Criminal justice careers aren’t as glamorous as they look on TV. In real life, crimes go unsolved, operations get botched, and there’s more paper getting pushed around than perps.

But sometimes the puzzle pieces fall perfectly into place and the outcome is even more exciting than an episode of “CSI” – like the recent bin Laden raid.

If watching the news these days makes you want to jump into the field of justice, you’re in luck. The successful operation in Pakistan and the years of hard work leading up to it reveal clues about what you need to succeed in a criminal justice career.

Patience. On TV, the cops get the bad guys and justice is served. Mission accomplished. In real life… not so much. Think about all the people involved in the hunt for bin Laden – the NSA, the CIA, the DOD, etc., etc. From intelligence officers to military strategists to ground combatants, this mission took more of a toll than anyone thought possible. Ten years is a long time to wait for justice to be served.

Critical thinking. Which brings us to an essential question, particularly if you’re considering a criminal justice career: What is justice? No, it’s not a trick question – and there’s no easy answer. A great deal of criminal justice work requires that you analyze a variety of scenarios and solutions, since dealing with naturally unpredictable human beings is not a black-and-white affair. While many Americans are celebrating the death of Osama bin Laden, for example, a friend of mine who works as a New York City police officer for counterterrorism doesn’t see the killing of bin Laden as a good thing, given the prospect of an al Qaeda retaliation. In real life, killing the bad guy doesn’t necessarily solve all the problems. How will you handle that reality?

Perseverance. In just about any career, you’ve got to start at the bottom, and criminal justice is no exception. So if you’ve got your heart set on becoming a detective or working undercover, plan on spending some time as a patrol officer first. You’ll need law enforcement experience as well as a degree in criminal justice or a related field if you want to advance to the coveted professions, particularly those at the federal level. I guarantee that those behind the final bin Laden operation were not rookies.

Technological know-how. As InformationWeek editor John Foley put it, “A bullet killed Osama bin Laden, but U.S. intelligence is what did him in.” You need to know your way around a computer in just about any criminal justice career, and the techie stakes are especially high when you’re working in intelligence or counterterrorism. New surveillance technologies and IT architectures facilitate information sharing, and you’ve got to be savvy enough to utilize the technology effectively. When you enroll in a criminal justice degree program, you can get hands-on training with relevant technology to help you stay competitive in the field.

If you’re just getting started in a criminal justice career, chances are you won’t be involved in such a high-profile operation as the Osama bin Laden mission. Still, you can be a pivotal player in safeguarding the freedom of your community and your country. Do you have what it takes to succeed in a criminal justice career?

-Robyn Tellefsen

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