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Book excerpt: Pursuing and Navigating a Career in Criminal Justice

Real-life guidance and insight into successfully navigating the foreseen and unforeseen challenges of working in the criminal justice field


The following is excerpted from “Pursuing and Navigating a Career in Criminal Justice,” which offers advice for those considering a career in criminal justice, as well as providing guidance to those already working in the profession. Author Dr. Michael Pittaro is a highly respected criminal justice professor with more than 30 years of field, supervisory, teaching and training experience. Order your copy here.


This book provides the “soft skills” to not only excel and move up through the ranks but also help in understanding what you must do to survive (literally and metaphorically) in a profession that can be demanding and dangerous.

Chapter 2: Advice and Guidance when Searching for a Career in Criminal Justice

Professional references

A professional reference can be a former/current employer, former/current teacher/professor, the director of the place you volunteer, a fellow board member, a colleague, or anyone who you know in a professional capacity.

Make sure that they know you and know you well. As a professional courtesy, always ask that individual if they’d be willing to serve as a professional reference. When choosing your references, you want to make sure that these individuals support your goals and of course, will speak highly of you.

Most background investigators will require the recommender’s title, position, phone, email and physical mailing address. Again, make sure that the recommender is willing and able to accept a phone call or email, or in some cases, willing to write a recommendation letter.

I would also suggest having references from professionals who have known you for several years. Oftentimes, I’m asked to write reference letters for students who I’ve only known for a semester and I might decline simply because I don’t feel I know enough about the student to draft a persuasive letter for employment, especially if the student did well in my class but rarely participated. I only know that, academically, they score well, but interpersonally, I have limited knowledge. So, lesson learned, participate in class, and get to know your classmates and the professor.

Recommendation letters

I suggest diversifying your references. For example, for most university students, I tell them to have a former/current professor, a current/former employer, and any other professional who is willing to speak to your character like a coach, internship supervisor, etc.

You want to have references who can focus on your strengths in several areas. For example, the professor can discuss your attendance, attention to detail in your work, communication skills, personality, writing skills, etc. The current or former employer can discuss your dependability, whether you can work with limited supervision, your ability to work in a high-paced environment, and your interactions with coworkers and customers. A coach can discuss teamwork, leadership, motivation, perseverance, conduct, etc. Remember that you want to separate yourself from the other candidates applying for the same position so having a diverse pool of recommendations can be quite convincing to a prospective employer.

While some employers will call and ask questions directly over the phone or send a list of questions to be answered in an email, others require a recommendation letter on the organization’s letterhead.

Before I write a recommendation letter, I’ll ask the student/graduate for their resume. Again, I can only speak to their character from our interactions in and out of the classroom, but the resume will provide me with additional information about their employment history, extracurricular activities, participation in sports, clubs, and other organizations for a more well-rounded letter. There are specific areas I tend to elaborate on in the letter such as interpersonal communication skills, leadership attributes, reliability, dependability and an important one, interactions with others, especially in a diverse, multicultural environment like a university.

If it’s policing, I’ll focus more on the skills and attributes that police departments look for, and if it’s working with juvenile offenders, I’ll focus more on those skills and attributes. Title and position do matter, so you should seek out those who are well-respected within their profession. Name recognition can carry a lot of weight. I, and many others, do not like being blindsided with a reference call that we weren’t expecting.

Remember that professional courtesy goes both ways, so reach out to your reference by making them aware that they’ll be receiving a call or email from a prospective employer.


My advice is to have the resume professionally reviewed by someone who works in human resources or if you’re a college/university student, the career services department. Granted, you could download one of the many templates available on the Internet, which is fine, but what you need to include as well as exclude on the resume should be reviewed by someone who specializes in that area. I personally think the “objective” section is irrelevant because it often states the obvious as to why you’re applying for the position.

When creating or updating your resume, always remember that this is not the time to sell yourself short. Being humble is admirable, but you’re in competition with others who might be equally qualified for the position, so place your modesty aside.

Focus on your strengths, but also be aware of your weaknesses and be ready to address those weaknesses if asked in an interview. What do you bring to the table? In other words, what experience and skills can you offer this employer? How can you be of value to the department/organization? What separates you from all other applicants? In other words, why should they hire you over someone else who is equally qualified?

Choose your words carefully. Criminal justice job vacancies lead to dozens or even hundreds of applications. You need to set yourself apart from all of them. Professional accomplishments and achievements are obviously important but within reason. If you were the middle school archery champion, congrats to you, well done, but I don’t think that will improve your odds of getting an interview with the FBI at age 22. You want the prospective employer to consider your achievements and accomplishments as talents that you’d bring to the organization.

I would suggest having multiple resumes, all of which can be tweaked based on the job that you’re applying for. Generic resumes don’t stand out. Your home and/or cell phone number should be listed at the top along with your mailing address and your “professional” email address. Your voice mail should be professional. If I were to call you for an interview and heard this on the voice mail, I’d question your suitability for the job right from the start: “Yo dude, this is Spike (music blaring in the background). Leave a message,” may be perceived as unprofessional or possibly immature.

Your resume should obviously include your education and experience and if you’re still in college, put down your expected date of graduation. If you’re fresh out of the military and/or college, your resume is likely brief, and that’s okay. We all started in the same place with a limited resume, so don’t worry, but whatever you do, don’t lie, exaggerate, or otherwise stretch the truthfulness of your education and experience! Everything you say in an interview and write down on your application forms will be checked and rechecked. Lying can and most likely will eliminate you from the process, and it doesn’t have to be a big (serious) lie. Those little white lies that joke about count as lies.

Always be honest and never add, exaggerate, or omit details. For example, if you bussed tables at your local restaurant, but instead wrote down that you were the shift manager, you’ve lied. The resume and application will become a permanent part of your employment file, and since it’s the starting point, honesty is ALWAYS the best policy. No exceptions – ever!