Law enforcement officers have different reasons for going back to school. Some officers choose to get a degree because it makes them a strong candidate and qualifies them for promotion. After all, more officers than ever are joining the force with an associate or bachelor's degree in hand, so having a formal degree can help you keep up with the competition. Other officers choose to get a degree because it can prepare them for a career outside policing. Education can help build skills and knowledge that complement one's career as a law enforcement officer.
Whatever your reasons for pursuing an education, it's important to think about your long-term career objectives and determine the combination of education and experience you need to achieve those goals.
The Benefits of a Degree
LEOs often ask whether or not they need a formal degree. The immediate benefits of a degree depend partially on your agency. Some agencies provide financial incentives and will pay for part of your education, while others may provide a yearly bonus for those with a degree. Some agencies have a minimum education requirement for hiring or promotion, while others do not.
Chief Joel Hurliman has spent his 36-year police career with the Shelton Police Department in Connecticut and has been the chief since 2006. His department does not have an education requirement, but candidates with a four-year degree are often preferred. "Studies have found that officers who have achieved a four-year degree have lower discipline rates statistically," Hurliman says.
Another advantage from a hiring perspective is that individuals with degrees often have strong writing skills. "Writing reports is a basic part of the job and it goes all the way to the top," Hurliman says. He added that a degree also demonstrates self-discipline and a solid work ethic: "Someone who already has a degree, they're a finisher. They finish the job and they're not someone we're going to have to chase around to finish a report."
Let's look at some other ways education can be beneficial.
Increase Your Awareness and Understanding
One of the primary objectives of education is, of course, to increase your knowledge base and subject matter expertise. Ryan Dobbs is a federal law enforcement officer in Washington, D.C. He earned his bachelor's degree in criminal justice from Penn State before joining the department. When he decided to go back to school for a master's degree, Dobbs wanted to diversify his knowledge base. He graduated from American Military University (AMU) in June 2013 with a Master of Arts in homeland security. In October 2013, he was promoted to sergeant.
Dobbs chose homeland security because it gave him a new awareness of all the threats facing the nation. For example, he learned about the importance of protecting critical infrastructure. Prior to his degree program, had he been called out to a public works station, he may not have treated it as seriously as he would now that he thoroughly understands how vital these systems are to the public and the economy. Through his education and research, he also knows that these networks are prime targets for terrorism.
Broaden Your Perspective
Going back to school can broaden your perspective about law enforcement on a national level. Scott Roberts has been in law enforcement for more than 20 years, starting as a corrections officer in Connecticut. Throughout his career, he has worked as a police officer for several city and county agencies in Georgia. In 2013, Roberts earned his bachelor's degree in criminal justice from American Public University (APU) and said that he learned a lot from fellow students who are police officers in different parts of the country.
"Certain classes opened up my eyes to different law enforcement tactics that I had not been aware of before," he says. Having law enforcement officers from around the country in the same online classroom provided varying perspectives on criminal justice issues—something Roberts feels he wouldn't have gained had he been in the same geographic region as his fellow students.
Improve Your Writing Skills
"I definitely think my degree improved my writing skills," Roberts says. "You conduct a lot of research and you have to be able to substantiate what you've learned and express it through writing."
Dobbs also agrees that writing was the number one thing that improved dramatically as a result of his education. "Especially through an online master's program, you do so much writing. Most of your assignments are written," he says. Improving his writing skills has also contributed to his job performance. "In law enforcement, you're always writing reports—completing paperwork is a huge piece of the job. Improving your writing is one of the indirect ways education helps you as a police officer," Dobbs says.
An often-overlooked benefit of school is the opportunity to network with professors and law enforcement peers. "One thing you need to remember is that you don't just go to school to build your knowledge, but also to build your network base," Dobbs says. Many of his classmates at AMU were also in law enforcement and several of them were located in the D.C. area. He ended up meeting several of them in person and has built out his peer network. Professors are also a great resource for students.
Strategies for Pursuing Your Education
Many LEOs think the demands of their jobs and unpredictable schedules will keep them from completing a degree program—and it's true that combining school with a full-time work schedule and other obligations can be extremely challenging. "You have to put a lot of other things on hold to accomplish it," Roberts says, stating that once you put your mind to it, you will find a way to get it done. He was inspired to go back to school after holding a second-in-command position at his agency, which led to him being appointed as interim chief. "I decided that I wanted to get back to that position, and I needed to have a degree to push me over the edge, and education was vital to making it happen," he says.
Following are some strategies you can use to enhance your chances of success.
• Yes, you can find the time. Fitting school into your schedule can be the biggest challenge for LEOs. "Your schedule can be chaotic, and maybe you have a position that demands more time than others, whether that's SWAT or another specialized role," Roberts says. "A lot of people don't think they have the time, but in reality they do. Once you decide this is something you want to do, you learn how to fit it in—you find a way to get it done."
• Start small; don't overshoot. When you make the decision to go back to school, don't take on too many courses at once. "Be realistic with your goals," Roberts advises. "Set your goals high, but be realistic about how you're going to attain them. The last thing you want to do is take on too much and fail and then give up." Learn how to prioritize, set realistic goals, and take it step by step.
• Learn how to manage your time. "If you can't be strict with yourself and you can't self-allocate time to your studies, you're going to fail," Roberts says. Develop a weekly routine and set aside time to complete readings and assignments. Tell your family when you plan to study in order to minimize interruptions and give yourself adequate time to focus.
• Don't procrastinate. Do not wait until the last minute to complete your school work. "I used to be a huge procrastinator," Dobbs says. "I would have an assignment due in two weeks and I would wait until a few days before it was due and try to cram it in all at once." He learned quickly that planning ahead, getting work done in small pieces and getting it done early saved him a lot of stress and late nights.
• Don't underestimate the difficulty of online learning. Many officers choose to pursue a degree at an online university because the schedule is much more flexible than traditional brick-and-mortar schools. "Just because [the online format] is convenient, doesn't mean it's easy," Roberts says. "Some people have the misconception that online is easy and I would say it's actually harder." Online education requires a lot of self-discipline, reading and writing. Don't fall prey to the notion that because the schedule is more flexible, the classes are easier.
Fill in the Gaps
Many officers think it makes sense to get a degree in criminal justice. However, you should consider getting a degree that broadens your perspective, advises Tim Hardiman, a 23-year veteran of the NYPD who retired as an inspector serving as the commanding officer of the 47th Precinct in the Bronx.
Your law enforcement work experience demonstrates that you have the knowledge and expertise in criminal justice, so education is a way to "fill the gap" on your résumé and make you a well-rounded candidate, especially if you are considering a career outside of law enforcement. Here are some degrees you should consider:
• Public administration. A degree in public administration can give you experience in budgeting, planning, procurement and administrative law—the tools you need to know about hiring, firing and promotion.
• Business administration/management. Especially if you plan to move into the private sector, business administration can teach you everything from organizational behavior and leadership styles to budgeting and HR practices.
• Emergency and disaster management (EDM). As a police officer, you have likely participated in some aspect of EDM, whether through training or real-life scenarios. This field gives you a broader perspective of how public safety departments interact with municipalities and private businesses.
• Homeland security. Again, a degree in homeland security can broaden your perspective beyond law enforcement. This is a great program for people who want to move into the government sector.
The Next Step
It is important to always think about what you want to do next in your career and the combination of education and experience needed to reach your career goals. The first step is to figure out where you want to go, and the next step is to figure out how to get there.
"Whether you move up or move out, you're going to want a degree," Chief Hurliman says. "Just because you made rank with stars or bars and got to an executive-level position—that does not necessarily translate to another career unless you have the degree to go with it."