Those interested in a career in criminal investigation will typically earn a degree in criminal justice. Associate's, bachelor's and master's degree programs prepare students for entry-level or advanced careers as a crime scene investigator, law enforcement officer or forensic specialist. Graduates of a master's program are often qualified to seek advanced management or supervisory positions.
Program specializations include crime scene investigation, law enforcement, and forensics. Program last 2 to 4 years or more, depending on program level. Additional training could be needed before working in some settings, such as law enforcement or crime labs.
Associate Degree in Criminal Justice
Students interested in a basic education in the science of criminal investigation can earn an associate's degree in criminal justice. These programs teach beginning techniques for criminal investigation and often include an overview of the U.S. criminal justice system. After completion of the program, students may continue their studies in a bachelor's degree program. Generally, only a high school diploma or GED is required for admission.
Courses in an associate's program provide an introduction to basic concepts, methods and procedures for criminal justice. Some schools offer concentrations in crime scene investigation, focusing the majority of studies in this field of interest. Some courses offered include:
- Evidentiary law and collection methods
- Forensic imaging and recording
- Crime scene preservation processes
- Interviewing and interrogation techniques
Bachelor of Science in Criminal Justice
Some criminal justice bachelor programs offer a concentration in forensic and criminal investigation. These 4-year programs teach students proper investigation procedures and methods of crime scene and criminal profiling. Graduates are often prepared for many positions in the criminal justice field, including crime scene reconstructionist, forensic evidence specialist or private detective.
In addition to core courses, some criminal justice bachelor's programs also offer additional certificates in crime scene investigation, law enforcement and legal studies within the program. Major courses often combine mathematics, science, sociology and law to train students in the many facets of crime scene and criminal investigation. Some of the basic subjects covered include the following:
- Forensics and investigation processes
- Cybercrime and Internet security
- Historical crime scene case studies
- Witness and evidence processing
Master's Degree in Criminal Justice
Master's programs teach students advanced techniques in research and crime scene analysis. Intensive studies into the U.S. correctional and legal systems provide in-depth information into how criminal investigators influence courtroom proceedings. Most criminal justice master's degree programs offer the option of customizing the program to include specialized studies in crime scene investigation, juvenile corrections or criminal categories.
Graduate courses teach students advanced methods for analyzing evidence and apprehending criminals. Practical application and independent research also provide students with hands-on learning, as well as employment contacts for after graduation. A few common subjects include:
- Ethical and legal evidentiary and witness procedures
- Documenting and analyzing crime scene patterns
- Investigation methods and techniques
- Public safety and information control
Popular Career Options
Associate's degree-holders are often qualified for entry-level positions in private and governmental agencies as counselors, clerks and support personnel. Those looking for a more independent career path may find employment as a private investigator, law enforcement official or security officer. Students that participate in internship opportunities within a program may formulate contacts for potential careers in police departments or courthouses.
Employment Outlook and Salary Information
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reported that 806,400 people worked as police and detectives in 2014. The mean annual salary for detectives and criminal investigators was $79,620 as of May 2015. The BLS anticipated a 4% job growth for police and detectives for the years 2014 through 2024 (www.bls.gov).
Students with an associate's degree may find completion programs which require only two additional years to earn a bachelor's degree. Some master's programs may also allow applicants with only an associate's degree and some relevant experience. Licensure requirements for federal, state and private criminal investigation jobs vary, and students should check eligibility factors for their intended career. Professional credentials, such as Cyber Crime Investigation or Crime Scene Investigation certifications, are often an option that may advance a career or offer greater employment opportunities.
Students interested in furthering their education can continue on to earn a Doctor of Philosophy in Criminal Justice or several forensic science fields. Doctoral students invest considerable time in research projects and activities aimed at careers in academia or laboratory science. Those interested in staying within the field of criminal investigations may study blood analysis, forensic psychology or criminology.
Associate's, bachelor's and master's degree programs in criminal justice are available for those interested in working within the field of criminal investigation. Graduates will be able to work in several areas of both the public and private sector, though some go on to earn a doctorate.