How to Get the Experience for a Criminal Justice or Criminology Career

Forensic Scientist Examining a Murder Weapon
Andrew Brookes / Getty Images

For both new graduates getting ready to enter the workforce and for seasoned folks looking to make a career change, one huge obstacle often stands in the way: experience. It's the age-old job search paradox. You can't get a job without having experience, but you can't get any experience if you don't have a job.

In criminology and criminal justice careers, the problem remains: how can you land a job if you don't have any experience in the field, and if you can't land a job, how do you gain experience?

Are You Experienced?

As frustrating as it can seem, there are solutions. It is possible to get the experience you need to land the job you want. In fact, you may already have it. To put yourself in the best position to get the career of your dreams, you'll need to articulate the experience you have, and then augment it with experience you'll need.

First Things First

Before you worry about job experience, make sure you know what job you want. All too often, people decide to make a career change or earn a degree in a field without doing the research necessary to learn whether or not they'll be able to get a job.

By determining what sorts of careers you'd be interested in well before you start hitting the ground on your job search, you can start working on getting real-world experience in your chosen field.

What Experience Do You Need?

Assuming you've done your research, then you'll know what type of experience and education you're going to need and what kind of skills your industry requires. For an idea of what sort of experience you'll need when it comes to jobs in criminal justice and criminology, here's a quick rundown of some of the basic skills and experience employers will want to see:

  • Written communication
  • Oral communication
  • Interpersonal skills
  • Analytical
  • Research
  • Customer service and public contact
  • Responsibility
  • Good judgment
  • Decision making
  • Honesty
  • Integrity
  • Public service

Some jobs, such as becoming a police officer, will require minimal real-world experience in the actual field. Instead, relevant work experience can be found in a variety of occupations and environments including past employment, college education, and prior military service.

Articulating Past Experience

The polygraph exam or background investigations will go a long way toward demonstrating your level of honesty and integrity. The rest you'll have to explain in your resume or job application. Here's the good news: Chances are, if you dig into your past work experience, you will likely find that you've already got what you need. At least in the abstract.

The key to is to be able to articulate how the experience you've already got can translate into the career you want. For example, written communications skills can be demonstrated through college coursework and your correspondence with your potential employers.

Customer service and public contact can be shown through a variety of part-time jobs, including waiting tables and working as a cashier. Essentially, any job you've ever had in which you were required to interact with the public can demonstrate interpersonal skills, customer service, public contact work experience and even oral communication.

Getting the Experience You Need

What happens, though, when you find your experience doesn't quite stack up to employers' expectations? Here's the part you don't want to hear. The truth is that if you're serious about getting the job you want, you may have to work for free -- for a little while, anyway.

Many professional careers in criminology and criminal justice will require you to have prior experience in your chosen field. That experience, though, doesn't necessarily have to be paid experience.

If you're still in school, look for internships, whether paid or unpaid. You can find them through your university's career development office or by contacting the types of agencies you want to work for and asking to speak with someone in their hiring or recruitment office.

If you've already finished school, consider volunteer work, informational interviews, and job shadowing. Because so many criminal justice and criminology jobs are public service positions, it's quite likely that you will be able to go on ride alongs, tour facilities and even volunteer your time to assist in some areas.

Internships and volunteer work can help get you the experience you need. They can also demonstrate your commitment to your chosen profession and, even more importantly, provide you with vital contacts to assist you in your job hunt.

Finding Internships and Opportunities

When looking for opportunities to volunteer or intern, be sure that your volunteer work is relevant to the job you're trying to get. For example, if your dream is to work in forensic science, you will want to demonstrate experience working in a laboratory doing field research. It can be accomplished by contacting your local university for information about helping out in the physical sciences departments.

Some places to look for opportunities for internships and volunteer work include:

  • Colleges and universities
  • Local police, sheriffs and state patrol stations
  • Mental health facilities
  • Communications centers
  • Juvenile justice centers
  • Homeless shelters
  • Drug and alcohol counseling centers
  • Domestic violence refuge centers

Just because you think you lack experience doesn't mean you need to give up on your dream job. It is possible to find success in your job search by looking at the experience you've already got and articulating how that experience can translate to your chosen career.

Work Toward the Job You Want

Even if you don't have that experience, with a little self-determination and personal sacrifice, you can gain the skills you need through internships and volunteer work. Through research, work and dedication, you'll have no trouble finding a great job in criminal justice or criminology.