Stay the course: How to chart a career map in law enforcement

Navigating a career in law enforcement takes time, planning and reflection. Here’s how to do it

A successful career journey requires careful planning, and one aid to travel planning is a map.

Like road maps, career maps offer three key pieces of information:

  1. How to get from point A to point B.
  2. How long the trip will take.
  3. What travelers can expect to see along the way.

Wouldn’t it be great if our supervisors gave us a career map with that information? Such a map would help us chart important decisions to guide our career-related goals and aspirations. Luckily, you can draft your own career map in just a few easy steps.

Get started

Congratulations. You are a law enforcement professional. I know that your decision to pursue this career involved a lot of time, effort, and determination -- and I hope a fair amount of conversation and soul searching. So, what’s your next step? Where do you want your career to take you?

If you’re not sure, then I suggest you take a personal inventory of your career-related desires. Here are some brainstorming questions to get started:

  • What are the things you enjoy?
  • What skills and abilities make up your assets?
  • Are you open to travel or relocation?
  • Where would you like to be in five years?
  • Do you want to achieve a certain rank or role?

Writing down your answers to these questions is a good way to start your career map.

Find direction

Now you should have an idea of what you want to do. Perhaps it’s a specialized assignment or maybe you would like to advance to a supervisory role.

Your next step is to learn all that you can about the position:

  • What are the requirements?
  • What are the job duties?
  • What can I do to prepare for the position?

If possible, talk with someone you trust who either has some past or current experience in the position. Learn what they liked and didn’t like about the position, as well as what things made them successful.

If you decide you still want to pursue the position, take action using what you’ve learned. Attend the required training and begin compiling your training folder. In addition:

  • Try to gain some relevant experience.
  • Prepare yourself physically and mentally for the position. This may mean improving your physical fitness or completing an associate's or bachelor’s degree.
  • Start practicing for your interview. It’s likely there are others who want that same assignment. Be prepared to explain why you are the best person for the job and what you’ve done to earn it.

Plan for detours

Sometimes your career map is not so much a step-by-step checklist as it is an overall strategy to keep you moving forward. No plan is perfect and inevitably there will be roadblocks, detours, and perhaps even a breakdown or two along the way. Keeping your options open allows you to continue making progress.

Sign up for all the training you can find, even if it’s not related to your current assignment and consider taking assignments outside your comfort zone. The experience is priceless, and it makes you a more valuable employee. Who knows, it might open opportunities that you hadn’t even considered.

Also, bear in mind that flexibility includes where you live and work. Depending on the size and type of agency, you may have to transfer to another precinct, another district, or even another state. Your career map might even include moving to another jurisdiction level, as did mine when I moved from a career in local to federal law enforcement.

Keep to a realistic E.T.A.

Proper perspective should also be a function of your career map. Think of your career in terms of five-year blocks and consider what you can realistically achieve during that time.

Ask yourself:

  • What do I have to do to be prepared to move from patrol officer to detective in the next five years?
  • What do I have to do to be prepared to move from detective to sergeant in the following five years?

It may take more or less than five years, and sometimes those blocks will overlap, but you get the idea.

If your plan is for a 30-year career, then your career map should let you visualize your career in six blocks of five years each. Don’t get discouraged if you haven’t made chief of police after the first five-year block. Most of us will not. And, if you find yourself stalling and unable to make the progress you would like, then it may be time to look at strategies to widen your options.

Enjoy the journey

A career map can help you identify what you want your career to look like, what you should do to capitalize on opportunities and what you can do to help keep your plans on track. Remember that even the best-mapped plans are liable to change, so be prepared to be flexible. Your career goals are more of a marathon than a sprint, so keep your eyes open and look as far down the road as possible. Pace yourself and take time to enjoy the journey.

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