Essential Skills for Criminal Justice Students
Discover the hard and soft skills you need to excel both in your criminal justice program and in the real world as a criminal justice professional.
Last Updated: 03/23/2021
Meet the Expert
criminal defense and civil rights attorney
April Preyar is a criminal defense and civil rights attorney. A graduate of Duke University and George Washington Law School, she has practiced for 21 years. She is a partner in her own boutique firm. She created JustUs Junkie, an educational platform that uses videos, workshops, and her original board game, Trials & Triumph, to teach law in simple terms. Preyar’s most popular video garnered 1.2 million views in 24 hours! She has appeared on ABC News Chicago, NBC News Chicago, CBS News, Daily Mail TV, and the Oxygen Channel and in the Chicago Tribune, Chicago Sun-Times, AfroTech, the ABA Journal, Essence magazine, and many other outlets.
Do you feel a calling to criminal justice? If so, it’s easy to see why. Who wouldn’t be drawn to such a highly respected, interesting, and rewarding field? With so many different avenues to pursue within criminal justice, you can find the profession that fits your personality and suits your interests while still falling under the umbrella of helping others. But before you can start making a difference in your dream job, you need to succeed as a student first.
Criminal justice students need to possess a skillset just as diverse as the field itself. From an understanding of our legal and corrections systems to being able to think critically and listen actively, the skills you need as a criminal justice student will grow into the attributes you want as a criminal justice professional. Whether you’re in an online criminal justice program and you want to hone your skills as a virtual student or you’re wrapping up a master’s in criminal justice and you need to sharpen your leadership skills, it’s never a bad time to get to work. Keep reading to learn which skills will help you the most as a criminal justice student and get expert insight on building a repertoire of skills that will serve you well now and in the future.
Hard Skills for Criminal Justice Students
Hard skills are the teachable abilities that professors and employers can easily measure. They are the sort of skills you’ll learn within the classroom and will often be tested on. As a criminal justice student, you’ll spend a lot of your school time honing these hard skills with fellow students and teachers. Depending on your specific field, the hard skills you’ll come to rely on will differ, but the five outlined below will likely be important to you as a student and a professional in criminal justice.
Many criminal justice roles require you to maintain a high level of physical fitness to do your job effectively. If you plan to work as a police officer, federal agent, or security officer, you’ll need to be quick on your feet, able to endure physical activities for extended amounts of time, and strong enough to apprehend those breaking the law. Improving your physical fitness requires a consistent commitment to cardiac and strength-training workouts. Many criminal justice jobs also require you to pass regular physical fitness tests to demonstrate your preparedness.
If you’re working in a role focused on community safety and defense, you’ll need to know how to deploy a wide range of weapons safely. Learning to use job-issued firearms, tasers, batons, and other weapons takes time and effort, with many employers requiring you to pass proficiency exams. In addition to on-the-job training, you can also visit a licensed firing range to practice or seek training and advice from more seasoned professionals.
Many criminal justice careers require you to possess legal knowledge to do your job effectively. For example, drug enforcement administration agents must understand current laws around illegal and/or controlled substances, and lawyers must understand local, state, and national laws to know how to best serve their clients. While some jobs require a law degree, others simply require you to take coursework focused on the relevant legal frameworks of your chosen area. Make sure you understand what you’ll need to know and find a program that covers those topics.
As the world relies more heavily on digital technologies, criminal justice roles are no exception. If you’re working as a police officer or agent, you’ll need to upload your reports to secure internal servers. If you’re working as a fingerprint technician, you’ll need to know how to use the technologies associated with scanning and analyzing samples. Other common tools include criminal databases, crime mapping software, forensics visualization, and any job or company-specific computer tools or equipment.
If you plan to work as a forensic science technician, detective, or crime scene investigator, you’ll need to know how to deploy the ever-growing array of forensics tools. Whether you’re running ballistics tests, hair analysis, facial reconstruction software, or DNA sequencers, each of these technologies allows professionals to better understand the crime involved, how it was carried out, and who might have committed it. As technology in this area continues to become more sophisticated, you must commit to staying informed on new tools and new ways of using existing tools.
Soft Skills for Criminal Justice Students
Soft skills are less easily defined and measured but are just as important as the hard skills highlighted above. Soft skills include remaining calm in tense situations, managing your time well, participating as an active listener, and using critical thinking to make informed decisions. While these skills are subjective, they will come to be absolutely essential to you as a criminal justice student and professional. Keep reading for a deeper dive into how these skills will impact your criminal justice career.
