Advanced Degrees for Law Enforcement Personnel: The Ideal Time to Enter a Higher Education Program

By Nick Francis, M.A.
Stock image of a man studying in a library.

As a police captain who has instructed criminal justice students at the master’s level for the past 5 years, I often hear the same questions in training, at conferences, and around the station. What kind of degree will help me get promoted? Will a master’s degree help me get my first police job? How long will it take to complete a degree program? However, I rarely am asked when the best time is to seek an advanced degree.

The first step for determining when to begin a higher education program is to consider the specific reasons for which to pursue it. Earning an advanced degree can help you seek a promotion, gain greater expertise, leave your current position for another, or look ahead toward a post-retirement job. Envisioning how you will use an advanced degree will help you determine the right time to enter the program and prepare you for the substantial commitment it will entail.

Too Early

Many Generation Y students (born 1980 to 2000) feel that an advanced degree will help them get into law enforcement. This usually is not the case. I recently was involved in the hiring process in my department, serving on the final interview panel where the top 16 candidates were vying for three positions. Though two candidates had master’s degrees, they were surpassed by young, engaged, eager candidates who recently had completed their bachelor’s degrees.

The criminal justice profession was built on a foundation of hardworking, levelheaded, street-smart men and women. The high-level problem-solving skills and theories that come with having a master’s degree are of little consequence if the day-to-day responsibilities of being a police officer have not been mastered. Other parts of your brain are required when responding to a call of a drifter asleep in a vehicle or having to chase a car thief. You will be dealing with incidents, such as these, for several years before you will need advanced information on public budgeting, labor relations laws, or personnel management. To this end, graduate-level courses often are tailored to senior officers, supervisors, and managers.

Too Late

It is never too late to obtain an advanced degree; higher education is commendable and adds serious clout to your commitment to the criminal justice profession. But, in terms of how you will use your degree, sometimes it can be too little too late for its application in your policing career. Many pension plans are based on an officer’s top 5 earning years of service. If you already are in this top 5 and on your way to retirement, you may not have the time to realistically envision, execute, and evaluate all the things your degree will offer you and your department.

When pursuing a higher degree late in your career, you may want to consider what you intend to do after retirement. Your degree might be in a subject completely different from law enforcement; the projects and papers for the courses you take can focus on this new calling. A certain level of motivation and commitment is necessary when seeking an advanced degree in a field outside your current area of expertise.

Just Right

Captain Francis
Captain Francis serves with the Apple Valley, Minnesota, Police Department and is an adjunct professor of criminal justice at Concordia University in Saint Paul.

The ideal time to enter a higher degree program is after your years as a rookie but before those as a seasoned veteran eyeing retirement. When I decided to go back to school for my master’s degree, I was a newly promoted sergeant 8 years removed from college. I initially was hesitant toward dusting off my bookbag, committing to an 18-month to 2-year program, and devoting 10 to 15 hours per week to my studies. However, I had the opportunity to immediately apply what I learned in school to my professional life. I found that the lessons and skills I obtained from books I read and in-class discussions were put to use on the job and at home within a week.

By pursuing an advanced degree while a line-level employee, you can directly implement what you are learning to influence others in your department—from managers to fellow officers—with contemporary leadership and operational skills and knowledge. The application of your leadership skills can be used in a recent promotion or supplementary position or to take advantage of an opportunity when your supervisor asks for a volunteer. It is important not to focus on the title you hold or the position you want, but to consider what day-to-day tasks might be prime grounds for exercising your classroom studies.

Common Reasons to Pursue an Advanced Degree:

  • Increasing expertise for your current position
  • Seeking a promotion
  • Switching one job for another
  • Planning for a post-retirement job


Going back to school is a huge commitment. There is no wrong time to pursue a higher degree; with a little foresight and thought, you can determine the best time to get started. Some people may see an advanced degree as a formality, a piece of paper that will help them get to the next position or next career. However, an advanced degree can be a life-altering journey; when timed alongside your goals, it can make for a very rewarding experience. Treat it as such, and you will receive much more from your degree than the effort you put into obtaining it.

For additional information Captain Francis may be contacted at