Serve as a civilian: 5 criminal justice careers for veterans
After serving your country in a way many will never come close to experiencing, it can be difficult to transition to civilian life and still feel you’re fulfilling a true purpose. Many military veterans experience a continued longing to protect and serve. This is why veterans often pursue careers in the criminal justice field—a field where their experience gives them an advantage.
“The military is an excellent precursor to a career in criminal justice,” explains Dr. Karin Storm, assistant professor of criminal justice at University of Massachusetts Global. She points out the authoritarian command structure, the handling of firearms and the wearing of uniforms as notable similarities between the two.
The vast skill set military veterans have obtained in serving their country, she adds, is one that would be valuable to any criminal justice employer. Dr. Storm highlights transferable skills such as the ability to follow executive orders, adaptability, a strong work ethic and attention to detail. She also notes that veterans are used to working with diverse populations and, often, are very used to taking on cross-functional positions.
5 post-military careers in criminal justice
As you begin to explore your opportunities to capitalize on your military experience, it can be helpful to consider the five main categories within the field: law enforcement, forensics, corrections, homeland security and legal. Read on to learn more about each of these criminal justice careers for veterans.
1. Work in law enforcement as a police officer
Police officers spend their working hours striving to protect lives and property in their community. They respond to emergency calls, conduct traffic stops, collect and secure evidence from crime scenes, obtain warrants, arrest suspects and more. At times, police officers even help prepare cases and testify in court.
Some officers work only on a specific type of crime, such as narcotics. Others work within specialized units, such as horseback, motorcycle, canine corps and tactics (SWAT). Police officers, like military service members, are trained to be alert and ready to react throughout the entirety of a shift. Their work can often be physically demanding and even dangerous.
Most police officer jobs require at least a high school diploma. While a college degree is not essential to work in this field, you may eventually need a bachelor’s degree if you hope to rise through the ranks in your policing career. Many officers find that a Bachelor of Arts in Applied Studies is a good fit, while officers who are already bachelor’s qualified may opt to eventually pursue a master’s degree in a field like organizational leadership.
Candidates must also complete a rigorous training academy to become an officer. Once on the job, police officers earn a median annual salary of $65,540, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS).*
As a military veteran, you can draw from your experience in following executive orders, your ability to handle firearms and your background in working with diverse populations to excel as a police officer.
2. Work in forensics as a crime scene investigator
Working as a crime scene investigator (CSI) involves the careful collection and analysis of physical evidence like hair, tissue or bodily fluids from a crime scene or victim. They must be meticulous about properly collecting evidence and storing it without error. These duties are all performed in the interest of providing accurate information that could assist in the acquittal or conviction of a suspect.
CSIs are often called to testify at criminal trials, which means they must maintain detailed reports and other written documentation. The best candidates for a position like this one have obtained a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice or a related field, such as forensic science or biology. Once they land the job, the BLS reports that working CSIs earn a median annual salary of $86,940.*
The attention to detail you honed in the military can become a crucial skill in a profession like this one. As a veteran, you also have ample experience with things like systematic planning, workload management and resourcing that could prove valuable as a crime scene investigator.
3. Work in corrections as a correctional officer
Working in jails and prisons to oversee inmates, correctional officers enforce facility rules and regulations. Keeping order within jails and prisons requires the strict supervision of inmates and their activities. Correctional officer duties include escorting inmates during transport, inspecting cells for contraband items and ensuring the facilities continually meet safety and security standards. These professionals aim to prevent disturbances, assaults and escapes.
Correctional officers also write reports and fill out daily logs that detail inmate behavior—material that can later be used to determine if an inmate is eligible for parole or early release of any kind. While some facilities only require a high school diploma or its equivalent, most correctional officer positions—particularly in federal prisons—seek candidates with a bachelor’s degree.
Your military experience can give you a leg-up in the job search for correctional officer positions. The level of professionalism, understanding of authoritarian command structures and commitment to physical fitness you gained as a service member are highly valued in this career path.
4. Work in homeland security as a federal criminal investigator
The nature of the work performed by a federal criminal investigator depends on their particular agency. In general, however, federal criminal investigators—sometimes called special agents—investigate potential crimes against the public and the government. They gather evidence, interview witnesses, arrest suspects and testify in court.
The type of cases a criminal investigator will work on varies by agency, but some examples of cases that fall under federal jurisdiction include drug trafficking, organized crime, human smuggling and other human rights violations. Most federal agencies require investigators obtain a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice, followed by an intensive training program at a federal facility. These criminal justice pros earn a mean annual salary of $86,940.*
As a military veteran, you not only have experience following a chain of command and maintaining a proficient attention to detail, but you are also accustomed to taking on cross-functional roles—something that can be particularly useful as a federal criminal investigator.
5. Work in law as a paralegal
While lawyers may be the ones on the front lines in the courtroom, paralegals do the important, behind-the-scenes work. Paralegals support lawyers through a variety of different tasks. They conduct legal research, investigate and gather case facts, draft documents and summarize reports.
The work paralegals do is often critical in helping lawyers properly prepare for hearings, trials and corporate meetings. And paralegals must be proficient with technology and basic computer software, as well, since even the inner workings of our courtrooms are becoming increasingly digital. Most paralegal positions require either an associate or bachelor’s degree in criminal justice or legal studies, and they earn a median annual salary of $52,920.*
Your time in the military taught you how to remain calm under pressure and to be adaptable in all circumstances—two elements that can be extremely important as a paralegal. Your attention to detail will also prove useful in this career path, as cases can be lost over something as minute as a missed or misinterpreted fact.
Do you see a future career in criminal justice?
If you’re looking for a way to utilize the skills you’ve gained from your time serving our country in the military, a criminal justice career may be the perfect path for you. Pursuing the right education can help get you there.
The Post-9/11 GI Bill took effect in 2009 to increase the education benefits made available to U.S. military service members. In addition to GI Bill benefits, there are a number of additional resources to help veterans fund their college education, all of which are founded upon the belief that education can be a key component in service members’ transition from military to civilian life.
In some cases, veterans’ applicable experience can even be transferred as college credits. For example, University of Massachusetts Global will accept up to 46 credits for military experience. This can not only enable you to finish your degree sooner, but it can also conserve a portion of your hard-earned benefits for future educational pursuits.
In your search, you’ll want to find a college that is uniquely built to meet the needs of veterans like you. UMass Global was originally established at El Toro Marine Corps Air Station to deliver high quality education to veterans. It has since expanded to meet the diverse needs of all adult learners. To learn more about the criminal justice career paths you could pursue at UMass Global, visit the BA in Criminal Justice information page.
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