Joseph Libowsky,
former Special Agent

Law enforcement offers multiple opportunities for a career in the field depending on the personal preferences, skills and education of the candidate. Aspiring law enforcement officers can enter the system at a local, state or federal level.  There is then the opportunity for career growth and advancement after gaining experience, knowledge, and results from your work.  

Students who are already have decided that law enforcement is their choice of career should pursue getting a law enforcement degree that can give them a competitive advantage when applying for a given position. Having a clear idea of the specific position they would like to work in can determine which degree is the best for them. In many cases, a bachelor’s degree in an area slightly different than Criminology or Criminal Justice may help in getting hired.  

Quite often, while browsing job openings, a candidate may find that a degree in Accounting, Computer Science or Psychology, for example, is preferred or required. Both prospective and current law enforcement officers can benefit from learning that type of degree is necessary for certain law enforcement jobs.   

Why does a law enforcement degree matter? 

It is true that there are some law enforcement jobs that do not require a specific type of degree. A good example can be one of the most desired jobs in the field – that of the police officer. The educational requirements to be a police officer will vary by state and by agency. In some situations the only educational requirement is graduating from high school or receiving a G.E.D. There are situations were 60 college credits or an associates degree is required. Sometimes a 4-year degree is required. There are some specialties within law enforcement where an advanced degree is required. Even if a bachelor’s degree is not required, having such a degree in a law enforcement-related discipline gives a competitive advantage for each candidate. They not only stand a better chance of hiring but also face an easier path for career growth.  

In addition to that, a higher level of education almost always entails a better salary for the law enforcement officer depending on the qualifications they have. Quite often, the ability to speak a foreign language can lead to a a higher rate of pay.  

An aspiring law enforcement officer who wants to join a state or federal agency should be aware that a degree is a mandatory requirement for many jobs. In this case, a degree which is in a different field can also be quite beneficial since federal agencies need experts in fields like accounting, computer science, finances, etc.  

If we need to summarize, having a law enforcement degree or other relevant degree, has three main benefits for an aspiring law enforcement officer: 

  1. Better chances of getting hired on the desired position 
  1. Higher pay 
  1. Career growth  

Pursuing a law enforcement degree is an investment that pays off with time. You can either first graduate and then start looking for a job or start your career and then enroll in an online program.  

There is a great variety of jobs that you can get with a law enforcement degree, some of which are not that familiar such as that of a Document Examiner or IRS Criminal Investigator.   

Which are the best degrees for police officers? 

Police officers are sworn to serve and protect and enforce the law. They have numerous duties, which include patrolling, detaining criminals, interviewing suspects and writing detailed reports. Any additional qualification that a police officer has can help them to better perform their job. 

Even though no particular degree is required for an entry level position, many police departments include as part of their requirements that a bachelor’s degree in law enforcement is an advantage. If the agency is looking for a high-ranking officer, then the degree is already a must. 

What kind of training and certification an aspiring police officer should get depends mainly on their goals. There are several options – from obtaining a certificate for some legal-related post secondary course to getting a master’s degree in a law enforcement program. Whether to choose an on-campus or online program is also an important decision that is determined by factors such as time, location, work and family responsibilities, etc. 

Here is in a nutshell what each type of training can bring for a law enforcement officer candidate: 

  • Certificate  

You can opt for a law enforcement-related program where you will receive a certificate. This can be a competitive advance when a hiring agency only requires a high school diploma. Any additional certificate will be a plus even for working professionals as it will give them additional qualifications in a certain field. Make sure to choose a program, online or in a traditional classroom format, that relates to the type of work you will be or are performing.  

  • Associate’s degree 

An associate’s degree gives the candidate additional knowledge about law enforcement. Some agencies also require their recruits to have at least some college credits if not a full degree in order to accept them on board. In addition to that, many bachelor’s degrees accept credit transfer, so you can use the credits you have from your associate’s degree should you decide to continue your education.  

  • Bachelor’s degree 

In case you do not have a clear idea of how your law enforcement career shall develop in the future but you have ambitions for career growth, it is a good idea to get a bachelor’s degree. It will give you the opportunity to grow within a police department or join a federal agency as the ATF or FBI, which require a degree.  

  • Master’s degree 

If you are aiming at a leadership position in a police department, your career advancement may require a master’s degree. To become a police captain or a police chief you need a combination of experience, skills, knowledge and a relevant master’s degree. In some cases, it is better to start your career after acquiring a bachelor’s degree and enroll in a master’s program at a later stage once you have more clarity which program will be the best choice given the current situation in your agency.  

  • On-campus program 

Traditional on-campus programs are suitable for those who would like to invest first in their education and then start looking for a job in the field of law enforcement. There is a great variety of programs that you can choose from with the most common ones being Criminology, Criminal Justice, and Police Science. Some of the popular programs in recent years include Homeland Security, Crime Scene Investigation, and Crime Analysis. A degree in Psychology, Political studies, Sociology, Accounting or Computer studies will also be quite beneficial, especially for those who want to work at a federal level.  

