How to Become a Criminal Justice Teacher


Criminal justice studies programs introduce students to topics concerned with the law, justice system, policing, security, crime and corrections. Criminal justice studies, also known as criminology, is a subject that often overlaps with other social science disciplines that include political science, sociology and legal studies. Often viewed as an applied social science discipline, the field offers degree programs that touch upon its theoretical and practical side.

Depending on the degree program and a job applicant’s background, faculty may or may not have a combination of formal academic credentials and firsthand experience when working in the criminal justice system. To accommodate those who wish to assume law and law enforcement careers that are supervisory, political, and/or academic in nature, professors that specialize in criminology are needed to teach courses on the college and university level.

How can I become a criminal justice teacher at an elementary, middle or high school?

While criminal justice studies is not part of the elementary or middle school curriculum, a few U.S. high schools offer introductory options centered on criminal justice studies or criminology as electives. For instance, a magnet school in Houston called The High School for Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice, specializes in law and justice studies, and offers students electives on topics that include criminal justice, criminal litigation and criminal investigations.

The Criminal Justice Academy, associated with Pinellas Park High School in Florida, is a four-year high school magnet program that places an emphasis on law education. Teachers cover topics related to the American legal system, and encourage students to explore a wide variety of career-related opportunities within the field.

In most high schools, if criminal justice studies are offered, they are introduced as an elective course at the senior level and often in conjunction with a law course (such as criminal justice and law). To teach criminal justice at the high school level, applicants must have a bachelor’s degree, complete a teacher education program, and be licensed to teach in their state by passing applicable tests and fulfilling other requirements. Since there are rarely, if ever, opportunities to teach criminal justice on a full-time basis outside of colleges and universities, high school criminal justice teachers typically hold another subject specialization.

Educators with an interest in teaching criminal justice studies to high school students may also become a community college professor, who teaches career-focused courses which give college credit to students in secondary school. For example, Colorado’s 21st Century Career & Technical Education Programs offers an introduction to Criminal Justice for high schoolers, which incorporates mock trials, case analysis, mock crime scene investigations, and presentations into the curriculum.

How can I become a college or university criminal justice professor?

At the postsecondary level, students pursuing degrees related to criminal justice typically learn about the history of criminology, current debates in policing and corrections, and the impact of specific social factors (such as poverty or racism) on crime. Possessing a doctoral degree is standard in the field, but to gain employment at a two-year college, such as a community college, applicants may only need a master’s degree.

The educational pathway for a criminal justice professor typically involves the following steps:

  • Complete a bachelor’s degree program in criminal justice or related field, such as criminology. In addition to taking courses in criminological theory, United States law and other topics related to the general study of criminal justice, students also cover psychology and sociology.
  • Gain experience and complete internships. Undergraduate degree programs may require or recommend the completion of an internship, where students gain hands-on experience with local criminal justice agencies.
  • Obtain a master’s degree. A Master of Science in Criminology is a popular graduate-level degree to pursue, where students take classes that concentrate on analysis, research, administration, forensic science, and other legal studies. A large part of the curriculum also incorporates lab work, seminars, and opportunities to gain professional experiences.
  • Teaching experience. Graduates with a master’s degree may gain teaching experience by taking a position at a two-year college or vocational school before pursuing an advanced degree for teaching at a college or university.
  • Complete a doctoral program. To qualify for a position at a college or university, a doctoral degree (such as a Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.) in Criminology or Ph.D. in Criminal Justice) is required. During this time, independent research skills, critical thinking, and analysis skills are enhanced. Students also complete a doctoral dissertation, and graduate with the distinction of being an expert in the field of criminal justice.
  • Stay current in the field. The criminal justice field is constantly changing, with new developments and trends emerging that professors must be aware of. Professors are expected to read current literature, participate in community events, consult local agencies (such as government officials and businesses), and publish their own research.

Many criminal justice studies majors are interested in pursuing careers in law, policing or corrections, and for this reason, criminal justice studies programs also offer more practical courses designed to prepare people to work in the criminal justice system.

At the college level, criminal justice studies programs are often explicitly designed to prepare students for careers in the criminal justice system. Recent high school graduates interested in becoming a police officer, corrections officer or border patrol guard are often advised to first complete an associate’s degree or bachelor’s degree in criminal justice studies.

