written by: Terry Caron•edited by: Donna Cosmato•updated: 5/26/2011
If you are looking to become a probation officer, there are a number of ways to go.about it. There is also a set of stringent criteria. The probation officer career path typically leads to state or county government positions requiring specific skills, experience, and education.
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A probation officer's career can go in many directions after they are initially been hired for the position such as corrections to supervisor and management. A probation officer's career path is challenging in and of itself considering that most agencies are looking for some level of experience and education to begin with. Do not let this scare you away, however, because there are a number of ways to gain this valuable education and experience. Here we describe the general means of becoming a probation officer and offer some tips and suggestions for reducing the time and cost.
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Skills, Traits and Salary Information.
The typical set of skills for a probation officer are:
Good physical condition.
Good emotional condition.
Strong written and oral communications skills. You will be talking to many people and completing large numbers of reports.
In some areas, probation officers are also be required to carry firearms. This varies depending on the agency and the types of probationers supervised.
The salary range for probation officers in the United States is from $25,000 to $65,000 or more.
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More often than not, the probation office will require a bachelors degree or higher degree in criminal justice or a social/psychology related degree. The most popular degree is criminal justice. Sociology and Psychology degrees are also common and effective. If you are working towards a criminology degree, make sure to take at least one or two courses in psychology. as they can be very helpful.
Criminal justice degrees usually focus on one of two aspects. The administrative focus is on investigations, communications, and technology. This degree does not focus on the forensics side as much as other criminal justice degrees do. Kaplan University online offers a criminal justice degree with a focus on management and supervision with a certificate included. When planning on the degree path, look into multiple schools and determine their degrees and focus.
Psychology degrees are becoming popular in the criminal justice and probation fields due to the training received in understanding the motives and behaviors of people. This can be a great advantage to a probation officer when it comes to understanding their probationers and working with them to fulfill the legal requirements of their probation. Subjects of study, such as offender cognition and decision-making under pressure, provide a deeper understanding of why some people become criminals or do criminal acts. There are many examples and cases that prove the necessity for an education or background in psychology in criminal justice careers.
Psychology backgrounds or education is such an important aspect in law and criminal justice that many schools are offering degrees with substantial education in psychology. It is not uncommon to find combination degrees in criminal justice and psychology.
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Selecting a Criminal Justice Program.
When making the decision to go to college for a criminal justice or psychology degree, evaluate the quality of the program and relevance. The National Association of Legal Assistants publishes guidelines of what to look for when selecting a school. Some of these criteria are:
Make sure the school is accredited through agencies recognized by the U.S. Department of Education.
Does the school have a good research library and up-to-date computer labs for instruction? The quality of their hands-on programs is going to be important during your education.
Look for schools that are associated with honor societies and have community resources for volunteer activities. These activities are important for developing hands-on experience and credibility.
Look for these resources and a good academic counseling program that can assist you with career and educational goals. It also helps to go to a school that has experienced staff with a background in their respective fields of study.
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Cost of a Degree in Criminal Justice
How much does a degree in criminal justice cost? This can vary depending on the schools chosen and/or the degree programs. If you choose to complete an associate’s degree at a community college, this can considerably reduce the cost. The average price per credit hour for community colleges is around $80.00. Many public four-year colleges charge two or three times as much for a credit hour. Add in the cost of fees, books, and room and board, if necessary, and the cost can be about $12,000 to $20,000 per year. It may seem like a lot of money to spend; however, when looking at the comparison between the salaries and unemployment figures between graduates and non-graduates; it may not seem that bad.
The methods of paying for these tuitions and expenses can range from financial aid to grants, scholarships, and student employment. Sometimes a combination of these are done. Be sure to look into the Federal Application for Student Aid (FAFSA) as well as grants and scholarship programs. Diligent research and planning can relieve some of the pain of paying for college.
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Gaining experience as a probation officer is best done by volunteering with local probation offices, correctional facilities, and other social work agencies which deal with ex-offenders. Many probation offices across the country have openings for volunteer internships in which one gains training and job skills by assisting the probation departments with various tasks. Some offices even have their interns dealing with actual cases.
The best ways to find out about these opportunities is to check with the district courts' website in your area, or call these offices in person to develop a rapport. Internships also assist with learning about being a probation officer and discovering what you will like and dislike. The time spent in an internship is often transferred or converted into college credit towards a degree. Check with your student administration to see if this is the case at your school. This saves time and money on tuition if you can use this experience towards college credit.
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The Hiring Process.
If you meet the specified criteria and are selected to interview, this can be a rigorous process. An example for some probation officers is the three step method described below.
Complete a multi-page application for employment.
Take and pass a probation officers exam administered by the governing office.
Interview in front of a panel of supervisors for the probation officer position.
This process can be daunting to some but does represent the importance of being prepared for the role of a probation officer.
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Recap of the Career Path for a Probation Officer
Just to review, one of the first steps in becoming a probation officer is to contact your local judicial district and talk to a probation officer or supervisor about the job, requirements, and educational requirements. This can vary from office to office so calling more than one can be beneficial.
Begin looking into the different degree programs and schools in order to obtain a bachelors degree in the appropriate criminal justice or sociology field.
Look for volunteer opportunities or internships to begin developing experience for the job.
Prepare for the interview process. There are books, websites, and forums dedicated to criminal justice fields which are great resources for additional information on this entire process.
The probation officer career path is extensive but prior preparation and being informed can make the difference between making a good choice or bad one.
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Echaore-McDavid, Susan. "Probation Officer." Career Opportunities in Law Enforcement, Security, and Protective Services, Career Opportunities, 2nd ed. New York: Ferguson Publishing, 2006. Ferguson's Career Guidance Center.
Devantier, Alecia T., and Carol A. Turkington. "Probation Officer." Extraordinary Jobs in Government, Extraordinary Jobs. New York: Ferguson Publishing, 2006. Ferguson's Career Guidance Center.