  • Online program 

Online programs offer the same high quality of education as their on-campus counterparts but are quite suitable for people who are already employed. Online programs are much more flexible and allow a person to enhance their qualifications without having to relocate or quit their job. Getting an online law enforcement degree is perfect for someone who is already working as a police officer and wants to advance in the career. Many agencies even offer some financial support with tuition.   

What is the best law enforcement degree for a federal position? 

There is a great variety of federal positions that are available both for people currently working in the field of law enforcement and those who would like to enter the field. The requirements to start a job at a federal agency, however, are much stricter than joining a local law enforcement department. While the demand for a clean background and physical fitness is the same, the biggest difference comes with the education. In order to be a federal agent, a candidate needs to have at least a bachelor’s degree. 

Each agency can specify the preferred programs that will make a candidate more competitive. Note that in addition to a law enforcement degree, many agencies look for applicants with other qualifications as well. In addition to the degree, the candidate should be able to demonstrate a set of other skills, which include leadership, exceptional written and oral communication, strong attention to detail, flexibility, ability to work on your own and in a team, integrity and honesty.  

Depending on the federal agency you would like to work for, there are certain programs that will give you an advantage. 

Best degrees for working at FBI 

A career in the Federal Bureau of Investigation is one of the most preferred and popular options among those who want to join federal law enforcement. The title of a Special Agent is associated with prestige, higher pay and a lot of work responsibilities. There are five divisions within FBI: Language, Law, Accounting, Computer Science/Information Technology, and Diversified. Each of them recruits candidates with specific education and skills to make sure that they will perform their duties immaculately. 

If you want to join the FBI, here are a few degrees that you can opt for:  

  • Criminal Justice 
  • Cyber Security 
  • Bio Terrorism, International Terrorism, Counter Terrorism 
  • Finance 
  • Accounting 
  • Forensic Science 
  • International Studies 
  • Law Enforcement and Public Safety 

Note that to work in the Law division you need to hold the title of Juris Doctor, which means having a law degree (a doctorate) from an accredited law institution.  

Best degrees for working at ATF 

To become a Special Agent at the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF), you need to have qualification in: 

  • Law Enforcement and Public Safety 
  • Criminal Justice 
  • Political Science 
  • Sociology 
  • Psychology 

Other bachelor’s or master’s degrees can be also specifically stated as required depending on which of the eight offices of ATF you are going to work. The choice is between: Office of Field Operations, Office of Human Resources and Professional Development, Office of Management, Office of Enforcement Programs and Services, Office of Professional Responsibility and Security Operations, Office of Public and Governmental Affairs, Office of Science and Technology, and Office of Strategic Intelligence and Information. 

Best degrees for working at US Secret Service 

To join the US Secret Services as a Special Agent you need foreign language fluency and past military or law enforcement experience. A graduate level of education in the following fields is also a requirement: 

  • Criminal Justice 
  • Law Enforcement and Public Safety 
  • Law or Pre-Law 

Best degrees for working at DEA 

The Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) enforces the controlled substances laws and regulations of the United States. It offers a variety of jobs in different disciplines that include working as a Special Agent, Diversion Investigator, Forensic Scientist, intelligence Research Specialist. There are also professional and administrative opportunities open to candidates who want to join DEA. Some of the best degrees that will make you a suitable applicant include: 

  • Criminal Justice 
  • Law Enforcement and Public Safety 
  • Law 
  • Finance 

Best degrees for working at US Border patrol 

If you want to join the US Border Patrol, the ability to learn Spanish is a must. When combined with one of the following degrees, the candidate stands a higher chance of getting employed: 

  • Law Enforcement and Public Safety 
  • Police Science 
  • Criminal Justice 
  • Law 

Best degrees for working as an US Marshal 

The US Marshal’s Service is actually the first federal law enforcement agency in the United States. Part of the duties of the US marshal include protecting the federal judiciary, apprehending federal fugitives, housing and transporting federal prisoners, managing and selling seized assets acquired by criminals through illegal activities, and operating the Witness Security Program. In order to join their ranks, a successful candidate should have a degree in: 

  • Law  
  • Criminal Justice 
  • Sociology 
  • Law Enforcement 

Best degrees for working as a Postal Inspector  

The US Postal Inspection Service is one of the country’s oldest federal agencies. Nevertheless, the job of a Postal Inspector doesn’t come as one of the most popular positions in federal law enforcement. Still, if you want to join the agency and fight criminals who attack the postal system of the USA, you shall earn one of the following degrees: 

  • Law Enforcement 
  • Criminal Justice 
  • Computer Science 
  • Law 

 There are certain law enforcement degrees such as Criminal Justice, Law or Criminology, that can open the door to almost any local, state or federal law enforcement agency. Choosing the right degree depends on the preferences of the candidate but also on the needs of the department that is currently hiring. Some research of the most popular jobs and the requirements related with them will help you select the right law enforcement degree that will facilitate your career advancement. 

In addition to earning a degree, you should not forget to prepare properly for the entrance exams each agency has for its applicants. Some online courses such as Police Exam practice tests and Pass the Police Interview will help you get much better results and get ahead of the tough competition.