s degree includes working as a police officer, security officer, criminal investigator, forensic science technician, homicide detective or corrections officer.  

Law enforcement Bachelor’s degrees 

Acquiring a bachelor’s degree opens more doors to prospective law enforcement officers and allows them to choose a job they truly like and can grow in the career. If federal law enforcement is the field you prefer, a bachelor’s degree is a must for you, since most of the federal agencies do require it even for entry-level positions. 

A bachelor’s degree usually takes four years to be completed but the time can vary depending on the format and the availability of the student. In addition to that, students who have acquired an associate’s degree often can transfer the credits to the new program and thus complete the degree in about two years. The options that you have are the following: 

  • On-campus bachelor’s degree programs that are full-time require four years for completion. You can speed up the process by taking classes during summer semesters and finish the program in 3 or three years and a half. You can also choose to study part-time, which will take you at least four and a half years to complete, usually five and a half but can be even longer depending on your schedule and the school. 
  • Online bachelor’s degree programs are often preferred by candidates and they take between two and a half and four years in general to complete. You need to check the options for maxing out class load or taking a bit longer to finish the study.  

Classes included in law enforcement bachelor’s programs cover topics such as: 

  • Criminal Law and Procedure 
  • Criminal Evidence 
  • Crime Prevention 
  • Drugs and Society 
  • Deviance and Social Control 
  • Crime in America 
  • Police administration 
  • Ethics  
  • Theory and Practice of Criminal Justice, etc.  

Holding a bachelor’s degree is a competitive advantage for an applicant as it gives access to more career opportunities and the possibility for growth. Some of the jobs you can look for while browsing the job openings are a criminal investigator, FBI agent, a homicide detective, probation officer, emergency management director, first-line supervisor of police and detectives and many more. You can earn up to 30% more compared to a person in the same position without that degree. Generally, the employment rate among people with a bachelor’s degree is much lower than those with lesser degrees.  

Law enforcement Master’s degrees 

If you already have a bachelor’s degree, you can decide to climb up the professional ladder by earning a law enforcement master’s degree. The good news is that there are many options that you can choose from and many universities now offer both campus and distance programs, which are of the same high quality. Usually, it is a good idea to add a master’s degree once you already have some work experience and you are better positioned in the field. The insights and experience you have can direct you to choose the most appropriate degree that can help your career growth. Of course, there are also people who would prefer to finish their education prior to entering the employment field.  

No matter when you decide to pursue a master’s degree in a law enforcement related area, you shall be prepared to invest 2 to 3 years to finish your studies. It is also possible to acquire both a bachelor’s and a master’s degree in five years altogether with some special programs but in general, the time you need to spend learning depends on the school, the particular specialty and the format you have chosen: 

  • On-campus master’s degree programs usually take two to three years to be completed in a full-time format. Depending on the school, there is an option to take an advanced program and finish your studies in one to two years. Note that prior permission might be required in order to max out class load. If you want to pursue a master’s degree while working, you may opt for a part-time study, which will require between three and a half and five years to be completed. 
  • Online master’s degree programs are now offered by many universities and are often preferred by people who are already employed in the field of law enforcement. The duration of such a program can be between one to two and a half years depending on the subjects. You will have to check with the university whether there is an option to speed up or prolong the duration of the study.  

The graduate degree aims to provide you with additional skills and advanced knowledge in the area of your interest. You will be required to prepare coursework on topics that concern police administration, federal law enforcement, criminal psychology, criminal justice administration, cybercrime, etc. You are being prepared to take decisions and manage teams while using the specialized knowledge acquired through your studies and experience in the field of law enforcement. 

Depending on the master’s degree program you have chosen, there can be a great variety of courses covered. Some of the most common topics included in the studies are: 

  • Administration 
  • White-collar crime 
  • Cybercrime 
  • Research methods 
  • Criminology 
  • Digital forensics, etc.  

Earning a master’s degree guarantees career growth and higher pay and gives you the option to develop your career in a certain field that you are interested in. It will be much easier to move to state or federal law enforcement agencies and work in different positions such as a forensic psychologist, for example. You can also decide teaching courses in law enforcement or criminal justice at a given point in your career.  

Law enforcement doctoral degrees  

Getting a doctoral degree is the most successful point in one’s education regardless of the field of studies. For those who want to prepare themselves for high-level jobs in the area of law enforcement, the criminal justice Ph.D. program is the final step to take. You need to have a law enforcement master’s degree in order to be able to pursue a doctoral degree. Once you finish the studies you can end up in quite well-paid and influential positions in both private and government agencies, research institutions, academia or be part of the criminal justice leadership. 

The length of the study depends a lot on the type of program chosen and on the educational background of the student but the usual duration of a Ph.D. program is four to five years. Once again, students have the option to choose between traditional and distance studies: 

  • On-campus doctoral degree program usually takes four to five years when followed full-time. If you have a Master’s degree in law enforcement you can get permission to accelerate the course and take a higher class load. Thus, you can complete the program in two and a half to three and a half years. There is also the option to study part-time and complete the program in five to six years. 
  • Online doctoral degree programs are also gaining popularity and usually take between two and a half to four years for completion. You can negotiate with the university whether the program can be taken for a shorter or longer period.  

A doctoral degree program usually covers courses such as: 

  • Criminal justice leadership and management 
  • Contemporary public safety leadership 
  • Philosophy of law, justice, and social control 
  • Forecasting, trend analysis, and data interpretation 
  • Quantitative research methods in public service 
  • Advanced quantitative techniques in criminal justice 
  • Management and leadership theory, etc. 

Earning a doctoral degree in law enforcement means that you can pursue interesting job positions in law enforcement with significant influence, higher pay and greater possibilities and responsibilities. You can join one of the various federal agencies and become an FBI Agent, Intelligence Analyst, CIA Analyst or victim’s advocate.  

The time that you will invest in getting a law enforcement degree is actually worth it as it gives you access to better jobs and allows you to grow in your career. The more you invest in your education, the higher the return. Quite often, law enforcement officers start a job with an associate’s or bachelor’s degree but decide to earn a higher degree in order to develop their skills advance their career.