By Jennifer Wyatt Bourgeois, Faculty Member, Criminal Justice with American Military University
As a child, your teacher might have asked the class, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” I remember in my classroom filled with 6 and 7 year olds, my fellow classmates declared with excitement and giddiness, “I want to be an astronaut,” or “I want to be a police officer.” When it was my turn, I stood up, cleared my throat and said with pride, “I want to be a doctor when I grow up.”
Fast forward 25 years, and I’ve ended up pursuing a career in criminal justice. I’ve been a probation officer, Federal Special Agent for the Department of Immigration, a forensic scientist and now, as a Criminal Justice professor, I stand before students (or do so virtually, in an online discussion forum) and ask the same question: “What do you want to be when you grow up?”
I have received responses ranging from blank stares to “I don’t know” to the elaborate response from the student who knows exactly what they want to pursue.
What is an Aha Moment?
An aha moment is “a moment of sudden realization, inspiration, insight, recognition, or comprehension.” My personal definition is very similar. I explain to my students that an aha moment is when you discover your passion and your purpose in life.
Everyone’s aha moment will come at a different time in life. It might take place during a class, an internship, while volunteering, or simply from reading a book. Mine came during a criminology class. I started my educational journey majoring in biochemistry, pre-med and then changed to forensic science, pre-med. At the time, forensic science was a new major being offered at my university, and it included many of the pre-med requirements students needed to take the MCAT.
Many people fail to realize—due largely to the CSI effect—that forensic science is a very intense major. My coursework consisted of several science courses including organic chemistry, molecular biology, human physiology, and biochemistry. It was during this time that I realized I did not have a deep passion for science. I was doing well in my classes, but there was not an underlying drive that made me look forward to going to class – not until I took a criminology course.
I remember thinking to myself during class, “Why do people commit crimes? I want to learn more about this topic.” I found myself actually enjoying the coursework and reading the textbook. I found myself stepping out of my shell, asking questions, and staying after class to talk with my professor. Several years later, I realized that taking that course was my aha moment.
The next class I took was an introduction to criminal justice. It was during this time that my passion really started to grow. I started to realize and fully grasp forensic science and how it’s closely related to criminal justice. Instead of changing my major again, I started to research forensic science and job opportunities. I also started to research criminal justice careers. I realized a forensic science degree would open many doors for me into the criminal justice field.
Create Your Road Map
Once you experience your aha moment, it’s just the first step towards fulfilling your career ambitions. Here is some advice I give my students about how to find a satisfying career in their desired field.
- Be Proactive – Today’s job market is very competitive; therefore, if you have a desire to work in the criminal justice field you have to take initiative and be proactive. Do not think your dream job will come to you. You must start searching for it. A great way to gain insight about a particular career is through an internship, volunteering, or a mentor. I highly recommend students create a profile on USA Jobs. The federal government has gone to great lengths to create “Pathways,” a program specifically for students and recent graduates interested in working for them. This website is a great starting point for students looking for internships at various federal government agencies.
- Develop a Plan – Once you have a good idea about what area you’re interested in within criminal justice, start researching it. Learn as much as you can about that particular field. Start looking into an internship that might turn into a full-time job. Look beyond your local area because you might find you need to relocate for your dream job. As you research the particular career, take into consideration the following: educational requirements, prior work experience requirements, day-to-day job duties, etc. Find out if you have to obtain additional education or certifications and training. The goal is to create a plan.
- Network – I also advise students start talking with people who work in their desired field and to start building a professional network. There’s no better way to learn about a particular position than to talk to someone who already works in it. Oftentimes they will be able to answer any questions or concerns you might have, and might possibly be able to introduce you to others in the field. The goal is to eventually develop a circle of individuals whom you can gain insight from so you don’t blindly enter a profession without knowing the pros and cons.Over the years, I have developed a network of colleagues in all of the various criminal justice fields I have worked in. I regularly reach out to these individuals to see if they have any current positions for students, or to ask them to be guest speakers in my classes. Networking with former colleagues and meeting new individuals in the field has kept me informed about the criminal justice field, and I truly believe putting in such effort has made me a better professor.
- Initiate The Plan – Now that you have a plan, you have to start pursuing it. I am a firm believer in developing a plan of action. Compile and organize all the information you discovered and start reaching out to people in your network for internships or job opportunities. Be prepared so if an opportunity presents itself you’re ready to act immediately. Your plan should consist of the following basic items to ensure you are ready at all times, even on short notice:
- Updated resume — For each position, make slight changes to your resume and include keywords that coincide with the position you’re applying for.
- Official and unofficial transcripts
- Generic cover letter — This can easily be modified to fit a specific job or internship announcement.
- List of personal and professional references — At a minimum, provide a first and last name, title, phone number, and email address.
- Post-interview thank you letter — Again, modify this to match the opportunity.
These are a few suggestions to help you once you’ve discovered your aha moment. Once you’ve experienced that moment, the hard work has only just begun to turn that dream into reality.
About the Author: Jennifer Wyatt Bourgeois earned a B.S. in forensic science from Baylor University, and her M.S. in criminal justice from Sam Houston State University. She started her career in criminal justice as a community supervision officer (probation officer) supervising misdemeanor and felony adult offenders. She then pursued a career as a Federal Special Agent with the United States Department of Immigration and Customs. After her departure from ICE, she pursued a career as a forensic scientist and worked at a regional crime laboratory assigned to the controlled substances section. She was later transferred to a major city crime laboratory where she worked as a firearms examiner. Jennifer is currently an adjunct professor of criminal justice at American Military University. You can contact her at Jennifer.Bourgeois@mycampus.apus.edu.