For this reason, faculty is usually hired on the basis of their formal education and on-the-ground experience in the criminal justice system. Particularly at the community college level, faculty most often hold a master’s degree in criminal justice studies or criminology, and have experience working in policing, corrections or law.

At the university level, criminal justice professors are responsible for developing and teaching courses at the undergraduate and graduate levels, recruiting and supervising graduate students and postdoctoral fellows, and carrying out original research in the criminal justice field. They must hold a PhD in criminal justice studies or criminology or a related field (such as having a degree in law or sociology).

Regardless, they have generally completed several years of graduate coursework, passed one or more field exams, and written and successfully defended a dissertation on a topic related to criminal justice studies. Ph.D.-holding professors are viewed as experts in criminal justice studies, and are expected to regularly publish and present their research findings to their peers at conferences and seminars.

For example, they may publish their research findings in criminal justice studies and criminology journals, such as Criminal Justice Studies or the Criminal Justice Policy Review, and present their research findings to other criminal justice studies scholars at annual meetings and conferences, such as the annual meeting of the Academy of Criminal Justice Studies.

As part of their job, criminal justice professors prepare and deliver lectures to both undergraduate and graduate students on topics related to criminal law and investigation techniques. They assign term papers and quiz students on their understanding of the material.

Many new graduates begin their career as part-time faculty or assistant professor before obtaining a full-time, tenured position that leads to a higher level of pay and job security. Tenured positions at the university level are extremely competitive, and are usually granted to professors who are the most active and influential at the school and in the field.

What is the job outlook for criminal justice teachers?

The majority of criminal justice professors are hired by junior colleges, which provide courses primarily for students looking to pursue a career in law enforcement in the shortest amount of time. Colleges, universities and professional schools hire nearly just as many, employing 7,000 professors as opposed to the 7,620 criminal justice educators hired in 2014 at junior colleges. Other places of employment that hire criminal justice professors include state government agencies, technical/trade schools, and business schools.

Playing an important role in preparing future law enforcement personnel, corrections officers and court professionals to stay safe in the field (and compliant with the law), many professors have years of experience in the field themselves, or have already worked in a related criminal justice occupation. Therefore, job applicants with the most experience in the field often have a professional edge over candidates who do not.

Job openings for criminal justice and law enforcement teachers are expected to grow faster than average, due to a range of factors that include vacancies left behind by retiring educators, increased interest in the law enforcement field, and increased overall enrollment at colleges and universities. Competition is high for tenure-track positions; therefore new graduates will find an abundance of part-time openings and non-tenured positions on the university level. Job opportunities are anticipated to grow at the community college level, in connection to increased interest in career education programs.

What is the compensation for criminal justice teachers?

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reported the salaries earned in 2014 for criminal justice teachers (including those who taught courses related to corrections and law enforcement administration, and those who combined teaching and research as part of their job) were as follows:

  • High school teachers – $56,310
  • Postsecondary teachers – $ 61,750

The overall salaries that criminal justice teachers earn are ultimately affected by their years spent teaching full-time; level of experience; place of employment; and geographic location, as certain states are known to pay more for the occupation than others. For instance, the BLS identifies the following states (with annual mean salaries) as being the top-paying locations for postsecondary criminal justice professors: Rhode Island ($95,080), New Jersey ($75,570), California ($74,880), District of Columbia ($74,160), and Kentucky ($73,340).

To make the most money as a criminal justice professor, possessing an advanced degree and having years of experience in the field increases the chances of landing a position at a college, university or professional school, which pays the highest salary to the occupation – an annual mean wage of $64,600, as reported by the BLS in 2014. Junior colleges represent the second highest-paying industry for criminal justice teachers, paying an annual salary of $59,500. The earnings are generally significantly higher for tenured professors on the university level than those filling non-tenured or adjunct faculty positions.

In conclusion, criminal justice educators are needed to teach the next wave of graduates pursuing careers in law enforcement, corrections and the court system. Colleges and universities prefer to hire professors who have professional experience related to the subjects they wish to teach, thus increasing their chances of qualifying for more open positions. Although having a master’s degree is the minimum requirement for most schools, it is possible to obtain employment at a community college or similar institution after completing a bachelor’s degree program related to the field.

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