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How to become a college instructor following your law enforcement career

Beyond earning a second salary and exploring a new field, becoming a college instructor as a former law enforcement officer has many benefits — for you and your students

Tutor addresses the class

As a college instructor, you will work directly with professors and students who are likely as passionate about law enforcement as you are.

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By Erik Fritsvold, Ph.D.

Because many law enforcement professionals retire after 20 to 25 years of service, launching a second career is quite common. You likely have many ideas, goals or aspirations for what you might like to do following retirement, but have you considered teaching aspiring young public servants at the college level?

Becoming a college instructor is a great way to stay connected to the law enforcement field. In the college environment, you will get to experience a whole new set of challenges, leverage your years of law enforcement experience and possibly push yourself beyond your usual comfort zone. Read on to learn more about what it takes to land a criminal justice teaching job, the benefits of this new career path and how to set yourself up for success.

Benefits of teaching criminal justice at the college level

Beyond just earning a second salary and exploring a new field, becoming a college instructor as a former law enforcement officer has many unique benefits — for you and your students.

Here are just a few:

You have actual professional experience to better inform your teaching.

Experience is one of the most valuable currencies when pursuing a new job, and that is certainly the case when it comes to teaching criminal justice courses at the college level. While you may not have years of academic lecturing experience, some might argue that your time in law enforcement is more valuable when it comes to preparing the next generation of police professionals.Your first-hand stories from your diverse career experiences will resonate with your students, and you can serve as a trusted advisor as they continue to map out their careers. As Dr. Richard Weinblatt put it in an article on Police1, “the most effective teachers are those who can balance thought-provoking academic theories with compelling real-life experiences.

You get to stay involved in law enforcement on a part-time basis.

Working in public safety and law enforcement, you have likely developed close relationships with your co-workers and the law enforcement community as a whole. While this oftentimes makes retirement a difficult challenge both emotionally and mentally, becoming a criminal justice instructor can be a great way to stay connected to the career you love. As a college instructor you will be working directly with professors and students who are likely just as passionate about law enforcement as you are. Your fellow faculty members and your students probably feel the same calling to criminal justice that you did, and this passion can foster healthy debate, interesting research and ultimately better informed and educated law enforcement officers.

You will help mentor the next generation of officers.

There is no disputing that law enforcement and public safety is facing a time of uncertainty and challenge. This makes the education of future law enforcement professionals all the more important, and as someone who has worked in the field you are in a unique position to effectively teach today and tomorrow’s criminal justice students. As community engagement in policing becomes more critical, having a police force that is well educated and trained by someone who has this experience can prove to be an asset for everyone.

How to pursue a criminal justice teaching job

There are many steps you can take — both while still a sworn law enforcement professional and after retirement — that will help you successfully pursue a college teaching career.

Volunteer while on the force

There are many volunteer opportunities you can take that are geared toward education. This will come in handy when you’re building out your resume to begin applying for college teaching jobs. Some opportunities to consider include:

  • Become a trainer in your department
  • Volunteer to be a guest speaker in a college-level criminal justice course
  • Be a mentor to a current criminal justice undergraduate student

Network with current criminal justice professors and instructors

Just as your experience will be a value-add for students, networking with current criminal justice professors will also benefit you. Perhaps they will invite you in to be a guest lecturer, which checks the volunteerism box and demonstrates your effectiveness in the classroom. If possible, maintaining contact with professors at multiple colleges or universities can prove to be helpful when it comes time to actually applying for a position.

Get additional on-the-job training while still working in law enforcement

When it comes time to submit your CV for a potential college teaching job, having additional demonstrable experience and training will help set you apart from other applicants. Throughout your law enforcement career, take on training opportunities that will improve your on-the-job skills while helping to inform your teaching down the line. Some potential avenues to pursue for training include:

  • Law enforcement seminars/conferences
  • Specialized training courses offered by POST or your professional association
  • Industry publications
  • Conduct community ride-along

Obtain your master’s degree

It is not a universal requirement, but earning your master’s degree will help greatly in your pursuit of a criminal justice teaching job. And most accredited and respected institutions will require instructors to hold an advanced degree. So, for law enforcement professionals approaching retirement, the timing might be ideal to pursue a master’s degree. In fact, at the University of San Diego, the average age of new students entering the Law Enforcement and Public Safety Leadership master’s degree program is 43, with many students in their 50s.

There are many options out there in terms of universities and master’s programs. To help find the right one for you, make sure you do the following during your search:

  • Read reviews from current and former students, especially those from other law enforcement professionals.
  • Consider the reputation of the university. There are numerous criminal justice programs out there, and many are offered by universities that have not earned regional accreditation.
  • Seek programs that fit your lifestyle (online vs. in-person, flexible scheduling, classes taught by current/former criminal justice professionals, etc.)
  • Choose a degree that will provide tangible value to you now, while you are still working, as well as provide networking opportunities that could open the door to teaching opportunities down the road. A program that only admits experienced law enforcement or public safety professionals is likely to provide more relevant networking opportunities than one with students representing various professional fields.

Work on your resume

Upon retirement, the most important first step toward becoming a criminal justice instructor is working on your resume. Your current CV is likely geared toward a law enforcement role, but in academia, your resume will have to look quite different.