Written & Oral Communication
Whether writing a report on a recent vandalism incident or testifying before a courtroom as a forensics expert, knowing how to communicate effectively is one of the most important soft skills you can possess as a criminal justice professional. Writing and speaking clearly, succinctly, and accurately can help uncover important information to solve cases, put community members at ease, and bring perpetrators to justice. Taking writing and public speaking classes can help you build these important skills and continuing to practice after you’re in the workforce will keep these skills sharp.
Taking reports, listening to testimonies, and collecting statements are common responsibilities in criminal justice roles. Each requires active listening. You will frequently come in contact with agitated, scared, and/or stressed-out community members who are seeking your help. Knowing that you are actively listening and showing compassion during a potentially difficult situation can help calm their nerves and allow them to communicate more clearly. Active listening also plays an important role when interacting with your colleagues and other criminal justice professionals.
Critical Thinking & Decision Making
Working as a criminal justice professional often means you’ll encounter tense, stressful, and sometimes even life-or-death situations. Being able to remain calm, think critically, and make smart decisions will serve you well throughout your career. Critical thinking involves using inductive and deductive reasoning, perception, and awareness to take in all the information available to you and use that information to make a thoughtful, wise decision about how to proceed. Mastering this soft skill will also serve you in your day-to-day life.
Understanding the difference between right and wrong and protecting others from those who would cause them harm are two of the most important aspects of criminal justice. Whether you work as a police officer, private investigator, or parole officer, it’s up to you to understand and uphold the principles of an ethical society. Ethics can also help you navigate cultural sensitivity, correctional facility management and upkeep, safety standards, and understanding how factors such as societal norms and economic hardship contribute to upticks in crime.
As you progress in your criminal justice career, there’s a good chance you’ll take on a leadership position. But seniority and experience don’t always make for the best leaders. The most effective leaders bring together a mix of constructive feedback and positive communication, timely motivation, creative problem-solving, and fair delegation. Understanding the personalities, strengths, weaknesses, and motivating forces of each individual you supervise can help you become a more effective leader, as can developing or adopting your own leadership philosophy that matches your personality.
Other Important Skills
Many other soft skills go into creating a well-rounded, competent criminal justice professional. Knowing how to accept and give feedback, assess the strengths and weaknesses of those you supervise, prioritize work by level of importance, and create independent and resilient teams are important soft skills. Others to consider include setting effective and reasonable goals, recognizing when staff feels underappreciated, providing mentorship, and reading body language.
Online Skills for Criminal Justice Students
If you plan to complete your criminal justice degree online, you’ll need to develop several skills unique especially for distance learning. Whether you’re a computer novice or already spend hours per day online, mastering these skills early in your college journey can go a long way in helping you find success.
Pursuing an online criminal justice degree makes sense for many busy students, as these programs provide maximum flexibility. The flip side of flexible learning, however, is that it requires excellent time management skills. When you don’t have to show up to class at a specific time, it becomes your responsibility to ensure you watch prerecorded lectures, engage with peers and professors on message boards, and set aside ample time to complete readings, conduct research, and prepare thoughtful and thorough assignments. Learning how to create structure for yourself will serve you as a criminal justice student and beyond, into your career.
Creating an environment conducive to learning and studying can make the difference in how effective, and ultimately successful, you are in an online criminal justice program. Outside the traditional academic setting of classrooms and libraries, you may find it difficult to create an atmosphere that helps you focus. Figuring out which type of environment you need to flourish as a student requires trial and error. Some distance learners need an uncluttered space with few distractions, while others prefer more of a coffee shop vibe. Understanding this while still in school will help you thrive, and after graduation you’ll know how to be your most productive self when work starts to stack up.
Understanding how to navigate the various platforms, learning management systems, and applications used to create an engaging and effective online criminal justice degree is key to making the most of your time in school. Do you know how to screen-share, conduct online presentations, or use project-management software? All of these skills and more will be expected of you in today’s online degree programs. If you aren’t already familiar with these tools, most schools provide tutorials and technical support to help you get up to speed.
Insight from a Criminal Justice Graduate
April Preyar is a criminal defense and civil rights attorney. A graduate of Duke University and George Washington Law School, she has practiced for 21 years. She is a partner in her own boutique firm. She created JustUs Junkie, an educational platform that uses videos, workshops, and her original board game, Trials & Triumph, to teach law in simple terms. Preyar’s most popular video garnered 1.2 million views in 24 hours! She has appeared on ABC News Chicago, NBC News Chicago, CBS News, DailyMail TV, and the Oxygen Channel and in the Chicago Tribune, Chicago Sun-Times, AfroTech, the ABA Journal, Essence magazine, and many other outlets.