Criminal justice is a huge and diverse field, with a correspondingly broad assortment of career opportunities. It employs everyone from number-crunching interns and ultra-fit special agents to seasoned instructors and insightful judges. Compensation runs the gamut as well, though there are a coveted selection of high-paying jobs you may want to consider if you are entering the field.


Detectives are on the front-line of criminal investigations, gathering evidence, observing suspects, and preparing cases for trial. A detective generally begins his career as a police officer before becoming a detective by promotion. A high-school diploma may be sufficient education to become a police officer, however a college degree improves one’s chances of becoming detective—and is in fact required for federal agencies and some departments. Detective work can be dangerous, stressful and physically demanding, and pay is suitably high. Detectives earn a median annual income of $78,120, with the most lucrative positions netting six-figures annually.1

Police Supervisors

Police supervisors or sergeants are leaders responsible for the overall efficiency of a police department. While specific duties vary from one department to the next, police supervisor is generally a rewarding position with the potential for six-figure income. A police supervisor ensures the order and development of their department by training and efficiently employing human resources, mitigating and resolving internal conflict, planning for future departmental needs, and otherwise upholding the standard of policing in their jurisdiction. Police supervisors make upwards of $134,810 annually, with the mean salary at $84,840.2

FBI Agents

The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) is the main investigative body of the Department of Justice and has the widest jurisdiction of any law enforcement agency in the United States. It is the epitome of law enforcement. Accordingly, FBI special agents are the most skilled domestic law enforcement agents in the country, investigating dangerous criminals involved in federal crimes ranging from drug trafficking to terrorism. To qualify for the academy, recruits must have a college degree, at least three years of work experience (typically in law enforcement or military), pass background checks, medical checks and undergo over 800 hours of special training. The reward for such extensive knowledge, well-honed skills, and physical ability is an annual salary upwards of $93,175, plus a potential for over 50% in bonuses on base salary.3

Private Investigator

One of the more romanticized characters in criminal justice is the private investigator. These often freelance investigators are employed by individuals, attorneys, businesses or organizations to perform many of the same duties as police detectives—gathering evidence, observing suspects, verifying facts, conducting interviews—albeit without the official authority. Private investigators must therefore be shrewd legal experts in order to ensure that their product is wholly legal and admissible in court. Most states require private investigators to be licensed, and the majority gain experience through previous employment as law enforcement officers. Private investigators can make over $87,070 annually.4

Criminal Defense Attorney

Criminal defense attorneys, in simplest terms, defend clients against accusations of illegal activity. They do this by researching legal issues, advising clients, interpreting law, and presenting facts in court. This is the career that generally comes to mind when one thinks of high-paying jobs in criminal justice, and with good reason—at the highest level, attorneys can make over $200,000 annually.5 Criminal defense attorneys deal with everything from petty vandalism to high-profile murder cases, and annual income varies accordingly. Most law schools require at least three years of study, on top of four years of undergraduate studies.


The judge is the figurehead of the entire criminal justice system. Judges are employed by the government and are tasked with presiding over cases, making judgements and generally ensuring that legal proceedings are executed in accordance with the law. It is not easy to become a judge. In most jurisdictions, judges are required to have a law degree (as well as the corresponding work experience as a lawyer) and must generally be elected or appointed to the position. Judges make upwards of $183,570 annually, with the median income for judges employed by the federal government at $123,060.6

Forensic Accountant

Forensic accountants essentially combine the analytical tools of accountancy with the investigative approach of legal professionals to examine financial documents and determine whether transactions have been executed legally. Forensic accountants typically investigate white-collar crimes, working with investigators and lawyers to examine financial data. They are often called upon as expert witnesses in trials. A bachelor’s degree in accounting or a closely-related field is required in most states, as well as a Certified Public Accountant (CPA) certification. The median salary for accountants and auditors is $68,150.7

Information Security Analysts

In our increasingly technological world, there is a growing need for the protection of digital assets—that’s where information security analysts come in. These specialists defend an organization’s computer networks and systems, protecting the sensitive information therein by such measures as encrypting data and employing firewalls. A bachelor’s degree in programming or computer science is generally a must, and some organizations also require a master’s degree or additional certifications, on top of previous work experience. Considering the current high demand for such specialized skills, it’s not surprising that information security analysts can make over $100,000 annually, with the median annual wage at $92,600.8

Criminal Justice Professors

Nearly every sort of professional on this list owes something to criminal justice professors. As instructors of the field, criminal justice professors work in colleges and universities, teaching classes, guiding discussions, and preparing, administering and evaluating class work and examinations. Some also conduct research and publish their conclusions. A master’s degree in criminal justice is the minimum requirement, though universities and most colleges require a Ph.D. Professors should also make a continuing effort to stay current in the field by reading scholarly articles and attending conferences. Criminal justice professors net a median annual wage of $59,590.9

There are many career opportunities for those looking to protect and serve. Some are more lucrative than others, but careers in criminal justice are always meaningful and rewarding. An education in criminal justice is the first step.

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