The biggest challenge is finding a way to translate your diverse career experience to an academic environment. Make sure you list out all the trainings you have led that could be framed as teaching experience.

It’s also helpful to note all of your relevant certifications that would add to your value as an instructor.It’s also very helpful to have a robust LinkedIn profile and active presence on that platform. Here you can list your diverse skills, highlight your experience and grow your network within higher education. And be sure to consistently share relevant industry content to demonstrate your commitment to lifelong learning and furthering your own education.

Identify potential teaching positions to apply for

This will prove to be a significant research project, as there is a broad spectrum of college and university options. You’ll find that some programs actively seek to hire experienced law enforcement professionals, while others are more research and academic-focused. Begin your college instructor job search with your local colleges and go from there, and select a handful of target academic departments to consider.

The first thing to look at are the bios of the current faculty members teaching in the program. If they all have PhDs or EdDs, that’s probably an indication that a doctoral-level degree is required to become an instructor there. If the current faculty is 100% academic and none have professional experience working in law enforcement or public safety, that school is probably not an ideal target. But if you find that the faculty bios are more diverse with a good mix of those who have law enforcement experience and those who don’t, that’s a good signal of a department that would value your background and perspective.

Reach out to faculty members with a similar background

Identify current or former college-level instructors with whom you have some sort of professional connection, and reach out to start a conversation. During your communication, make it clear that you are looking for adjunct teaching positions and would love to discuss that with them. If after the conversation this still seems like a good fit, ask them to introduce you to the department chair.

In meeting the department chair, offer to simply cover classes for anyone who is traveling or to be a guest speaker if they need one. This is a common need in the higher education world, and many professors will be grateful to have an experienced speaker either visit or oversee one of their classes.

To go above and beyond and demonstrate your passion for the field of criminal justice, make sure you send over an outline of your proposed presentation. Review the course syllabus in advance and highlight what topics you can speak to and provide greater insight about. Don’t just include your experience, but also cite peer-reviewed research to support the lecture. Ultimately, your goal is to leverage this opportunity to get your foot in the door and hopefully land a permanent teaching position when one comes available.

Apply, apply, apply

Many colleges and universities rely on a large adjunct faculty pool, but higher education is a tough field to break into. It’s competitive and education is changing, so be prepared for rejection before you get hired. However, don’t get discouraged — the upside is that once you’ve taught one class successfully, there is a strong likelihood you will stay in the rotation, especially if you get good reviews and feedback from students and colleagues.

After you have secured a criminal justice adjunct faculty position, there are few things you can do to maximize this opportunity and make sure you’re asked to teach for years to come:

  • Deliver in the classroom. Be prepared, engaging, and employ creative teaching practices that keep your classes full and students eager to take the courses you teach.
  • Continue to network. Go to department social events, research talks, and prepare questions to demonstrate your commitment to the job and the university.
  • Learn from experience. Ask for feedback on your teaching and course curriculum, or ask the department chair to sit in on one of your classes and give you suggestions to help you improve.

When you’re ready to take a step toward teaching after you retire from law enforcement, the best thing you can do for yourself is to begin researching potential master’s degree programs. The right master’s degree will equip you with the advanced law enforcement knowledge required for a college teaching position, provide you with the connections needed to enter this competitive field and demonstrate to potential employers that you value higher education. Consider a law enforcement master’s degree program that also incorporates a leadership component: These types of programs can help you prepare to lead a classroom full of eager (and not-so-eager) criminal justice learners, and set you up for success in your second career.

About the author

Erik Fritsvold serves as the Academic Director for the Master of Science in Law Enforcement and Public Safety Leadership program. He was the founding faculty member for the program and part of the team that shepherded it from concept through launch — a process that included three years of research and collaboration with law enforcement. Prof. Fritsvold personally directs all aspects of program academics, including curriculum, faculty, admissions, accreditation and any issues related to students.

Prof. Fritsvold’s primary expertise is applying core tenets of academic criminology and criminal justice to dynamic, modern-day law enforcement. The cutting-edge nature of the Law Enforcement and Public Safety Leadership program requires Prof. Fritsvold to be meaningfully engaged with an array of academic and practitioner-centric specialties including leadership, organizational theory, Constitutional Law, communications, data-driven and intelligence-led policing, law enforcement and criminal justice policy, conflict resolution and law enforcement best practices.

Prof. Fritsvold has been a full-time faculty member at USD in various capacities since 2005. He formerly served as an Associate Professor of Sociology in the Crime, Justice, Law & Society Concentration, teaching an array of undergraduate courses in sociology, criminology and criminal justice. He has also served as both a Department Chair and Interim Associate Dean in the College of Arts & Sciences. In 2013, Prof. Fritsvold was recognized by Princeton Review as one of America’s “Best 300 Professors” in a book by the same name.

Erik earned his BA in Sociology from the University of San Diego in 2000, and his MA and PhD from the Criminology, Law & Society Department at the University of California at Irvine in 2003 and 2006 respectively.

This article is reprinted with permission from the University of San Diego MS in Law Enforcement & Public Safety Leadership program